Becoming Black and African: Nigerian Diasporic Transformations of Racial and Ethnic Identities in the United States.

Author:Nwabara, Olaocha Nwadiuto
Position:Critical essay


"I must say that before I went to the US I didn't consciously identify as African. But in the US whenever Africa came up people turned to me, never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African."

--Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "The Danger of a Single Story"

"The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it's a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America."

--Ifemelu, in Adichie's Americanah

Becoming Black and African in the United States are transformative experiences that contemporary Nigerian and other African voluntary immigrants must sojourner and come to acknowledge in their own terms as they learn the socio-political realities of existing in their new hostland. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one example, and a world-renowned Nigerian Diaspora cultural producer, whose numerous transnational novels and short stories do the work of shaping meaning about what it is to be Nigerian in the world. In the epigraphs of this article, Adichie achieves this through a public lecture, providing her own experiences of becoming "African" when coming to the United States, and through the journey of Americanah's protagonist, Ifemelu, in learning to be "Black" in the United States, respectively. She demonstrates ways that the United States' imposed Eurocentric racialization and ethnicization (Black, African) of African (1) people's identities shift their perspectives of the world and their place in it. They are forced to negotiate these culturally and politically determined identities vis a vis their own ethnic or national identities that they arrive with (e.g. Igbo). Experiences of racism and xenophobia (or even Afrophobia, "a perceived or actual fear/contempt or bias against Black people" that is a symptom/function of internalized racism) (2), feelings of belonging and community, as well as learning US American history and African American history and culture provide profound context to empathetically understand how Blackness and Africanness are ascribed to one's body and one's everyday existence. At the same time, being labeled as African or Black and accepting the terms into their individual or shared cultural values also plays a significant role in how members of the Nigerian Diaspora contribute to national and global formations of African Diaspora identity.

This article explores these themes of racial and ethnic identity as they emerged from content analysis of Nigerian Diaspora cultural productions. The narratives of fictional Nigerian immigrants, drawn from real/realistic lived experiences, act as and constitute a case study to reveal the transformations of their, and others', racial and ethnic identity as a result of leaving a neocolonial Nigeria for what they discover is a highly racialized and culturally hegemonic White supremacist United States. Like other members of the African Diaspora, their relationship to their hostland society and others within their hostland greatly influences the way they process, understand, and negotiate its structures of systemic racism and then again with how they relate back to their homeland, Nigeria. Notions of Blackness and Africanness become identity tropes that this 1st generation (immigrant) voluntary diaspora to the US must negotiate as a result of racialization and ethnicization of Black and African bodies in the United States.

For instance, in the film In America: The Story of the Soul Sisters, the protagonist--Sade--comes to terms with a highly racist and xenophobic United States and uses this knowledge to better understand the predicament of her brothers and sisters back in Nigeria. She realizes that, compared to her African American brothers and sisters, Nigerians sell themselves into enslavement by choosing to come to the United States (Oladigbolu). They must internally war between racialized/ethnicized and cultural identities which at times can create tension, and at times be fluidly determined, exposing them to the "double consciousness" within one's soul that William Edward Burghardt Du Bois envisioned about the multiplicity of factors constituting Africanity in the lived experiences of African Americans (and many other Africans in the world) (Du Bois). These experiences, along with the intentional, innate, or lessened expression of cultural heritage, point to the process of diasporization and how that manifests specifically to Nigerians, but more generally to Black immigrants to the United States.

This article reveals evidence from content analysis of three Nigerian Diaspora cultural productions by immigrant cultural producers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, Rahman Oladigbolu's In America: The Story of the Soul Sisters, and the Wowo Boyz's YouTube comedy sketch, "Sensitivity Training". Cultural representations of racialized or ethnicized identities are drawn from those bodies of work, and samples are used to support a thesis arguing that the cultural identities of members of the Nigerian Diaspora are transformed due to the imposition of Black and African identity markers and the conditions that lead to this mentally and physically enduring process. The cultural producers are able to use the fictional stories of their protagonists and their communities as vehicles to integrate and represent imagery of the producers' real contexts and encounters. By unearthing these experiences through fictional antidotes, the producers contribute evidence of their community's Black experiences to a cultural repository of the larger representation of African Diaspora lived experiences--especially to notions of Black diversity in the US and globally. They are able to create agency for themselves, and others who relate to their narratives, by providing first-hand narratives of diverse experiences of race and racism.

Evidence of these connections between the cultural producers and their cultural productions are made evident through personal (author collected) and public interviews; moreover, this article focuses primarily on how they emerge within the cultural productions. An example can be seen--to take Adichie's experience further--in an interview on the 2016 US election where Adichie tells The American Spectator's editor-in-chief, "I'm sorry, but as a white man, you don't get to define what racism is," when he rejects her objectively evidenced and subjectively supported (as a Black woman) intersectional perspectives about racism during President Trump's presidential campaign (BBC Newsnight).

She understands that someone who benefits from the effects of White supremacy and patriarchy cannot define the experience of racism, and she is unapologetic in explaining this both to her co-guest and to the public. This understanding comes from learning to become Black as well as African, where she previously identified as Igbo or Nigerian, and then deciding that this identity is not only hers but one that she must fight alongside her new community to defend, represent, and provide solutions towards liberation from racism/White Supremacy.

Immigration laws, illegally executed orders, the negative socialization of immigrant populations--especially African/Black, Muslim, and Latino/a--and inequality of entrance criteria for visas from countries of the West versus the Global South play into the violent, traumatic, and dangerous effects of the United States' racist and extremely hierarchal system. Despite current and consistent political action to place a chokehold on the existing immigration system, (3) many new African immigrants come to the United States every day. They come as Jamaican, Black Brit, Senegalese, Eritrean, Shri Lankan, Afro-Brazilian, Puerto Rican, Ghanaian, and the list goes on. As this transnational and transcultural journey begins, they enter a de facto system of racism that doesn't always "show for face" (4)--its character is often omnipresent yet latent and hard to see--upon one's arrival from whichever continental African space to the new. For instance, In America's Sade develops feelings of imprisonment and loneliness as a result of her time fighting for legal residency in the United States. It led her to recognizing the extraordinarily strong ties between US African and continental Africans when it comes to culture, race, love, and sisterhood. A sense of unity befell Sade to a see a globally similar racial reality (Oladigbolu).

This natural occurrence, an immigrant's process of acculturation to a new society, must be urgently examined in the case of African world immigrants. The inclusion of their experiences of identity transformation, racism, belonging, and exclusion are relevant data to the larger discourses and praxis of Blackness, African heritage, Black Studies/Africology, and antiracism in the United States specifically, and across the African world generally. Creating open and explorative dialogue around how they understand their racial reality serves in proliferating as well as prescriptively determining methods of cultural self-preservation as well as the potential for building Pan-African unity amongst diverse Black communities in the United States. While there may be differing but interlinked historical trajectories--for instance with African immigrants colonialism and apartheid versus settler colonialism, enslavement and Jim Crow(s) in the Americas--their experiences, analysis, and representations of systemic racism and of a common though diverse African heritage create more cultural similarities than differences that must come to surface so that they can be added to the larger discourse of eradicating global systems of racism.

Theoretical Considerations

"So many different noises mixed together.

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