I’m gonna be honest: when I was growing up, it wasn’t cool to be African.
This may be hard to believe given the clout that African culture has amassed in recent years, but in my opinion, this is a novel phenomenon. When I was younger, all the things that made me identifiably African only provided my peers with more ammunition to make fun of me. Whether it was because of my name, the smell my mom’s cooking left on my clothes, or my parents’ thick Nigerian accents, the snide chuckles from my friends often made me feel like a literal alien.
To be named Chukuebuka in a town full of Hannahs and Bobbys is to have the most subtle and innocuous target placed on your back. Every aspect of my Nigerian upbringing seemed to invite ridicule, and I have to believe that that sort of treatment caused every African child who experienced it to shrink themselves a little. If you’ve ever been bullied, you can attest that there’s no way you’d ever accentuate the thing about yourself that draws the most unwanted scrutiny. There’s nothing you want more than to blend the fuck in.
Over time, the fact that I was Nigerian became little more than a treasured footnote. I was never ashamed of it, but it never really occurred to me to broadcast it outside of situations with my family. Encountering a fellow Nigerian was always invigorating, but in most circumstances, it was a fact about myself that I took for granted. Like, “Yeah, of course, I’m Nigerian; my name is Chukuebuka. What else?”
But then Black Panther came out, and it felt like damn near every Black American I knew was on Instagram throwing up the Wakanda salute or dressing up in African garb to go to premieres. A couple of years prior to this Drake, the Canadian Giant, partnered with Nigerian artist WizKid on a funky chune called “One Dance,” and in the process introduced Afrobeats to the mainstream American music scene. Nowadays, it’s impossible to go to a Black function in any major city without hearing at least one Afrobeats or Afrobeats-adjacent song, whether it’s Davido’s light and catchy “Fall” or the aptly-named “Joanna” by the aptly-named Afro B.
I’d like to believe that people’s level of tact tends to increase with age, which is why the public shaming of my culture naturally died down over time. But what’s happening now seems to transcend that. The public perception of African-ness hasn’t just gone from negative to neutral; it’s outright favorable nowadays.
The realization hit me like a sack of garri: Africa is … cool … now?
Some might argue that it’s always been favorable to be African. Despite the obvious commonalities in the Black experience in America, a lot of the discourse historically has been devoted to debunking white America’s monolithic view of Black people. Though we might all be black, and Black people only come from one place, we didn’t all get to America at the same time or in the same way, and the impacts of our asynchronous arrivals have compounded over time. (Today, the only thing that a Jamaican man, a Ghanaian dude, and a Black American guy from Detroit MIGHT innately have in common is an inexplicable love for the NBA. Black dudes love the NBA.)
While there is beauty to be found in our differences, there also lies the potential for discord. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Black American descendants of slaves have endured worse treatment than any other group in American history, save for maybe Native Americans. Although the aftermath of this treatment impacts the lives of every black person living here today, those of us with ties to other countries have the privilege of also claiming the title of “immigrant.” Where black Americans are stereotypically (and erroneously) considered lazy, licentious, and of low intelligence, African immigrants are deemed smart, moral, and hardworking. With this in mind, it’s clear that African immigrants in this country enjoy a certain privilege over Black Americans – at least in the eyes of white people.
These facts, coupled with some lingering childhood trauma, have contributed to an inflated sense of self among Africans in America. The increased popularity of African culture in recent years has only amplified that. It’s not uncommon to hear Africans of all ages scoff at what they perceive to be Black Americans’ “sudden” interest in African culture. And as a fellow African immigrant, I can identify with the painful memories of exclusion and taunting that inform these present-day stances.
Accepting that the same people who called you an African booty scratcher – a phrase whose meaning I still cannot coherently explain – are now expressing interest in that part of your identity is not an easy transition. What’s worse is that this dynamic exists almost exclusively within the Black community. White people may have teased me for my smell, but they never called me a booty scratcher, or clowned me for how I dressed, or even knew my parents well enough to make fun of them. The deepest cuts came from people who looked just like me, and when nothing was ever done to atone for those past grievances, it isn’t hard to understand how those wounds can fester over time.
But with time also comes maturity and a greater understanding of the world we live in. Today, I know that those kids picked on me for a multitude of complex reasons. Part of it was that we were kids, and kids are reckless as hell. Part of it also, was that we were all brainwashed by white supremacy to think that having a connection to our homeland was a bad thing. Those kids weren’t innately malicious; they were ignorant in the most literal sense of the word, and this ignorance was embedded intentionally. Black Americans’ connection to The Continent was destroyed as soon as their ancestors arrived in North America and were forced to answer to different names, and this disunion was reinforced over centuries of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws. And with myopic representation of Africa in the media ranging from Feed The Children ads to Coming to America and NOTHING in between, it’s easy to see how Africans became the butt (the booty?) of many jokes.
As if the situation weren’t volatile enough, the introduction of social media provided the perfect setting for these ideological volcanoes to erupt. Social media facilitated the occurrence of online “diaspora wars,” wherein Black people of different backgrounds defended the honor and importance of their particular slice of Black culture in often confrontational ways. These discussions occasionally turned hostile, and it opened my eyes to the fact that, put simply, Black Americans really felt a way about all this. I naively believed that since *I* no longer harbored resentment towards *them*, that that meant things were cool. But it was not all rainbows and butterflies between us like I thought; there exists a palpable rift in our understandings of the world, and the fact that it’s gone unmended for so long has allowed it to sour.
It’s important to note that this conversation didn’t start last week: thanks to the work of Marcus Garvey, Pan-African ideals have been integrated into the rearing of many Black children in America for years. But in my experience, public discourse has largely ignored this issue in recent times, which means not enough effort has been put forth towards Reconciliation.
So, what can be done? To me the solution is clear: we Africans need to acknowledge that our connection to the motherland is an immense privilege and one that we must be open to sharing with Black Americans. The fact that we know our roots are the result of happenstance; if my ancestors’ tribal warfare had shaken out slightly differently, I could have just as easily been born in Atlanta. As Africans, we do have a responsibility to safeguard our culture and ensure that it exists in perpetuity, but there’s nothing to be gained from denying Black Americans access to our mutual history.
The only way to dismantle privilege is to share it. Being that we did nothing to earn this privilege, inviting as many of our brothers and sisters inside the proverbial tent should become part of our life’s work. The “work” is about remaining open: to enriching conversation, to polite disagreement, to earnest cultural integration. The situation between our groups is delicate, and I think that since we Africans are in a more favorable position, we bear the onus of initiating this healing process.
The year 2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in North America, and thus was dubbed “The Year of Return.” In the days leading up to the New Year, social media was inundated with loads of content from the Continent. Whether it was people enjoying performances at Afronation in Accra, or Cardi B(iafra) galavanting around Lagos in her Nigeria flag wig, Africa remained a major topic of conversation over the holidays.
Coincidentally, I believe it’s been musicians that have offered us the best example of the way forward. In just the last year, works like Jidenna’s homeward-bound 85 to Africa, as well as the African collaborations solicited by Beyonce on her epic Lion King: The Gift compilation album, both emphasized the importance of strengthening the link between Black Americans and their ancestral home.
But no artist has epitomized this spirit more so than Burna Boy. Pan-African unification was a major theme of his 2019 album African Giant, and, crucially, he made sure to include Black Americans in his raucous declaration of African pride. The outro on “Spiritual,” the album’s final song, features a snippet of the speech his mother gave on his behalf when he won the BET Award last year for Best International Act.
Her words verbatim: “And the message from Burna, I believe, would be that every Black person should please remember, that you were Africans before you became anything else.”
What she said.
By: Ebuka Anokute