Black, African American, West Indian, African, Black American, Afro-Latinx. These and the myriad of other ways that individuals of African descent have come to define themselves and each other come packed with a host of unspoken/underlying meanings. They house myths, hidden assumptions, stereotypes and declarations about who we are, how we see ourselves and the identities and communities that we hope to create.
This month, conversations and controversies have been ignited about the meaning of Blackness, the salience of ethnicity over race (and vice versa) and which members of the diaspora have ownership over what parts of the Black experience. While some individuals have assuaged this conversation entirely for a host of reasons, these discussions can be fruitful and serve as a learning opportunity if we use these moments wisely.
Last weekend, Canadian rapper Drake released his latest album More Life to both criticism and praise that swiftly swept through social media. Among these discussions, was curiosity and commentary around Drake's decision to heavily employ Jamaican patois and sample music from Caribbean artists-- choices that echo his previous work but seem to play a larger role in this album. Given his own personal heritage (Drake grew up in Canada and was born to a white mother and Black American father) fans questioned whether his use of Caribbean slang constitutes appropriation despite the fact that he too identifies as a person of African descent.
Mirroring these questions was an arguably more intense storm of controversy that came down earlier in the month when actor Samuel L. Jackson criticized the highly successful thriller Get Out, and the decision made by director Jordan Peele to cast Black British actor Daniel Kaluuya as a Black American. In an interview on Hot 97, Jackson asked “What would a brother from America have made of that role? I’m sure the director helped but some things are universal, but everything ain't” In response, Kaluuya expressed disappointment at Jackson's comments. “I resent that I have to prove that I'm black”, Kaluuya argued, “I see black as one, man”.
What lies at the heart of these two stories and the controversies embedded with them are questions surrounding the diversity of the Black community and how to parse out those differences while still recognizing that we all share the same racial background. In the context of the US, these queries are particularly interesting given the relatively recent rise of Black immigration to the country. This influx of new immigrants has resulted in the melding of cultures between Blacks of other ethnic backgrounds and their Black American (people of African descent who have roots in America dating back to US Slavery) peers. According to a 2015 report released by the Pew Research Center examining the rising population of foreign-born Blacks, the Black Immigrant population in America has nearly quadrupled since 1980. Even between the years of 2000 and 2013, the Black immigrant population (comprised of immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America) rose from 6.7% to 8.7%.
Studies conducted throughout the 90s have highlighted the tensions between various Black ethnic groups within the States particularly those between Black Americans and first generation- Black immigrants. Researchers have suggested that the driving force behind these tensions is the concept of segmented assimilation, which posits that since Black Americans have historically been oppressed in the US, it would be strategically disadvantageous for Black immigrants to fully assimilate into the Black American community.
Highlighting one's ethnic background and nationality during job interviews or social interactions, thus signals a difference from Black Americans and it was one of the many ways that Black immigrant respondents in these studies avoided categorization as Black Americans. Follow-up studies in the late 90s and early 2000s however, surveyed second and third generation Black immigrants and found that many of these trends and negative stereotypes about Black Americans were less prevalent. In fact, this later research also found that children of Black immigrants were far more likely to view themselves as one and the same to their Black American peers.
While these more recent studies highlight the strengthening of ethnic solidarity amongst Blacks, discussions around the sometimes strained relationship within the African diaspora have endured and even been amplified in interesting---and at times, vitriolic---ways on social media. For example, Black Twitter, the community of Black Twitter users that in large part drive the social media platform and offer hilarious and thought-provoking commentary on current events, often displays the social cohesion and cultural similarities within the African diaspora. However, every once in awhile trending topics such as #DiasporaWars emerge and highlight the ways in which inter-ethnic division and misunderstanding still persist.
For those who have chosen to disengage from these conversations, the reason is simple: at the end of the day, the outside world views us all as Black regardless of our nationality or ethnic background and thus, we should use our energy to band together and combat more grave issues that impact us all. However, while there is an overwhelming tendency for these conversations to become negative and rooted in stereotype as opposed to fact, the idea that we ought to shy away completely from discussing the diversity of the diaspora may not be the wisest decision. At their best, such moments --whether they emerge from newly released literature, music, film, or even academic research-- can serve as a learning and sharing opportunity. They can be seeds into further exploration as to why the music, language, food and customs of each community within the diaspora is unique due to political, economic and historical trends that have shaped where we wound up and who we are now.
Recognizing these differences need not be the foundations of hierarchy or ill-spirited division but rather it could allow us to celebrate the diversity, resilience, and adaptability of Black culture at large. It would also allow us to ask more interesting and thought-provoking questions about the malleability of, and intersections between, cultures within the diaspora. The media that we consume serves greater utility when we are challenged to (constructively) ask “what if” as opposed to taking what we are given at face value.
Our decision to engage in conversations about the diaspora also enables us to wrestle with questions of ownership and whether narratives, histories and cultural trends can be appropriated across ethnic lines even when they remain within the boundaries of race. Sure, we could chew on Jackson's question of how would a Black American approach Kaluuya’s role in Get Out, but we could also ask how (or would) the film's narrative be different if Kaluuya had been cast in the same role except as a Black British man living in America and dating a White American woman? What (if any) changes would we want to have seen and why would we want to see them? To address the other aforementioned story, we could pose the question of what does it mean when Drake employs patois despite not having familial roots in the island nation? How would it differ had it been a non-Black rapper who did the same?
There aren't any right, wrong or even clear answers to these questions or the host of other queries that these recent controversies could have ignited. The beauty of Black culture, however, is that there is such a wide array of individuals with their own diverse set of experiences and perspectives. That means that there is endless potential for conversations that will extend beyond simply asserting our singularity---and they can be civil, constructive and always of course, colorful.