‘Do You Communicate African?’ Being a Black Immigrant In Black America

I used to be first christened “African booty scratcher” in fourth grade—my second 12 months in America. It sounded ridiculous, but it surely pricked when my classmates would belly-laugh at my expense. That is additionally my earliest reminiscence of Black America.

It wasn’t white America that first outed my otherness. It was the Black American boy in that overcrowded South Bronx public college classroom, with chipped partitions and worn books, that known as consideration to my overseas standing on the point out of my conventional first identify when the instructor took attendance: Abiemwense. A reputation I might later invert in highschool with my second first identify (our tribe’s custom) after I grew uninterested in being mocked. A reputation that sounded weird to him, that when coupled with my thick, unbound hair and unusual pronunciations, urged I used to be the opposite inside his othered-ness.

In these early days, settling into the South Bronx and encountering Black Individuals calling me out due to my accent or mismatched Caldor-bought garments or the Payless Professional Wings sneakers, I’d cry to Mother: I don’t belong. She would at all times inform me to not thoughts them. She promised this nation would make us higher. To give attention to working more durable.

rita omokha

The writer as a younger woman in Benin Metropolis, Edo State, Nigeria.

Courtesy Rita Omokha

Mother had sacrificed a life filled with acres and vehicles and nannies in Benin Metropolis, Nigeria to make sure a path in America for me. To make sure my brothers and I might not be impacted by the deterioration of a flawed system with year-round college strikes, dwindling human (principally ladies’s) rights, poor infrastructure, excessive unemployment charges, authorities scandals, and nepotism. Studious as she was, my eternally compass, she entered this nation as one of many nurses who benefited from the Immigration Act of 1990—a federal regulation whose earlier iterations had excluded individuals along with her pores and skin shade however now sought extremely expert nurses from countries like Nigeria and the Philippines. My mom was so sensible, America wished her. That was one thing.

Some Black Individuals imagine that African or Caribbean immigrants come right here with a lot wealth that we acquire a bonus over Black Individuals. That wasn’t Mother. At one level, my single mom labored three jobs to make sure she was crafting the trail to her American dream for us. But she was at all times current on our street to achievement. She didn’t reward something however distinction. If we acquired an A-, she would have a look at the examination or project and inform us to right those we acquired incorrect. At the same time as we adjusted to our new life, whilst she struggled to feed, dress, and home us and people she left again dwelling in Nigeria, she embodied the excellence she so desperately wished for us.

Forming an identification inside Blackness was jarring—and complex.

Our story is one with frequent threads shared by many African and Caribbean immigrant households. It makes the chasm between our lived expertise and the narrative some Black Individuals attribute to households like mine piercing. When this perennial, charged them vs. us narrative just lately cropped up once more across the web, I assumed again to my early interactions with Black Individuals, who ridiculed me with merciless remarks like, “Yousa’ monkey! A gorilla! Do you guys soar from tree to tree in Africa? Why don’t you return to your hut? Do you communicate African?”

In sixth grade, I skilled essentially the most definitive and violent instance of the them vs. us battle. A Black American woman, who would inform me typically to “Return to Africa,” walked as much as me throughout recess as I stood by the barricades that blocked vehicles as college students performed on the streets. She punched me lifeless smack in my face. Unprovoked. Simply standing there minding my Nigerian enterprise. I started to cry as I had carried out many instances earlier than. However at the present time, a wave of surprising anger spun me. I had had it along with her, with them and their jeering. I made a decision to battle again. I lunged towards her, and each of us crashed onto the heated concrete. Within the wild frenzy, I hit her with uncontrollable, flailing arms. It felt good. Like I had regained my confidence in me—in reclaiming my Nigerian-ness inside their Blackness.

cherries, rita omokha

Picture illustration by Leah Romero

At that time, I had began to develop what I now know was an unconscious anti-Blackness mentality. An unconscious anti-Blackness rooted in how we Black immigrants come to this nation, wide-eyed, gazing upon its countless feast of academic and financial alternatives, becoming a member of these with whom we share the identical pores and skin shade however share no bond. However I used to be nonetheless looking for a way of dwelling, of neighborhood, in America, so it appeared less complicated to undertake Blackness.

