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Raven Symoné, African-American & the Post-Race Millenial

Back in May, Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece on Slate.com about Millenials lack of understanding of racism. Millenials, as in us, the generation that reached adulthood in these beginning of years of the 21st Century. Those of us who casted our first vote in the democratic system of the United States to herald in the first Black president. That same presidency according to some signifying the beginnings or maybe the precipice of the post-race era. And here we are…

Millennials see racism as a matter of different treatment, justified by race, that you solve by removing race from the equation.

– Jamelle Bouie, Slate.

But that equation solves nothing as Bouie concluded that “a generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it.” It’s also worth nothing that a few months later in July, Slate also published a piece by Aisha Harris, where she eschews the African American identity instead opting to identify as Black American.

Where I’m from is America—who I am is a black American.

Aisha Harris, Slate

Harris counters that her experience with first and second generation African immigrants in America made her question her own cultural connection to Africa in comparison to their immediate connections to the continent. “To me, people with such explicit connections to their relatives’ home countries accurately embody the term; they truly have access to both cultures,” as Harris continues to point out that she is more in line with the “black American” culture and her only connection to Africa is through the American sensibility. In my own bubble, my video on Africans vs. African-Americans where the comment section is the gift that keeps on giving even when you are entirely over it, there’s been a common sentiment of people wishing to identify as Black- even pushing away the American identity. There have been those with direct connections to Africa who feel that Black Americans have no right to tie themselves to an African identity. Just as some actual Black Americans agree, most echoing a sentiment that the slave trade was hundreds of years ago and those of us in America either have no substantial unifying culture or that culture has been so infiltrated by American culture(s) blurring the connection to Africa.

Now here we are, where in the past week Raven Symoné spoke about having similar sentiments with Oprah on OWN’s Where Are They Now? 

I’m tired of being labelled. I’m an American! I’m not an African-American. I’m an American. […]

I will say this: I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know how far back they go. I can’t go on…ya know… I don’t know how far back and I don’t know what country in Africa I’m from. But I do know my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American. And that’s a colorless person because we are all people.

I have lots of things running through my veins. I don’t label myself. What I mean by that is I’m an American. I have darker skin. I have a nice, interesting grade of hair. I connect with Caucasian, I connect with Asian, I connect with Black, I connect with Indian. I connect with each culture. Aren’t we all [a melting pot in one body]? Isn’t that what America is supposed to be? That’s what it’s supposed to be. I personally feel that way.

I do not agree. It does not bother me when one chooses to identify as Black American over African-American. What does bother me is the argument against the label. As though we are so far removed from the culture of the largely West African lands that our ancestors were taken from. The slave trade legally ended in 1807. However the last slave ship came to the United States of America, in 1859, smuggling the African slaves into Mobile, Alabama. That’s 155 years out from a direct connection to Africa. So for those who think slavery occurred hundred(s) of years ago, by technicality you can pluralize the hundred, by the facts of American history it was not that long ago. For context my great-grandmother (my Mother’s mother’s mother) was born in 1904. Her mother could be my direct link to Africa, putting me at a great-great grandparent, four generations ago. If we want to get technical about the “African-ness” of African-Americans and the term itself…most people from the African continent will identify themselves along their country or ethnic group lines. Nigerian-American or Ghanian-American, as African is a very broad term encompassing 54 countries without even touching the plethora of ethnic groups that exist in Africa. People often refer to themselves as African for the sake of the American ignorance, because having to explain where Malawi is or how people in Guinea do wear clothes not leaves, can be draining, annoying and offensive. It’s suppose to be a board term because most of us who can trace our ancestry back to the slave trade are a mix of African ethnic groups. Interracial marriage just became legal in America in 1967. So for the last slaves to arrive here 155 years ago, we had about 108 years that allowed for a good bit of homogeny to exist in the Black community, where cultures that infused with traits of the African diaspora are passed down through generations.

What’s most interesting is how Raven pointed to her feeling a connection to her Louisiana roots. Historically, Blacks in Louisiana hold tight to some of the strongest cultural connections to the trans-Atlantic loop of the African diaspora, due to having some of the harshest climates for slaves in America, where the lines of segregation are drawn deep even in the present tense. The foods, the language, the accent just as much as it was touched by the French colonizers, in the Black community carries vivid colors of West African culture. Flash of the Spirit, by Robert Harris Thompson, examines how five civilizations in Africa have most impacted African-American culture. Thompson draws a direct connection between jazz and funk music as an etymology of the Bakongo people.

