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More Than Black

More Than Black

Resistance and Rapprochement

(p.179) 5 More Than Black
African & American
Marilyn HalterViolet Showers Johnson
NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the contentious relationship between West African immigrants and African Americans. West Africans, like other black immigrants, have adapted and assimilated in three main domains: within the reconfigured African ethnicities, within the milieu of African Americans, and within mainstream America. The newcomers have benefited from the dividends of the civil rights movement since the post-1965 wave came to America. The complicated face of race in the United States nonetheless has been lost on many of the West African diaspora, who instead see only a postracial America. This chapter first considers the divide between West African and African American Islam and goes on to discuss the killing of Amadou Diallo as the turning point in the public's awareness of a growing West African presence in America. It then explores racial politics and alliances between black immigrants and African Americans and concludes with an assessment of how West African immigrants' increasing interactions with the native-born continuously redefine the meanings of African American race and culture.

Keywords:   race, West African immigrants, African Americans, West Africans, civil rights movement, West African diaspora, America, Islam, Amadou Diallo, racial politics

Being black made the transition from Africa to America extremely difficult because it introduced another complex series of boundaries. In a racially divided country, it isn’t enough for an immigrant to know how to float in the mainstream. You have to know how to retreat to your margin, where to place your hyphen.

Ghanaian American Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, “Life as an Alien”

West Africans, like other black immigrants, have adapted and assimilated in three main domains—within the reconfigured African ethnicities, within the milieu of African Americans, and within mainstream America. Unlike their predecessors of the period of the initial making of the Atlantic World, the experiences of the newcomers have not been regulated by the blatant oppression of the slave trade and slavery. Indeed, in contrast, they are the beneficiaries of the dividends of the civil rights movement since the post-1965 wave came to a country that was in the process of remarkable change, largely due to the modern struggle for racial equality. The complicated face of race in the United States nonetheless has been lost on many of the new African diaspora, who instead see only a postracial America. Of the many immigrant success stories that this study has tracked, whether residents of Boston, Chicago, D.C., Houston, or even Atlanta—home to Martin Luther King, Jr. and a city with such a strong civil rights consciousness—when asked what they see as the keys to their success, those interviewed rarely acknowledged the role of African Americans in the civil rights movement as paving the way. As Patrick Grant has observed, when it comes to race and (p.180) racism, black immigrants have arrived in the United States “with their eyes wide shut.”1 And, indeed, the eyes of African immigrants are even more tightly closed than those of their West Indian counterparts, who while still somewhat resistant are much more likely to give recognition to pathbreaking civil rights initiatives, largely because of their own legacy of Caribbean leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and Stokely Carmichael, in this cause. Many West African newcomers simply have no idea of the intricacies of American race relations and are blind to the pivotal role of the history of civil rights protests in facilitating their own adaptation. Moreover, if most in the new African diaspora do not acknowledge the direct foundational role of the historic push for racial equality in easing their incorporation into American society, they are even less aware of the ways that the post–World War II fight to eradicate institutional racism also fueled the momentum that resulted in a more liberal and nondiscriminatory immigration policy. Amid the mid-1960s era of monumental civil rights legislation, Congress passed the 1965 Immigration Reform Bill, a shift in policy that addressed the racism and ethnocentrism of national quotas and led to wide-scale voluntary immigration from the African continent in the first place.

Long before there was a significant settlement of new West Africans in the United States, a Pan-African perspective that emphasized the strong ties between continental Africans and the diaspora began to be expressed. In the late nineteenth century, when ruthless geopolitical agreements were made at the Berlin Conference to carve up the continent of Africa into partitioned areas under the control of the various European powers, notable leaders of the African diaspora began to put forth an internationalist black politics based on notions of a shared sociocultural lineage and a long history of suffering the exploitations of systematic racial inequality. Spearheaded by W. E. B. Du Bois, who articulated a vision of self-determination for black Africa writ large, this was a discourse of mutual identification that encompassed an incisive grasp of their predicament: whether colonial subjects or disenfranchised Americans, the pain of mutilation was a collective, transatlantic phenomenon. Booker T. Washington also recognized the deep-seated global interconnections. In 1909 when he was advocating for improved diplomatic relations and increased assistance to the struggling nation of Liberia, he made the following call for unity: (p.181)

There is … a tie which few white men can understand, which binds the American Negro to the African Negro; which unites the black man of Brazil and the black man of Liberia; which is constantly drawing into closer relations all the scattered African peoples whether they are in the old world or the new.

There is not only the tie of race, which is strong in any case, but there is the bond of colour, which is specially important in the case of the black man. It is this common badge of colour, for instance, which is responsible for the fact that whatever contributes, in any degree to the progress of the American Negro, contributes to the progress of the African Negro, and to the Negro in South America and the West Indies. When the African Negro succeeds, it helps the American Negro. When the African Negro fails, it hurts the reputation and the standing of the Negro in every part of the world.2

By the mid-twentieth century the transatlantic connection became even more definitive as anticolonialist movements on the continent inspired the civil rights movement and especially by the late 1960s, the militancy of the turn to black power in the United States. Conversely those fighting for independence in Africa were influenced by the struggle for freedom and racial equality taking place on American soil. To Kwame Nkrumah, who had been educated in the United States and who led Ghana to independence from Britain in 1957, becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to overthrow colonial rule, the links between the civil rights uprisings in America and the sovereignty movements in Africa were inextricable. But Nkrumah’s vision of Pan-African unity in the freedom struggle was short-lived as a 1966 coup swept him out of power and a more nationalistic Cold War politics took its place. Nonetheless, in some other sectors, Pan-African momentum lived on through the activities of revolutionary figures like Sekou Touré of Guinea, with whom Nkrumah collaborated in exile, and Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, who led the movement for liberation from Portuguese colonialism and who before Nkrumah was ousted had gotten permission from him to set up training camps in neighboring Ghana.

Despite the commonalities and an empathetic thread laced through their shared legacy, the history of the relationship between native and (p.182) foreign-born blacks in the United States has often been an uneasy one, filled with ambivalence on both sides.3 Fueled by misconceptions and pernicious stereotypes and layered with distrust, cultural differences have often superseded alliances based on color. Immigrants typically attempt to assert their cultural distinctiveness, foster ethnic solidarity, and resist identification with what has been the most subordinated sector of American society, while African Americans may exhibit bitterness at the perceived preferential treatment accorded the foreigners, regarding them as a competitive threat in an economy where resources available to racial minorities are scarce.4 As Meri Nana-Ama Danquah recalled,

At the time of my emigration, the early 1970s, Washington, D. C., a predominantly black city, was awash in a wave of Afrocentricity. Dashikis draped brown shoulders and the black-fisted handle of an Afro pick proudly stuck out in many a back pants pocket. However, despite all the romanticizing and rhetoric about unity and brotherhood, there was a curtain of sheer hostility hanging between black Americans and black Africans.5

The acrimony has been magnified by the juxtaposition of immigrant-origin blacks—first those from the Caribbean and more recently arrivals from Africa—as model minorities, emphasizing particularly their educational achievements but, in the process, making sure to call attention by contrast to the vulnerabilities of the native-born population. Heightened by pockets of persistent poverty and bleak urban conditions in the black community, distinctions of social class have factored into the tensions between the foreign and native-born. Yet it is useful to remember that such intraethnic dynamics have been fairly common to the process of immigration and adaptation, past and present. For example, when Jews from Eastern Europe began streaming into the United States in large numbers at the end of the nineteenth century, the more established German Jewish population who preceded them as settlers in an earlier wave were often less than welcoming to the newer arrivals, protective of the gains they had already achieved in the United States and embarrassed by what they saw as the old-country ways of the newcomers. Thus, to presume that long-standing African Americans, (p.183) whose ancestry may well date back to seventeenth-century America, should automatically embrace, for example, Ghanaian arrivals of the twenty-first century just because both originally hailed from the African continent is rather illogical. Nonetheless, adding to the divide has been a simmering resentment whereby some African Americans hold contemporary Africans accountable for their forebears’ role in selling their compatriots into slavery. As one of the Senegalese immigrants interviewed by Linda Beck in her study of West Africans Muslims in New York put it, African Americans are “foreign averse.”6 Usually, these dynamics get even more complex as the second generation of black immigrants begins to assimilate and to reshape their identities within the larger American and black American context.

