EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the position of MadameNoire.
How does a beloved social commentator go from the inner workings of Black collective dialogue to the “You can’t sit with us” section? Well, ask Blogger Luvvie Ajayi, whose casual dismissal of legendary crooner Tevin Campbell, earned her the dragging heard round Twitter. Now what should’ve simply been a discussion about cultural submersion and secondary cultural disconnect turned into the Black Awards, with everyone chiming in as to who who gets to present on the main stage and who doesn’t. Adding fan to the flame was Ms. Ajayi herself, crafting an elongated epistle personally absolving herself from any wrongdoing and chastising her naysayers. The basis for said denial was simply the argument that everyone doesn’t have to be Black American to be Black. Granted, she does have a point when it comes to Blackness being treated as if it were an exclusive component of African-American culture, but that’s about where she stopped making sense. And since Luvvie ended her piece on the same note it began with, blatant confusion, I thought she might benefit from a more direct explanation of her transgressions. So, from one African to another, Luvvie you are a guest of African-American culture. Act accordingly.
What is Blackness?
There is no definitive answer to this question but that doesn’t mean we get to pretend that the question itself isn’t a nuanced glimpse into life as a Black person with an erased heritage. To be Black is simply to belong to a racial classification based on physical characteristics such as skin color alone. Race is a broad umbrella under which we function on a social level but within the conversation of social identity there are bigger factors, like ethnicity, nationality, and heritage. Race tells us very little to be honest, racial classifications are often inaccurate and unfair and offer no insight into how connected an individual is to related cultures. Ben Carson is Black, nuff said.
The bigger conversation revolves around race and ethnicity. Sure, race tells us what shade family a person belongs to, but ethnicity tells us what cultural group a person identifies with, either through heritage or assumed ancestry, history, kinship, religion, language, shared territory, or nationality. And yes, African American culture is a culture all on it’s own. You can be Black by racial classification and not be African-American by socialization and it’s important that we recognize being Black alone doesn’t afford you the privilege of co-opting a culture you haven’t done your homework on.
Far too often Africans, both born in the US and born abroad, take an “All Blacks Matter” approach to this discussion which, unfortunately, gives credence to the snobby reputation we’ve earned in this country. For starters, we opted into this country which means we also opted in to it’s race-based social structuring, but that doesn’t mean we get to cherry pick aspects of African-American culture as we see fit under the guise of honorary n-gga-status. When called out on our convenient Black identities we default to the “Ain’t I A Negro, Too?” speeches, touting our activist accolades and ranting about how the world sees us under one lens. But Black Americans have always known that because, unlike us, there is no default identity that allows them to abandon their Blackness when it gets too messy. You may be Yoruba when you feel like it or Nigerian around the appropriate crowd or Nigerian-American when you really feel like showing out, but African-Americans are just that, African-Americans. So why wouldn’t we let them tell us what Blackness is? Wouldn’t they know best?
So… when is our Blackness enough?
Let’s be frank, this was never a discussion about a persons’ ability to identify with their obvious racial grouping. We know Luvvie Ajayi is Black because we can see her, that should clear up any doubt as to whether or not she is a Black person. And, yes, sometimes race is just that simple. But whether or not she has the authority to use her platform as a spokesperson for Black American culture is a whole different story. For many first-generation Africans, African-American culture is secondary culture. Sure, we may have been born in America, and some of us may have an African-American parent, but when it came to our socialization and cultural upbringing, our ethnicity takes precedence. There’s nothing subtle about being reminded that you are not African-American while growing up African in America. Whether their intentions are good or not, many immigrant parents go out of their way to ensure that physical separation doesn’t create cultural disconnect in their children. The calculated transference of culture is a commonality across all ethnic lines, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting your culture to survive for generations.
But being raised in proximity to a secondary culture doesn’t give us automatic access to or authority over it, no more than living near a dojo and being of Asian descent make you a karate master. As with any secondary culture, it must be learned. I didn’t have to go out of my way to learn West African culture because I was submersed in it. My father was very intentional about teaching us our language, our history, our communal practices, our spiritual systems, our cuisine, etc. because these cultural concepts represent safeguards that help others to identify who belongs to a given culture. If I meet another Nigerian person, our linguistic similarities or differences can identify for me whether or not we share an ethnicity. Cultural safeguards mean we don’t have to have a conversation regarding who is and isn’t Igbo because the boundaries do that for us. African-American culture doesn’t carry a national language or specific rites of passage or other clearly defined safeguards that help us to identify who shares the African-American identity. This means people like Luvvie and many other Africans in America have attached themselves to a culture that they never had to prove proficiency in. We’ve been able to grab hold of the tail end of African-American culture and enjoy the ride, but being able to blend into a culture doesn’t make you knowledgeable on it. African-American culture isn’t afforded the studiousness that it deserves and it allows people of other primary cultures to tailgate African-Americans without appropriately incorporating themselves into the fold, all while offering only their skin color as their anchor.
