Too Black, But Not Black Enough? A First Generation Nigerian-American's Perspective
Like Kaluuya, my identity has been attacked on many fronts.
July 05, 2017 at 11:40 am
I resent that I have to prove that I'm black.
— Daniel Kaluuya
So I’m sure most of us have seen, if not at least heard about, Get Out, the surprise box office success written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele. Essentially, Get Out is a comedic horror film that offers a social critique of racism in America. I won’t spoil the movie for those of you living under a rock or dragging your feet to go see it. I will, however, address one particularly interesting and equally concerning casting critique I came across one day. This critique came from none other than Mr. Samuel L. Jackson.
Samuel L. Jackson is who many in the black community would consider an “honorary uncle,” an older prominent figure we hold in the same regard as a blood relative. Other “honorary uncles” include, but are not limited to, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne.
Just like blood uncles, honorary uncles aren’t perfect, and sometimes they say things we may disagree with.
For example, while discussing Get Out, Uncle Sammy had this to say about the casting of Daniel Kaluuya, the Ugandan/British actor cast to play the lead: “I tend to wonder, what would that movie have been with an American brother who really understands [racism in the US]… What would a brother from America have made of that role?”
So what, you might ask. Who cares? I do.
My problem with this statement is that it implies that Kaluuya’s performance was somehow less authentic than say another black actor’s would have been because Kaluuya wasn’t born in America. Wouldn’t the fact that no one knew Kaluuya was British until after the movie serve as proof that his performance was convincing and compelling enough to tell this particular story?
I mean, I get it. The experiences of black people in the US and in Great Britain are different in some aspects, but ultimately, these experiences are PARALLEL. Newsflash: Being an ethnic minority in the Western world isn’t a cakewalk for anybody no matter what country you live in! I’m just not convinced that this movie would have been noticeably different had an African-American played the lead role.
Do we cast real serial killers to play the role of murderers in movies to make the movies seem more “authentic?” Or do we trust actors to channel whatever role they’re playing to deliver a good performance? There’s a word for this phenomenon. Oh yeah, it’s called “acting.”
My annoyance may come off as petty, and I’m sure most people couldn’t care less, but let me tell you why Jackson’s comment really struck a nerve.
As a first generation Nigerian-American, I have, at times, felt alienated from my African-American counterparts who’ve claimed that I wasn’t “black enough” or believed that I couldn’t really relate to them because of my background. I’m not writing this to point fingers at anyone, but I feel compelled to shine a light on the unique experiences that first-generation African-Americans, like myself, encounter regularly.
Racism and prejudice don’t look past my black skin and ask me where my parents are originally from before they discriminate against me. Employees don’t ask me if I’m “black enough” before following me around the store. And neither white, nor Asian, nor Hispanic people welcome me with open arms because I’m “not really black.”
Jackson’s critique of Get Out’s casting was reminiscent of the “not really black” or “not black enough” comments I had heard in the past, and it was pretty disappointing to hear such a well-respected figure in the black community share this opinion.
Daniel Kaluuya responded to Jackson’s comment by saying, "I'm dark-skinned, bro. When I'm around black people I'm made to feel 'other' because I'm dark-skinned. I've had to wrestle with that, with people going 'You're too black.' Then I come to America and they say, 'You're not black enough.' I go to Uganda, I can't speak the language. In India, I'm black. In the black community, I'm dark-skinned. In America, I'm British. Bro!"
Like Kaluuya, my identity has been attacked on many fronts. I’ve heard from African-Americans that I wasn’t “black enough.” And on the flipside, I’ve heard from a Nigerian that I’m "whitewashed” because I don’t speak Igbo!
Despite these comments and opinions, I identify as both an African-American and as a Nigerian-American.
These identities are not mutually exclusive. If they were, then people wouldn’t scream “black girl magic” when Lupita wows in an amazing dress. They’d scream “Kenyan girl magic.”
More recently, the black community was screaming “black girl magic” when Nancy Abu, a GHANAIAN native, became the first black woman to become a neurology resident at Johns Hopkins. Why is it so easy to see African women as black women when it’s convenient and makes black women look good, but so hard to view your fellow first generation African-American as black?
It took me years to unlearn and unhear the words that caused me to question my identity. I’m finally at a place where I love myself and accept who I am. I am a first generation Nigerian-American born and raised in Alabama. You can think what you want of that. I’m black enough. I’m Nigerian enough.
We all need to reject this notion that there is only one true American narrative, only one true African-American narrative. All of our stories are different, but that doesn’t make us less black, less white or less American than the next person. Everyone’s experiences are valid whether they’re shared by the majority or not. Don’t ever attack the validity of anyone’s identity. We’re better than that. Respect everyone’s story. Listen and learn.