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

By Farooq A. Kperogi As I have said earlier—and in many of my musings on this topic in earlier posts—the stereotype many African Americans h...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

As I have said earlier—and in many of my musings on this topic in earlier posts—the stereotype many African Americans have of the physical features of “sub-Saharan” Africans is that we are all invariably dark-skinned. This is, of course, not entirely true, although the majority of us conform to this physical characteristic.

In Nigeria, for instance, a majority of the Fulani (who, by the way, belong to the Niger-Congo language family in common with Yoruba, Igbo, Edo, Idoma, Ebira, etc) broadly have what you might call “Caucasoid features”—relatively light skin tone, straighter than “normal African” shape of the nose, naturally curly hair, thin body, etc. Yet they are indigenous to West Africa.

The Igbo, Ebira, Idoma, Xhosa (Mandela’s ethnic group), etc also have a high percentage of light-skinned people, although with “quintessential” African features. The same is true of many other groups in central and southern African.

Of course, it is well known by now that many people in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea) have “Caucasoid” features, perhaps because they are the products of the historic racial alchemy between black Africans and Arabs. But I have met as many Somalis and Ethiopians who deny any link with Arabs as I have who acknowledge the possibility, indeed the reality, of a distant racial fusion with Arabs.

Because of the “atypical” looks of the people from the Horn of Africa (who actually don’t look much different from the Fulani in West Africa, the Tutsi in Central Africa, and the Maasai in East Africa) it’s usual in America to wonder if they are mixed with white people. The Somali super model Iman Abdulmajid says she has experienced this since she arrived in America in 1975. She recalls in her book, I am Iman, that Americans always ask if she is part white. “I don't have a drop of white blood in me. I'm beautiful because I am black and I am Somali,” she said.

So when American blacks encounter Africans who defy the stereotype of the dark-skinned, broad-faced, big-nosed “jungle bunny,” they mistake them for native-born American blacks—until they speak, that is.

My own experience is that although no Nigerian, nay African, has ever mistaken me for anything but an African from the continent, many American blacks think I am a native-born black until my accent betrays me. (On one occasion, though, a black Louisianan told me I looked “foreign”). My sense is that this is the case for many other Africans living in America.

It seems to me that the only subset of Africans that conform to and embody stereotypical “African features” with almost mathematical exactitude is the southern Sudanese refugees I have met here. They are always almost as dark as the night (to borrow Malcolm X’s description of black Africans), gracefully lanky, and, well, distinctively “southern Sudanese”—I leave you to imagine what that is. You can always tell them apart from the rest.

However, the trouble with using texture and appearance of the skin as hints of geographic origins is that there are many native-born African Americans who are just as dark as and as lanky as these southern Sudanese and as other dark-skinned Africans.

However, as a general rule, American blacks tend to be light-skinned (I mean “light-skinned” from an African perspective; in America when they say “light skin” they usually mean people who look like Obama, etc) and to look like what in Nigeria we call “aje butter”— sleek, well-fed youngsters who exude wealth and status and who often display the character or disposition of people who are “harmed” by pampering or oversolicitous attention. Even when they are dark-skinned or poor, African Americans tend to look fresher, smoother and better groomed than your average African.

Well, this is not surprising. They are, after all, citizens of the world’s most prosperous nation, a nation that wastes more food in a day than many African countries consume in weeks. (The economic crunch is changing that now, though).

The salutary weather here may also be responsible for their smooth skin textures. The harshness of the winter is mitigated by the luxuriance of the spring and the warmth and radiance of the summer.

But, most importantly, most American blacks are racially mixed, even if this mixture is not often apparent on the surface. According to some accounts, about 75 percent of African Americans have white blood. The consequence of this is intriguing.

I have seen African Americans with the unflattering facial features of Olusegun Obasanjo and the skin color of George Bush. If they were to be headless, they would be mistaken for white people. I have also seen American blacks with the pitch-dark complexion of Babagana Kingibe and the sharp facial features of Bill Clinton. And I have met American blacks who would get lost in any West African crowd but whose mothers are white.

For instance, two years ago, I had cause to visit a friend, whom I’d always known as “black,” in the state of Texas. On the second day of my visit, he told me his mother was going to visit him and that we should go pick her up at the airport. After about 10 minutes of wait at the airport, my friend left me and went to hug a white woman who was coming toward our direction.

This was the exact time his mom was supposed to be arriving from New York. What was he doing with an older white woman at this time when he should be looking for his mom? As my friend and the white woman walked toward me, I impatiently asked him if his mom was still coming from New York.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. This is my mom,” he said. I was stunned. This guy didn’t look like someone who could be “mothered” by a white woman. He is only a shade or two lighter than me (and a shade darker than, let’s see, Pat Utomi or Abubakar Rimi). He would pass for any regular light-skinned Fulani in Yola, or Igbo in Abakaliki, or Idoma in Otukpo!

I profusely apologized to the woman whom I thought I’d embarrassed. “No, you don’t need to apologize. I am already used to that,” she said as she smiled reassuringly. She added in jest that had she been my friend’s dad, and not his mom, people might have questioned the authenticity of her claim to paternity. To which I joked too that people who are invested in “delinking” her from her son could as well claim that her real baby was erroneously switched with a black couple’s baby at the hospital. “But he was born at home,” she said. And there was infectious, good-natured laughter.

This incident has left a permanent impression in my mind. Although my friend’s dad is a dark-skinned American black, it’s still strange to me how the genes in him chose to manifest themselves.

Well, an instructive experiment at the Pennsylvania State University a few years ago demonstrated how this is possible. A professor of genetics randomly chose students from his class and collected their DNA samples. When the DNA of the darkest-skinned African American in the class was analyzed, it was discovered that he had 25 percent white genes in his genetic make-up. (The “whitest” guy in the class also discovered that he had 15 percent black genes).

Even Louis Henry “Skip” Gates, one of black America’s most celebrated scholars, discovered that 50 percent of his genes are Irish and only about 25 percent Yoruba. When he traveled to the coast of Mombasa in Kenya for his controversial documentary Wonders of the African World, he was shocked to realize that the ethnic Swahili people of Kenya many of who trace their descent patrilineally to the Middle East but who are darker than him (obviously because they are part African) don’t consider themselves “black.”

It is for the same reason that many African Americans can’t simply fathom why northern Sudanese call themselves “Arabs” when most of them, in fact, look just like the average African American. In exasperation, one of my black American friends here once said of the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir: “This mofo is a nigga like me! He ain’t no Arab!”

To be concluded next week

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