Blackness without Boundaries: A Pan-Africanist Perspective

Kamala Devi Harris: the first female vice president, is a woman of Jamaican and Indian heritage. She was born more than a half century ago to immigrant parents, in Oakland, California. Madame Vice President Harris, chose to attend an HBCU and to pledge a black sorority. She is as multifaceted in her abilities as she is in her cultural heritage. Yet, there are those who seem to be unable to rejoice in her accomplishment, and question if, “is she even Black”?

“Same boat. Different stops” is a common saying repeated throughout the African Diaspora. Yet, despite knowing that the African continent is the origin of human civilization, there continues to be a cultural divide among people of African heritage regarding who is authentically Black and who is Black with a qualifier. For Black people who were born outside of the United States they’ve had to contend not only with decades of white racism but also stereotypes held by American born Blacks. Conversely, Black people born in the United States have for centuries faced the brunt of American racism, as well as disdain from some foreign born Blacks.

Nigerian born actress, Yvonne Orji from the hit HBO series, Insecure, stated in her 2020 stand-up performance, that for some Black millennials, the childhood taunts and jeers aren’t distant memories.

  • African Americans are lazy, that’s why they can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Over the years, the cultural wars that have pit mainland Africans and Caribbean people against Black Americans have subsided, somewhat. However, strongly held ideas and deep seated divisions still exist among these groups. Over the past few years, blatant acts of white supremacy have caused people of color to simultaneously congeal around a pan-ethnic Black identity, while still segmenting themselves into their respective ethnic groups.

One example of this took place in 2017, when actor Samuel L. Jackson made comments that sparked a debate about whether Black British actors should portray African American icons on screen. He said, “There are a lot of black British actors in these movies…Daniel [Kaaluya] grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years…What would a brother from America have made of that role? Some things are universal, but (not everything).” British actor, John Boyega, from Star Wars, aptly responded, “Black Brits vs African American. A stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for.” In his statements, Jackson was inferring that Blacks born in the U.K. had had no experiences of racial prejudice, as though racism had somehow skipped the British Isles.

More recently, students at Harvard University, who refer to themselves as Generational African Americans, established a students’ association to address their perceived cultural erasure in Black spaces on campus. In a recent issue of the Harvard Crimson, the founders of the association contend that GAA students occupy the “lowest rung” in the Black community. In the article, the author highlights that “…advocating for GAA students carries fraught undercurrents: the reality that promoting specificity can tread closely to the needless trap of pitting marginalized groups against each other.”

During my time at Spelman College, I interacted with young Black people from all over the world. My freshman year roommate was from Kansas City, Missouri. She introduced me to real BBQ, via care packages sent by her parents. We stood in our dorm room eating ribs from Gates, dripping in sauce. I, in turn, introduced her to the classic songs of Beres Hammond and Buju Banton. There we were: two Black girls educating each about our respective cultures, while becoming more well rounded individuals in doing so.

It goes without saying that everyone is entitled to celebrate the nuances that make him or her unique. Unfortunately, for Black people, these differences have often been used to create unnecessary divisions within our communities. It is possible to be Black and German; Black Dutch; and Black British. It must be recognized that the world is bigger than the borders of the United States; and Blackness in all of its magnificent forms cannot be narrowly defined. There are over 1 billion Black people on the African continent; tens of millions in Latin America; a few million in Melanesia; and several thousand displaced peoples on the Indian subcontinent and in South East Asia. When Black people embrace their Blackness, and think beyond the limitations of borders, anything is possible.

  • Shirley Chisholm. The first Black woman elected to the United States Congress and the first African American to run for president. She was born in Brooklyn, to a Barbadian mother and Guyanese father.

So once again, Kamala Devi Harris. Jamaican. Indian. American. And Black.

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A psychiatrist writing about mental health issues, through a black female lens.