Black like Us

Article excerpt

DO BLACK PEOPLE IN AMERICA BELONG TO AN "ETHNIC" GROUP? More than one? Are African Americans an "ethnic" group? When I was growing up during the Black and proud era of the 1960s and 1970s, those questions would have struck me as absurd. Of course, Blacks in this country belong to one race, their ethnic or tribal identities severed by the forced migration from Africa and then blended into an unrecognizable mix during centuries of marriage and child bearing.

But that was before the flood of Black strivers from the Caribbean and Africa arrived, starting with a fairer immigration law adopted in 1965 and quickening apace with each passing decade until now, more Africans- 1 million- have come to these shores by choice than are estimated to have been shipped here in chains during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Outnumbering the newcomers from the continent are recent immigrants from the nearby Caribbean.

The latest estimates from the Census Bureau put the number of foreign-born Blacks at 3 million, or about 8 percent of the country's Black population of nearly 34 million. To get a sense of how much Black immigration has grown, know that the comparable figure in 1960 was 1 percent. Still, 8 percent, or about one out of 12, seems like a small minority of a minority, and it is, nationally. The Black immigrants, though, make up a significant proportion of the Black population in major cities along the East Coast: 30 percent in Boston, 33 percent in New York City and Miami, for instance.

In those and other Eastern cities, including Washington, D.C., some of those immigrants are asserting they are different from native-born Blacks and, sometimes in so many words, superior to them. Some don't want to be called "African American," preferring to be identified by their nationality, say Jamaican or Haitian. For some continental immigrants, just "African" will do. There are even Caribbean immigrants who reject being labeled "Black," which in the Census definition means the same race as African American. Many newcomers apply "African American" only to U.S.-born Black folks.

Black voluntary immigrants to America are not new, nor are the tensions with those who have been here longer. Opportunity seekers from the Cape Verde Islands off the West Coast of Africa started coming during the 1860s, initially to work on whaling ships and in cranberry bogs in Massachusetts, a state where many continue to arrive to this day. After the Haitian Revolution of 1804 and the 1833 abolition of slavery in the British Empire, a trickle of immigrants from the Caribbean flowed into the country. More West Indians came in the early 1900s and later to work in defense plants during World War II.

Those ancestral distinctions mostly faded over time, though Cape Verdeans maintain a strong nationalistic identity. Some don't regard themselves as Black; others do, and have intermarried with the native-born.

The longer I thought about who might constitute Black ethnic groups in America, the more Cape Verdeans seemed to qualify. So too Black Hispanics, since Hispanics are an ethnic group who can be of any race. African immigrants have ethnic identities as Yoruba or Akan, for example, though some people speak of "Africans" in general as an ethnic group. In one episode of the NCIS television series, an investigator who determines a dead man is a Sudanese "Lost Boy" tells coworkers: "He's not African American. He's African African."

Genetic analysis has helped a small number of American-born Blacks discover ancestral tribal links in Africa. One scholar has been reconstructing the ethnic identities of slaves sold in Louisiana, using historical records, research that could conceivably help genealogy trackers establish ethnic heritages. Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the LinL· is the title of the 2005 book by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, now retired as a history professor at Rutgers University.

Even for early voluntary immigrants of the 1880s, time has weakened those links. …