Author Archive

Red Tails and the African Name Effect

January 21, 2012 1 comment

I have previously written about how the uniqueness of African names adds force to the issue of Black immigration to America. The Red Tails cast list has proved to be an interesting test case.

As I went through the list, some names popped out. Guess which ones:

But I also discovered another dimension: the people I guessed were of recent African immigrant roots were also British. And that seems to be a different type of trend that I need to explore more, i.e., Black Brit actors in Hollywood.


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The African name effect

Scholars have been studying West Indian and Afro Latino immigrant populations for decades, but the more recent, rapid rate of African immigration could re-focus attention on black immigration in a unique way: Generally, Africans are the only sub-group of black people in America that you can identify without actually seeing them.

If you were going through the phone book and saw the name Singh, you could safely assume it belonged to a person of Indian descent; Song, probably Korean; Rodriguez, Hispanic.

But Powell? Carson? Parsons?

Try Ogunlesi! Emeagwali!

The Ogunlesis and Dioufs and Gerimas and—yes, I’ll say it—Obamas are coming fast and changing the socio-economic landscape of America in unique ways.

Apart from being identity markers, the name signals of African immigrants could also have important economic and social effects. Efforts to boost black businesses usually come in the form of specialized business listings and networking mechanisms. With African names, one could look through the regular Yellow Pages and easily pick out a black dentist, lawyer or plumber.

Socially, this trend could enhance the role model aspect of affirmative action and other initiatives aimed at giving African-American kids positive black role models. If an ambitious young black person saw that the Chairman of Citigroup is a man called Richard Parsons, big deal. If he saw that the man who led a group to buy Gatwick airport in London is named Adebayo Ogunlesi, that could trigger a pause.

BUT, the African name also signals otherness from “African-Americans,” so the power to inspire will depend on the extent to which that “African-American” kid sees that African surgeon listed in the phone book as kin.

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A can of worms

Are you African American?

The question practically fell off my tongue when I started shooting the first interview. A simple enough question, I thought. The complexities of answers, depth of emotions and rawness of passions have surprised me and led me down interesting paths of questioning.

The term ‘African-American’ has gained mainstream adoption as the proper way to describe black Americans, if not blacks in America.  Now, the term is receiving some pushback: Is it based on race, ethnicity, looks, citizenship, geography, history, culture or some other criteria? Is a black Caribbean immigrant African-American? Is a Moroccan immigrant African American? Is an Indian African immigrant African American?

I remember asking one African immigrant who received her U.S. passport last year, “Are you African-American.” Her response: “Yes, since last year.”

Yes, we have opened a can of worms and the conversations so far demonstrate that the can badly needed opening. The goal of The Neo African Americans is to be one tool for opening this bursting can in a safe and respectful manner by allowing people to:

THINK through multiple lenses on these issues;

TALK about them in a safe, open and respectful manner (too often it is hush hush); and

TRANSFORM intra-racial and interracial relationships through a clearer understanding of issues and others.

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A living documentary

The Neo-African-Americans is a living documentary, a conversation. It’s a conversation about identity, it’s a conversation about America, it’s a conversation about immigration, and for that matter, the global movement of people.

The first round of screenings was a series of conversation whose input has been used to shape the final product. It is not meant to teach lessons, but rather provide different lenses for thinking through these complexities outside the confines of one’s biases.

The greatest challenge has been to take a subject so complex, sensitive and potentially divisive into one hour; hence, the conversation continues with YOU: around your kitchen table, in your dorm room, at your workplace.

