Identity: African American or Congolese African? Who decides what I am? Article Influenced by the Black Panther Movie
Opening weekend, I saw the movie Black Panther with two close friends. One was born and raised in Rwanda and the Congo. The other is African American, born in Houston, Texas and grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. Recently, I was talking to administrators at a school district that is trying to become more inclusive with the minority groups they serve. The conversation my friends and I had suddenly put my interview experience in a whole new light. It was very eye-opening.
Africa is the ancestral home to black people all over the world, but many do not feel a direct tie to it. This is primarily because their African identities were taken from them when their ancestors’ sovereignty, equal rights and humanity were erased by their white abductors. Tracing lineage is hard when it leads to a place that is so unknown.
African Americans, T’Challa, Killmonger and the search for identity.
In the movie, T’Challa is the protagonist and Killmonger is the antagonist. Killmonger only knows his ancestry secondhand, from his father. As the king of Wakanda, T’Challa knows exactly what his lineage is. A conflict over who is the legitimate ruler follows. This is similar to the challenges facing American blacks — those who were ripped from their ancestral home generations ago and those who are recent immigrants from Africa. However, for these two groups, the challenge deals with identity alone, not legitimacy. Are these two groups fundamentally different because the nature of their connections to Africa is different? I don’t think so. We are one and the same. At least this is how I feel.
People frequently want to know if I understand African Americans, whose ancestors came here as slaves, and their struggle against discrimination, segregation and prejudice. I am often put in a position where the people on the receiving end of this oppression want me to identify with one culture or another. In my recent meeting with the school district, one administrator asked, “Deo, you are African, from the Congo, right? How do you identify yourself today? As Congolese or African American?” Even though I wondered what this question had to do with my work, I was quick to answer. “I identify as both equally,” I said. The administrator seemed confused by that.
I lived in the Congo for the first 10 years of my life. My experience growing up there is a big part of who I am today. But so does my experience growing up in America, living in a predominantly white state. I learned much from both experiences. But I was also conflicted, not a part of both cultures, but caught between them. I felt separated from my Congolese heritage, but not fully African American. There was a negative narrative among established African Americans regarding those who did not fit the good African American image. So Congolese and other recent African immigrants in my community tried to escape the labels they brought with them from their homeland and began to identify as African Americans instead. It was either that or lose the opportunity to be fully accepted by the African American community.
At the same time, the white community where I lived held certain views of African American attributes and culture that were negative as well as positive. So while we African immigrants wanted to be accepted by the African American community, we chose to dissociate ourselves from negative perspectives. We wanted to be as appealing as possible to the white majority “key holders,” the men and women who were the power behind hiring, social welfare, schools, churches and government agencies that help minority groups. These key holders held opinions of African Americans based on media narratives and their own limited interactions with those African Americans who looked to them for help. I could not escape being an African American in America. But I never saw that as a negative. African Americans have a rich, authentic and raw culture. Aligning with this culture gave me a sense of identity. I found myself fitting in well with it, especially through music, dance, fashion, language, food and social relationships.
Most of the African Americans I interacted with initially in New Hampshire were from Africa. They were former refugees from Rwanda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria and Togo. A lot of their values and pursuits were similar to mine, instilled in them by their parents. I found most of my African friends had mindsets similar to mine, too. We were grateful to be in America, but we were also fearless. And yet we recognized the wisdom of playing it safe when seeking favoritism from the white folks in authority. We respected them but did not challenge them, even though we might have disagreed with their approach, suggestions or recommendations. Our parents influenced this tactic. Because of the language barriers, our parents played it super safe with the white folks they interacted with. They were afraid to offend them by saying no.
In New Hampshire, our parents were our only black role models. I had limited exposure to the diversity of African American social systems. But I was lucky. I had opportunities to travel outside of New Hampshire. And from there my views of what was permissible evolved.
There was another world outside New Hampshire.
I joined a program called Joshua Generation (JG) with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Pittsburgh where I did community outreach programs in some of the poorest minority neighborhoods in America. I was eleven and a half when I started going to JG, one and a half years after resettling in New Hampshire. The communities where I worked included Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City (Brooklyn, Queens, and Jamaica in particular) Pittsburgh and Boston. This experience changed my perspective of African Americans in America. I saw communities that were segregated. Once you drove away from the central traffic area you came to neighborhoods that were predominantly black. They were rich in culture, but there was also a lot of pain, desperation, and hopelessness. Things were tough—higher crime rates, lower performing schools and broken families. But these challenges never completely extinguished the spirit of the folks I met in these communities. They found their own way to cope with their reality. They worked hard, earned money and kept things moving.
I was drawn to the cultural aspects of these places through dance, music, fashion and food. It was rich, authentic, homegrown and not replicable. I wanted to be a part of it. This is where I saw the most freedom and hope. At block parties, I witnessed so much joy when people danced and sang. People wore some of the coolest colors. Their outfits radiated energy. Their slang was unique to their community. They had their own music and dance style. If you could master their dance style, you passed. But I got no respect just for being good at my own style. This happened to me often. But when I attempted their styles of dance, they were eager to teach me. After I visited communities multiple times, I made sure to practice their style of dance when I came home. When I returned to them and could perform in their dance style, I earned respect. I had this experience in Philly. With party music playing, I learned the “Sponge Bob” and the “Wu Tang.” (If you are interested in seeing what these dances are, Google “Philly Sponge Bob” and “Wu Tang dance.”
