My traditional Kikuyu grandfather who was born and raised in Kenya has well-intentioned spirits, but he always referred to African-Americans as “them” or “those black people.”
This deliberate detachment from the western conception of blackness sparked a strong curiosity within me. When I finally built up the courage to question his careful disassociation from everything that was black, his response was as straightforward as they come: “That’s not my history.”
This conscious separatism adopted by people such as my grandfather allows Africanness and blackness to exist in mutually exclusive worlds. Perhaps an explanation for this profound discordance in identities is found in the distance between the geographic borders of discussion. It has become clear to me that the reason such statements are able to flow so effortlessly from my grandfather’s lips, yet sit so painfully on my ears, is due to the deep difference in our respective relationships with blackness.
Somewhere along the line with every passport stamp I received, with every predominantly white classroom I found myself seated in and every agonizing mispronunciation of my last name, connecting to an African-American identity became more of a necessity than a choice. Within the western world, I was black and was forced to carry all the implications that contextually came with this identity.
I consider my relationship with the diaspora complicated. I was born in Manitoba to Kenyan parents, moved to California when I was seven and then moved to Kenya seven years later and lived until I moved again. I came to London for my undergrad almost four years ago. But regardless of having the privilege of spending a great deal of my teenage years in Nairobi, where both learning about the richness of Kenyan culture and building relationships with my family were made possible, I still felt a heavy detachment within myself.
On paper, I was not truly American when I lived in the States. Interestingly, however, this same un-Americanness was powerful enough to take away my authenticity in being Kenyan. When I moved to Kenya, the influence that America had on me revealed itself to the extent that my Kenyan legitimacy was often questioned. I was everywhere, but nowhere.
I once read an article that described living in the diaspora as never leaving the airplane on which you arrived. That we, as African diasporic bodies, are always airborne, never settled, never home. Perhaps this estrangement explains the complicated relationship many Africans have with adopting blackness as an identifier. In western lands, blackness needs no introduction. It is a marked category familiar to all, an identity crippled by the cruel legacy of slavery and discrimination. More importantly, it is an identity that is still very much subject to the existence and understanding of whiteness.
On African soil, we speak of blackness in a different language. In Kenya, being black is the default, and as such its usage as an identifier is unnecessary. Consequently, ethnicity, tribalism and differences in socioeconomic status take precedence in choosing one’s identity. It’s no wonder then that my grandfather sees himself as Kikuyu first above all else. Race is not something that he actively has to deal with, and so embracing the view that African Americans are different from him is not intentional but moreso, natural.
Unlike my grandfather, I’ve always struggled with two identities: black and Kenyan. I always felt as though living in North America denied me the privilege of adopting the African-American identity by choice unless I was given the airtime to accept it or deny it as such. I could not flirt with the co-option of black culture, it was ascribed on my body, with or without my consent simply by virtue of my skin colour.
Throughout my childhood, my parents wanted my black identity to come second to being Kenyan. They hoped that my sense of ‘home’ would not dissolve in this new identity that I had found. Despite their efforts, I quickly realized that ‘Kenyan’ was not and will never be its own shade of black for as long as I reside in the diaspora. It neither excuses me from racial discrimination nor does it insulate me from prejudice. I am a black woman living in a society that sees blackness as homogeneous; a society that doesn’t care about the origin of my blackness.
Is African separatism from the western idea of blackness wrong? Frankly, it depends on who you ask. Nevertheless, this doesn’t make transatlantic solidarity any less necessary. Blackness is transcendent in nature. A friend of mine says it’s like lasagna; layered and multidimensional, yet connected, whole. I have come to understand that I am black and African, and that my dual identity is no less palatable.