Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s blackness has been called into question since she announced her 2020 presidential campaign. Tweets and news stories challenging the authenticity of her African American identity, because of her Jamaican lineage, have been at the forefront of the conversation about her candidacy.
Watching Harris (D-Calif.) have her blackness examined felt as though someone were holding up a mirror to my life. Having been born in Massachusetts to a mother who immigrated from Uganda in 1989, my identity has similarly been challenged.
The debate over whether I, as well as Harris, whose mother was from India, and former president Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, are considered to be “African American” is part of a much more complex conversation on what blackness means to second-generation black immigrants.
At home, where I was the only person in my family who couldn’t speak Luganda, Uganda’s native language, I was always thought to be too “Americanized” by my aunties and uncles. While attending family gatherings, where everyone would tell stories of their childhood in the mother tongue, I began referring to myself as “African American” to avoid embarrassment whenever my relatives would ask me why I did not know any Luganda. They took it to mean that I was “Americanized,” too removed from my home culture to know its language.
But in school, so much of what I believed made someone “African American” came down to lineage. The first time I was told that I wasn’t African American was by my seventh-grade history teacher. He told me that African Americans have last names that could be traced back to the history of enslaved Africans forced to bear the names of their owners (which I have since learned is not always the case). My last name is Buyinza, a Ugandan name which means “the lord’s power,” not a surname passed on from a slaveholder. Even one of my childhood best friends told me that I wasn’t really African American, and in comparing our lives, I had to agree. Her parents went to Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia, while my mother went to Makerere, a small university in Uganda. Her family cooked gumbo, while my family made ugali, a traditional East African side dish. We were both black, but to her I was different.
This constant back-and-forth feelings about my identity caused me a lot of frustration. Why couldn’t I embrace both of my black identities?
Second-generation black immigrants are often presented with the choice of identifying as “African Americans” or the ethnic identity reflective of their country of origin, according to a Harvard University study. But this dichotomy of two black identities for second-generation black immigrants often means that they might feel that they have to let go of one identity to claim another.
Part of the anxiety that exists around my personal identity is how we are defining the term “black.” Blackness in America is often seen as “African American.” Popular television shows like “Black-ish,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Family Matters” were great for black representation in the media, but only focused on one specific facet of blackness. In a country where nearly one-fifth of the black population is either first- or second-generation immigrants, there may need to be a conversation on the limited way we view black people in the United States.
Harris even spoke on this during her interview on “The Breakfast Club,” a popular syndicated hip-hop radio show, last month when she addressed claims that she’s not “really black.”
“I don’t think they understand who black people are,” she said. “Because if you do, if you walked on Hampton’s campus, or Howard’s campus, or Morehouse or Spelman or Fisk, you would have a much better appreciation for the diaspora, for the diversity, for the beauty in the diversity of who we are as black people.”
She continued: “Some folks have a limited vision of who we are as black people. That’s on them. That’s not on us.”
This narrow view of blackness is in part due to an attempt to preserve a group identity. Sarah E. Gaither, a social psychologist at Duke University, said people generally like to make sure there is a level of commonality among one another.
“I think the average American likes to make sure other people are American just like they are. We protect our in-group much like the same motivation that was used for the ‘one-drop rule’ during slavery for white individuals to maintain their status in society,” Gaither said. “So if we can think of someone as less than American or not quite American enough, we will use that to our advantage in order to exclude them from this ideal American representation.”
The fact that my personal heritage is rooted in Uganda doesn’t mean I don’t share similar experiences of many African Americans. I, too, feel afraid when approached by police. My mother gave me the “talk” after the death of Trayvon Martin. I’ve sung hymns at black churches and have knelt in protest during the playing of the national anthem.
And at the same time, I know I come from a black immigrant household where xenophobia looms over our family. After President Trump’s inauguration, use of the word “immigrant” seemed to have made us less secure about being American. I remember riding in the car with my mother as she told me she was afraid of what would happen to her if people found out she was an immigrant. To make matters worse, Trump’s suggestions last year to limit immigration from “shithole countries” such as Haiti made me fear that my family’s country could be next. Would my cousins from Uganda even be able to come over to see me?
Anti-immigrant sentiments affect the mortality rates of nonwhite Americans, according to a 2018 study by the Social Science & Medicine journal. Xenophobic threats like these have a unique effect in black immigrant households, where dealing with the stigma of being black in America is already taxing as it is. When your identity is also part of the discourse around who we should be letting in and kicking out of this country, being a black immigrant is like constantly walking on thin ice.
Despite these concerns, I don’t hide my Ugandan immigrant identity. I can’t. It’s in the chapti I eat every day, cooked by my auntie; it’s in the music from Kampala my uncle plays on the radio; it’s in the stories my mother tells from her childhood in the small African villages. I embrace being Ugandan, as much as I embrace being African American.
Having two black identities means that second-generation black immigrants, can exist with a “double consciousness,” a term coined by sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. He said that black immigrants have an identity that is linked between one’s self and the different experiences and perspectives black people share across the world and through history.
The fact of the matter is I was born in America, raised by Ugandan immigrants. I am African American and Ugandan — my identity stretches from the streets of Kampala to the streets of Boston.