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Can you tell an African from a Black American? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi After more than 400 years of spatial separation, do Africans and their cousins in the Americas still share the same phy...

By Farooq A. Kperogi
After more than 400 years of spatial separation, do Africans and their cousins in the Americas still share the same physical features? Would the average black American whose ancestors were stolen from Africa hundreds of years ago “stand out” in, say, Nigeria?

What of African immigrants in the United States? Are they so physically “different” from native-born American blacks that one can tell straight away that they are from the “continent”?

As frivolous and prosaic as these questions appear, they engage, and sometimes agitate, the minds of many African Americans and Africans alike. A number of my readers from Nigeria, for instance, have sent me private emails asking to know how I differentiate Africans from African Americans. Interestingly, many of my African American friends and acquaintances here have asked me the same question in the past.

Well, it’s easy to know why my readers in Nigeria ask how I tell Africans from African Americans. In many of my writings, I have talked about how I spotted Nigerians from a crowd of black people. This would tend to suggest that it is easy to tell an African from a native-born American black.

Yet, my readers probably watch pop music videos and find that most of the people they see in these videos can easily pass for Nigerians without inviting any curiosity.

(My uneducated mom who had no awareness of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade had thought that the African American pop music icons her Westernized children were crazy about were Nigerians who recently emigrated to the United States!).

For African Americans, the reasons they ask these questions are more complex. As more and more Africans emigrate to the United States, African Americans realize that the stereotypes they had nursed about prototypical African looks are proving to be miserably inaccurate.

Similarly, courtesy of the Internet, and especially YouTube, African Americans have now been exposed to a vast range of African phenotypes in ways that disrupt the fossilized, time-honored notions that had congealed in their minds about what they’d thought of as archetypal African features.

As an example, I have lost count of the number of African Americans who have asked me if the light-skinned people they see in Nigerian movies or in Congolese music videos on YouTube are bleaching their skins. Or if Somalis, Ethiopians, and the other relatively light-skinned West and Central Africans they see here have tinctures of white blood running in their veins.

Most importantly, many African Americans who have an emotional attachment to Africa wonder if they would look “out of place” in Africa because of their looks. To understand the import of this anxiety, it helps to remember that many African Americans embody at least three racial heritages—black, white and “red” (i.e., Native American)—such that some of them can look neither “typically” black nor “typically” white. In black Africa, especially in West and Central Africa from where the black ancestors of African Americans hail, that can mean that they look “white.”

And this can often give rise to a peculiar kind of identity crisis that African Americans are not accustomed to in America. Here, blackness is not a wholly phenotypic category; it embraces a vast gamut of skin types, tones and textures.

The eminent African American scholar WEB Dubois once said, in his seminal book The Souls of Black Folk, that African Americans have the misfortune of always being held hostage by a “double consciousness,” which he defined as the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” This double consciousness, Du Bois insisted, constitutes the core of what he called “the strange meaning of being black” in America at the turn of the century.

Dubois was talking about the fact that the historically displaced African persona in America is often defined and looked at simultaneously by a racist “white supremacist gaze,” which habitually oscillates between different images of blackness, and by the notions that African Americans hold of themselves, which are often products both of the resistance to or acceptance of the definitions of blackness by the white power structure.

Now, as Africans and African Americans interact more and more, a third gaze is emerging: that of their long-lost cousins from the homeland with whom they hadn’t fully associated until now and about whom they sometimes seem ambivalent. If we add this dimension to Du Bois’ double consciousness we may end up with a “triple consciousness.” A few anecdotes will suffice.

I was once told the story of an African American teenager who traveled to Tanzania for a study-abroad program out of her passion to reconnect with “the homeland” but was heartbroken when she was habitually but innocently called a “muzungu” (the East African word for “white person”) by Tanzanians because she was so light-skinned she could pass for white in Africa. (Americans call that kind of skin tone “high yellow.” Most southwest Louisianans, especially the Creoles from New Orleans, look like that).

One of my Gambian friends also told me the story of what he called “white-looking” African American tourists who got distressed upon realizing that a group of Gambians was having fun at their expense. The African American tourists, after visiting the relics of the slave trade that took their black ancestors to the Americas, got emotional and started to cry.

The Gambians sniggered, my friend told me, because the people they saw crying didn’t look to them like people whose ancestors could have been black Africans. They had straight hair, “high yellow” skin tones, sharper than “normal” black African noses, etc.

Malcolm X faced a similar situation in the early 1960s when he traveled to Ghana. His fame as a fierce, fiery and uncompromising black nationalist had preceded him, but many Ghanaians had neither watched him on TV nor seen his pictures. Maya Angelou, the celebrated African American poet, was in Ghana when Malcolm visited.

According to her recollections in her book All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, while Malcolm X addressed hundreds of students at the University of Legon on Black Nationalism, he sensed that the students were kind of “disappointed” that the man who was famous for celebrating black pride and for railing against “white devils” looked more like the white people he condemned than the people he was addressing.

Although Malcolm had decidedly “black African” facial features—a broad nose, thick lips, brown eyes, etc—he was so light-skinned that he was nick-named “Detroit red” when he was a teenager. White people even ridiculed him as a “red uppity nigger.” (Malcolm’s mother, who was from the Caribbean, was half white and half black, although his dad was a dark-skinned American black.)

Never one to shy away from such issues, Malcolm asked the University of Legon students to share with him what they were thinking about him. My recollection of Maya Angelou’s account of this encounter is admittedly fuzzy. I don’t remember if a student told him he looked more white than black, or if he, on his own, brought the issue up. (I read this book nearly 15 years ago). But I recall Angelou writing that that Malcolm prefaced the explanation of his “atypical” skin texture by saying “it’s a strange sensation” that he had a need to explain his looks to Africans, his brothers and sisters.

But he struck a chord when he explained that most black Americans with light skin tones had the misfortune of having their mothers raped by white brutes. Does the child cease to be the son or daughter of its mother in the event of a rape, he asked. He said in black America the African woman cherished her children and accepted them as they were. They were hers, not the rapist’s. In a matrilineal Ghanaian society where descent is traced through the mother’s blood line, Malcolm’s explanation provoked an instant, if vicarious, identification.

Yet, not all African Americans look so “mixed-race” that their “race cred” will be in danger of being called into question in Africa. In fact, the vast majority of the 39 million native-born American blacks in this country look like “regular” black Africans on the continent. In spite of this, however, we are still sometimes able, with varying degrees of accuracy, to tell one from the other. How do we do that?

To be continued


  1. There is so much ignorance in this post. You write like you're an expert on historical representations of race but somewhere somehow you have forgotten that there is no such thing as a typical 'African'. Africans are as diverse as the number of ethnicities on the content. For example, Agbani Darego was clearly from southern-Nigeria but I bet she could be easily mistaken as ethnically from the Horn of Africa; with her so-called 'caucasoid features'.

    I have a huge problem with that term 'caucasoid' features. What the heck is that? I know many white people who have so called "African" features and big afros. I also know many black people who are not from the "Horn" or mixed with anything other than "African" with those so-called "caucasoid" features.
    Race is a farce. And this is especially true in our globalizing world.

  2. Anya, if only you'd bothered to read the second part of my article, you would have realized that I'v addressed some of these issues you have raised. Anyway, thanks for your visit--and for your comments.


  3. Oh ok, thanks for redirecting me. I just found Part 2 of your article.

  4. You're welcome back, Anya. You would also notice that I inserted inverted commas on words such as "typically," "caucasoid," etc. I am aware that these are hotly contested categories.


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