African American identification with being part of the African diaspora varied throughout time, place, and circumstance. In the U.S. where society is still battling with institutional racism and personal prejudices against people racialized as Black and against people from Africa [cite], it can be difficult to identify publicly with the African ethnic homeland. Despite the difficulty, there is a growing trend of African Americans doing just that.
For African Americans, the choice to identify publicly with their ethnic homeland of Africa was not easy and sometimes politically motivated. For many African descendants, aspirations of freedom included the liberation of Africa from colonial rule and a return to the African continent. Beginning in the 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) promoted the mission of African liberation and uniting the Black people of the world. Garveyism was well known for its “Back to Africa” ideology, which gave the African diaspora a charge of developing Africa. Garveyism also included a charge for the African diaspora to uplift members of the Black race from the effects of slavery and discrimination in every country where Black people lived. It was a working class movement and, at its peak, had 6 million members in the Black world (Guridy, 2010). It carried the ideal of being able to both return “home” to uplift the ethnic homeland of Africa while also experiencing full citizenship in their birth countries where their African ancestors developed through forced labor and severe limitations on self-determination.
However, Marcus Garvey envisioned an Africa that was in need redemption (Kendi, 2016; Walters, 1993). He promoted the narrative that people of African descent were genetically inferior, a narrative which continued until W. E. B. Dubois’s 1908 publication and E. Franklin Fraizer’s 1932 publication stating that Black people were actually socially pathological rather than genetically pathological (Dilworth-Anderson et al., 2009). This rationale was partly based on Fraizer’s observation that as Black people gained upward mobility and moved away from poorer Black neighbors, their lifestyles were more aligned with White Americans (Dilworth-Anderson et al., 2009). The Black elite class of the time encouraged the cultural assimilation of White American cultural values, particularly the function and structure of White American middle-class families and their gender norms (Dilworth-Anderson et al., 2009; Kendi, 2016).
What became the racial uplift ideology of respectability not only regarded the highly functional Black extended family structure as pathological (Wilson, 1986) and African peoples and cultures as inferior (Kendi, 2016), Black American elites also held White American middle-class values as the standard by which to judge other Black Americans. They reasoned that showing this form of moral standing would help to reduce anti-Black racism from White people (Kevin Kelly Gaines, 1996; Kendi, 2016). Those considered as different from this narrow representation of morality were shunned within their communities (Collins, 2005; Kevin Kelly Gaines, 1996). While many ascribed to Black respectability politics regardless of their education or income levels, others sought to identity with Africa due to their ancestral heritage and common racialization.
Therefore, in 1957, when Ghana became the first African nation to gain independence from colonial rule, many people of the African diaspora celebrated their victory and drew inspiration from the possibilities of a liberated Africa. Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, invited many African, West Indian, and African American dignitaries to attend the ceremonies celebrating the birth of the nation of Ghana (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008). According to Gaines (2008), these members of the African diaspora held positions almost on par with the Duchess of York in the independence ceremonies (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008).
From the late 50s to the late 60s, as struggles continued for decolonization in Africa, many members of the African diaspora in the U.S. continued to fight for civil rights. The U.S. South fought for desegregation while the U.S. North spoke up for African liberation and began calling themselves by the ethnic reference of “Afro-American”. During this time, many in the U.S. diaspora location also emigrated from the U.S. to Africa via Ghana (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008). “At the height of the civil rights movement, from the late 1950s to 1966, scores of African Americans, including intellectuals, technicians, teachers, artists, professionals, entrepreneurs, and trade unionists, left the United States for Ghana” (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008, p. 6).
While segments of the African diaspora, such Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers, pushed for civil rights through integration, others, such sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, regarded the pursuit of integration as a compromise for social justice. Frazier saw the U.S. federal government as co-opting integration as a Cold War, top-down tactic adopted because of international criticism from countries of color. He felt that this legalistic approach to integration would not improve the socioeconomic conditions of the African diaspora in the U.S. Frazier also opposed the condition attached to federal support for integration which effectively required that the African diaspora reject all except an U.S. national identification (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008).
Some African Americans, such as Julian Mayfield, rejected Cold War censorship which resulted in them fleeing to Ghana. Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah welcomed dissenting African Americans and explicitly encouraged people of African descent to emigrate from Western countries and relocate to Ghana to help build the nation. As African Americans did so, many were not rejecting the U.S. specifically. They were rejecting the harsh treatment that Blacks faced in the U.S. They also refused to have their identification with their African ethnic homeland to be censured by the U.S. federal government (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008).
Others, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. on his return from Ghana’s celebration of becoming an independent nation, decided to silence his identification with Africa and African liberation to pursue the American dream by pressing for legalized integration and assimilation. Towards the end of King’s life, he became more vocal about his critique of U.S. economic discrimination and foreign policy. Towards the end of Malcom X’s life, he too began to openly criticize U.S. policies toward Africa. As more and more African countries gained independence from colonial powers and former colonial rulers began shifting to neocolonial positions, the U.S. government moved to support U.S. financial strongholds in Africa while silencing those African descendent U.S. citizens who disagreed with the U.S. neocolonial practices in Africa. African Americans who were brave enough to speak out were considered unpatriotic and faced repercussions (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008).
With the assassination of major leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (who both spoke of racial unity, economic equality, and African liberation increasing before being murdered) and leaders of self-determinate movements such as the Black Power movement murdered by the U.S. government or silenced, the federally supported top-down integration project moved forward. As long as African Americans were willing to silently and peacefully assimilate into the pursuit of an American Dream of individual family successes based on White standards, they would more likely achieve upward mobility. Whereas organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have worked tirelessly for legal wins against discrimination of Blacks, successes seemed to disproportionately benefit those already in positions of relatively individual financial privilege.
In contemporary times, it is the African countries’ roots tourism industry, rather than major political figures, that seems to be inviting African Americans. The African Americans that create African transnational lifestyles for themselves are doing so less as a collective protest and more to pursue individual liberties.
Collins, P. H. (2005). Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. Routledge.
Dilworth-Anderson, P., Burton, L. M., & Johnson, L. B. (2009). Reframing theories for understanding race, ethnicity, and families. In Sourcebook of family theories and methods (pp. 627–649). Springer.
Gaines, Kevin K. (2008). American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era (1 edition). The University of North Carolina Press.
Gaines, Kevin Kelly. (1996). Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (2nd ed.). The University of North Carolina Press.
Guridy, F. A. (2010). Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (1 edition). The University of North Carolina Press.
Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. Nation Books.
Walters, R. W. (1993). Pan Africanism in the African Diaspora: An Analysis of Modern Afrocentric Political Movements. Wayne State University Press.
Wilson, M. N. (1986). The Black extended family: An analytical consideration. Developmental Psychology, 22(2), 246.