What Kind of Black Are We?

By Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs
Sunday, July 29, 2007


A few weeks ago, I saw part of the Pan Africanist dream come true.

It was during the closing ceremony at an African dance conference. To a man -- and they were all men -- the drummers and teachers came from Africa. To a woman -- and we were all women -- the dancers were African American. Among the spectators sat a Trinidadian; her Senegalese husband and his twin led the class. As we circled, I realized that Africa's children had been reunited.

Then the circle broke, and the class ended. As we drifted away, I wondered: "What kind of black are we now?"

That used to be an easy question for Americans to answer.

African American identity was built on two criteria: African ancestry and an ancestral connection to chattel slavery. We looked at skin color, hair texture, and the size of noses and lips to determine whether a person met the first criterion. The second was assumed: If you were black in this country, somebody in your family had been enslaved.

In the past 30 years, however, 1 million people have come from Africa to the United States -- more than were brought during the transatlantic slave trade. According to the most recent census figures, 1.5 million blacks claim Caribbean ancestry. In fact, scholars say, the United States is the only place in the world where all of Africa's children -- native-born Africans, Afro Caribbeans, Afro Hispanics, Afro Europeans and African Americans -- are represented.

This development hasn't received much attention in a national debate that has made "Hispanic" synonymous with "immigrant." But the change has profound implications for the country's 35 million blacks. It sometimes leads to interracial tensions, which were on display during last week's CNN-YouTube Democratic presidential debate. A black college student asked Sen. Barack Obama -- whose mother is a white Kansan and whose father is Kenyan -- whether he is "authentically black enough."

The student's question speaks to the larger issue of how to define blackness at a time when our gains in the United States are fragile. We are suspicious of interlopers reaping the fruits of a long history of labors in this country. But now we have to talk about new ways to be black. We have to talk about standards other than ancestry and slavery.

The 2000 Census provides a dramatic reason why. Although the majority of African Americans were born in the United States, nearly 25 percent of growth in the black population between 1990 and 2000 was due to immigration, according to John Logan, a sociology professor at Brown University who studies black immigration. "The black population is quite suspicious about immigration and what it means to their position in society, and that extends to Africans and Afro Caribbeans," he said.

Immigrants and native-born Americans of all races need to recognize that the old criteria don't fit the new reality.

"You can be 'African American' because of the enslavement experience," said Tina Richardson, a Lehigh University psychologist who studies racial identity. "You can be an 'African in America,' where you're grounded in an African experience other than the African American experience."

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