There were a lot of reactions to Lupita Nyong’o’s historic win at this year’s Academy Awards — pride, elation, hope, and, for many African Americans, a resounding sense of relief. A black woman had won this prestigious, coveted award, and not just any black woman, but one with the potential to change Hollywood’s longstanding perceptions about what a leading lady is supposed to look like.
Amid the excited tweets and text messages from my friends on Oscar night, there was also my aunt’s reaction. Two minutes after Lupita had left the stage with the powerful affirmation that all our dreams are valid, my aunt called to say: “The girl is so articulate! Thank God she is one of us. You know, not one of them.”
I instantly recognized the distinction that my aunt was making — a distinction and a separation that I myself have struggled to reconcile with for years. Because by “one of us,” she meant African. She meant that Lupita wasn’t like those other black people, African-Americans, and that perhaps if Lupita wasn’t Kenyan, she’d lack the poise and the articulateness with which she has delivered all of her acceptance speeches this year.
Comments like this have become almost expected from my aunt, a Ghanaian immigrant who came to America in the early 1980s and has lived here ever since. She is a nurse, like most of my relatives in the States and — also like most of my relatives in the States — always ends a phone call by first urging me to get a degree in medicine and next asking me when I’m going to get married. She is, at best, a sort of living caricature of the African Parent Meme, and at worst a figure who throughout my life has urged me to cling to my African-ness and distance myself from being black with a capital B.
My Aunt at a Christmas party two years ago, shortly after explaining to me that “writing isn’t a real job.”
I was born in Accra, Ghana, and when I meet new people I usually introduce myself as Ghanaian, not American, because I’ve never really felt like I am. My Ghanaian culture and upbringing was and is an important, vibrant part of who I am. And yet, I can’t deny that in many ways, I’m more American than I am Ghanaian, and that introducing myself as the latter is likely as much about pride as it is about wanting to seem worldly, unique.
I’ve spent most of my life growing up in “inner-city” America. I know AAVE and Spanglish but my own native language, Fanti, is a mystery to me. I enjoy French fries and burgers as much if not more than my mother’s legendary fufu and palmnut soup. I stand at the intersection of two cultures, but in a way, I also stand apart.
There is this myth that African immigrants and African-Americans cannot get along — a myth I believe is designed to continue widening the chasm created by American slavery, which connected us even as it pulled us apart. Sometimes I feel as though members of my own family have taken on white fear and disdain for black people in America perhaps as an unconscious act of assimilation. It’s in the way I hear some of my older relatives refer to African Americans, criticizing them and calling them “blacks,” as if they are not black themselves, labeling them as lazy, dangerous and loud, and reprimanding me if I exhibit any of the traits that might make people (usually white people) confuse me for a non-African.
When I was in grade school in Jersey City, New Jersey, my classmates called me “Zebra.” Kids who looked just like me would say I was too black: “That African ass, blue-black.” They would ask me if my father had AIDS, if my mother lived in a grass hut and walked around braless, if I had a pet lion. They’d make monkey noises when I entered a room. They’d ask me why I “talk so white.”
It was awful, but it was only a sort of bookend to my experiences when I went to live in Accra at 20. When I go back to Ghana, my American-ness becomes starkly apparent. Paradoxically, in a country where everyone looks like me, I feel an astounding self-awareness that I don’t when I’m in the US. I can barely speak my own language — what little I do know is badly accented, and comes out in stops and starts that garner ridicule and laughter from both relatives and strangers alike. Strangers refer to me as an oburoni: white person.
Ultimately, the complexities of growing up African in America are as much tied to race as they are to nationality. There is a privilege that comes with being African that some of us tend to ignore. To the larger world, you’re perceived as not having all the weight that comes along with the legacy of slavery (as if slavery didn’t affect us all). You’re viewed, in a way, as more “authentically black.”
But for me, part of my journey in truly embracing my blackness has been in embracing my American identity. It’s been in looking at a Lupita and not only seeing an African, but a woman standing as a beacon for people across the diaspora.