What Makes an African American, African American?

What Makes an African American, African American?

Malick Diarra (’11) moved from Burkina Faso to the United States when he was six years old. Nearly twelve years later, he notes the differences between life in Burkina and life in America.

The term African American is often used to describe a Black American of African ancestry. It became part of the nation’s vocabulary in 1988, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a news conference urging Americans to use it when referring to blacks.

However, many argue that the term should be used only to refer to the descendants of slaves brought to the United States centuries ago, not to newcomers who do not share their historical heritage. After all, foreign-born Africans only make up less than 2 percent of the black American community, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Though both groups have the same roots, their histories and experiences differ significantly. To some, African Americans and African immigrants have social and cultural differences that are too wide to connect.

Malick Diarra (’11) moved from Burkina Faso to the United States when he was six years old. Nearly twelve years later, he notes the differences between life in Burkina and life in America. “I felt like I had a lot more freedom [in Burkina], since my parents trusted the area we lived in… but when I moved here, they were a lot more reluctant to let me go in and out like I used to,” he commented. “Whenever I visit, there’s a lot of family, it always feels familiar,” he added.

Now, Diarra finds himself surrounded by American culture while still holding on to his own native upbringing, traditions, and values. Though he’s forgotten most of his native tongue, Jula, he still speaks French, Burkina’s official language. Traditional food and clothing remain prominent in his household, as well as various customs. “We are big on family. We have family get-togethers at least once a month. There’s always lots of food, dancing, and music from Burkina,” he said.

There was a time, however, when Diarra was not sure what to identify with. “When I was younger, I tried to identify myself a bit more as American,“ he recalled. “The way most kids want to be accepted.”

Now, Diarra sees himself differently. “I would mostly identify myself as an African,” he stated. “Without my cultural background, I don’t know what I would be.” He then identifies himself as American. “I was raised here and I’ve become integrated into America’s cultural society,” he continued.

But even though Diarra is an African with American citizenship, he says that he would least identify himself as an African American. “They [African Americans] sometimes treat us differently, maybe because of how Africans are portrayed,” he explained.

The population of African immigrants in the United States has been rapidly increasing. Since 1990, about 50,000 Africans enter the United States every year. For this growing population and their children, the question of identity often inspires a quiet debate over who can claim the term, “African American.” In part, this is due to the term’s ambiguity, its connotations, and the manner that people use it.

Azeezat Adeleke (’13) was born in Washington, DC to Nigerian parents. “The first thing that comes to mind when people ask me where I am from is America,” she stated. “I have never been to Nigeria. I feel more of a connection to the United States than to where my parents are from.”

But like many children of African immigrants, Adeleke feels distanced from the African-American community.“’African American usually describes people whose families have been here for generations,” she explained. Her reluctance towards being identified with the term is due mostly to its connotation. “African Americans have a specific culture that I can’t identify with. Their parents pass down certain traditions, and since my parents aren’t from here, the traditions and values that are passed down to me are different,” she continued.

Despite the ancestral link, both Africans and African-Americans admit they can be incredibly divided. But to Adeleke, ethnicity is just a part of who she is. She said, “it’s not something that defines me as a person, the way it might define others.”

Diarra views his cultural background the same way. Between Burkina Faso and the United States, it’s hard for him to say which place he likes more. “I really like both places equally,” he admitted, “just for different reasons.”