On Being American and African Black

by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem

The first time I saw “Roots” I was in puberty, but since my birth the groundbreaking miniseries has been a running joke among my maternal relatives.

My mother is a black American, raised Baptist in Tennessee. My father is a Muslim from Nigeria. More specifically, for those in the know, he’s Yoruba.

When I was a baby my American relatives, all natives of small-town Tennessee and wholly unfamiliar with Africans, took to holding me up in the air and anointing me Kunta Kinte, like the character in “Roots.” Although the gesture annoyed my mother to no end, her family members found it hilarious.

Africans, you see, are hilarious. If there is one stereotype about Africans that has lingered throughout my life it is this. Perhaps because of this stereotype, before my birth my maternal grandmother envisioned that I would look less like a baby and more like an offensive cartoon character. She warned my mother to expect me to have coal black skin and bright red lips like Little Sambo. In expressing her fears, my grandmother ignored the reality of my father, who is dark-skinned but not especially so. In fact, he is a shade or two lighter than my mother is. Because Africans are an “exotic other,” however, my grandmother adopted a white supremacist gaze in connection to my father.

She’s far from the only black American to adopt that stance in relation to Africans. In Chicago, where my parents met and lived, my mother recalled being approached by a black woman curious to know if I cried in “African.” Now, I was born in the late1970s, before Akon dominated music charts or Hakeem Olajuwon (a fellow Yoruba) dominated basketball courts. Still, it’s somewhat shocking to note that some of the African Americans in my midst then viewed me as an entirely different entity from themselves.

Fortunately, such experiences never gave me a complex about being African growing up. Perhaps this is because my classmates included other blacks from foreign locales—Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti and Panama, among them. Another reason is that my parents divorced when I was just an infant, resulting in me growing up with my maternal relatives and culturally as a black American. There were no markers, such as dress, food or an accent to distinguish me from my classmates. Even my name, which is not Nigerian but Arabic, didn’t seem particularly odd growing up because of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s popularity then. Classmates often linked me to him, nicknaming me Nadra Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, rather than to Africa.

Being a first-generation African seemed like no big deal because I knew that my black American friends were originally from there, too. In middle school, when I encountered a Haitian classmate who angrily denied that her ancestors originated in Africa, I was shocked. I never believed that being from Africa was something to be ashamed of. I had been given reason to believe so, I suppose. I grew up watching the “Gods Must Be Crazy” films, in which Africans are portrayed as lovable buffoons. And during the “We Are the World” craze, I watched bloated Ethiopian children the same age as me, too weak to swat away the flies that swarmed around them. Still, I couldn’t get why anyone would be embarrassed to be African. The first time I saw the scene in “Boyz n the Hood,” in which a lead character disowns Africa and uses the insult African “booty scratcher,” I simply rolled my eyes.

By the time I was 17 or so, I was exposed to another viewpoint about my heritage. Being African was cool, being African American, not so much. People—white people and a few bohemian blacks—wanted me to dress like an African, speak like an African, etc. I was to be a portal to an exotic world. The fact that I have just one African parent and was not raised by him was completely overlooked. In my early 20s, when I read Malcolm X discuss how whites responded to black Africans with an awe they would never extend to black Americans, I could totally relate.

Some argue that whites treat African blacks differently from American blacks because slavery (and therefore guilt) is removed from the equation when dealing with the former group. I’m not convinced this is it, though. When the eyes of whites light up upon learning of my Nigerian heritage, it seems that they are just excited by the fact that I come from a continent with lions and tigers and bears (okay, so no bears). To boot, because many whites mistakenly believe that they have no culture, they take particular pleasure in learning about other cultures—the farther removed, the better. Ironically, I have met young Africans who feel that they have no culture because of the dominance of American popular culture. They feel they must emulate American culture rather than draw on their native cultures for inspiration.

In black American culture, Africans are at times celebrated and at other times denigrated. Take the film “Barbershop,” in which the West African employee in the shop is more or less an updated version of a character from “The Gods Must Be Crazy” films. Only in this case, he is a lovesick buffoon rather than an ordinary one. Throughout the film, I tensed each time this character found himself the butt of another joke or it was made clear that he could never win Eve’s heart.

These days, my American relatives no longer take their cues about Africans from movies. They wouldn’t dare address me as Kunta Kinte now. However, when my father does something to piss me off, they are quick to come to his defense by blaming his African-ness for his lack of sensitivity about an issue. Their behavior in these instances is more of a hindrance than a help, for it implies that we can’t hold an African to the same standard of conduct as we would ourselves. Their behavior reminds me of a short story called “The Man from Mars” by Margaret Atwood in which the outrageous behavior of a Vietnamese character is ignored because he is “a person from another culture.” In my situation, my American relatives suggest that Africans are simply too assbackwards to understand common courtesy. Never mind the fact that my father has lived in the U.S. for nearly four decades and is a true citizen of the world in that he has visited more countries than I can count on both hands.

During my travels to different parts of the world, the Africans I have encountered don’t fit the buffoon stereotype. In the UK, ask someone to name a stereotype of a Nigerian, and you’re likely to be offered up the image of a cab driver or a drug lord. There are also the privileged Africans I have met from all over, children of ambassadors and prominent businessmen. For a cinematic example of this, check out the French film “Café Au Lait.”

In fact in the U.S., both Africans and West Indians tend to be better educated and more financially comfortable than their black American counterparts. I have sometimes seen this lead to tension between the groups, with certain Africans capitalizing on the positive perceptions white Americans have of them and distancing themselves from black Americans. On the other hand, I have seen black Americans argue that African blacks believe that they are superior, all the while making fun of Africans for their accents, customs and physical features.

Another source of resentment comes from American blacks who visit Africa and are disappointed by the reception they receive. I’m not sure what these blacks are seeking when they visit Africa. I have visited Nigeria only once and was warmly received. Many people I encountered there greeted me with a “Welcome Home” when they encountered me, which I did not expect or ask of them .

I know that some American blacks have it wrong. I think of those, for example, who visit South Africa looking for ancestral connections when more than likely they are descendants from West Africa. I think of those who, as Sarah Palin was recently accused, seem to think that Africa is a country rather than a continent. They—whites and blacks, alike—are the ones who have asked me if I speak African, unaware that in my father’s country of origin more than 400 dialects are spoken alone. And there are those such as an American aunt I have, who despite knowing my father well, told me that she knew that he was from somewhere in Africa but didn’t know the exact country. “Nigerian?” she asked. “I didn’t know he was Nigerian.” This, after 30-plus years of knowing him.

Changing times may signal improved relations between American and African blacks in years to come. Not only has the U.S. elected a half-African to lead the country, at this time in history, more Africans have entered the U.S. than did during slavery. This could result in more awareness among black Americans about the cultures of Africa, not to mention more unions between the groups that produce children who aren’t the subjects of curious stares, jokes and inane questions because of their heritage.