There were a lot of reactions to Lupita Nyong’o’s historic win at this year’s Academy Awards — pride, elation, hope, and, for many African Americans, a resounding sense of relief. A black woman had won this prestigious, coveted award, and not just any black woman, but one with the potential to change Hollywood’s longstanding perceptions about what a leading lady is supposed to look like.

Amid the excited tweets and text messages from my friends on Oscar night, there was also my aunt’s reaction. Two minutes after Lupita had left the stage with the powerful affirmation that all our dreams are valid, my aunt called to say: “The girl is so articulate! Thank God she is one of us. You know, not one of them.”

I instantly recognized the distinction that my aunt was making — a distinction and a separation that I myself have struggled to reconcile with for years. Because by “one of us,” she meant African. She meant that Lupita wasn’t like those other black people, African-Americans, and that perhaps if Lupita wasn’t Kenyan, she’d lack the poise and the articulateness with which she has delivered all of her acceptance speeches this year.

Comments like this have become almost expected from my aunt, a Ghanaian immigrant who came to America in the early 1980s and has lived here ever since. She is a nurse, like most of my relatives in the States and — also like most of my relatives in the States — always ends a phone call by first urging me to get a degree in medicine and next asking me when I’m going to get married. She is, at best, a sort of living caricature of the African Parent Meme, and at worst a figure who throughout my life has urged me to cling to my African-ness and distance myself from being black with a capital B.

BlayFam

My Aunt at a Christmas party two years ago, shortly after explaining to me that “writing isn’t a real job.”

I was born in Accra, Ghana, and when I meet new people I usually introduce myself as Ghanaian, not American, because I’ve never really felt like I am. My Ghanaian culture and upbringing was and is an important, vibrant part of who I am. And yet, I can’t deny that in many ways, I’m more American than I am Ghanaian, and that introducing myself as the latter is likely as much about pride as it is about wanting to seem worldly, unique.

I’ve spent most of my life growing up in “inner-city” America. I know AAVE and Spanglish but my own native language, Fanti, is a mystery to me. I enjoy French fries and burgers as much if not more than my mother’s legendary fufu and palmnut soup. I stand at the intersection of two cultures, but in a way, I also stand apart.

There is this myth that African immigrants and African-Americans cannot get along — a myth I believe is designed to continue widening the chasm created by American slavery, which connected us even as it pulled us apart. Sometimes I feel as though members of my own family have taken on white fear and disdain for black people in America perhaps as an unconscious act of assimilation. It’s in the way I hear some of my older relatives refer to African Americans, criticizing them and calling them “blacks,” as if they are not black themselves, labeling them as lazy, dangerous and loud, and reprimanding me if I exhibit any of the traits that might make people (usually white people) confuse me for a non-African.

When I was in grade school in Jersey City, New Jersey, my classmates called me “Zebra.” Kids who looked just like me would say I was too black: “That African ass, blue-black.” They would ask me if my father had AIDS, if my mother lived in a grass hut and walked around braless, if I had a pet lion. They’d make monkey noises when I entered a room. They’d ask me why I “talk so white.”

It was awful, but it was only a sort of bookend to my experiences when I went to live in Accra at 20. When I go back to Ghana, my American-ness becomes starkly apparent. Paradoxically, in a country where everyone looks like me, I feel an astounding self-awareness that I don’t when I’m in the US. I can barely speak my own language — what little I do know is badly accented, and comes out in stops and starts that garner ridicule and laughter from both relatives and strangers alike. Strangers refer to me as an oburoni: white person.

Ultimately, the complexities of growing up African in America are as much tied to race as they are to nationality. There is a privilege that comes with being African that some of us tend to ignore. To the larger world, you’re perceived as not having all the weight that comes along with the legacy of slavery (as if slavery didn’t affect us all). You’re viewed, in a way, as more “authentically black.”

But for me, part of my journey in truly embracing my blackness has been in embracing my American identity. It’s been in looking at a Lupita and not only seeing an African, but a woman standing as a beacon for people across the diaspora.

 

XOJane

This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission.Click here for more  on XOJane!

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  • Lynaya

    This is nothing new. Ultimately we are ALL seen as Black to non-blacks. That’s simply fact. It can’t be treated as if it’s not.
    The negative view some Africans have of AA ppl is based on not knowing AA history. We are not whatever the media dictates.
    I feel like we are related but not closely as someone else said. It’s the obnoxious audacity to look down ones nose that really makes this an issue.

  • Harold

    I think the disrespect comes more form Africans than African-Americans. AA in the West were taken from their homes, they were shipped, beaten, even thrown overboard. Once they reached the new world, they were put to work. Women were raped, men were killed. Many even used to breed them like cattle. Most African-Americans actually have tons of native/white DNA or genetics.

    These people had their culture stripped from them. Their clothing, their names, their religion. They were no longer a, pardon my use of the name, a Dikembe Mutombo from the Luba tribe in Central Africa with their own language, food, culture and religion. But became a Reginald Jackson, a George Jefferson, a Thomas Washington. They became Christian, they forgot their native language, they forgot their dress, their entire ethnic identity.

    And yet, they still clung to some roots that they are from Africa. It was African-Americans who played a big part in challenging the role of white supremacy in society. It was Jesse Owens a black American shaking hands with the Fuhrer of Germany. It was African-American pressure to relax immigration in America and subsequently Europe, it was African-Americans in sports like basketball, football and baseball that made it acceptable for Chinese kids to have a poster of Michael Jordan a black guy in their rooms. It was black African-Americans who made it possible for lupita nyongo to get the role she did. It was because of black African-Americans who pressured the US to boycott South Africa and end apartheid there.

    Black Americans, Black African-Americans are the reason it is easier for black Africans to be accepted worldwide. It’s disgusting how people view black African-Americans as lesser. Many North Africans are now a mix of middle eastern and Arab. Many Africans in Europe marry white people, routinely never go back.

    It is black Oprah who is the most powerful woman in the world. It is the NAACP and black African-Americans why Somalians and Ghanaians and Ugandans get scholarships here.

    Africans and black people worldwide owe it to the struggle of black/African-Americans in the new world for what they have now.

  • onelove

    I have huge respect for the resilence, strength and achievement of black /African Americans as 1st generation African in the uk. People more recently from Africa, their negative comments towards African Americans is no different from a person from one African country passing negative comments to another African person from another African country. or even one person from one tribe critizing another tribe within the same country. We are all different, Africans are not this big happy unified group people that have the same way of behaving, same attitudes and temperment. Africans all over the world are one on one hand and multiple.To the writer I hope you have your aunts permission to out her and use her photograph! her comments are kitchen table talk.

  • Just Sayin’…

    Not trying to be controversial here, but it always amazes me when people take this atttitude similar to the author’s aunt. At the end of the day, it was “those” African-Americans, that are looked down upon, that marched in the streets of Selma, faced harsh water hoses, desegregated schools amongst racial epithets/threats of physical violence, refused to give up their seats, etc. that allow many people the rights that they enjoy today. The Civil Rights movement did not just benefit African-Americans, but all people of color. So, while the author’s aunt is perched up on her high horse while making (unfounded) distinctions between Africans and African-Americans, she should just know she is perched up there due to the sacrifices of “those” African-Americans that came before her….