I’ve been sitting on this post for a little while now. I thought I’d originally share it back in October… you know, for Black History Month. But in the States, Black History Month is actually in February… The truth is, it’s taken some time to articulate exactly what my experiences have been now that I live in the UK. Yes, I’m American, but I’m also African American. It’s a huge part of my identity, one that I’ve come to understand a little better since moving to the UK. Let me explain a little more…
I remember seeing a tweet last year from someone talking about the difference between black vs. African American. The thread was discussing the fact that they’re used interchangeably, how what it really means is that anyone who is African and American, would then identify themselves as African American. They argued that someone could be Egyptian and living in America or Asian, but born in Africa and also American, and in both of these cases, would be considered African American.
I had to step in and clarify that that is in fact not the case.
Twitter can be a funny place for that kind of discourse, but as someone who does identify as African American, I felt it was important to correct the assumptions that were being made in the series of tweets.
It’s a huge part of my identity, and whenever it comes up in conversation, I do feel obliged to explain what exactly it means to be African American.
African American specifically refers to the black people in America who are the descendants of slaves. You have to keep in mind as well that people who are the descendants of slaves are very unlikely to know where on the continent their heritage is from…
Which is why this all-encompassing term exists.
Why am I taking a moment to explain this? To give you a better idea of how my blackness has changed since living in the UK.
‘What are you on about, Ghenet?’ you’re probably thinking…
A lot of my friends of color, or people who I speak to, usually identify as being Jamaican, Nigerian, or Ghanian, as well as being British. They maintain their family’s country of origin as part of their identity.
Kristabel, for example, speaks very openly about her Jamaican roots, which I always find so interesting!
Even my pal Nicole talks about her Ghanian background. Nicole is American as well, but she doesn’t identify as African American. *Technically* she’s not African American. Her mother is Filipino and her dad is Ghanian.
When I talk about being African American, it’s an acknowledgement that I don’t know that part of my history. I have no country to identify with, no culture to call my own… other than being from America and having ancestors from Africa. The reason so many African American families don’t know where they are from is because during Slavery, families were intentionally separated, languages erased and identities decimated as an effort to keep slaves in line. If you had no family, no kin, you had nothing to fight for.
Now that I live in the UK, I’m more aware than ever of what that lack of knowledge means to me.
If I’m having a conversation about race, and someone asks me about my background, I do find that I have to explain what exactly it means to be African American. Or that I don’t know more than that.
It doesn’t seem to be a concept people have too much of an understanding of.
Of course, this doesn’t change too much my experiences of being black. There are still moments when I’m very conscious of it, regardless of what I identify as.
Just the other week, something happened that made me hyper aware of the color of my skin…
I was at a birthday party recently and while I didn’t know everyone, I had a few friends there. At one point in the evening, these hats started appearing. Red hats, with white writing. They were MAGA hats, but they’d changed ‘America’ to the name of the person who’s birthday it was.
Those hats have become a symbol of hatred, racism and white supremacy. So to be standing in a room, the only person of color, and see people making them into a joke was pretty sickening.
I felt unsafe, and unwelcome.
So I left. I vacated that space because as a black person, I didn’t feel like I could safely exist in that room.
There are so many nuances to being black, and how that identity adds definition to who we are. It’s a minefield, to be sure.
Truthfully, even though I am black, I’m always learning about exactly what that means. To me. To others.
My identity as an African American is very much tied to that as well. I sometimes feel a bit of a disconnect with other people of color, because they have the ability to talk about their roots and where their families are from. I sometimes feel like I don’t belong in those spaces.
And you know what? That’s okay.
All I can do, and all I want to do, is just share a little bit about my experiences. Share in the hope that it will shed a little light into a different aspect of race. Or in the hope that it allows me to be a little freer in my life and in my pursuits.
I am African American. I am proud. I am happy… and I am here.
Photos by Nicole