Blogs > Cliopatria > Definitional Problem: African-Descended American Immigrants

Aug 29, 2004 5:51 am

Definitional Problem: African-Descended American Immigrants

I was wondering how long it would take after Barack Obama's national debut (and Theresa Heinz-Kerry's [Thanks, Nathanael]) for this question to be raised. Now I know: thank you, Alan Keyes. I wonder if some variation on the Japanese American terminology (issei for first-generation immigrants; nisei for their children, and so on) would be useful? Or perhaps just a single pair of terms -- distinguishing long-term and newcomer -- that could be used when relevant? (Note: I thought about suggesting a distinction based on descent from slaves, but that would still apply to many Africans in Africa as well as just about all of the Americas).

I know, terminology can be divisive, but the divide already exists. We need to examine the divide to see to what extent it is fundamental and to what extent it is perceptual, and to do that we need..... well, jargon, in the sense of specifically defined technical terms. Noting, of course, that well-chosen, well-defined, properly useful jargon pretty rapidly stops being jargon and becomes a component of everyday language. For example? Well, check out the discussion of the Guardian's"Scientists Pick Top Ten SF Movies over on Liberty and Power, and think about the way they added phrases and concepts to the discourse.

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Jonathan Dresner - 8/30/2004

In some senses, you're right, but I also have some question about whether "Black" is as essential a tribal quality as you suggest. Slavery is different from colonialism, and post-slavery is different from post-colonialism; as a social scientist, these differences matter, particularly in the still-current African American Achievement question (which is why the newcomer-established divide is so challenging).

In the area of self-identity, as well as community identity, there is very little correlation between African and American Black experiences, but within the structure of US race relations, there may be good reasons to focus more on color than experience.

Bektemba Nnamdi - 8/29/2004

I can't believe that this is even an issue. The fact remains that Black is Black is Black is Black. As a Black man in America, I am an American of African descent, whether I am first or twenty-first generation. Sure, African-Americans who have been in the states for more generations have developed a distinct culture from Ethiopian-Americans or Nigerian-Americans; however, it should be noted that there even remains a diversity amongst those Africans from abroad as well. My point is, simply, Africa has many many tribes, some were stolen, taken abroad and forced into slavery, others remained at home and would find themselves living different histories--some good, some bad. African-Americans are simply another tribe...

Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/29/2004

The range within which the term "African American" has been used during these elections has been quite broad. On the one hand, Keyes appears to cling to an identity that concerns slave ancestry. This minimalist definition suggests that discrimination cannot be experienced by those for whom slavery was not part of family history. Immigrants did not suffer the same way that slaves did. And yet immigrants would be integrated into the black community.

On the other, Heinz Kerry claims a maximalist definition in which African American in a hybridization of different identities. While she is in her right to call herself an African (and hence and African American), this identity is fraught with problems. During the imperial period the “Africans” were not the natives, but the Europeans who settled in order to establish civilization (where they felt it did not exist).

Does immigration make the African an African American? If we were speaking of immigrants from Latin America, would we have the same difficulties calling them Hispanic Americans? Most Americans would probably assume that Hispanic Americans only recently immigrated to the United States. Often after I tell people that I am Mexican American people ask me when my family immigrated to the US. The answer puzzles them--never: the US annexed the southwest, and hence annexed my ancestors.

However, I think that a larger problem is being exposed: the African-American community is less interested in the global problems faced by people of color. The Black Caucus takes an interest in the affairs of African nations. But consciousness of Africanness appears to be fading.

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