Thus, West African newcomers, like their Caribbean counterparts, tend to initially feel detached from the black community, and very few forge close relationships with African Americans. James Burkes, who was the founding director of African Marketplace, Inc., an international cultural organization for people of African descent in Los Angeles, characterized the separation in this way:

Black Americans who visit Africa are trying to get back home and connect with something. It is the land, it is the spirit, it is the ancestors, it is family, and the idea of being able to identify with Africa. By contrast, for African immigrants, the majority that I’ve engaged are here to strengthen their own outlook for economic purposes. I don’t think I have ever met an African who has told me that they are here to connect with African Americans.7

In addition, some West Africans resist the label of “black” because, among other things, they see it as eclipsing their unique cultural identities and, furthermore, they arrived with preconceived pejorative ideas about this population that can manifest itself as disdain or arrogance toward them. Indeed, some West Africans, especially among the second generation, have started to call themselves “American African” in lieu of the term “African American.”8 And in a rather awkwardly phrased variation of the label, in his unsuccessful run for Congress several years ago, Peter Idusogie, a Nigerian American living in Minnesota, utilized the term “Africans of American citizenship.”9 At the same time, (p.184) underlining the rift, some of the American-born descendants of slavery who come from a strident legacy of black pride, sometimes known as the “civil rights generation,” have refused to include the African newcomers under the rubric of “black” in any case. For them being black is a badge of honor that they are not ready to bestow on the newest African Americans whom they believe to be undeserving of the label since their ancestors did not suffer directly through the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.10

One local journalist covering Washington State’s Puget Sound region where increasing numbers of African immigrants have settled graphically summed up the disconnect between the foreign-born newcomers and the African American population by titling his feature on the subject “Black and African: As Different as Black and White.” Moreover, the sense of alienation was mutual, with one of the African immigrants interviewed declaring, “We have the same skin color with African Americans, but nothing else together,” while on the other side an African American respondent contended that “our relationship is built on misconceptions…. They don’t want to deal with us, and we don’t want to deal with them.”11 Similarly, across the country, a report on the interactions of African Americans and Africans in the Bronx referred to the dynamics as a “chilly coexistence,” while a study exploring the relationships between African immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria and African Americans (that also included participants from the Caribbean) conducted at several university sites in the D.C.-Maryland metropolitan area, demonstrated that even when there was positive contact, it was a shallow cordiality at best.12 Almost all the respondents to a 2009 national market survey of African consumers agreed with the statement “Africans and African Americans differ greatly,” with half asserting that they thought the two groups were completely different. The New Yorkers who answered the questionnaire perceived the schism as the most pronounced. Among the influences those surveyed overall gave to explain the divergence were their connections to their countries of origin, the absence of a history of slavery and discrimination, the emphasis they placed on education, and the fact that they came to the United States by choice.13

In Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Eugene Robinson parses the breach in this way:

(p.185) These are generalizations, but they are true: Native-born African Americans often envy the immigrants their deep historical knowledge and heritage, and immigrants often look down on the native-born for their rootlessness. These deep and seldom-expressed differences over identity, I believe, may underlie the shallower complaints that the two groups voice about each other. The native-born say that the immigrants are arrogant and the immigrants say that the native-born have no pride in themselves.14

For example, several years ago, a mid-January issue of Africans Abroad, one of the leading publications of the new African diaspora, included an article titled “Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.” that appeared to finally demonstrate some recognition of the positive role of the civil rights movement in the lives of African immigrants. Not so. Rather the reader is immediately confronted by a subhead that only furthers many of the damaging stereotypes held about the native-born: “Remember Perpetual Welfare, Culture of Dependency, Laziness and Black on Black Crimes Are Not Part of Martin Luther King’s Dream!”15

Constructing, maintaining, reconstructing, and making sense of identities have always been important processes in the black American experience. Throughout American history black leaders and organizations have had to tackle the questions of who they are and what to do about self-identification and imposed labels. When in the late 1980s Jesse Jackson called for blacks to embrace the “more dignified” term of African American, many of those who answered his call concurred with him that there was power in the label, which signified protest, a reminder that their ancestors suffered and survived slavery. But with the influx of Africans of the new diaspora, some of the supporters of Jackson’s African American terminology began to urge a reconsideration of the label in order to grasp its new implications. John McWhorter, in a Los Angeles Times article titled “Why I’m Black, Not African American,” emphasized that modern America was now home to “millions” of immigrants who were born in Africa, so “it’s time we descendants of slaves brought to the United States let go of the term ‘African American’ and go back to calling themselves Black—with a capital B.”16

Yet one advocate for African immigrants who has lived in the United States for over twenty years has protested, “But I am African and I am (p.186) an American citizen; am I not African-American? … The census is claiming me as an African-American, if I walk down the streets, white people see me as an African-American. Yet African-Americans are saying, ‘You are not one of us.’ So I ask myself, in this country, how do I define myself?”17

In trying to solve the riddle of identity after twenty years in the United States, Kenyan writer Mukoma Wa Ngugi reflected on the question of whether this was the story of being African in America or African American. He spoke of “African foreigner privilege,” positing the theory that those in the new African diaspora have experienced race differently from their black predecessors. Racism toward African immigrants has been largely expressed as condescension and, as such, has been more benign than the threatening, often virulent forms that their native-born counterparts have had to endure over many generations. Ngugi suggested that “racism wears a smile when meeting an African; it glares with hostility when meeting an African American.”18 Different, too, have been the ways that most Africans position themselves with regard to their racial identities. Even those who have aligned themselves with African Americans most often still privilege their ethnicity or nationality as their primary group attachment. Moreover, for many West Africans there really is no contradiction in simultaneously identifying in terms of both race and ethnicity.

Bridging the Divide

In the religious arena, West African Muslims sometimes find it difficult to interact with African Americans of the same faith. The former consider the brand of Islam of the latter watered down and excessively tailored to their long experience of inequality in America, while African Americans may find the language barrier of the primarily Francophone Muslim worshippers and their emphasis on communal ties prohibitive. An exception to the disassociation of the civil rights movement with the concerns of recent West African immigrants, however, as well as an example of unity between the foreign and native-born black populations is the dynamics surrounding New York’s annual Cheikh Amadou Bamba Day parade. Since 1988 when David Dinkins, then president of the Borough of Manhattan, who was to become the first (and (p.187) to date) only African American mayor of New York, designated July 28 as the day to honor Muslim spiritual leader and anticolonial activist Cheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacké, the Senegalese founder of the Murid Sufi Brotherhood, the gathering has drawn hundreds of celebrants and culminates more than two weeks of commemorative events. Indeed, Ousmane Oumar Kane, a scholar of the religious practices of the Senegalese diaspora in New York, has labeled the period between mid-July and mid-August in the city “Murid Month” because of the great flurry of cultural activities, visiting spiritual leaders, and resources mobilized at this time of year.19 While most of the participants are West African Muslim immigrants, African Americans also take part. Indeed, one of the central aims of the parade itself has been to underscore a shared African identity as the Senegalese and African American pilgrims march together through the streets of Harlem in this very public display of unanimity. Oral interviews with participants confirm that the inclusiveness of both foreign and native-born Muslims that Bamba Day activities represent stands as a highlight of the occasion.20

