Two continents, four centuries, two identities

As a native of West Africa, what I perceived to be the distinctiveness of Black American culture was one of the many things that struck me upon coming to the United States — and to Yale. It must have been a major contributor to whatever culture shock I got forced into experiencing. For one, I had never before thought any difference existed between what it meant to be African American and Black American; the two experiences had seemed essentially synonymous to me. That was before I heard of the likes of Barack Obama, who had more recent connections to Africa and was hence not considered Black, but African American.

To be sure, I was taken in by what I saw. Taken in, but not disturbed. Cultures, I assured myself, change with the flux of time. They evolve, mature, flourish and deteriorate. It would have been foolish on my part to have come expecting a Black American identity unchanged after centuries of divorce from its native heritage. The problem, in my opinion, arose only when what I then called (and still call), “cultural discrimination” came into view. Naively, I had expected that some of the nicest people I would meet at Yale would be Black American, which indeed was the case, until I happened to meet others from the same demographic who weren’t quite as nice.

Honestly, I couldn’t fault some Black Americans for looking down on their African counterparts, treating them condescendingly or worse still, seeing them as a bunch of backward-thinking under-sophisticates. They had as much an entitlement to their opinions as I did to mine. The truth, however, is that over the years, the African condition has been more a predicament of misfortune than a failure of effort. Ages of racial prejudice have battered our psyche and striven to keep us under — for good. Our socio-cultural identity as a people has been seriously tampered with. Yet no one camp, I believe, can fully bear the burden of blame, which is why I prefer to think of our plight as one of sheer misfortune.

Call it bad luck if you want, but I think the twists and turns of history simply haven’t favored us. One need only read Polybius to see that what Adam Smith saw to be true for the market was true, also, for history — that a careful look at history does reveal the presence of an invisible hand. If only the Roman Empire had conquered more of Africa (if only Hannibal hadn’t been such a nut); if only Antony and Cleopatra had defeated Octavian at the Battle of Actium; if only Christianity — history’s truest harbinger of intellectual and cultural advancement — had spread more to our side of the world (a thought not quite as far-fetched as it may seem; for instance, hallowed institutions of learning like Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale even, once had foundations firmly steeped in Christian tradition); if only the spread of Christianity and the mission of empire-building hadn’t been linked inseparably at some point … The list goes on and on.

Frankly speaking, our situation is a disturbing one. It’s the kind people refuse to talk about, and yet expect to somehow evanesce into thin air. It motivates statements of the sort made by Wangari Maathai, recent Nobel Peace laureate from Kenya, concerning the AIDS epidemic in Africa — statements that the HIV virus is some hyper-scheme concocted by Western scientists to obliterate the black race. Such comments, while disappointing to hear coming from the educated ranks of Africa, certainly hint at the latent frustration underlying the African condition. I, for one, think it’s high time we accept the reality of our situation and begin venting our discontent constructively in emancipating ourselves. I don’t think the often long-winded rigmarole of blaming does us any good. It only serves as a needless diversion from the issues that continually stare us in the face. It’s time we move on.

At the heart of a professedly egalitarian society like America’s is the shared belief that a person ought not be held responsible for the circumstances of his or her birth (be they color or creed) — that a person be seen, regarded and esteemed primarily as human, before anything else. Rather than contrive a story akin to Nietzsche’s slave revolt in morality to explain why Western culture seems singularly “good” not only to Westerners, but also to the very many who by chance or design fall within its circle of influence, I’d strongly suggest that any culture, however crude, peculiar or different, be seen and regarded for what it is: a true celebration of the wonderful diversity inherent in what it means to human. This remains a lesson to be learnt by many a person in this part of the world — Black American included. Centuries after enduring the violent upheaval of resettlement, the Black American identity persists in a quandary to define itself whenever confronted with the African self it once was and, arguably, still is.

Michael Nkansah is a sophomore in Calhoun College.