What does it mean to be African American?

As the first “African American” president prepares to visit Ghana, I’m struck by the irony of his scheduled visit to the Cape Coast Castle. The former slave trading post has the “door of no return” through which many Africans passed on their way to the ships that would bring them to the Americas where they would later become African Americans.

But Barack Obama’s ancestors did not go through the “door of no return.” His father came to America on a plane, not on a ship. His story is an example of how immigration from Africa and the Caribbean is transforming the traditional African American narrative which progressed in a linear fashion from slavery to emancipation to Jim Crow to the civil rights movement until Obama. Obama is a Neo-African American: one of the rapidly growing number of blacks in America with non-traditional connections to Africa and America.

When I started making a documentary about this phenomenon, I used the working title, “The New African Americans”. It seemed simple enough until I found that it wasn’t that simple. After more than 30 screenings around the country, from Maine to New York to Miami to Chicago to L.A., I’ve been struck by the complexities of answers, depth of emotions and rawness of passions around a question as simple as “Are you African American?”

African non-American, Caribbean African American, White African American, Latin African American are some of the categories I had to create to fit people. Anything but African American; hence, the Neo-African Americans.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, almost 3 million blacks in America – about 8 percent of the African American population – are foreign born. Add those who are here “unofficially” and the true number is up for grabs. Add to that their American-born children – in 2005, the number was about 1 million – who are officially African American. .
Now consider that 16 percent of black births are to foreign-born black women and that the new immigrants keep coming at astounding rates and it becomes clear that there is a fast-growing percentage of blacks in America whose connection to the traditional African American narrative is only by ethnic association.

Caribbean and Afro-Latino immigrations have received significant academic, cultural and public policy attention over decades. However, the more recent and rapid rate of African immigration has the potential to highlight black immigration with more force.

African names sound distinctly “black.” I think of it as a Yellow Book phenomenon: a name like Colin Powell in the phone book does not reveal the racial or national heritage of the person, but a name such as Adebayo Ogunlesi is almost certainly black and Nigerian. The Ogunlesis and Dioufs and Kigandas and Tesfamariams are coming fast and will re-stimulate the question, “Who is an African-American again?”

But while some like to sensationalize the differences between African Americans and black immigrants, they have more similarities and shared experiences than differences. I doubt the police who shot West African-born Amadou Diallo or sodomized Haitian-born Abner Louima first asked them, “Are you African American?”

Besides, voluntary black immigrants are able to come to America on a plane and live free because those who came on a ship broke free.

So as the Obamas – don’t forget Michelle’s ancestors came on a ship – experience the “door of no return,” they will be living examples of the intertwined histories and experiences of black African peoples worldwide.

More importantly, the symbolism of the visit will be a major step in America’s onward journey to right the wrongs of the past and perfect the union.