Who is the authority on Blackness and Black culture?
I wish this wasn’t such a skewed and lopsided question, especially given the tumultuous gray area that surrounds the Black identity in this country. And maybe it’s the continually nuanced definition of Blackness that creates this confusion in the first place, so let’s look at it this way. If Tevin Campbell were Kenyan would we be having this conversation? Absolutely not, because there would already be an assumption that anyone not immersed in Kenyan culture has no authority to act as a spokesperson for Kenyan culture. Even if “Kenyan Tevin’s” detractor lived in Kenya, the rhetoric would be the same because there are clearly defined boundaries around Kenyan culture and what it means to be Kenyan. You’re not Kenyan because you move to Kenya, or because your Nigerian parents raise you in Kenya, or because you have Kenyan friends at your Kenyan University where you major in Kenyan studies. No, because being Kenyan means much more than that. So why is it when we start to have the conversation about African-American culture, we all act dumb like we don’t know what it is or how Black Americans might perceive African descendants to be outsiders of said culture? We Are!
We know what jambalaya is but we were raised on moi moi and jollof. We might join in on the electric slide or belt out some Frankie Beverly & Maze but “Ashawo” will always be our version of a party classic. We live parallel lives to our African-American peers but our conditioning is not the same. And it’s dismissive to pretend that this doesn’t alter our perspectives. We are Black in our own way and we are African in our own way. The same way we’re not “all the way Black” here, we go back to Nigeria and are reminded that we’re not “all the way Nigerian” either. We sit somewhere on the threshold of our two cultures, but when it comes to who needs to be at the forefront of discussions regarding a culture we admittedly opted into, we need to have a silent seat.
So Wakanda… Whenever?
Rhetorical question but sure, let’s have at it. This question is a dig at the natural responses of African-Americans to rally around something that profoundly highlighted the duality of knowing you’re lost but not knowing where home is, and making light of it shows just how disconnected some of us really are from the Black identities we claim. African Americans connected spiritually to Black Panther for more reasons than a lot of us not-so-Kilmonger’s would care to understand. So we should chill on trying to use that film in particular, the first of its kind, to guilt trip African-Americans into ignoring our half-knowledge.
Outside of the unavoidable social classifications, I am personally Black when I want to be, just like most Africans in this country. African-Americans are African-Americans whether they feel like it or not, they don’t have another flag to grab, they don’t have a setting to default to when they want to remind everyone how cultured they are. On the contrast, Africans are African when it’s time to be proud and Black when it’s time to avoid culpability. We respect the cultural boundaries that exist around our layered identities but demand that African-Americans loosen theirs so that we fit without the annoyance of having to do it right. If you go to grab a spoon for your fufu, a Nigerian will quickly scold you, “Eh eh! That is not our way.” And we respect that this Nigerian is an authority on their own culture. Yet, we fight African Americans who are only requesting the same courtesy. We can dismiss the gripes if we like but music is a huge part of most, if not all, cultures. Not knowing who Fela Kuti is doesn’t mean you hate Nigeria or Nigerian culture, but it most certainly means you need to have a seat when the conversation comes up.
This isn’t about who is or who isn’t Black because melanin levels have no direct correlation to a persons cultural connectedness. This is about telling African-Americans that they don’t get to define their cultural boundaries in a way that we are obligated to respect, not about mystically healing all of Africa and bringing both sides to the table for a colonizer bashing party. Too much of our interaction as Africans with African-American culture is about cherry picking the fun stuff, denouncing the other stuff and being upset when African-Americans tell us we’re wrong for it. We don’t get to claim Blackness when convenient but make light of slavery. We don’t get to “All Melanin Matters” the conversation after we get called out for being irresponsible with a platform we shouldn’t have in the first place. Are we, as young Africans in this country, incapable of speaking on our experiences as Black Africans raised in America, absolutely not. But we can be narrators of our own stories without demanding that people silence their own for our personal comforts, especially when those stories are intertwined. No one is saying we don’t get to come to the party, but maybe jumping on the turntables isn’t the smartest idea.