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What I have learned

This is not a new subject. There are many academics who have done a great deal of work on this issue, and I have gratefully borrowed from their work. The benefit of exploring this issue through a camera lens is that it captures emotions, reactions and conversations that academic research may not. So after more than 50 screenings, I have gained some key insights that I hope will inform further research:

  • that this is the moment for the conversation;
  • that the weakness of institutional memory among student groups creates a constant reinvention of the wheel among African Diaspora groups;
  • that black people are confused about what to call themselves;
  • that white people are confused about what to call black people;
  • that some people are quick to point out that race is a social construct; yet can’t tolerate people who don’t describe themselves in simple racial terms;
  • that identity is fluid and context-specific;
  • that Black is universal. In the year that I’ve been screening this documentary, I have met many people of African descent who are not quite at ease being called African-American, but most are comfortable with being called black, even if among other things. Makes you wonder about the ascendancy of “African-American” as the proper way to call black people in America; and
  • that, above all, people just want to be people. In the informal poll on, there are several options, but, for a long time, the option with the most votes was “A Person.”
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On the relationship between “African Americans” and black immigrants

Ah, the elephant. This relationship has been described as strained, volatile, formative, cooperative—all true. It would be foolish to close one’s eyes to the differences between black immigration and “native” African-Americans in how the two “groups” relate to each other and how they each relate to America.  As much as this issue is sometimes unnecessarily sensationalized, there are countless historical and contemporary examples of collaborative projects. The fundamental differences are, in fact, a matter of historical perspective.

Picture a wall.

Historically all black people in America have faced a wall to their achievement of the American dream. Over the centuries, through the sweat and blood many African-Americans, windows have gradually been broken in that wall; windows large enough for people to jump through. Nevertheless, there are still huge chunks of wall remaining. Many African Americans still feel a responsibility to break down what remains of the wall. Some scholars have described the African-American project as a project of TRANSFORMATION.

Enter The Neo African Americans. Most of them come from places so full of walls that when they enter America and they encounter this thing they don’t see a wall; they see windows. In fact, they come here looking for windows, so their main objective in America is to figure out how to jump through those windows. In that regard, they are more immigrant than black. You could call the black immigrant project a project of EXPLOITATION.

These broad differences in perspective sometimes create a tension between black immigrants and African-Americans. It is important to remember that black immigrants are not immune to the walls and in fact any black immigrant who jumps through a window is standing on the shoulders, or bodies, of African-Americans. Before the New York cops shot Ahmadou Diallo or brutalized Abner Louima, it’s unlikely they asked them: “Are you African American?”

Whether you see a window or wall is largely dependent on your socialization.

Looking ahead, whether you see a window or wall is also a question of strategy: Should black people spend energy breaking down the rest of the wall so everyone can just walk through, or jumping through the windows in such numbers that the rest of the walls crumble? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

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Interesting comments and observations

– At Illinois Wesleyan College, an African American student expressed how he wants to stop living his grandfather’s life. No matter how much he tries to convince grandpa how much things have changed, grandpa keeps telling him how to look at everything through a racial lens.

– At another university, the African Students Union (ASU) parted ways with the Black Students Union (BSU) because they felt the BSU’s goals were political, therefore parochial, while the ASU’s was cultural, therefore inclusive.

– In Lewiston, Maine, in response to advocacy for a playground for Somali refugees, the town, apparently by instinct, built them a basketball court—the kids played soccer, not basketball.

-At the New Jersey state museum, a black Southern male shared how he feels closer in culture with African and Caribbean blacks than he does with Northeastern African Americans.

-At one liberal arts college, an administrator realized that many of their black students were not really African American, according to his four-grandparent test.

-I asked one lady, “Are you African-American?” Her response: “Yes. Since last year. When I got my citizenship.”

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So how?

First, I believe black immigration introduces diversity of experience and thought to black America. For decades, black people in America have advocated more diversity in American public life, partly to better represent America and also to bring different perspectives. Well, those principles should still hold true among black people. We usually speak of diversity among the black community in terms of education, class and complexion. We hardly talk about it in terms of voluntary as opposed to involuntary immigration. We need to recognize and embrace the reality that though there are many ties that bind us, there is no universal black experience or expression. As we meet in America, those differences in experience create differences in perspective on America. That’s unity in diversity.

Second, black immigration further opens America’s eyes to the diversity among the black community. So you can’t just see a black person and assume you know their American story.

Third, black immigration opens new windows of honest engagement with America. Many black immigrants coming to the America do not bear the same historical scars as many “African-Americans.” That allows for some interracial conversations that are otherwise uncomfortable.  I have difficult conversations with my white friends that would frankly have been impossible if my forefathers had been forced to the back of the bus and been hung from trees.

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