During this year’s presidential campaign, there was no shortage of conversation around race and voting, and political pundits often generalized about groups of voters, reducing, say, all Black, Latino or female voters into a single, shared mindset.
Such generalization is not only inaccurate, but excludes important dialogue within and around communities.
After all, who gets to be African-American? In the winter of 2004, as the first African-American woman at Macalester College to receive tenure, I was asked by some of my Black students to attend a discussion about life as an African-American student on a majority-white campus. What ensued instead was wholly unexpected—and preoccupies me to this day as a full professor at Northwestern University, who writes, lectures and publishes extensively on Black identities in the U.S and Europe.
Instead of sharing and then bonding over experiences of bigotry, the students began to discuss the ways they felt estranged from one another. The first student to speak had been born in Nigeria but raised in the United States, and felt that she was sometimes viewed as “not really” African-American. Another student responded that the “Nigerian-American” student enjoyed the distinct advantage of having two parents who “shared a common culture.” She, by contrast, had to contend with a mother from the Caribbean and a father who was West African—which meant endless discussions and debates around the dinner table about Blackness…but a Blackness that did not tally with the expressions, views, and cultural knowledge enjoyed by her “African American” classmates from Kindergarten on up.
Finally having a space in which they could talk about differences in Blackness, their confessions and reflections continued until the time came for them to return to their dorms to study.
This classroom conversation proved to be a microcosm of themes addressed in my book, “Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology,” which explores the different ways Black Africans, African Americans, Black Caribbeans, and Black Europeans express and analyze their racial identity.
We also certainly see these narratives around our first African-American president, who, with a Kenyan father, and a White American mother who may be partially descended from African-American slaves, which would make Obama the embodiment of differences within African-American identity.
More Black Africans have immigrated to the United States since 1970 than had been forcibly brought over as slaves in three centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Yet even today, in our most pressing debate and crisis on Blackness in the United States—Black Lives Matter—we tend to focus almost wholly on those African-Americans who identify as descended from slaves. Yet the almost 6 million Black Africans and Black Caribbeans in the United States (who have grown by over 137% in the past decade), also suffer from police violence. Simply put, all Black lives should matter.
This issue of equal representation pursues me into the campus classroom where I teach African American literature and culture. Every year I am further struck by how many of my students are “African-American”—but “not like me.” They have parents from different African nations, the Caribbean, Europe, South Asia, and Asia, and yet I struggle to find and teach literary and scholarly texts that reflect their nuanced and complex histories, lives, and cultures.
One might ask why literary representations matter—especially when compared to the loss of human lives that the activists of Black Lives Matter are fighting to prevent. While the lack of an appropriate book simply cannot compare to the loss of one single human life, the ability of that book to inspire and inform our human lives does matter. Literature matters because it helps us better see and understand that which is right under our noses but invisible to our assumptions. Literature is also freer to explore the ambiguities and ambivalences of human lives because, unlike scholarly research, it doesn’t need to provide a neat summary or fixed conclusion.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated novel Americanah brought greater recognition to the African immigrant experience in the United States—more so than any scholarly research on the subject (which is admittedly small). After teaching it last spring, it also enabled my students to have a thoughtful and animating discussion on the different ways in which one can be Black in the United States.
So who gets to be African-American? In that rare classroom moment, all of my Black students who saw themselves as African-American were included, and it was their differences that brought them together in conversation. I wonder now if all Americans—not just those who are Black–couldn’t take that discussion on difference and inclusion into our neighborhoods, our workplaces, even our City Halls and community meetings. The truth is, no identity category accurately represents the infinitely more complicated lives that so often spill outside those metaphorical boxes; that is perhaps the one thing we have in common.
Michelle M. Wright is Professor of African American Studies and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University, and is a Public Voices Fellow.