Between center and highschool, I went by my blue-haired-cornrows-Lil’ Mo-Superwoman part. My Pepe Denims and Sergio Valentes and Child Phat velour tracksuits part. My clip-on nails and pressed-up-do and Moesha-braids-with-burnt-ends part. And thru every passing part, I nonetheless knew I used to be an different. Although our variations have been stark, White, Asian, and Hispanic Individuals by no means ridiculed or made me really feel extra like an outsider. To them, I used to be merely Black. However forming an identification inside Blackness was jarring and complex.

Throughout my highschool and faculty years, filled with software varieties for this or that program, it dawned on me for the primary time that Black immigrants and Black Individuals shared the identical racial checkbox. I turned African American, willingly or not. That is the place some members of the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) neighborhood imagine Black immigrants “take” educational {and professional} alternatives from Black Individuals. But when that single checkbox classifies us all with this pores and skin, what then—regardless of America’s historical past of prejudice in opposition to all racially Black individuals—separates us at these factors of entry?

rita omokha family

The writer along with her mom and brothers.

Courtesy Rita Omokha

The time period ​​American Descendants of Slavery was coined in 2016 by Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell to determine a separate categorization for Black Individuals, an effort so as to add nuance to that one-size-fits-all checkbox. The political motion requires the federal authorities to provide Black Individuals their very own racial class on the census and purposes for schools, jobs, and many others., to distinguish between them and us. In doing so, they need these establishments to prioritize Black Individuals to profit from nationwide insurance policies like affirmative motion—legal guidelines initially designed to assist descendants of American slavery. (These insurance policies are now under attack.)

A flood of migration fueled the ADOS motion’s battle. From the mid-90s—when my household first arrived in America—to 2019, the Black immigrant inhabitants greater than tripled, going from 1.4 to 4.6 million, with Nigerians making up 1 / 4 of that enhance. African immigrants are more likely than Black Individuals to have a university diploma. And when in comparison with the overall U.S. inhabitants, Nigerians, specifically, usually tend to have bachelor’s or superior levels.

These disparities are actual, and in pushing to handle them, ADOS supporters imagine Black immigrants shouldn’t fall below the identical “African American” grouping. Because the argument goes, Black immigrants who select America are free from the legacy of being enslaved on this nation. It’s an assertion I’ve come to grasp and respect. Given our divergent histories, my household and I shouldn’t profit from any type of restitution meant for “African Individuals.”


Identification is commonly fraught, however my identification will at all times be my ethnicity, not the American definition of race: I’m Nigerian first and at all times.

In Nigeria, our tribes—Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Édo, and a whole lot extra—coupled with our perception programs, make up our identification. These markers of ethnicity and faith aren’t seen to the bare eye. And since all of us visibly look the identical, save for colorism, the thought of race has no bearing in our homelands. To be us—this pores and skin that’s so problematic in America—is synonymous with excellence. We come from a historical past filled with it—the tales our ancestors handed all the way down to us have been of literal kings and queens, colonization be damned. Tales of flourishing in gold and oil and gem stones are all we ever knew. Academically and professionally, the grind for achievement was instilled in us as a result of everybody strives for a similar caliber of accomplishment. It’s handed down. It’s the norm.

Within the authorized sense of belonging, my birthright citizenship will at all times belong to Nigeria, and my naturalized citizenship is with America. However in a social sense, my identification is rarely singular. In a single nation, my identification is my ethnicity, my tribe. Within the different, race—these bodily traits of pores and skin shade, hair, facial options—is outstanding; my tribe holds no worth.