Furthermore, as Kane has pointed out and as Zain Abdullah’s ethnographic study of the festivities has demonstrated, a concerted effort has been made to connect the teachings of Cheikh Bamba to the nonviolent resistance strategy that has been the hallmark of civil rights protest, thereby unifying the new West African and long-standing African American populations in their understanding of racial oppression as well. Abdullah draws attention to a banner that marchers held at a recent parade, exemplifying the Murid perspective on race. Quoting Cheikh Bamba but echoing civil rights rhetoric, it read “OUR BLACKNESS SHOULD NOT BE AN OBSTACLE TO OUR KNOWLEDGE AND OUR PERFECTION. ALL MEN WERE CREATED EQUAL.”21 Abdullah noted that some Murids believe that while in London Gandhi had been exposed to the writings of Cheikh Bamba and since Martin Luther King, Jr. was, in turn, so influenced by Gandhi, an indirect link can then be made crediting the earlier African visionary with shaping modern civil rights leadership:

The suggestion that a Black African Muslim saint, rather than the Indian sage Gandhi, is responsible for key civil rights ideas modifies this crucial aspect of Black history. Such a proposition turns the foundation of (p.188) a Black Christian-based movement on its head, asserting instead that its origin is African and Muslim.22

Similarly, Kane points to another parade banner displaying an excerpt from a Cheikh Bamba text that further affirms a position of black racial identity: “Let not my being of the blacks keep you from reading my books, because the black skin does not cause foolishness and misunderstanding.”23 Kane goes on to suggest another way that many see Cheikh Bamba as in accordance with the principles of nonviolence since when the Cheikh was finally released after suffering thirty-three long years in exile, he emerged choosing forgiveness rather than retaliation against those who had imprisoned him.24 As further evidence of a connection between the two spiritual traditions, Abdullah also observed that nearly all of the neighborhood restaurants owned by African Muslims have a photo of the Christian Martin Luther King, Jr. hanging prominently on the wall, indicating that the inspiration symbolized by King’s message of racial equality and the dream of opportunity trumps identification with him as guiding religious spirit.25

When the Senegalese Muslims first began to settle in Harlem in the early 1980s, they were welcomed by Imam Tariq, the leader of the large African American Malcolm Shabazz Mosque originally founded by Malcolm X and located in the heart of what would become Little Senegal. He would also regularly invite visiting Senegalese spiritual leaders to lead the congregation in prayer. And even though the relationship of the mosque to the immigrant worshippers has at times been rocky—after Imam Tariq’s death in the early 1990s, relations cooled when his successor proved to be less hospitable to the foreign-born members—the majority of religious events and festivals organized by Senegalese Sufi groups in New York are still held in the main prayer room of the Malcolm Shabazz. Thus, the early legacy of embrace of the West African newcomers has prevailed.

Of the various expressions of the Islamic faith, the Murid Brotherhoods have fostered one of the strongest bonds between African and African American Muslims in the United States. African Americans have frequented the first Murid house in Brooklyn since it was established in the 1980s and continue to be active followers of Muridism today. Beck’s research confirms an evolving link between the foreign (p.189) and native-born black populations, although far from seamless. The West African immigrants would rather interact with African American Muslims than with the members of the other immigrant Muslim communities residing in the city who are primarily of Arabic and South Asian origins, even though the numbers are greater and they share the same set of religious beliefs. Not only do West Africans have more daily contact with African Americans than they do with the immigrant-origin groups because they are more likely to live in the same neighborhoods as native-born blacks, they also consciously distance themselves, especially from Arab Muslims in a post-9/11 context, because of the stereotyped associations of terrorism with this sector as well as the West Africans’ own anti-Arab biases.26 To give stronger voice to this constituency, initiatives have been launched to both organize all of the approximately forty African mosques in the city as well as to form a coalition of African and African American mosques in Harlem, spearheaded by Senegalese Imam Konate of Masjid Aqsa and African American Imam Talib of the Mosque of the Muslim Brotherhood.27 The affiliations with other black populations based on religion have spilled over to a nascent Pan-African politics as West Africans have begun to gravitate toward active support of the local campaigns and causes of politicians who are African American or Afro-Caribbean.

Through the dedication of its late leader, Shaykh Hassan Cissé, another Senegalese-based Sufi order, the Tijaniyya, has created notable ties to African Americans in the United States as well. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Cissé, who studied for his doctoral degree at Northwestern University, set out to bring African American Muslims into the Tijani fold. Today his disciples in the United States have an active presence in both New York and Atlanta. To further broaden the international scope of his work, however, in 1988 Cissé founded the African American Islamic Institute, an NGO organized not only to promote humanitarian initiatives for the improvement of education, health care, and the status of women but also to strengthen the relationship between West Africa and the United States. Despite such efforts to draw together West African and African American Islam and even with increasing incidences of intermarriage between native and foreign-born Muslims, the two religious entities still tend to operate in parallel rather than unified religious worlds.

(p.190) Forty-One Shots through the American Dream:The Killing of Amadou Diallo Revisited

While the rituals of a gathering such as Cheikh Bamba Day are meant to showcase an affirmative, unified blackness springing from within the ethnic community, more commonly the realities of institutionalized racism and outside discrimination have drawn these populations together, triggering, instead, a reactive solidarity. Indeed, the turning point in the public’s awareness of a growing West African presence was the Amadou Diallo incident. The response to his death led to the consolidation of a West African community in New York that had previously been split by political and ethnic rivalries. In her book about his life, Amadou’s mother, Kadiatou, explained,

When a young person leaves home from Guinea, he becomes the setté. He is the explorer and the envoy, carrying the family name to unseen places. In the villages, towns, and cities, too, they will talk about him, imagining his triumphs and new riches. On his return, they will gauge his manner of speaking or of entering a room, the ease of his walk, perhaps a satisfaction that shows in his eyes, to determine if his travels have given him the bearing of a successful man. Beyond his conquests, they wait for the tales he will carry back. Even the man who has not filled his pockets with gold can still be a witness. For years he can tell people what happened when he finally stepped onto strange land, what surprised or scared him, lifted or saddened him, what he has discovered for them. Amadou was a setté for his brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, and for me, who anticipated a magnificent return.

He returned a silent body with a tale untold. If there is anything as cruel as the taking of a man’s life, it is the taking away of his story, the particulars that make him holy.28

Certainly, the special unit of the New York Police Department (NYPD) who gunned down Amadou prevented him from fulfilling this essential responsibility of the immigrant. On February 4, 1999, four officers of the Street Crime Unit fired forty-one shots at the twenty-three-year-old, a black immigrant from Guinea who had been in the United States for almost three years. Nineteen of these hit Diallo, who was (p.191) killed instantly in the vestibule of his own apartment building in the Bronx. The officers, who were not in uniform, alleged that they had been looking for a serial rapist who, they said, resembled Mr. Diallo. They also claimed that they thought the young man was acting “suspiciously” and had reached for a gun. But it turned out that Amadou had no such weapon and what he had reached for was his wallet, perhaps fearing that the four men who were actually armed might be robbers. The police may have killed Amadou, but they did not put an end to his story; in fact, they made it poignantly bigger. Coming on the heels of the beating and sodomizing of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in 1997, this incident provoked public outrage and provided yet another example of the racist brutality of Mayor Giuliani’s police force. Within a short time, the media, in all their forms, were saturated with various perspectives about the incident, coverage that continued from the time of the killing right through the trial and acquittal of the officers to the civil settlement in 2004 between the city and the victim’s family. The mainstream media brought full coverage of the tragedy to the nation, and thus they became the tale bearers of Amadou’s life.

