Speaker grapples with African, African-American identities

Professor of History and International affairs at George Washington University Nemata Blyden lectures on African and African American identity. Olivia Diallo/The Miscellany News

To be of Afro-diasporic descent is to have an identity that is inherently foreign. To diasporic populations, Africa represents the impossible: the known and the unknown, the celebrated and the shameful. In a lecture in Taylor 203 on Feb. 5th, Professor of History and International affairs at George Washington University Nemata Blyden presented an in-depth analysis of what being African-American means. Blyden posed the question central to her research: “What is it about their experience in the United States that has consistently drawn African-Americans to [Africa] in a variety of ways?”

The hall was filled with students and faculty attending the lecture, titled “African-Americans & Africa: Speaking Across The Centuries.” Poised in a red suit in a West African block print and curled locs, Blyden displayed a series of photographs on the projection screen. Most of them were portraits of the Black activists that she would later mention in her talk, putting faces to the names, words and actions she engaged with throughout the lecture. In the confident cadence of a seasoned lecturer, Blyden unveiled a history unknown to many: Black immigration to Africa in order to escape the United States, a country that remains inhospitable to Black bodies. 

A love story led Blyden to study this phenomenon. Her father, a Harvard graduate student from Sierra Leone, met her African-American mother, a recent graduate hired as a Black teacher to desegregate a white school, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The two married and migrated to Sierra Leone, where Blyden was born. This more personal history is what generated Blyden’s interest in African-Americans’ relationship to Africa; her grandmother had been horrified at the idea of her daughter being whisked away to a land that existed in the American imagination as jungle void of civilization. 

Through the story of her family, Blyden illustrated the relationship between diasporic people of African descent, specifically African-Americans, and the continent itself that was the catalyst for emigration movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some emigration attempts to Africa and the Caribbean were successful as immigrants integrated into the receiving community. In other cases, tensions between locals and émigré arose as the receiving countries considered African-Americans to be foreigners. As a diasporic community, African-Americans could return to Africa, but were still dispossessed of a native land.

Blyden described the African-American community in America as “a population which has, arguably, not been fully accepted into this society, and one who is made to feel like they don’t fully belong.” It was this sense of disillusionment coupled with the threat of violence, said Blyden, that gave rise to movements to return to the African continent. 

Blyden explained that those first brought to the Americas in bondage had personal ties to specific nations and traditions within Africa. Yet, Africa existed as an abstract concept for the generations that followed. African-Americans’ notions of Africa are complex; they are deeply personal yet conceived in the context of the imperialist culture in which they are situated. “Ideas of Africa as primitive influenced how some engaged with their ancestral homeland,” explained Blyden.

Still, some African-Americans embraced their heritage. Blyden featured 19th-century activist and abolitionist Henry Highland Garnett, who was born enslaved in Maryland before eventually settling as a free man and minister in Troy, New York, as a supporter of African-American emigration to Africa. Blyden quoted Garnett, “No man shall deprive me of my love for Africa, the land of my ancestors.” 

The work of 19th-century abolitionists informed more recent conversations about African-American identity in relation to Africa. Blyden pointed specifically to the civil rights movement in America, during which African-Americans were aware of African nations’ fight for and achievement of independence. The successes of African nations in ousting colonial regimes inspired civil rights activists in the United States, and Africa moved from a place of rejection to that of reverence in the public imagination. 

The issue of how much Africa to incorporate into African-Americans’ personal identity remained. The term “African-American” itself is a complex identity for many reasons: Members of the group ascribed this name to themselves. The act encapsulated a level of autonomy long-denied for African diasporic communities. Adopted in the 1980s, the name also explicitly suggests a connection to Africa; Blyden recounted Rev. Jesse Jackson’s appeal to the Afro-descended community to embrace the term because of its allusion to Africa rather than “Black,” which Jackson said connoted poverty and oppression but is largely preferred today. Many in the public eye, including entertainer Whoopi Goldberg, rejected the term, arguing that “African-American” could be construed as divisive.

This conversation about African identity, and how much of it to adopt, continues today in the era of the DNA test. It’s now possible for Afro-descended people to pinpoint where their family might have originated, allowing African-Americans to identify with a community rather than an imagined monolithic continent.

Blyden described the relationship between African-Americans and Africa as ebbing and flowing across time. A modern turning point, said Blyden, came in the form of the 2018 film “Black Panther,’’ which Blyden credits with renewing African-American interest and pride in Africa. When asked whether African and African-American audiences reacted differently to her research, Blyden said that she has noticed that African-American audiences tend to ask her how to go about creating dialogue with African people. Though diasporic dialogue is not the topic of her research, Blyden noted that she sees this questioning as an attempt to challenge the idea that relationships between African and African-American communities are inherently strained.

Blyden did not linger on the narratives of slavery and subjugation that are often sites of dialouge during Black History Month. Instead, she shared stories of agency in forming identity and subverting oppression. Quoting playwright August Wilson, Blyden concluded, “‘If you are willing to accept it, it is your duty to affirm and urge that defense, that respect, and that determination.’ I would argue that if August Wilson was here today, he would add, ‘and, I think, you can do that on American soil.’”

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