My answer to him, without hesitation, was no—at least not in the way he meant it. I definitely felt different in Kenya, but it was the kind of difference I imagine everyone experiences when exploring an entirely new place for the first time—that of a tourist. (I suspect that visiting my supposed ancestral homeland of Nigeria would produce the same effect.) In addition to the obvious differences in transportation and living conditions (livestock roam the streets even in urban areas of Kenya), there were smaller but significant cultural gaps. While the wedding featured familiar traditions like the tossing of the bouquet (accompanied, naturally, by a sound bite from that universal anthem “Single Ladies”), many parts of the ceremony were in Swahili, the country’s official working language alongside English. Even some of the jokes the emcee made in English delighted the Kenyan guests but flew over my head—I later had one of the guests, a cousin of the bride who also lives in the U.S., explain the playful digs to me.
But it’s not just the lost-in-translation humor that made me frequently aware of my outsider status. Having to explain what I am—an American with American parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents—emphasized the gulf between the Kenyan understanding of race and my own. For the Kenyans I interacted with, having black skin also means being African. For me, being black means, well, being black.
During that sixth-grade project, I envied my classmates’ apparent abilities to trace their lineages as far back as the turn of the 20th century. My teacher surely intended to instill pride in family heritage, and to celebrate the varied paths each student’s family had taken to this country. The assignment, made in the mid-’90s, was likely a product of America’s obsession with hyphenated identities (“Kiss Me—I’m Irish!”), formed in the decades following the civil rights movement. As Matthew Frye Jacobson notes in his book Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post–Civil Rights America, the rise of black nationalism in the ’60s and ‘70s coincided with a growing emphasis, among white Americans, on the idea of America as a “nation of immigrants.” He argues the two phenomena are not unrelated:
This blunted the charges of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and eased the conscience of a nation that had just barely begun to reckon with the harshest contours of its history forged in white supremacism.
Americans who traced their ancestries to the Great Wave of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century couldn’t be blamed for the horrors of slavery or Reconstruction, or so the thinking went.
In hindsight, I had nothing to be ashamed about; the family crest I created was just as valid as any of the other kids’, even if I couldn’t claim to know for certain the foreign lands in my family history. But it wasn’t the last time I felt a tinge of inferiority. Later, when I was in college and met African immigrants or first-generation African-Americans, I felt it again.
I’ve since changed my point of view on that as well, however, and am comfortable now with defining myself by my upbringing rather than by where my ancestors may have come from. The distinction between black and African-American has been expounded upon in recent years, on both a semantic level (Slate just this year changed its standard from African-American to black American) and, by extension, a cultural one. I know I’m not alone in wishing to identify as a black American. And I believe that every individual, and especially people of color, who so often have their existences defined by the standards of a white majority (recall, for example, the one-drop rule), should be able to identify as they see fit.
I don’t see my preference for being called a black American as a way of denying or distancing myself from my genetic African heritage. Rather, I believe it acknowledges the similarities that do extend to all black people—in spite of our differences—as black people: the prejudices we can face from nonblacks (from police brutality to skewed standards of beauty) to the cultural influences we share with one another, like the aesthetic notion of “black cool,” traced to West Africa and translated more recently into black American art.
Having never lived in the land of my ancestors, I will never truly understand what it means to be Kenyan, Nigerian, or, more generally, African. But my recent travels, which included a cross-country road trip from Nairobi to Diani Beach and Mombasa on the coast, gave me my first immersive understanding of an African country, and I did feel a kinship with the people I met: It was fascinating to spend time in a country where the majority of the population was not white, and to interact with such a wide range of social classes and cultures, from the traditional Maasai tribes to the rural farmers and city dwellers. Finally, after years of learning from afar, I got to understand a small slice of African culture for myself. I’m eager to experience even more in the future, even if it’s only as a tourist and not as a long-lost family member returning “home.”