Carving a cultural identity in the US: Africanism or Americanism?

Africa’s impact on world civilization – science, religion, etc. – has been confined to the doldrums of history. Africans everywhere – pre, during, and post slavery – have been struggling to rediscover their identities and place them on the pedestal step of natural order in development. Contemporary African Immigrants, especially in the US, face the herculean task of carving their identities or blending into mainstream America, where they would be accepted as part of the gorgeous mosaic that has characterized the sociocultural and economic development of the US. For contemporary Africans in the US, the challenge is whether to stay Africanized or become Americanized.

Early Europeans who settled and colonized the so-called New World influenced the United States with their ways of life, including naming cities after their places of origin. The English brought their system of government; the Spaniards, French, Dutch, etc., besides their language, brought their cuisine and fashion, among other things. They also brought their diseases to the New World, which hastened to decimate the population of the indigenes. Later arrivals, like German immigrants, influenced the celebration of Christmas by introducing the Christmas tree, and also brought hot dogs; Irish were instrumental in organized and unionized labor; the Italians brought in, besides their diet, arts and music. Other cultures such as the Chinese introduced martial arts, acupuncture, and food.

Post-Columbus, Africans arrived in the Americas as conquered persons, their ways of lives heavily controlled and influenced by their conquerors. On the other hand, contemporary first-generation African immigrants to the US are arriving with their traditions and cultural traits, but unlike contemporary European immigrants, Africa’s impact on the culture of the U.S. has been negligible, even though it is the fastest-growing well-educated community in the U.S.

The minimal impact of African culture in the U.S. is understandable, because unlike other immigrant communities that are intrinsically homogeneous in nature, Africa is non-homogeneous in many aspects of culture. Further, its contemporary immigrants to the US have brought with them traits influenced by the colonial era more so than their African persona.

Stick together or separate ways

First-generation Africans in the US are basically content with membership in their own ethno-religious and social organizations and seldom join other local and/or broad-based nonprofit organizations outside their communities. On the flip side, African achievers are more likely to belong to professional bodies in their chosen fields and seldom venture out into other civic organizations in mainstream America.

Consequently, African assimilation into mainstream America has been slow. For quality of life and other reasons, middle- to upper-class Africans mostly reside in the suburbs alongside achievers from other communities. Socializing, especially among children in suburbs, is more pronounced at schools and may define future social circles. However, for optimized patronage, businesses established by these achievers are in urban areas. The tradeoff is longer work commute.

Tough choices

First-generation Africans in the US face herculean challenges. English-speaking African immigrants must get used to American semantics where driveway means a space to park a vehicle in front of a house and parkway is a thoroughfare for vehicles rather than a place to park a vehicle. Africans must also get used to other phrases and jargons in the American lexicon to better fit in with the greater community.  As such, some take the pains to affect Americanism in  intonation and accent.

The stress and strain of working more than one job, odd and long work schedules, racism, biases and prejudices, on the job and in public commute, are intangibly inimical and unsettling to an otherwise peaceful home when raising children. School-going children spend more time at the hands and under the care of teachers and friends whose cultures and attitudes are vastly different from the cultural practices at home.

The result are cultural conflicts, confusions, and contradictions at home and in school. Unfortunately, some parents, by virtue of their unidirectional cultural traits, fail to recognize the conundrum faced by their children, and unwittingly turn the children into seemingly uncontrolled rebels. Added to the inherent stress is frustration with family members or friends back home in Africa. Often, funds entrusted to family and friends for development projects back home are misappropriated for parochial interests, creating conflicts and confusions among family and friends, adding more stress.

Home affairs

Among the Ghanaian community, while first-generation parents mostly subsist on a traditional African diet, children’s diet consists of anything but their parents’ eating habits. Further, while a typical Ghanaian couple speak their natural language at home, the English Language is the lingua franca with children. Consequently, children seldom visit extended families back in Ghana until old enough to search for their natural identity. At a ripe age, they struggle to learn the language of their parents, savor dishes they never had, and may make pilgrimages to their ancestral homes. These groups of young adults identify with Africanism. Others lose their African roots in the process and shun anything and everything African.

Ethnic organizations

Formation of ethnic Ghanaian organizations in the US started in New York City in the late ’70s to serve as, among other things, ambassadors of Ghana’s culture. But now ethnic organizations are all but dead for several reasons. In the formative years and up to their peaks, the youth were left out of the social equation. Thus, sociocultural events were observed without youth participation in the activities of their parents.

Leaving children behind in sociocultural activities has proven to be an expensive proposition that is all but almost impossible to redeem. There is therefore a cultural disconnect between parents and their children. Without any cultural direction, the youth naturally become unidirectional and adopt the practices that they are exposed to. Thus, by all indications, ethnic organizations were created for and on behalf of contemporary first-generation Ghanaians, and their demise, indubitably, would take with them the organizations they created.

Dying practices

Up until the mid-1990s, Ghanaians were mostly never buried in the US. Funerals for the dead were held on late Friday evenings to allow for maximum attendance. Further, because there was only one flight to Ghana on Saturday, the body of the decedent was flown home after the funeral of the preceding day. That tradition has come to stay, even though the Ghanaian population in the US has substantially increased, and mortal bodies have mostly found their eternal resting place in the US. Except for very close family, Generations Y and Z Ghanaians have no interest in attending a funeral at night. It is important to note that funerals back home in Ghana end at dusk.

Baby boomers

Collectively, the once-vibrant Ghanaian community is fading out into oblivion because its first-generation immigrants and baby boomers are mostly retired or too old to be continually active. While some retirees would relocate back home, others prefer to live the rest of their lives in the US. Those who relocate back home usually have their hands full with extended family affairs and added responsibilities that hopefully keep them active.

It is this group that the Ghanaian government could tap into for their experience and skills to provide labor of love in their fields of knowledge. After all, a substantial number of them enjoy the fruits of labor of Ghanaian peasant farmers and would be too glad to give back to the community. Individually, Africans by virtue of their high academic achievements are contributing to the economic development of the USA and reaching for a chunk of the American pie. However, carving an African identity has thus far proven to be a mirage.

Facing the challenge

One way to confront the issue of African identity is to harness resources and establish African Community Centers within given communities. The centers could host the diverse African cultures (arts, drumming and dancing, etc.) and offer language classes, lectures, and workshops. Other activities such as civic and socioreligious events, and even restaurant booths, could find a place at the centers. It could also serve as a meeting ground for the aged to share their US lifestyles and experiences with newly arrived immigrants.

African nonprofit organizations could also collaborate with non-African organizations for mutual benefit. The community must also encourage and support qualified members to run for local and national elected offices. African media conglomerates could be the voice of the voiceless and promote, showcase, and carve Africa identity in the US. Even an Africa cemetery wouldn’t be a bad idea either. In sum, Africa must have its own unique impact in the US for posterity’s sake.

According to projections, by 2050 the population of Africa will double and more than half that population will be under age 25. This youthful population would be an influencer and attraction to a purposeful revolutionized economic order. It is therefore about time for Africa’s youth in the diaspora to stay connected and ahead of the game with their ancestral homes. After all, it’s an added advantage to have another country as home. The future of Africa, it is hoped, is anchored in its Generations Y and Z in the diaspora.

Posted by on Jan 12 2023. Filed under Op-Ed. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Leave a Reply