Tuesday, October 16, 2012

African-American Exceptionalism and the "Diaspora"

I've been reading the "Amazing Facts About The Negro" thread on TheRoot.com and was a bit startled to read that out of the nearly 11 million Africans brought to the "new world" via slavery, less than half a million ended up in the United States. Compared to the nearly 309 Million self-identifying members of the African Diaspora in the US now, that figure is even more astounding.

Today's article mentioned something even more interesting to me. The idea of "African-American Exceptionalism", or the thought that in the minds of many, the Black Diasporan experience, revolves around that of African-Americans.

It's an interesting conundrum that I first explored after moving to Mexico and talking to Afro-Mexicanos in Veracruz about their identity. My friend Dash Harris, who's documentary series Negro you should support, examines this a bit in her series a bout Afro-Latino identity. Prior to moving outside of the US I had never considered the fact that most Africans were sent to other parts of "The Americas", and that in truth we are just a minority in the broader "African-American" conversation. Our brothers and sisters in Brazil, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas make up the majority of that group and their stories need to be told just as much as those of Martin, Marcus, Malcolm, and Rosa. I realized that even I, a proponent of renewed engagement and awareness of Africa by the diaspora, had fallen into the African-American exceptionalist bunch.

It was tought to reconcile but necessary as I work to build the Afripolitans into an entity that is about anything but that. There is a divide in the diaspora, understood but not always documented, that should make us think about this idea of exceptionalism, and how to nip it in the bud - it's not helping any of us. There is an excellent princeton article that discusses the division of African Studies and African-American studies in the1990s that speaks to the divide at an academic level that I encourage people to read.

At a basic level, what used to be a trans-atlantic divide that amounted to curiousity about the other, has become a very cultural divide that has Haitians not wanting to identify their African heritage, African-Americans as outsiders to branded "diaspora" events, and African taxi drivers in Atlanta not wanting to offer rides to their African-American counterparts. It's a disturbing trend that I for one hope I can be a small part of reversing but I think for everyone we must start at debunking exceptionalism and celebrating the journey of the entire collective.

They are amazing...whether they are the colonial struggles of Toussaint or those of British Nigerians breaking into London's ad industry, the African diaspora has continued to defy expectations and become huge contributers to culture, science, acadamia, and beyond. A unity that involves commerce, content, and creativity can push us to even greater realms in a world that's increasingly flat.

I guess this was my soapbox moment of the day but I'm really interested to hear your thoughts.





  1. As a Somali-born male living in Toronto, I've come across this geographical/cultural divide you mention in your article: I know of Somalis who will not identify with Afro-Canadians, sometimes even other Africans, and I have Afro-Canadian and Caribbean-Canadian friends who don't consider Somalis black, or refuse to acknowledge a commonality with other Africans--there is real animosity, at times, between our divided people. I live in a predominantly black neighbourhood where African blacks don't interact with Caribbean blacks--so how do we foster this unity you speak of, because I very much want it to happen.

    1. Hi Aden, first I want to thank you for your comment. It is interesting to hear that this experience is also mirrored in Canada. In my experience it has really been about having the frank and open conversation every chance you get. I've had it with everyone from taxi drivers to diplomats and not in an aggressive or negative way but in a manor that allows people to be open and share their views. I think travel and commerce are additional elements to consider. It's hard to buy into stereotypes when you can actually get a feel for a place or if you are doing business with them. Bit by bit we can make a difference.