JG’s staff encouraged me to share my story with the different neighborhoods where I worked. It was a great healing process. I told of escaping war in the Congo and all the crazy stuff I went through before resettling to America. My story brought hope to people who could relate to struggles, desperation and not having anything. I connected with a lot of people in these communities through my story, dancing and performing. My openness to learn more about the people I was meeting and what they had to share created a bridge between us. I found a lot of similarities between the wishes of the parents in those neighborhood and the wishes of my mom and other African parents who lived in my community in New Hampshire. They all wanted the best for their family. They wanted their kids do well in school and be somebody. A better future for one's family is a universal desire. But, unfortunately, it’s something most people forget to bring to the forefront when there is divisiveness.
African American culture “to go.”
I brought the culture of the African American communities back with me to New Hampshire. I saw myself more and more like them. And the more Americanized I looked, the more my Congolese accent faded, and the more I identified as an African American. Naturally, those who only viewed my outward appearance saw no change in me. But I was evolving.
Hip hop culture became a big part of me. By the time I was in middle school I embraced it fully. A lot of my mother’s friends from Africa saw danger in this. They couldn’t understand why my mother would allow it. I wore very baggy clothes. I started wearing my hair in cornrows. Braiding my hair was a big no-no in our African community. My mother was castigated for allowing that, too. I can see why. I was profiled all the time—in school, in stores, at church, in every public space. I did not care very much. I had found an identity that allowed me to be me. Within the hip hop culture, I could express myself to the fullest. Hip hop could be personalized and customized. I was still Deo from Africa but “Hip Hop” Deo gave me a new channel to be me, the power to project who I was to others. But I never lost the Congolese core values of my family—respectfulness and obedience. I did not allow the authenticity and freedom of hip hop to guide me to the point of compromising my morals. I still needed to keep my mother’s way in the forefront. I respected it. I needed to honor my mother and family principles at all time.
My family’s Congolese values have become part of my foundation and have kept me grounded. But so has my faith and belief in God. Following Christian teachings has not in any way compromised my ethnicity. In fact, my Congolese values, combined with my Christian faith, have become the conduit through which I see into myself and how I reveal myself to others. My faith in God has also helped me become more confident, more accepting of myself and others.
Through Christianity, I better understand my God-given uniqueness and how I can celebrate it by embracing hip hop. Hip hop is a uniquely African American creation. So in a very real sense my embracing of hip hop adds to my own uniqueness as a black American. Furthermore, my relationship with God has grown through hip hop.
In my experience, I cannot separate black Americanism from how I see myself. So when people ask how I identify myself, I say this: First, I identify as black because of the color of my skin. That’s obvious to everyone. But, more importantly, I identify first as black because I am proud of it. Secondly, I speak of who I am based on the sum of my experiences, ethnicity, values and faith. I identify as African American because I have lived longer here than in Africa and I am proud to be an American and black. I know blacks still have a long way to go in America before equality comes to fruition, but I am in a better situation here than I would have been had I stayed in the Congo. And so I am grateful to be able to identify not just as Congolese but as African American too.
People from all over the world have a tendency toward generalization. Americans are no exception. We generalize about everything: food, clothing, physical appearance, sports, politics, religion, and so on. We do it because we are lazy. Because we want to make quick sense of our world and keep moving. We also do it because of a herd mentality. If our view matches the narrative of the masses, it is easier to hold false assumptions. We do not want to stop, to get to know what makes others unique and authentic. To do so might legitimize the claim of others to their fair share and fair opportunity. And, at the same time, it might weaken our own claims and rights.
Are we willing to weaken our own claims and rights to legitimize the claim of others?
If you find yourself lost because you have to be someone you're not, are you willing to confront the false impersonation so you don’t have to please and seek favoritism from the “key holders”? You were brought into this world a certain way for a reason. There is a greater calling to be “you” regardless of your ethnicity or skin color. You need to dig deeper inside to find what makes you unique, and to accept your ethnicity and cultural background. There is a greater discovery and freedom in living with an internal acceptance of who you are than hiding behind a preference driven by others.
There is a risk in being content with and proud of who you are when you might look different than the majority and when the rules and regulations in your environment were not made with you in mind. You have to play by the rules to a certain extent but you must also learn how to leverage the rules in your favor in order to increase opportunities for you to be you. Create a bridge between who you are inside and what you are outside, and take advantage of every opportunity to educate people on what it means to be you. Give others the chance to better understand who you are, rather than go with the flow if someone is misrepresenting you. Find different mediums to express yourself and teach others about who you are. It can be the way you dress, the content you write about, the music you create, the way in which you serve others and the things you advocate for.
How to encourage others to be them when you cannot relate to their experiences, ethnicity or color of skin.
Respect, encourage and build relationships that celebrate diversity. Create opportunities that get you out of your comfort zone and out of your preferences. Confront your biases and misconceptions in order to embrace different experiences that will expand your knowledge and sensitivity. Admit that you have biases. Be willing to change when people confront you about how you are treating them. Accept that you are not an expert in everything. Accept that things do not have to make sense in order for you to let others/different experiences in. Do not lead with judgment and defensiveness.
My last recommendation is this: Enjoy the process—without feeling “they owe me” when you accept others for whom they are. You are not doing them a favor. They are doing you a favor for helping you to broaden your worldview.