As I’ve tried to seize maintain of my Édo-ness in America whereas forming ties to American Blackness, I’m typically reminded, nonetheless, I’m from Africa. This resistance made me delve additional into why there stays an unyielding have to segregate them from us.

rita omokha, birds, birds on wire

Picture illustration by Leah Romero

Beginning in my faculty years, I intentionally started learning the breadth of Black American historical past to raised grasp their struggles. That’s after I additionally met my finest buddy, a Black American, and we started discussing this rigidity. She turned a protected place to ask questions on how they perceived us. Even asking foolish questions like, “What does ‘yo’ actually imply?” As a result of I had one other part the place I punctuated virtually the whole lot with ‘yo’ with out actually understanding its many variations. I by no means even tried to undertake the N-word as I delved into Black vernacular; there are layers to its complexities I dared not cross. (Take “That’s my n*gga”—it has this affectionate subtlety, this historical past, that I’ve no declare to.)

The juvenile ridicules of “African booty scratcher” and huts and “do you communicate African” not mattered the extra I noticed they by no means knew my historical past the way in which I might know theirs. The historical past books in America all however eradicate the depths of who we—Africans and Caribbeans—are: That’s why many swirl in misconceptions that Africa is a singular place, not a continent with 54 international locations. They might by no means know the extent and impact of colonization. Or the necessity to flee a rustic for higher, sustainable upward mobility. However I might commiserate with their historical past with out it being my very own.


The extra I’ve understood the vastness of African American historical past and the necessity to domesticate an identification steeped in cultural and ethnic integrity—removed from the way in which it was taught in Social Research or AP Historical past—it turned clear we each have direct ties to Africa. We each worth cultural identification. But, the continuing battle of the them vs. us discord facilities on the necessity to differentiate how we every got here from Africa.

To the ADOS neighborhood, to be a correct African American means to assert the African heritage by their ancestors from American slavery and the Americanness gained by Emancipation. Tracing their heritage to seventeenth century America when the first exports from sub-Saharan Africa to American colonies have been individuals, this African American historical past riddled with lynching, castration, servitude, the short-lived pleasure of Emancipation, the strife of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, the urbanization of Blacks that led to excessive concentrations of poverty, medication, racial violence, and incarceration, to rallying freedom demonstrations within the Black Energy and Civil Rights actions, to the present-day wrestle in opposition to subjugation and an institutionalized era, is their story, not mine.

Nonetheless, all with this pores and skin are subjected to the identical racial inequities. As a result of when an officer pulls me over, I’m not requested, “Are you a Black American or Nigerian?” We’re each stereotyped the identical.

That actuality cemented for me when my eldest brother was unjustly stopped, frisked, and deported years in the past. I absolutely acknowledged simply how indistinguishable we have been from Black Individuals.

The historical past books in America all however eradicate the depths of who we—Africans and Caribbeans—are.

All these years later, removed from “African booty scratcher” taunts, I’ve come to worth the similarities in our cultures. The vibrancy in music, with resounding influences from the likes of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley. The necessity to let our our bodies free in liberation at block events and household gatherings. The necessity to categorical our identification by our hairstyles, garments, and artwork. It’s a factor to behold, to be pleased with. There is a connection there. So this continued infighting between Black Individuals and Black immigrants have to be reconsidered with a watch towards who has essentially the most to achieve. On this time when important considering and African American historical past are being combated and really practically eradicated, who actually advantages from some of the subjugated teams of individuals nurturing wider divisions between them due to our composite histories?

Black immigrants won’t ever bear the burden of American slavery and its intergenerational trauma or expertise the institutionalized school-to-prison pipeline in the way in which many Black Individuals have. Even nonetheless: Black immigrants aren’t unfamiliar with such deep-seated biases. In our homelands, it takes form in tribalism, colorism, and sophistication divides, all comparable inclinations discovered inside Black—and even white—America. A technique to distinguish one from the opposite. A technique to say, ‘Right here is my perceived energy over you, as a result of we collectively fall brief on this essentially racist system.’ My brother’s imprisonment and deportation unraveled that actuality for me.

However I can not shake the truth that our ancestral distinction would at all times be the factor that divides us in a rustic that already abandons us.

Rita Omokha
Rita Omokha is a contract author primarily based in New York who writes about tradition, information, and politics.

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