Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Becoming Black and African: Nigerian Diasporic Transformations of Racial and Ethnic Identities in the United States

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Becoming Black and African: Nigerian Diasporic Transformations of Racial and Ethnic Identities in the United States

Article excerpt


"I must say that before I went to the US I didn't consciously identify as African. But in the US whenever Africa came up people turned to me, never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African."

- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "The Danger of a Single Story"

"The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it's a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America."

- Ifemelu, in Adichie's Americanah

Becoming Black and African in the United States are transformative experiences that contemporary Nigerian and other African voluntary immigrants must sojourner and come to acknowledge in their own terms as they learn the socio-political realities of existing in their new hostland. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one example, and a world-renowned Nigerian Diaspora cultural producer, whose numerous transnational novels and short stories do the work of shaping meaning about what it is to be Nigerian in the world. In the epigraphs of this article, Adichie achieves this through a public lecture, providing her own experiences of becoming "African" when coming to the United States, and through the journey of Americanah's protagonist, Ifemelu, in learning to be "Black" in the United States, respectively. She demonstrates ways that the United States' imposed Eurocentric racialization and ethnicization (Black, African) of African1 people's identities shifttheir perspectives of the world and their place in it. They are forced to negotiate these culturally and politically determined identities vis à vis their own ethnic or national identities that they arrive with (e.g. Igbo). Experiences of racism and xenophobia (or even Afrophobia, "a perceived or actual fear/contempt or bias against Black people" that is a symptom/function of internalized racism)2, feelings of belonging and community, as well as learning US American history and African American history and culture provide profound context to empathetically understand how Blackness and Africanness are ascribed to one's body and one's everyday existence. At the same time, being labeled as African or Black and accepting the terms into their individual or shared cultural values also plays a significant role in how members of the Nigerian Diaspora contribute to national and global formations of African Diaspora identity.

This article explores these themes of racial and ethnic identity as they emerged from content analysis of Nigerian Diaspora cultural productions. The narratives of fictional Nigerian immigrants, drawn from real/realistic lived experiences, act as and constitute a case study to reveal the transformations of their, and others', racial and ethnic identity as a result of leaving a neocolonial Nigeria for what they discover is a highly racialized and culturally hegemonic White supremacist United States. Like other members of the African Diaspora, their relationship to their hostland society and others within their hostland greatly influences the way they process, understand, and negotiate its structures of systemic racism and then again with how they relate back to their homeland, Nigeria. Notions of Blackness and Africanness become identity tropes that this 1st generation (immigrant) voluntary diaspora to the US must negotiate as a result of racialization and ethnicization of Black and African bodies in the United States.

For instance, in the film In America: The Story of the Soul Sisters, the protagonist - Sade - comes to terms with a highly racist and xenophobic United States and uses this knowledge to better understand the predicament of her brothers and sisters back in Nigeria. She realizes that, compared to her African American brothers and sisters, Nigerians sell themselves into enslavement by choosing to come to the United States (Oladigbolu). …

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