Almost every headline identified the victim as a foreigner—“an unarmed West African,” “an immigrant,” “a Guinean street peddler.” What they did not report was that he was born into a prosperous middle-class family whose business ventures had resulted in his birth in Liberia and his sojourn in several other countries in West Africa and Asia, where he attended some of the finest schools. Neither did they recount his determination to come to the United States to realize his dream of becoming a computer specialist nor his fervent belief in America as the land of unparalleled opportunity. Amadou’s hopes for life in the United States were typical of those of the many other African immigrants who began to arrive in large numbers beginning in the 1980s.

As sizeable as the late twentieth-century wave of African immigrants and refugees was, however, they still represented a small proportion of American blacks. In New York, for example, in the 1990s, they constituted less than 3 percent of the total black population.29 Africans did not create clearly visible enclaves, but they found niches in specific neighborhoods where they began to leave definitive imprints. Although they sought to distance themselves from American blacks, they tended to (p.192) live in close proximity to them as well as Caribbeans and other immigrants. In the 1990s, their presence was most visible, however, not in their residential neighborhoods but on the streets of Manhattan, where Francophone West African vendors were hawking their wares. Arriving in the United States in September 1996, Amadou belonged to that group of ubiquitous African peddlers. He sold a variety of items on Fourteenth Street—socks, batteries, juice, soda, chewing gum, Life Savers, and, as the police relentlessly pointed out, bootlegged videos.

The Diallo killing was racially charged from the onset as it spoke to a chronic domestic problem—an innocent black man killed by four white men. The episode further shattered the prevalent misconception among the immigrants of immunity to American racism, jolting many into the realities of racial profiling. This recognition spurred the Africans and African Americans to join together in their efforts to demand justice. For their part, the African American leadership recognized that the action was not just an attack on an immigrant, but a continuation of a pattern of historical racist assaults on black Americans. Already steeped in the tradition of their struggle, they were poised to lead protest activities. For many this was clear evidence of continuing racial injustice. Almost everyone interviewed by the journalists in the aftermath said they believed that Diallo was condemned as a criminal because of the color of his skin. Some pointed more specifically to the perennial assault on the black American male. The Reverend Jesse Jackson described the tragedy as “open season on blacks.” Prominent African American attorney Johnnie Cochran unequivocally indicted what he saw as America’s racist system:

This isn’t only a case of driving while black. It’s walking while black, it’s living while black, it’s breathing while black … there was absolutely no question in my mind that this would not have happened if Amadou Diallo had been white. If he were white, he would still be alive. If Diallo had been white these cops wouldn’t have kept shooting. But they lived in a culture where it is assumed that a young black man must be doing something wrong.30

Even as the press stressed the foreignness of the victim, African Americans took the incident as one more affront against “black America.” The (p.193) actions of these well-known African American leaders underscored this stand. Diallo’s autopsy was hardly completed when the Reverend Al Sharpton, a significant face of contemporary black resistance, began to chart a public protest with a black immigrant presence. Sharpton and several other African American sympathizers joined the Diallo family and members of the Guinean and West African immigrant communities at the Salat-al-Jumah (Friday afternoon prayer) at the Islamic Cultural Center. Diallo’s remains were brought there for the prayers for the dead. A much bigger show of solidarity followed at the homegoing memorial service. By most accounts, this event, attended by two thousand people, was a protest rally. Activists were visibly represented, some taking the podium to affirm their resolve and rally others to the cause of seeking justice. And Kadiatou Diallo made her debut as a face in the black struggle in America. Holding Amadou’s Koran, his book on Martin Luther King, Jr., and another on dialogue between Christians and Muslims, Mrs. Diallo declared, “We have to work together to save all our children.”31

This show of African–African American solidarity crossed the Atlantic with Sharpton and the entourage that accompanied the Diallos to Guinea for Amadou’s funeral and a transatlantic, transnational statement of protest against racial profiling and police brutality in the United States. The motorcades and the presence of American journalists and activists helped hammer home publicly in Africa the continuing race struggle in post–civil rights America. But the site of contestation remained the United States. Demonstrations, which had begun as soon as news of the shooting got out, were stepped up after the funeral and the return of Sharpton and others. There were daily protests outside Amadou’s Bronx residence, NYPD headquarters in Manhattan, the State Supreme Court in the Bronx, and the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. On April 15, 1999, thousands marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to draw attention to police brutality nationwide and to promote a ten-point plan for police reform. Besides the numbers, the names of some of the protesters spoke to the momentum of the campaign. The list read like a who’s who in celebrity activism—Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Dick Gregory, former New York mayor David Dinkins, actress Susan Sarandon, to name a few. A year after the shooting, the demonstrations received new life when the four officers were acquitted on February 25, 2000.

(p.194) The results went beyond mere arrests. The protesters got the attention of the city, state, and federal governments. Their actions led to the investigation of police relations with minority communities and the eventual disbanding of the notorious Street Crime special unit; they forced the Justice Department to look into the Diallo case, even though it concluded that it did not find beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Diallo’s civil rights were violated. Furthermore and perhaps most significant was the level of coalition building that the campaign sparked, giving new life to liberal Democratic politics in New York. Remarkably, one hundred chanting rabbis and rabbinical students were among those whose arrests Sharpton had orchestrated at police headquarters.32 Similarly, the campaign appealed to organized labor activists as well as advocates of gay and lesbian rights. The campaign brought people and groups together, and as a New York Times reporter rightly pointed out in a front-page article in March of 1999, daily protesters in handcuffs kept the focus on the Diallo shooting.33 Rage over the killing of a black man had galvanized a diverse group of people who helped broaden racialized politics and protest into a case not just for justice for blacks but one for American justice. Four months after the acquittal verdict, the legendary Bruce Springsteen immortalized this episode of racial violence when he debuted his protest song “American Skin” with its throbbing “41 shots” refrain and including the lyrics:

  • Is it a gun?
  • Is it a knife?
  • Is it a wallet?
  • This is your life
  • It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
  • Ain’t no secret my friend
  • You can get killed just for living in your American skin

Yet while commentators pointed to the various coalitions among groups of liberal democrats, organized labor, religious and ethnic minorities, African American activists, gay and lesbian leaders, and other sympathizers, very little was said about African immigrants themselves.

While Americans were dissecting this incident involving a black African, what were the Africans in America saying and doing? Although (p.195) Amadou’s parents, Saikou and Kadiatou, were paraded prominently in rallies and the media, it was clear that American-born blacks were in charge of the public protest. Guinean leaders worked with the Diallos and tried to rally their compatriots and other West Africans of the city. The Bronx African Islamic Center offered special prayers for a fellow Muslim. Although the protesters in front of Diallo’s home were overwhelmingly African American, African demonstrators were still conspicuous. The New York Times reported that there were several dozen African Muslims offering prayers to Allah and a group of Guineans dancing around a drummer (a dance of mourning, no doubt).34 This specific mention notwithstanding, the activities of Africans in reaction to the tragedy remained in the shadows, to the extent that in one of its editorials published two years later, a West African publication lambasted what the writer saw as a disgraceful lack of concern and raised the question of “Where were the continental Africans”?35 The president of the Guinean Association of America admitted that his organization did not do much beyond raising funds at “informal sporadic gatherings” to help repatriate the bodies of those who have died in the “strange land of America.”36 Although African immigrants were incensed by what happened to a fellow immigrant, the majority did not publicly demonstrate this outrage. Instead, they explained the events as random, unfortunate, typical American violence. Some were convinced that if they only stuck to the business of “making it” in America, they could avoid, to quote a Nigerian immigrant, “all the dizzying complications of race, race relations and subtle and not so subtle racism.”37 They were there and they had opinions, but did not voice them publicly. In informal conversations, electronic chat rooms, and oral history accounts, the immigrants seemed to dwell on what the tragedy did to Diallo’s pursuit of the American dream and the wider implications for the attainment of that dream by others like him.

