Where do you come from? As the world grows more and more diverse, this question seems to relate to existential matters, rather than merely conveying demographic information.
Answers to this question satisfy a modern need to categorise, make sense of others’ differences, assign identity features, compare and contrast prejudice and appearance. A source of modern anguish is to recognise this difference, otherness, to identify foreignness, without being able to trace it back to its source, to its roots. We all need to account for our strangeness by divulging our origins, revealing our ancestors.
The question itself speaks to perpetual movement, to an urgency of belonging first and foremost to the place of origin, a space which generates us at every moment, and informs our identity and our travels. Immigrants, foreigners, travellers – they belong to their journey, just as much as they belong to a particular place.
We carry a burden of proof in relation to our being here and now; wherever and whenever that might be. Contemporary experiences of migration seem to point to the fact that we are ‘travellers’, as opposed to ‘citizens’ of the world. We struggle with the ground, in the attempt to put down roots, to minimise the feeling of being displaced, foreign and forever aware that the journey we have taken has a route of return.
This state of suspension between two cultures lays at the heart of tensions engaging two social groups: African immigrants in the United States and African Americans. For many, there remains a clash of perspective and culture between these two groups, a gap impossible to fill by invoking notions of brotherhood, common ancestors or lineage. Kinship seems to be an arbitrary element in attempts to find shared identity traits, and common origins paradoxically bring about disruption, rather than unity.
The American Office of Management and Budget has the authority to define who is Black or African American in the United States. As used in the 2010 American Census, the definition states: ´Black or African American refers to a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.´ Remarkably enough, in this census, African immigrants in America have no choice to specifically self-identify as Africans – they can only declare that they are Black. This unifying role of the attribute ´Black´ fails to accommodate social realities: both Africans and African Americans can self-identify as Black, but this does not necessarily create community.
Oscar Johnson looks at these incompatibilities in his short study of African immigrants and African Americans in the Bronx. The inventory of misconceptions and stereotypes (‘Africans are primitive’, ´African Americans are violent´) speaks to inabilities to communicate and engage personal and collective histories: Some Africans cannot understand why African Americans are so embittered with their past, they cannot relate to the history of oppression that Black people have faced in the United States. Some African Americans, in turn, refuse to use common ancestors as grounds for identifying with what they find ´primitive and ignorant.´ Most of the people interviewed by Johnson point to differences in experience and perspective, declaring socialisation a source of essential distinction: “We used to have the same culture… the difference is the way we have been raised.”
Slavery and racial segregation in the US led to a violent disruption of lineage, an ontological interruption – of history, affect, heritage. Slavery institutionalised a break with ancestry, erased traces of commonality, brought about a permanent chasm, which, to this day, obstructs African Americans´ search for origins: their names have been changed, their identity rewritten, their Africanness redefined.
In his seminal collection of essays ´Notes of A Native Son’ (1955), James Baldwin questions the authenticity of Black experience in America: “I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even in a sense, created me.” This translates to Blackness being a result of White imagination, a product of epistemic violence, of projections of prejudice and stereotypes onto the inescapable corporeality of African Americans – the immediacy of their dark skin tone.
Similarly, Africanness is constructed through the same White, colonial gaze. If it took European colonialism to inform Africans of their own Africanness, it takes modern and contemporary fascinations with difference and exotic distance to produce and reproduce various understandings of Africanness. To think of Africa is to engage with a narrative of before and after, which overwrites stories of travel and arrival. Africa becomes a time of origin, aside from being a place of origin, and the appropriation of Africanness as identity leads to anxieties, over past and present, responsibility towards ancestors and the irreducible distance from these ancestors. Can, therefore, African American assert their Africanness, given the remoteness, in time and space, of this part of their heritage?
There is a certain sense of dignity attached to searching one´s roots – it echoes respect, and being in touch with depths of identity. Going back to one´s origins is a personal and social gesture that implies acceptance, recognition, honour. Many African Americans experience these attitudes, and travel to Africa, making it all the more surprising that contact between Africans and African Americans in a Western context can too often result in a deep divide, and one that hinders assimilation.
In the much acclaimed documentary ´Bound: African versus African American’ (2014), director Peres Owino leaves it to personal accounts of this conflict to depict its larger frame. One African American contributor states: “I despise my reflection – not in White people, but in Black people. You remind me of my nothingness”.
Beyond the depth and sadness of this remark, it is clear that African American experience still rests on the debris of recent history, on the social agony of having to prove one´s Americanness as well as embrace one's Africanness. Many cannot trace their stories back to African origins, as they come to a halt when revisiting the tragedy of slavery. Their memory becomes what Michel Foucault would call a site of resistance, an attempt to understand the present, by rethinking the past.
The exploration of origins in contemporary contexts implies the acknowledgement of difference, and entails an inherent mystery to what is foreign, strange, exotic. The approach to ancestry and lineage affects the fine line between celebrating difference as a source of cosmopolitan experience, on the one hand, and isolating this difference under auspices of racism and xenophobia, on the other.
We do not have a choice in seeing difference, but we can choose to turn difference into diversity, and assert, as Bell Hooks memorably writes in his work Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination, our ´universal subjectivity´ - the truth that we are all just people, no matter where we come from or where we are heading.
Words: Elena Stanciu