November 12, 2015

BLACKLIGHTxMAROON: Joining the diaspora

“I am a product of some bastardized, whitewashed version of my parents’ culture... and I’m okay with that.”

Before I came to this school, “African diaspora” was a term released into the ethers of my U.S. history class during the slavery unit and never mentioned again. I had assumed that the diaspora did not pertain to me. I was part of the new wave of African-Americans displaced from my homeland—by choice.

My parents immigrated here from West Africa about 35 years ago for their college educations. They brought with them all the traditions, culture, and food that I was too young and naïve to appreciate. They brought their home to me. Although I lived in America, it was to West Africa that I always felt a strong sense of loyalty and pride.

Last school year, when the African and Caribbean Students’ Association (ACSA) designated their theme to revolve around the African diaspora, I felt uncomfortable. There was an assumption that every black person on this campus was a part of the African diaspora, and I privately resented that presumption. No way was I a part of the diaspora. My parents are directly from the motherland. I know my roots. I am aware of what tribes I belong to. I may be far from West Africa, but my place of origin has always played a considerable role in shaping who I am. To consider myself part of the diaspora was to break the fragile links between the home I wanted to have and the home I was expected to understand—and that’s exactly what happened when I realized I did belong to the diaspora.

The diaspora was and is a historical process. It describes the migration of black people from Africa—not solely as a result of slavery, but also because of colonialism, Western imperialism, and white hegemony. None of them chose to move, but instead, circumstances either led to their forced capture and exploitation or created a situation where to live in their homeland was to live on disappointment and scarce resources. I mentioned earlier that my parents made the choice to immigrate. But they didn’t actually. They were forced out. In post-colonial, post-revolution times, Cameroon and Nigeria suffered. After colonialism and war destroyed the infrastructure of most public services, there was nowhere for my parents to go but America. Immigrating wasn’t a choice; it was survival. The ACSA show forced me to come to terms with what it really meant to be the child of first-generation immigrants. I idealized my African-ness to the point that I was in denial as to how emotionally unsettling the reality of my existence was. I was born in a country where I have been afforded many opportunities—but this country can give me these opportunities because it was able to get incredibly rich off the backs of people who looked like me. My parents moved to this country as a result of the harsh, violent, and abusive ways which countries that share the same Enlightenment values of this country used to rob them of any means they could’ve had to rebuild their infrastructure and their lives. To be a part of the diaspora is to reckon with the historical violence of being from Africa, and I wasn’t ready for that.

The purpose of the ACSA show was to celebrate and explore the variety of blackness that we have on this campus. How diverse and extensive has African culture become! African, Caribbean, and American influences yield a myriad of different experiences and dimensions of what it means to be black. However, it also showed me that this diversity of blackness or Africanness is not a joyous collection of trap beats and djembe drums with a red, black, and green motif. To be black outside of Africa is to be a symbol of violence, oppression, and white domination. It is to understand that blackness is a historical construction constantly developing despite being situated in what seems to be a more benevolent world than the one it was before.  It’s to understand that trauma and pain, although expressed beautifully through the arts and traditions, remain an integral component of what it means to be black everywhere in the world.

My hesitation to accept my place in the diaspora came from believing that to be diasporic was to not be a true African. To accept that I was part of it was to acknowledge that I am a product of some bastardized, whitewashed version of my parents’ culture. And I’m at a place in my life where I can accept that. I’m okay with that. I tried so hard to grasp onto two countries that were only my own in the abstract. On top of that, I never felt like an American because I was mostly raised in a different cultural environment. For so long, I felt trapped between various borders feeling too much like an outsider to belong to Africa, but also feeling too different to belong to America. I was trying to understand my identity through the lens of these nation-states and borders that I had no control over creating. But most importantly, I had to understand that my cultural identity had no borders. I don’t have a homeland. Instead, I must reconstruct myself in the context of my history. When people asked me where I was from, I, without thinking, would rattle off that I was half-Nigerian and half-Cameroonian. But what does that even really mean? And how does the American element factor into that? Now, some would say, “Oh, you’re half-Nigerian and Cameroonian ethnically, but your nationality is American.” Yet it seems silly to compartmentalize my ethnic background and national background, as it ignores how those two categories actively engage and interact with each other. Why I gravitate, now, toward calling myself a part of the diaspora is because the diaspora explains the boundless intersection between place, culture, and history in constructing a cultural identity that percentages could never do. I am Nigerian, Cameroonian, and American. All at the same time.

To exclude one aspect from the other is to take out the missing link as to why I, a diasporic black girl, am able to type these words on a laptop in a library at the University of Chicago.

Ada Alozie is a second-year in the College majoring in anthropology.

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