By the 1980s glowing reports about America were finding their way to various parts of Africa. Some immigrants who had settled in the country by that time, through letters and gifts they sent home, relayed a very positive African immigrant experience. An equally influential source of information was exported American popular culture. Those living in urban areas with access to television—theirs or their neighbors’—were able to consume American popular culture, and from programs like (p.196) The Cosby Show, Dynasty, and Dallas” they developed their impressions about the United States. By the 1990s, the success of African-born athletes like basketball players Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo was symbolic of the opportunities in America. Diallo’s fate offered a vivid lesson in the complexity of a phenomenon often invoked as an uncomplicated American trait. As many African immigrants already knew, not everything is possible in the United States and the American dream is not so easily realized. When Mrs. Diallo visited her son’s surprisingly tiny and sparsely furnished room, she was amazed to discover that “the alien West African street peddler” had managed to save three thousand dollars.38 But all this resilience, endurance, and perseverance were no match for the bullets that put an end to any hopes of continuing in the rough path to the dream.

How much did African immigrants really know about the obstacles that emanate from their new identity as blacks in America? What did they take out of the Diallo tragedy? That this exemplary African met with such a violent fate sent some terrifying messages to other African immigrants about race and opportunity in their adopted country. Although the voices of the African American leaders dominated the “black reaction” to the incident, Africans also dissected the tragedy and contemplated its ramifications. They did so not in “American” public spaces with American-born blacks, but within their own ethnic enclaves. They engaged in long, passionate conversations in what had become familiar sites of interaction in their diasporic world—restaurants, tropical food stores, and leisure-time gatherings like soccer matches, weddings, naming ceremonies, and independence anniversary celebrations. Farafina’s Coffee Shop on West 116th Street in Manhattan was one such venue. This restaurant, owned by Maimouna Ndiaye, an immigrant from Mali, was, by 1990, perhaps the most popular stop for the many African cab drivers and delivery men. They came to patronize the business, mainly because of the authentic African dishes like fufu, groundnut, and goat stew that it offered. As they ate and socialized, they talked about a variety of subjects about life in their respective homelands and the continent in general. But for weeks after the Diallo killing, they focused almost exclusively on that incident and what it meant for their immigrant experience. Silla Sidique from Guinea expressed the terror the incident sent through the African immigrant enclaves: (p.197) “We are afraid, we are afraid. I want to go back home before somebody kills me.”39

Indeed, the extent of violence in the United States, represented by the tragedy, was a major topic of conversation in other parts of the country. At Its Tropical, a food store in Decatur in metro Atlanta, the mostly West African shoppers talked about violence in America and took the opportunity to assess the scale of violence in their own rapidly expanding metropolis. A few months after the incident, Ethiopians in Washington, D.C., who gathered to play soccer one Saturday morning discussed the violent nature of Diallo’s death and how representative this was of the situation in the United States.40 Ida Njie from Gambia was convinced that the incident, though conspicuous, was just one more typically violent assault in America: “All of us at the naming ceremony that day agreed that any of us could easily be an Amadou Diallo. We could be attacked and killed by a drug-addicted thief on our way home.” At the same event, according to Njie, another Gambian immigrant pointed out that it made sense that many of them there had earned and saved enough money to live in the safe Houston suburbs where they had bought houses. Some of them believed that living in a “rough Bronx neighborhood” may have cost Diallo his life.41 As discussed in chapter 3, perhaps no other African group knew more about violence in America than the taxi drivers. From 1985 to the time of the Diallo killing—a little over a decade—by some estimates, more than fifty African (mostly West African) cab drivers had been murdered in New York.42 As Mohamed Mouktar Diallo, a cousin of Amadou Diallo, noted, “We know that many Guineans before Amadou were killed in New York. But they are usually doing something dangerous, like driving a cab in Harlem.”43

Like their African American counterparts, many Africans did point to the racialized implications of the incident but were hesitant to assert that Diallo’s killing was definitively the result of racism, maintaining instead that he may have been the victim of racism. Nevertheless, the incident prompted many to begin to examine and talk about race and racism in America. New York Times reporter Amy Waldman noted that interviews with more than one hundred Africans in the city revealed that “they cherish America’s economic prosperity, its political freedom and its education system, but they dislike its racism and its violence, (p.198) and they disdain its values.”44 In their “ethnic spaces,” like Farafina’s Coffee Shop and tropical African food stores, many of them related their own experiences that provided insights into issues of race and racism that might have been factors in the Diallo killing. Mamoudou Jawara, a Guinean, talked about being repeatedly stopped by police near his Staten Island home and asked for his license and occasionally told by officers to “go back to Africa.” Tingah Mohammed, a forty-nine-year-old Ghanaian, who by the time of the tragedy had been living in the United States for fifteen years, recalled one night walking down a TriBeCa street and seeing a white woman running. She ran and hid behind a rubbish heap. She was afraid of him, a realization that almost brought him to tears.45

Perhaps most perplexing for many of these foreign blacks was the emphasis by African American leaders, as well as African-born intellectuals and community leaders, that their “foreignness” cannot secure for them an immunity from the insidiousness of American racism. Fordham University professor Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome, originally from Nigeria, pointed to the inevitable racial implications of the killing of Diallo and their larger significance:

Both Amadou and I are black. As black people in the United States, we have walked into a situation where historically, whether you like it or not, the color of your skin determines your identity. Many recent African immigrants to this country eventually come to realize that the first thing that the external observer sees about you is the color of your skin. Like it or not, that color marks you and makes you subject to the treatment that other people may never experience. We … by coming to America, have come into the stream of American history that continues to perpetuate inequities against African Americans, simply by virtue of their color. While Amadou died, I am here now. As an African who may have faced police harassment, but who was not shot at, I have a responsibility to consider what is happening carefully, analytically. If I do not look into this tragic matter, I will be doing myself and others an injustice.46

NYU professor Manthia Diawara, who moved to the United States from Mali, expressed similar sentiments.

(p.199) Part of my profound disappointment with the world stemmed from a realization that Amadou Diallo was shot in New York because he was a black man. Amadou Diallo’s death left a sour taste in my mouth. Just as my success story in America could have been his, the tragedy that had befallen him could have been mine…. They cut Amadou Diallo down like a black American, even though he belonged to the Fulani tribe in his native Guinea. There is a lesson here for all of us to learn.47

What are the lessons, then? And did African immigrants really learn these lessons from the Diallo tragedy? Did even the gunning down of one of them as a black man fail to convey to many of the African immigrants the reality of their position as inheritors of the legacies of America’s complex racial history? Although many black Africans who immigrated to America were ignorant of the gravity of the repercussions of the history of race and racism in America, some of them had been exposed to some valuable insights into the problems in their premigration settings. The protagonist of the tragedy was one such African. Diallo’s privileged schooling at an international school in Bangkok exposed him to American history where he read about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. And his mother once heard him declare passionately, “The changes [brought about by the civil rights movement] happened because of the actions of black people.”48 Like Diallo, many Africans who had been exposed to similar educational opportunities or lived and worked in urban areas where they gained access to American news and popular culture came to America with varying degrees of awareness of the salience of race. Still many continued to detach themselves from the history; the narrative, they believed, was not about them, they were, after all, “the other blacks.” Thus, although some African immigrants did address issues of race and racism, their voices did not translate into recognizable, viable African immigrant activism in response to the police killing of a fellow immigrant. In fact, although cab drivers, hair braiders, street peddlers, security guards, as well as nurses, nursing assistants, engineers, doctors, teachers, and professors talked about the racial implications, in general, the majority of these black foreigners were more focused on “making it” in America and attaining the American dream.

