Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Becoming African Americans: African Immigrant Youth in the United States and Hybrid Assimilation

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Becoming African Americans: African Immigrant Youth in the United States and Hybrid Assimilation

Article excerpt

After asking Rebecca (age 14) a series of questions about her family background and friendships, we asked how she prefers to identify herself. "I am an African," she answered haltingly with a question in her voice, "but more American than African, 'cause, like, I was born there and all, but I don't, like, know all about it. Like, I'm not fully African, but I guess the fact that I was born there--I don't know, it's confusing." Rebecca came to the US as a baby and does not speak her parents' languages, nor does she remember their homeland. Nevertheless, being an American is complicated for her as well: "In a group of my black friends, I'd be the white girl .... And then with my white friends, I'd be the black one, so [laughing], I guess I'm just in the middle." Rebecca, who has a lovely, brown complexion and is not biracial, is variously regarded as culturally too white, too black, and too African, as well as not white, black or African enough depending on the context. She concluded, "I'm not ever gonna be fully American, but then again I'm not gonna be fully African. Like, I'm just gonna be there in between and working at it."

In this article, I examine the process of identity formation undertaken by youth like Rebecca with recent African origins who are members of St. Augustine Lutheran Church in the small US city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. St. Augustine is an intentionally pan-African congregation of 75-100 immigrants from 17 African countries, and thus church families have cultures, languages, and histories that differ from native-born African Americans. Meanwhile, the church's youth also typically lack a foreign accent and strong ties to their parents' homelands. As a result, they often struggle to define themselves within oversimplified US racial categories that label them as a person of African origins ('black') and African American. In the 1980s, civil rights leaders and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson in particular popularized the use of the term "African American" to describe the descendants of African slaves who have lived in the US for generations (Smith 1992), which is how I will use the term in this article. (1) However, as growing numbers of people with African origins who are immigrant youth come of age in the US, how are they responding to a racialization process that links them to the African American descendants? Are they becoming African American, which is the category, ascribed to them? Where exactly do the children of African immigrants fit within US society? These youth represent hidden diversity in the US that needs to be better understood.

The critical role of race in immigrant incorporation has been well examined, particularly among West Indians in large metropolitan areas like New York and Miami who are also closely identified with African Americans (Stepick 1998; Waters 1999; Foner 2001). These studies have important parallels with the emerging literature on people from Africa who represent a newer immigration stream (Chacko 2003; Clark 2009; Awokoya 2012; Reynolds 2012; Habecker 2012; Halter and Johnson 2014). For example, the research shows that both first-generation West Indian and African immigrants often resist racial identification with African Americans. Arriving with well-developed ethnic and national identities, these immigrants perceive African Americans as overly preoccupied with racial issues. However, their children (that is the 1.5 generation who come to the US as children and the second-generation who are born in the US) feel greater pressure to social identify as African American. Stepick (1998) illuminates distinctions between Haitian youth known

as "just comes" whose speech and dress reveal their foreign-ness versus "cover-ups" who want to pass as African Americans. He explains that prejudice and discrimination against Haitians pushes many of these youth to become "coverups." Likewise, Awokoya (2012:100) addresses how Nigerian immigrant youth seek to distance themselves from negative media images of African people as "ignorant, poverty-stricken, and uncivilized" and feel social pressure to ally themselves with African Americans. …

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