I was in the fifth grade when I cried over Tupac getting killed, and in the sixth when the list of Black Panther demands—food, shelter, clothing—first went up on my bedroom wall. Never mind that I had all three in abundance growing up in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, or that it would be several summers before I’d even visit the U.S. and a decade before I’d know it intimately.
Plus, the few Americans I knew were mostly white missionaries or teachers at the international school that I attended from kindergarten. A handful of black kids at school had green cards or fancy blue passports that meant they didn’t have to wait in line at U.S. Customs, but they were Ethiopian or Nigerian or Congolese or Ghanaian first, lucky second and hyphenated Americans third.
The point? There was nothing remotely American about me, yet I was obsessed with a people and a history thousands of miles away as if they were my own. If it was popular resistance I wanted, the manifestations of postcolonial struggle were right there—almost literally in my backyard. If it was culture, well, I could have started with the country I called home, the one my parents did—Sudan—or the 50 other African states with whose people I ostensibly had more in common.
From the privilege of adulthood, I can see that what I truly was after was concrete proof of my blackness, and that was purely American territory. The Black Arts and Black Power—these were movements tied to race more than geography or nation, and I wanted in. I sought out my own blackness in nascent rap stars, bygone revolutionaries, writers and athletes who, in one sense, I had little in common with, other than maybe that we could all expect to be called “n–ger” every once in a while.
Practically everyone around me was African, but the construct of blackness as a racial category is a distinctly American one, traceable to the legacy of slavery and to the foisting onto millions of Africans a definition conveniently derived from a constructed oppositeness vis-à-vis whiteness.
In the U.S., of course, “black” eventually came to be a signifier of cultural and ethnic heritage, and of people identifiable by color. Elsewhere, nation, tribe, religion, language and any number of other unifying characteristics take precedence over “black” as cultural in-group definers. In America, you’re black first; in Africa, Latin America or the Middle East, though, race comes with an opt-in clause.
My international-school education focused heavily on U.S. history, and the exploration of American history is in part what led me to identify as black before any other category. For African Americans throughout history, race was a political issue because circumstances demanded it; other markers of blackness were arrived at afterward. But for me, racial politics came from leaders and movements I had no real claim to.
The United States’ cultural output has been a dominant force in the world thanks to its post-World War II grip on capitalism and global media, and as a result, American blackness is a culture industry as much outside America as within its borders. So if you’re an African American and walk down a street in Beijing, people will scream “Beyoncé!” or “LeBron!” at you, and when kids in Casablanca catch a whiff of your accent, it’s “2Pac!” or “Jay Z!” Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., too, are recognizable faces you’re as likely to see on a mural in Harare as on one in Harlem. This is what “black” means to America, and what “black” means to the world.
Mainstream American blackness, from the particulars of slavery to the civil rights movement to current-day hip-hop-related tropes, became the most recognizable form of blackness in the world in part because it’s the only one to which the myth of homogeneity was successfully, if falsely and dangerously, grafted.
But as Manning Marable writes in Transnational Blackness: Navigating the Global Color Line, “[i]t is impossible to relate the full narrative of the experiences of people of African descent in the United States, and throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, without close integration and reference to the remarkable history of the African continent, its many peoples, languages, and diverse cultures.”