(p.200) It is this apparent disconnect from the African American agenda that helped shape the African immigrants’ responses to the Diallo tragedy. Many of them failed to see the probable links between the Diallo tragedy and other incidents like the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the police brutalization of Abner Louima in New York City. Did the immigrants even consider reports that the police who shot Diallo that night were looking for a black male rapist, and, if so, how much importance would they have placed on this information? Indeed, what do they know about the role of the image of the black male rapist in the history of race, racism, and race relations in America? As Elizabeth Alexander emphasizes, “Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries.”49 What do the African foreign-born know about, and how do they interpret the lynching of blacks in American history or the horrific murder of Emmett Till?50 When they see pictures or read about that “strange fruit” hanging from trees, can they feel the pain not only as any decent human beings committed to human rights, but also as an integral part of the agony on display? Even those among the continental African population who did register their points of view on the incident did not necessarily speak to a collective black traumatized past.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the divergence in agendas in this story can be found in the breakdown in relations between the Diallos and African American leaders—specifically, Al Sharpton, Johnnie Cochran, and Jesse Jackson. The national tour that was supposed to have been an opportunity to showcase African and African American solidarity ended suddenly only after appearances in two cities. Furthermore, Mrs. Diallo terminated the services of Cochran. Both sides made every attempt to be civil about the breakup—Cochran lamented that probably due to cultural differences, Mrs. Diallo could not understand or cope with his busy schedule.51 Mrs. Diallo, for the most part, remained silent about why she parted company with her African American advisers. Still, observers read between the lines, and what they found was mostly a discrepancy in ideologies concerning American racism and black protest.

In Chicago, during the short-lived national tour, Jackson and Sharpton lambasted America’s historical and contemporary treatment of minorities, especially blacks. Sharpton went further to raise the point (p.201) about the naïveté and delusion of black immigrants who believed that, as a different kind of blacks, they were somehow immune to the consequences of America’s racist past and present. Although Mrs. Diallo did not publicly admit it, according to some observers she did not agree with Sharpton’s acidic assault of a country she maintained her son truly loved.52 Roving writer Ted Conover eloquently describes the divergence:

When discussion moved from the particulars of her son’s case to a broader critique of American society, Sharpton’s political narrative ceased to be her own…. The rift between Sharpton and Kadi seemed to be about a built-in fork in the road, the place where an immigrant narrative of opportunity and fair treatment diverged from an African American narrative about civil rights and historical injustice.53

Sharpton and other American-born blacks insisted, as Jesse Jackson put it, “there is power in innocent blood.” For them, Diallo’s blood should go a long way to helping blacks attain long-term goals of a complete overhaul of the status quo and the reclamation of the gains of the civil rights movement. Mrs. Diallo, on the other hand, appealed to an end to demonstrations and a resolve to work toward healing by making peace with Giuliani and his administration. She also hoped that a major step toward reconciliation would be through the work of the Amadou Diallo Foundation, especially with regard to its provision for young black Africans to attain the American dream made possible by scholarships awarded by the organization.54 Were the Africans so out of tune with the history and nature of black, racialized protest in America?

Mrs. Diallo’s conciliatory tone and the faint voices of her fellow African immigrants connoted a detachment from the black American struggle and were misconstrued by many as absolute nonchalance. True, the failure of Africans, and indeed other black immigrants, to fully grasp the traumatic past and problematic present of American blacks cannot be denied. This, however, does not mean that the perceptions that African immigrants have of American pluralism, especially as it relates to issues of race, are static. As the newcomers have adapted, their responses have also evolved. Particularly for the undocumented, however, outspoken protest of such practices as racial profiling and police brutality must be tempered by the reality of immigration law (p.202) enforcement. Nonetheless, an episode that should have provided the perfect scenario for foreign- and native-born blacks to come together in protest of American racism ultimately failed to create and sustain a united front. Furthermore, alongside the outcries of the African American activists as well as the commentaries of the many and diverse journalists, the voices of Africans in the interpretation of the killing of young Diallo, however muffled, are essential to fully understand what was ultimately an American tragedy but one that is at the center of the black immigrant experience.

Shades of Black

A reversal of sorts has occurred over the past several decades regarding racial politics and alliances between black immigrants and African Americans. Afro-Caribbean activists of the early twentieth century were criticized for their “pushiness” and arrogant meddling in the American black struggle, while the post–civil rights era African diaspora is faulted, instead, for its reticence to join the continuing fight.55 Deep involvement in homeland politics and other “non-American” issues may well be a justifiable characterization of the contemporary West African community who can be seen as paying so much attention to pan-ethnic issues and transnational prerogatives that their response to American problems with uniquely racial ramifications is inadequate. This is precisely what Jill Humphries found in her research on the ways foreign-born African constituencies have engaged in multiracial political action coalitions in the United States. Utilizing a case study of Southern California participants in the National Summit on Africa, an initiative launched in 1997 to guide America’s policy on African affairs, she summarized her findings with the phrase “Resisting ‘Race,’” as she concluded that while the immigrant cohort acknowledged the salience of race in the African American context, they did not privilege its significance, nor did they see confronting the racial order as a unifying platform to mobilize and bring together native and foreign-born subgroups. Preferring to maintain a separate agenda, the African-born turned away from a political strategy that would readily encompass the concerns of their African American counterparts.56

(p.203) Certainly the black foreigners have capitalized on the vastly more tolerant climate in the United States, when compared to the African continent, to voice their opinions about conditions at home and to chart actions. A close examination of the mission statements of African organizations in New York City revealed that as many as half are dedicated to the sociopolitical concerns of their respective homelands,57 while the increasing numbers of those in the diaspora who hold dual citizenship further facilitate the possibility of direct involvement with political campaigns and government policy making in their countries of origin. Some in the diaspora may even hold political office in their homelands or, short of that, have substantially funded the bids of other candidates. Thus, Nigerians abroad immersed in ensuring the hegemony of their respective ethnicities in the complex Nigerian federation or Sierra Leonean immigrants too focused on rebuilding their former schools—indeed, a whole country—after a protracted war and a temporary collapse of the state could potentially lessen their ability to be proactive about pressing issues in the United States. At association meetings, in specialty stores, nightclubs, and house and hall parties, the West African foreigners, especially the men, spend an enormous amount of time dissecting homeland problems, hotly debating current African affairs and assessing the actions of past and present leaders, from Nkrumah to Senghor to Tejan Kabba and Olusegun Obasanjo. As diasporic citizens, this should be expected. The question is to what extent these emerging and new Americans can juggle their transnational existence to also apply this determination—to question and agitate—to their experiences in their new home, especially as they relate to their being black in America. In his efforts to persuade his fellow African taxi drivers to get more politically active, one Seattle immigrant expressed the extent to which he has made the adjustment with his recognition of the advantages he has gained by becoming an American citizen: “What excites me every day is that I could go protest without fear of deportation or being sent to prison…. I could lobby, jump up and down, start my own business, and nobody could question me. The country I was not even born in is allowing me to dream.”58

In time and to varying degrees, contemporary African immigrant communities have become more cognizant of the metaphoric “pain of the black body.” Since the 1990s, intellectuals, professionals, and leaders (p.204) of various diasporic associations have been encouraging members of their communities to consider “American” issues not just in general terms but through the prism of race as well. Diawara articulates the rationale for this stand:

Little do the Amadou Diallos of the world know that the black man in America bears the curse of Cain, and that in America they, too, are considered black men, not Fulanis, Mandingos or Wolofs…. They cut Amadou Diallo down like a black American even though he belonged to the Fulani tribe of his native Guinea. The tragedies of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo—two immigrants submitted to the ritualistic white violence generally reserved for African Americans—should finally suffice as a political awakening for Africans and Caribbeans to the issues of race in America.59

