African Americans are more American than African, whether we like it or not. Although I prefer the term “black American,” and better still, just plain old American, the term which the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other race industry advocates have chosen for us is just wishful thinking. We are not Africans, nor shall we ever be. Even the term, African American, is totally ambiguous since Africa is an extremely diverse continent made up of dozens of countries and hundreds of ethnic groups and languages, many of which are diplomatically benign as well as openly hostile to one another. Having had several close Nigerian, Tanzanian and Egyptian friends over the past 40 years, I discovered that when they wished to be candid, they told me they view themselves not as Africans per se, but as Nigerians, Egyptians, etc.
It was somewhat of an epiphany to learn that many of them found it annoying that American blacks use the term "African American," since it homogenizes a continent that is culturally eclectic. In many ways black Americans have unwittingly applied the old "all black folks look alike" metaphor in our own thinking about Africa.
Many years ago a good friend of mine who is Egyptian and an anthropologist by trade were having a few drinks in a Lake Tahoe restaurant. Now my friend Kofi is normally a very quiet and reserved person. But through the magic of Budweiser he began asking me questions about why American blacks called themselves "African Americans," since, in his experience, black and white Americans vary only in degree and not in kind when it comes to our cultural world view and everyday customs. Kofi himself seldom if ever thought of himself as African, but exclusively used the term "Egyptian" when discussing his nationality.
Over the years, I've often thought about Kofi's remarks as well as similar comments made by my Tanzanian, Nigerian, and Kenyan friends. For better or for worse, black folks in this country will always be more American than African.
It should be noted that I think there is some value in trying to identify with one's cultural roots. But therein lays the problem. Who and what we are as Americans today is an amalgamation of European and non-European traits that have been so infused with our historical experiences in the New World that it is more appropriate and necessary to view ourselves as "American." Our Colonial and post-Colonial experiences have made us who we are. Our experiences with slavery and, later, Jim Crow segregation have stamped us more American than African. Even so-called Black English as it turns out is not solely African within its etymology; but its linguistic basis is derived from parts of England from which many white Southerners hailed. Phrases such as "I be," "ain't," "you is" and "you be" are just as white in their origins as any other English. It was a dialect that became more restricted to the black community as the standardization of American English proceeded.
Our collective sojourn on this North American continent has indeed created a new "cultural species," not solely European nor African, but American. Not to be facetious, but if you take the average "Nike-wearing-Mall-loving-BTN watching-Give-me-my-McDonalds-hamburger-eating" black American and stuck him or her in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, or the Ivory Coast, he or she would be as out of place as a Laplander in Harlem. And there is nothing wrong with this! Black folks in this country are simply too Americanized to live any other way.
As someone who has worked and lived among the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador, the Cheyenne and Crow Indians in Montana, and spent a number of years living with Yupik Eskimos in a remote village in Northwestern Alaska, the fact that I was more American than anything became obvious. Among the Yupik Eskimos, the term "Gussak" is used to describe outsiders. The term itself, I was told, derives from the Russian word "Cossack," since there is a heavy Russian influence among Yupik Eskimos. I was a "Gussak"! Many of my fellow teachers who were white were also Gussaks. Despite what I thought at the time was a cultural gulf between myself and these white teachers, the Eskimos could see obvious cultural similarities in the way that we viewed the world as well as in our everyday habits and customs. When I lived in South America, the same sort of cultural identification was obvious to the locals. I and my white cohorts were viewed by the Jivaro as "Americans" minus our concocted notions about how "different" we were as blacks and whites.
With the âCollegiate Re-Segregation Projectâ (popularly known as multicultural diversity) in full swing on most college campuses and making inroads into popular culture via the public schools and entertainment media, the impetus to hyphenate oneself and our culture may cripple or even destroy our ability as a nation to assimilate the plethora of groups that reside here. Â Now, this writer is painfully aware of the anathematic nature of the word "assimilation" among many liberal scholars on our campuses, and their claims that we were never a melting pot but more of a salad bowl or mosaic. But this interpretation of American culture, speaks more to the not-too-subtle rewrite of our cultural history by these same elites.
We are a nation of immigrants who came to this country with the various cultural baggage which serves to buffer all new arrivals as they assimilate into the culture. The Irish, Italian, and Chinese all sought solace by living in ethnic ghettoes. But as time passed and with more contact with the majority culture, their children and their children's children became more American.
This is not to say that these communities did not in some fashion retain their particular ethnic heritage. But it is to point out that their heritage could no longer wholly define them. To paraphrase one ethno historian, if black Americans possess a common ethnic identity, it is not something that was transported from Africa and preserved. It is something that gradually evolved from our American experience, especially the experience of slavery.
The problem inherent in the salad bowl metaphor and multicultural diversity in general is that it sacrifices commonalities at the altar of ethnic and racial chauvinism. It plays down the "unum" in our cultural history in favor of the "pluribus." It most dangerously suggests that a multiethnic society such as ours can exist without a common identity or history.
To interject, the cultural hermeneutics underpinning the yearly celebration of Black History Month is a manifestation of this emphasis on the pluribus.Â Unfortunately identity politics professionals in both the Black and Latino communities are mostly dangerously promoting a parochialism that does little to help people identify strongly as Americans, without the hyphen.
I would like to think that in the course of time everyone coming to this country eventually becomes the odd amalgamation of cultural heritages called "American." But with the emergence of full-time race hustlers who have for the last 40 years promoted a neo-segregationist agenda in the guise of "cultural diversity" and "multiculturalism," we can look back and see that their efforts have been particularly damaging to black Americans. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that wearing a kente cloth, thinking Africentrically (whatever that means), and studying fictitious history put out by these same Afrocentrists will uplift our people in their pursuit of the American dream. It will be only through hard work by "individuals" in the black community that we will finally overcome.
We must rediscover the belief in America as a place of opportunity and not continue down this road of narcissistic self-delusion which I believe is perpetuated by identifying ourselves as African Americans. Africans we are not!