Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden—
My father, born in Sierra Leone, used to tell us stories about being a student at Lincoln University in the 1940s. A historically black college, Lincoln was founded in 1854 to provide an education in arts and sciences for young men of African descent. Accomplished African Americans such as Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall attended, and in the early twentieth century the college also drew young men from Africa, like my father. Both Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe, future leaders of independent African nations attended the school, as did many other young men from Africa and the Caribbean. One story my father recounts tellingly speaks to race and racism in the United States, perceptions of “Blackness,” “Africanness,” as well as to African understanding and sometimes manipulation of white attitudes towards people of African descent. The story is also a cautionary tale as it speaks to the need for African Americans and Africans to seek understanding with each other. On Saturdays the young men at Lincoln would step out and “go out on the town,” my father recalled. He remembered the students from the continent dressing up in their “native clothes” before leaving campus. Whether to celebrate their culture, or more likely, to distinguish themselves as foreign, many believed they would be spared the racial slights their black American contemporaries faced. Indeed, he noted, the white Americans they encountered were thrilled to meet these “Africans.” They were exotic, spoke with strange accents, and more importantly, he mused, they were seen as sojourners who would eventually return to their homelands. My father would end the story by saying something like this: “But you know when the African students tried to rent rooms in white boarding houses they had the doors slammed in their faces just like their Negro classmates.” When African students came to the United States in that era they were constructed as “Negroes” and received the same treatment African American men and women had been receiving at the hands of white Americans for centuries. My father’s story, set in the 1940s, of course meant that black people in America operated under certain rules.
My father’s story speaks to many issues in the relationship between black Americans and the African continent and its people. Over the centuries African Americans have engaged with Africa in a variety of ways. While many embraced the continent as the homeland of their ancestor’s others rejected it eschewing the negative associations historically attached to Africa. For their part, Africans coming to the United States are often reluctant to identify as Black American, believing they might be spared the many indignities that population has faced in the long history of this county. Many soon recognize that distancing themselves does not spare them from slights, discrimination, outright racism, and marginalization. Doors do get “slammed in their faces.” In the many years since my father was a student at Lincoln, many changes have taken place in the United States. Attitudes towards its citizens of African descent have slowly changed. African Americans have made great strides in the last century. They have moved into twenty-first century with many of the same struggles they have lived with since their ancestors were enslaved, but have also made tremendous progress in attaining citizenship and independence. Yet they have, arguably, not achieved full acceptance and equality. In recent years, high-profile cases of aggression toward Black citizens have resulted in a certain amount of despair, even rage among black Americans. Shocked and outraged, African descended people have organized in protest movements, condemning the treatment of Blacks regardless of where they are in the world. We have seen the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and other activism. African immigrants in the United States have been part of this activism, as have other immigrants of African descent. In a country still troubled with racial issues, and where people of African ancestry are economically disadvantaged, and constructed in negative ways, African immigrants are recognizing, as they must have in the 1940s, that to all intents and purposes they are constructed and perceived as African American. African descended people are engaging with each other in a variety of ways, creating and sustaining, social, historical and political ties.
Nemata Blyden is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of West Indians in West Africa, 1808–1880: The African Diaspora in Reverse.