Although typically those who compose the new African diaspora have not been conversant with the history of civil rights, with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 African immigrants who had rarely been involved with the discourse on race began to shift the usual focus on homeland politics as the primary topic of what were often heated discussions to conversations, instead, that have revolved around some of the domestic debates that have been raised by the Obama presidency. The ongoing allegations that questioned the veracity of his American citizenship promulgated by the birther movement, especially that he was born in Kenya, conspiracy theories that were not quelled until well into the president’s third year in office (and even then they persisted among some sectors), served as a lightening rod particularly for the highly educated and professional cohort of West Africans who saw this confrontation as a direct assault on their own legitimacy. The racial politics implied by such attacks have galvanized the continental African community to align themselves with African Americans in a shared blackness, seeing their long-standing struggles with new eyes and understanding, in some cases for the first time, the rationale behind a more activist position when it comes to countering racial bias and discrimination. Such priorities have led to the formation of new organizations such as the African Advocacy Network in the San Francisco (p.205) Bay Area. Its founder, Adoubou Traore, who is from Côte d’Ivoire, explained the interchange:

We are different from each other: many African-Americans no longer know much about Africa. Many African immigrants only know of the mass media’s narrative when it comes to African-Americans…. African-Americans can serve as powerful source of support for newly arrived African immigrants. And we can help them to recover their historic roots.60

In The Making of African America, as part of his argument for the legacy of diversity among peoples of African descent, past and present, Ira Berlin cleverly characterizes this juxtaposing history of the long-settled and migratory cohorts as “roots and routes.”61

In the spring of 2013 as consensus was building to overhaul U.S. immigration policy, a coalition spearheaded by leaders of African diaspora communities from across the country organized a series of rallies in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, an initiative that had the full support of civil rights and faith-based groups as well as representatives from various Caribbean American constituencies. The gatherings drew the attention of the Congressional Black Caucus, with Representative Charles Rangel from New York declaring at the first Day of Action event, “We’re all immigrants and it’s time for change, reform and justice,” signifying a shared black American vision that superseded national origins.62

Beyond political advocacy, other creative initiatives have generated platforms for the exploration of the dynamics among native-origin and immigrant-origin blacks. When Ghanaian-born filmmaker Kobina Aidoo, director of the 2009 documentary The Neo-African-Americans on black immigrant identities, told his friends and family at home that he was coming to America to study film, they gave him their well wishes to become the next Steven Spielberg. Once he arrived in the United States, however, when he told people of his plans, although they also wished him the best of luck, it was, instead, to become the next Spike Lee:

(p.206) Great filmmakers, both … but the significance of the difference in their respective blessings was not lost to me. Through this and other experiences, I was forced to start thinking of myself as black. Not that there’s anything wrong with that or I didn’t know that already, but I mean exactly that: think. Having come from an overwhelmingly majority black country, I had only thought of my being black in philosophical terms. Living it as a minority was new to me, and I felt myself getting squeezed in boxes with which I was unfamiliar. For instance, I didn’t know why people in the gym wanted me on their basketball team. Of course, I knew why, but I didn’t know why, given that I would only go on to embarrass myself—and all black people.63

From his personal experience, Aidoo began talking to other black immigrants, immersing himself in the literature on the history of race in America and subsequently launching the Neo-African-Americans documentary project and accompanying website. Between the screenings nationwide, primarily on college campuses, where there is always time for discussion and the enormously popular online interactive forum on the subject, the conversations have touched on the myriad facets of the meaning of race for black immigrants in America.

Indeed, when Barack Obama, son of a black African father and white American mother, first declared his candidacy in the Illinois senatorial race in 2004 and became a rising star in the Democratic Party, Alan Keyes, the black Republican nominee who opposed him, sparked a heated debate in the African American community by questioning Obama’s credentials as a black man, an issue that continued to nag at the Democrat in his later successful run for the presidency. Such narrowly construed notions of black authenticity are being revised by the rapidly changing demographics of race in contemporary America. As one African American commentator put it, “At bottom, the hue and cry over Barack Obama’s identity stems from a failure by black traditionalists to recognize multiracial versions of themselves. Soon enough, the Obama story, which seems so exotic to so many people now, will have found its place among all the other stories of the sprawling black diaspora.”64

In general, the longer the new West African settlers live in the United States, the more they realize and accept that in America, they are (p.207) identified more by the color of their skin than by their nationality. Such a shift in self-perceptions accompanied by a better understanding of the meaning of race and how to navigate those hierarchies in their new country can lead to an easing of intraracial tensions. Five years after immigrating to the United States from Lagos, Nigeria, in 1982, clothing retailer Larry Alebiosu opened a store in metropolitan Detroit largely because of the racial makeup of residents in that part of the city: “I blend in very well with the African-American community because we are black people. It’s easy to get along with people that are the same as you are. And you have a lot of African-Americans here who are interested in Africa.”65

In the arena of social life, capitalizing on the notion of Afropolitanism, the Boston-based Afrique event planners have organized an annual “Afropolitan Cruise,” a midnight soiree aboard the Spirit of Boston luxury ship billed as “all black” (upscale black attire recommended), where the music combined African and West Indian beats.

At times, the immigrants have realized that alliances with the wider black community can be politically advantageous, and they

More Than BlackResistance and Rapprochement

Afrique Events Second Annual Afropolitan Cruise publicity flyer, Boston, September 2012.

(p.208) purposefully seek common ground. These overtures may well be readily reciprocated. For example, despite all the reported friction between African origin and native-born blacks in the Pacific Northwest, the NAACP branch in Portland, Oregon, recently elected a young Liberian immigrant as its president. For others, barriers to an inclusive black identity were never an issue. Once Marcus Samuelsson got the idea to open a high-end African restaurant in New York, he found that he was unable to persuade anyone to invest in such a concept. After two years of knocking on closed doors, Samuelsson reported that he wasn’t at all surprised that it was an African American businessman who finally understood the potential of his venture and agreed to back him. Unfortunately, a mere two days after shaking hands on the deal, the man died of a heart attack. Undaunted, Samuelsson eventually got the financing he needed from a Haitian American club promoter, and consequently his quest was realized in a collaboration truly representative of the wider African diaspora.66

Through the increasing interactions of the new immigrants with the native-born, the meanings of African American race and culture are continuously being redefined. As individuals, a common pattern has been to initially self-identify most broadly as African upon arrival in the United States or to define oneself in terms of a distinctive ethnic or nationality group and later, after making a more permanent adjustment to the urban neighborhoods in which they live, to gradually affiliate themselves with the larger black community; some may even identify as African American. Over the course of two decades, Kenneth Udoibok, who left Nigeria for the United States in 1981, slowly came to consider himself an African American: “Ten years ago I told people I was an African. Fifteen to 20 years ago I told people I was a Nigerian.” And while Udoibok calls himself African American today, he still finds it difficult “to wrap his African mind around American racism.”67 In another instance, an American-born Ghanaian married to a first-generation African confided that she and her husband viewed the concept of race differently. Her spouse did not recognize race as a meaningful social category, but she readily acknowledged that blackness can, indeed, constitute a cultural identity: “My husband doesn’t understand this issue. But I can see the African American side of things and the (p.209) African immigrant sides of things. I know what they [African Americans] mean when they talk about ‘being black.’ It’s not just skin color.”68

Most significant, though still not as free as white ethnics are to choose when and with whom they want to identify, increasingly the nonwhite immigrant population, including members of the new West African diaspora, have the leeway to exercise ethnic optionality, emphasizing individual nationalities and cultural identities in certain contexts while joining with the native-born black population in other situations. In an autobiographical essay, the Anglo-Nigerian writer Sarah Manyika, who is based in San Francisco, ruminated on the process of seeking equilibrium in relation to the racial barriers she has faced: “As I now trace the life experiences that engendered my racial consciousness, I strive to find balance between the value of being mindful of race and the danger of being consumed by it.”69 Rather than a cohesive and fixed notion of racial or ethnic identity, new West Africans, like many others among the foreign-born, exhibit variegated identities that are continuously in flux. As Fallou Guèye, a former president of the Association of Senegalese in America who lives in New York with his wife and young child, explained it, “I like to think that I am multidimensional. Look, even in Senegal there are bad influences and kids are affected there by the media and rap music. But if my kid can be African and American together, it’s good. People can pursue this idea of being pure, being one thing. But it’s not doable.”70 The rate of intermarriage between second-generation West Africans and African Americans is increasing as well and is another factor that minimizes the wedge. In the course of adaptation, many new immigrants eventually do successfully juggle becoming ethnics with acceptance of being black in the United States, often representing integral threads in the fabric of African America. (p.210)


(1.) Patrick A. Grant, “Coming to America with Eyes Wide Shut,” in Foreign-Born African Americans: Silenced Voices in the Discourse on Race, ed. Festus E. Obiakor and Patrick A. Grant (New York: Nova, 2005).

