Note: If this post seems dated, it is. I wrote it a couple weeks ago, but not for this space. I pitched it to another publication that ultimately opted to pass on it. It also isn’t written in a voice entirely consistent with my other work here, but that, too, is because I intended to publish it elsewhere. If it helps, some of the content in Smith and Adichie’s discussion has become quite relevant in the past two days, with the news of first-generation American of Ghanaian descent Kwasi Enin who was accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges. USA Today’s report on Enin’s accomplishment goes out of its way to include this quote from a college admissions expert: “He’s not a typical African American kid.” At any rate, I hope you’ll read and engage it.
Begin with the common ground. It will, at first, seem hard to find, hidden as it is by a thick underbrush of assumption — African immigrants in the U.S. are haughty; African Americans don’t respect themselves — and tangled as it is in the foliage of frustration — Africans come to America and distance themselves; black Americans distance themselves by not bothering to distinguish between African countries’ histories. Yes, the common ground will seem miniscule at first; we are all so invested in our distinct cultural identities, all so protective when discussion about them is broached. But if we are ever going to have candid conversations about our intercontinental experiences of blackness, we’ll need to begin at the borders we share.
Authors Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had this in mind on March 19 when they shared a stage at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Their conversation primarily centered on Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, which grapples with the differences in the ways American-born blacks and African immigrants perceive (and internalize) race and racism in America. Since its release last year, Americanah has gradually made more public the long-simmering tensions between many black Americans and people of color born and raised abroad.
This public discourse is long overdue. Never before have black intercultural experiences been so multifarious in America. Between 2000 and 2010, the African foreign-born population doubled in size, growing from 881,300 to 1.6 million. And the recent raised profile of black British actors in America has deepened our need for nuance. This was readily apparent at this year’s NAACP Image Awards when host Anthony Anderson spent much of his opening monologue making superficial differences between black American and black British actors a running joke. He couldn’t seem to let go of accents and “difficult-to-pronounce” names such as Idris Elba (who is of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian descent), Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo (both of Nigerian descent) and Lupita Nyong’o (of Kenyan descent).
The show could have used its opening to build a transcontinental admiration society, encouraging us to look into some of the actors’ pre-Hollywood work or to note how many languages and accents they’ve had to learn to work in the U.S. film industry. But Anderson went for the shallowest observations, at a time when our need for nuance and depth couldn’t be more imperative. A few viewers balked at Anderson’s divisive jokes on Twitter, stating, “I really wish Anthony Anderson would quit the African vs. African American nonsense. It’s ignorant and unnecessary,” and “Black Twitter needs to handle whoever wrote Anthony Anderson’s opening monologue.” But Anderson’s lazy either/or quips are representative of larger incurious ideas about what black looks and sounds like in America and abroad — ideas that should be publicly challenged at every turn.
Challenging cultural assumptions seemed the order of the day, as Zadie Smith interviewed Adichie at the Schomburg — especially as Smith, herself of Jamaican and British descent, shared her perceptions of Nigerians and, at times, asked Adichie to confirm or debunk them. “Every Nigerian in London says they’re a prince, and we have no evidence otherwise,” Smith quipped. “There are maybe two princes in the whole damn country,” Adichie replied. They shared how the American use of “brother” and “sister” as racialized terms of endearment is foreign to them. “No black person in England would call me sister in a million years,” Smith noted, while Adichie said Nigerians do use “sister,” but it isn’t racialized.
This kind of “We do this. Do you?” tone permeated the discussion — and some topics elicited responses that seemed aware of how close every word might draw them toward a conversational landmine. Both writers’ faces seemed to brighten when they unearthed a shared experience or custom. And where their ideas and perceptions diverged, they listened intently, set on reaching an understanding. To be sure, they both had very specific ideas about African Americans and about America’s approach to engaging racial discourse. “In America, there is a willful denial of history,” Adichie observed. Both agreed that whites in the U.S. find it difficult to understand the role of race, and Adichie further mused, “I keep thinking: how can white people not get it, if they know the history of America?”
It was a bit disorienting, as an African American woman, watching these black women born and raised abroad discuss the function and dysfunction of race in U.S. It always is. Race plays such a central (and fraught and psychological and emotional role) in my experience as an American that it’s fairly surreal listening to women of color discuss it with the distance of cultural anthropologists. That insularity can be a barrier to African Americans’ candor with black immigrants.
But there was no denying Zadie Smith’s and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s deep reverence for the black experience in this country. Smith, having seen a documentary with graphic depictions of public lynching, long before visiting the U.S., admitted to Adichie, “The first time I came to America, I couldn’t believe the streets weren’t burning.” Adichie also acknowledged, “The ethnic group I most admire in America is African Americans.” It was as important for me to hear their affirmation of my racial history and experience here as it was for me to listen to their own experiences of blackness in the U.K. and Nigeria.
In truth, there is more at stake in African immigrants’ and African Americans’ conversations with one another than in our interactions with whites in the U.S. Often, whites in America view the experience of blackness as a flat plain, regardless of complexion or nationality; here, stereotypes are primarily assigned by skin color, not country of birth or rearing. In the context of white supremacy, blackness is associated with primativism, regardless of where the black experience is lived. Even when this isn’t overtly expressed and even when, as in Smith’s and Adichie’s cases, black immigrants are considered “good black” because they aren’t African American, they still are not insulated from racism here.
This is where we find our largest plot of common ground. In America, racism visits us all. The currents our ancestors have crossed, even when traveling toward destinations that couldn’t be more far-flung from one another suggest that we stand a strong chance of forging crosscultural bonds. But doing so will mean tossing away the chaff of a loaded question’s intimations before answering it. , Adichie did this at the Schomberg when an audience member asked her to speak directly to her impressions of African-African American relations in the U.S. She ventured gingerly, “We’re trying to forge the bonds between Africans and African Americans, not crack them,” and stuck with a short answer. Keeping our tenuous bonds from cracking will also mean treading lightly along those borders we do share; the most innocuous misstep can derail our bridge-building efforts. It will mean holding some hearsay in reserve; not every rumor about another culture bears repeating. And we must refrain, no matter how tempting, from taking new acquaintances to task for past slights we’ve borne at the hands of their countrymen.
When we begin to pull up the overgrowth of our cultural misconceptions, we find that there is nothing flat about this plain. It is mountainous and nourishing and fertile. We come bearing our different kernels of truth, and it is only when we openly share them that our common ground can widen and our intercultural understanding can grow.