Invisible and Not Really Black?

What people say when they don't know you're an immigrant.

Posted:
 
flag2

How's this for an example of erasure?

I was chatting on the phone with an editor at a media outlet which regularly features my writings. Having worked together for years, he and I have managed to move past professional diplomacies and platitudes to fashion something of a friendship.

Because of the nature of our relationship, he and I often find ourselves discussing current events. During this particular conversation we were talking politics. It was a few days before Super Tuesday, when primary elections were scheduled to be held in 24 states. Excited by the fact that I, a newly naturalized citizen, was about to vote for the first time, I asked my editor if he would be supporting Sen. Barack Obama, my chosen candidate.

"He doesn't do nothing for me," my editor said. "When I vote for a black man, I want it to be somebody who's really black, somebody who knows the black American experience, somebody whose great-great granddaddy was a slave, like mine. You know, those Africans come over here and just reap the rewards of everything we've worked for. They think they're better than us and white folks love 'em because they're…"

I bit my lip and listened to his diatribe against African immigrants. Surely, I thought, he's forgotten who he's talking to. That didn't come as much of a surprise. I find that a lot of people forget I'm an immigrant; more precisely, an African immigrant. I was young when I came with my family from my native Ghana to the United States, so I have no discernable accent.

I can only guess that my non-accented speech is the reason so many people conveniently allow it to slip their minds that I am as much an immigrant as the Mexican busboy or the Guatemalan cleaning lady. As a result of this, I've heard more than my fair share of sentences that begin with "those people," sentences filled with unbridled acrimony, harsh accusations, and inaccurate information.

When it comes to the subject of African immigrants (and I find it necessary to point out that Obama is neither an African nor an immigrant) what doesn't come as a surprise to me is our invisibility. It's bad enough that when people talk about immigrants, they often fail to consider or include the hundreds of thousands of people—black people—who come to the United States from countries in the Caribbean or on the African continent. The word that seems to have been reserved and more readily used for black immigrants is "refugee."

What's worse is that, save for discussions on roots or racial origins, we African immigrants continue to be rendered invisible on the American cultural landscape as well. That is, after all, the effect and arguably the intent of statements like, "he's not really black," and "she's not black enough." Let's face it, the word "black" refers as much, if not more, to culture—black American culture, to be specific—as it does to skin color. So if we, African immigrants, are not really black, then what are we?

I don't understand this notion of authenticity, not when it comes to blackness, and especially not in this age of globalization. The world is ever-shrinking as the result of increased travel and technological advancements.

It's kind of ironic to think that some African Americans, like my editor, would reject the idea of my daughter, who was born and raised in America, representing them in a leadership role simply because she can trace her ancestry back to Africa by only one generation.