(2.) Booker T. Washington, The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery, vol. 1 (1909; repr., New York: Negro University Press, 1969), 33–34.

(3.) Other scholars of the new African diaspora have also addressed some of these dynamics. See especially Arthur in African Diaspora Identities and Phillipe Wamba in Kinship: A Family’s Journey in Africa and America (New York: Plume, 1999).

(4.) In her study of African immigrants in Washington, D.C., Habecker found an exception to the usual contours of the discourse on blackness among the East African populations of Amharic- and Tigrinya-speaking Ethiopians and Eritreans who have tried to sidestep being racialized as black altogether by, instead, creating an alternative that connotes Semitic origins known as Habasha identity. See Shelly Habecker, “Not Black, but Habasha: Ethiopian and Eritrean Immigrants in American Society,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 35, no. 7 (2012): 1200–1219.

(5.) Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, “Life as an Alien,” in Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural, ed. Claudine Chiawei O’Hearn (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 105.

(7.) Ann Simmons, “A Common Ground in African Heritage: Little Ethiopia Event Aims to Bring Black Americans and Immigrants Together,” Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2003, B1.

(8.) Akwasi Assensoh, “Conflict or Cooperation? Africans and African Americans in Multiracial America,” in Black and Multiracial Politics in America, ed. Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh and Lawrence Hanks (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 126.

(9.) Dan Austin, “A Nigerian-American Runs for United States Congress,” Transatlantic Times, African Edition 1 (June 2004): 7.

(10.) See especially the discussion of these dynamics in Harlem in Abdullah, Black Mecca, 52.

(p.285) (11.) Rob Carson, “Black and African: As Different as Black and White,” News Tribune, April 27, 2004, (accessed June 9, 2012).

(12.) Oscar Johnson, “Chilly Coexistence: African and African-Americas in the Bronx” (2000),; Jennifer Jackson and Mary Cothran, “Black versus Black: The Relationships among African, African American, and African Caribbean Persons,” Journal of Black Studies 33, no. 5 (2003): 576–604.

(15.) “Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Africans Abroad, January 15, 2007.

(16.) John H. McWhorter, “Why I’m Black, Not African American,” Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2004.

(17.) Rachel Swarns, “African-American Becomes a Term for Debate,” New York Times, August, 29, 2004.

(18.) Mukoma W. Ngugi, “African in America or African American?,” Guardian, January 14, 2011, (accessed June 20, 2011).

(20.) Zain Abdullah, “Sufis on Parade: The Performance of Black, African, and Muslim Identities,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 2 (2009): 1–39; Abdullah, Black Mecca, 107–127; Monika Salzbrunn, “The Occupation of Public Space through Religious and Political Events: How Senegalese Migrants Became a Part of Harlem, New York,” Journal of Religion in Africa 34, no. 4 (2004): 468–492; Ayesha Attah, “Mourides Celebrate 19 Years in North America,” African webzine, July 30, 2007, (accessed June 15, 2008).

(22.) Ibid., 112.

(24.) Ibid., 154.

(29.) John Logan and Glenn Deane, “Black Diversity in Metropolitan America” (Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, University at Albany, 2003),

(30.) Johnnie Cochran, A Lawyer’s Life (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), 176–177.

(32.) Mike Flugennock, “We Own the Night: 365 Days of Marching—The Amadou Diallo Story” (video, 360 Media),

(p.286) (33.) Dan Barry, “Daily Protesters in Handcuffs Keep Focus on Diallo Killing,” New York Times, March 19, 1999.

(34.) Ginger Thompson, “1,000 Rally to Condemn Shooting of Unarmed Man by Police,” New York Times, February 8, 1999.

(35.) Frankie Edozien, “Remembering Amadou Diallo,” The African, February 2002.

(37.) Olubode A., interviewed by Violet Johnson, Atlanta, May 17, 2003.

(39.) Amy Waldman, “Shooting in the Bronx: The Immigrants; Killing Heightens in the Unease Felt by Africans in New York,” New York Times, February 14, 1999.

(40.) Bethlehem Ababaiya, interviewed by Binta Njie, Washington, DC, June 17, 2003.

(41.) Ida Njie, interviewed by Binta Njie, Houston, May 22, 2003.

(42.) Frank Bruni, “Invisible, and in Anguish: A Slain Driver’s Service Brings Attention to Senegalese,” New York Times, November 18, 1997.

(43.) Susan Sachs, “Guineans Still See Opportunity in U.S.,” New York Times, February 21, 1999.

(46.) Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome, “Amadou Diallo: Some Observations by Another African Immigrant,” Africa Resource, (accessed November 23, 2005).

(47.) Manthia Diawara, We Won’t Budge: An African Exile in the World (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003), vii–ix.

(49.) Elizabeth Alexander, “Can You Be Black and Look at This? Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” in The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book (Chicago: Black Public Sphere Collective, 1995), 82.

(50.) Emmet Till was an African American teenager from Chicago who, on a visit to Mississippi in 1955, was brutally murdered for allegedly insulting a white woman. His death is now acknowledged as one of the catalysts for the modern civil rights movement.

(52.) Ted Conover, “Kadi Diallo’s Trial,” New York Times Magazine, January 9, 2000.

(55.) Reuel R. Rogers, “Race-Based Coalitions among Minority Groups: Afro-Caribbean Immigrants and African-Americans in New York City,” Urban Affairs Review 39, no. 3 (2004): 283–317.

(56.) The National Summit itself was held in February 2000, with every state in the United States represented, and in 2002 the National Summit on Africa became the Africa Society, an ongoing think tank and organization for public education. Jill Humphries, “Resisting ‘Race’: Organizing African Transnational Identities in the United States,” in Okpewho and Nzegwu, New African Diaspora, 271–299.

(60.) Stefano Valentino, “Local African Leaders Seek a Common Mission,” January 9, 2010, (accessed April 19, 2010).

(62.) Deon Brown, “Black Immigrants Rally for Justice on Capitol Hill,” Gleaner, April 4, 2013, (accessed April 13, 2013).

(63.) Kobina Aidoo, “Why the Neo African Americans?,” June 4, 2009,

(64.) Brent Staples, “Decoding the Debate over the Blackness of Barack Obama,” New York Times, February 11, 2007.

(65.) Oralandar Brand-Williams, “Africans Find Home in Detroit,” Detroit News, May 29, 2003.

(66.) Marcus Samuelsson, Yes, Chef: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 2012), 264.

(67.) Quoted in Brandt Williams, “Problems of Assimilation” (Minnesota Public Radio, February 4, 2002),

(70.) Quoted in Susan Sachs, “In Harlem’s Fabric: Bright Threads of Senegal,” New York Times, July 28, 2003,

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