For a long time, I was content to say that I reside in the middle. The “middle” is what I call that unique middle ground of being between cultures. In my case, too African to be American and too American to be African.
I suspected I couldn’t be the only one in this space. College confirmed this. I met people just like me, though, how we lived out “middle ground” varied based on individual upbringing. Some leaned heavily on the African side—preferring African music at the parties. While others leaned left—more American than I thought possible. But we all shared one thing: our West African heritage and some degree of a West African upbringing.
One reason I started blogging was to document this duality in my own life as a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a woman. Switching between my Black, African, and American identities is like clicking through images on a vintage View-Master toy—my identities, lenses through which I viewed the world, aren’t fixed.
First and second generation Africans born and raised in America, people like me, have been too often chided for our natural inclination to cherry pick what we want, from the cultures we are raised in. We wear African print, but as crop tops; we eat African food, but don’t want it stinking up the house; we adore Sex and the City and were blown away when brown skin, natural hair, and killer African fashion came together in a hit web series called An African City.
Nicole Amarteifio’s smash web series articulated our stories and, to some extent, our fantasies. An African City follows the lives of five single young African women who have recently resettled in Accra, Ghana after living abroad for most of their lives. The show put a cosmopolitan spin on African life. In doing so, it portrayed what modern life is like for many women who grow up Afropolitan—shaped by both African and western values and esthetics.
In telling the, albeit fictional, stories of five African women, the show ignited discourse about a demographic of Africans who’s lives challenges the conventional African experience. It showed that there was a whole generation of us growing up ‘hybrid’, reconstructing from the old and new, a fresh definition of African identity. The series articulated how our biculturalism made us different from our parents’ who emigrated west in search of better opportunities, and from Africans who grew up on the continent.
There are many people in our generation who have begun the hard work of unpacking and articulating our stories. Tayie Salasie referred to us as ‘Afropolitans’ in her book, Ghana Must Go. Chimamanda touched on our struggles in Americanah. Nigerian-American comedienne, Yvonne Orji made a show about the first generation experience which attempts to highlight the richness of growing up in an immigrant family.
At a film screening for a documentary called, Am I: too African to be American, too American to be African? I was confronted with what the future might look like for the tight-knit immigrant community that strengthens us. Nadia Sasso’s thesis-turned-documentary explored these questions of identity. The film interviewed six women about their experiences growing up African in America, and the struggle of being in this middle place; too African to be American and too American to be African. The candid discussion examined various aspects of everyday life: schooling, dating, parenting, etc. While the individual stories of the women differed, the common struggle to figure out where they fit in on the cultural spectrum, was similar.
Sarra Jabbie, one of the women interviewed in the film, reminisced about the tight-knit Sierra Leonean community that helped raise her when her single mother was occupied with making ends meet. Sarra teared up as she reflected on her community’s love and admits, that her mother wouldn’t have been able to raise her alone. They were supported by ‘fambul,’ Sierra Leonean neighbors, family, and friends who stepped in and picked Sarra up from school, or offered a safe place for Sarra to spend the night if her mom had to work late. Sarra attributes her cultural grounding to this same community who looked out for her growing up. She worried that the safety net that culturally grounded her as a child may no longer be around for her future children.
My life as a mom raising two children in the suburbs was a startling reminder of her projection. Sarra was right. Growing up African, gave us much to laugh about, but it also gave us the support and safety we needed to thrive. The African community gave us the sensibilities we needed to be confident and resilient people, and our children would benefit from growing up in an environment like that, more so than the lily-white suburbs, we find ourselves in now.
While I’m an expert at marrying my African values with my American life, perhaps it’s not enough to rock Ankara-print skinnies. Being proud of my heritage certainly does a lot to impart cultural appreciation in my children, but I can do more. I need not question where I stand on the spectrum of identity as long as I seek, keep, and pass along the best of both worlds. My goal as a parent is to make sure I give my girls some of that cultural grounding that sustains me, so they can carve out their own space in the middle.