In the South of the United States, important Ki-Kongo words and concepts influenced black English, especially the lexicons of jazz and the blues…

Robert Harris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit

Thompson breaks down the etymology of the terms jazz and funk showing the direct connections to the language of the Bakongo people. The Sankofa symbols in fences and bottle trees in front yards warding away bad spirits are relics of our African ancestors. Remember the opening scenes of the Ray Charles biopic, where a bottle tree sways in the winds of his childhood home, again a cultural connection to the Bakongo people. Our culture, as African-Americans, has clear and strong remnants of the lands we were taken from.

What Raven is trying to do is what Bouie pointed out can not work, trying to push away racism, remove oneself from the claws of prejudice because they think people do not see them as human. As if removing a single label will resolve the issues that are at the base of racism. The idea that a post-race society that does not talk about race will resolve the issue of “race”-ism is a utopian ideal that fails before it even gets off the ground. The label is not what leaves Mike Brown dead cold in the middle of the street, it’s not what allows politicians to run on campaigns of mythological Welfare Queens or what keeps the Tea Party actively trying to diminish Barack Obama’s legacy. It’s not what makes us question how we got to 2014 and we still have issues like #Ferguson,  watermelon cartoons about Black politicians running or New York Times questioning the beauty of a Black lead lady. Whether we are called colored, negro, Afro or African American, it does not change how we are seen with the physical eye by White humans, who because we as millenials are actively trying to avoid the topics of race relations, are sweeping their bigotry under the rug. That is the same rug we use to cloak our self in the fuzzy warm feeling of being human. It doesn’t work like that my dear.

If we want to be seen as humans, we should be allowed to hold on to our cultural connections just as much as our European peers. They are not disavowing their brethen the right to be human, because they are Italian-American. Albeit Italian-American and Irish-American people went through periods of prejudice, they didn’t resolve the prejudice by ridding themselves of their cultural connectors. Just as they are entitled to cultural pride, I am entitled to mine. I am proud to be African-American, even as I reside in Houston, otherwise known as little Biafra. Because when my Nigerian-American peers try to rewrite my personal history as a girl from Owerri, I laugh and enjoy the banter while discovering the connections of my culture to the motherland.

Jouelzy

The author Jouelzy

Jouelzy is a #SmartBrownGirl, Author, Vlogger & Writer, addressing lifestyle issues that impact women of color from beauty, culture to technology. With 162k+ subscribers she's reshaping the image of women of color, who honor their right to revel in their diversity. Find her on Twitter Shop #SmartBrownGirl
  • “If we want to be seen as humans, we should be allowed to hold on to our cultural connections just as much as our European peers.” You summed it all up.

  • Innovative21

    This is a beautifully written opinion piece. Kudos to you and others who really know what it is, and continue to hold onto ALL of you and your ancestors. I think those who distance themselves from that obvious piece of their history usually have a negative perception of the people and cultures of Africa/Africans that has been formed and so very perpetuated through ignorant sources. It is really difficult to find the far more beautiful and awe-inspiring truths of the people/cultures that span that continent. And truth is, most people would rather not even try to search it out–a win for all the rich and powerful Euro-Americans buried 6ft under 60-400 years ago who still manage to control our perceptions of ourselves.

    Gwan Girl, reap the rewards of owning that pride and Keeping your faith in a strong and mighty people. And also, thank you for pointing me towards sources (books gurl, cuz we be readin) of my next personal research project.

  • I really enjoyed this piece. In the past, I hated when people called me Black. I thought it was erasing my worth. I wanted / needed to be called African-American. In these past years, I’ve been questioning my history. “Well…since I don’t know where my ancestors are from…it’s probably best to be called Black American. At least I know who I am…” I don’t think that there is a problem asking questions and learning more about your history. As you said, identifying as Black American or African American isn’t the problem. The problem is when you don’t want to identify with your culture by erasing it completely. Sure, I don’t know where my ancestors are “from”. I don’t know the country, city, tribe, ect., but what I do know is that those are my people. Those are my ancestors. That I do have roots in Africa. They struggled so I could be here.

    Great piece. I can’t wait to read the articles that you linked above.

  • Ashley Poag

    Beautifully said! Great analysis on the break down of the many cultures and countries encompassed in the content of Africa and how those people have to consider American ignorance and lack of awareness when identifying themselves. Just Beautiful! This is my first time reading the comments she made about her hair and skin color. I think she indirectly expressed some deep seeded issues that she herself may not be aware of. Especially her strong assertion that she is from Louisiana. That’s why reading is fundamental and self education is imperative. Just because you are famous does not make you intelligent, a great person or someone others should follow.

  • Exactly Lorri – that phrase DOES SUM IT UP! My mother was born in South Carolina. My father was born in Panama. Both identify with being black even though they grew up speaking different native tongues. My father jokes all of the time how the slave ships went a different route and dropped off his early kin from where they dropped off my mother’s. I’m proud to be an AFRICAN AMERICAN because I am part of the African Diaspora. I also identify with black, and blacktino. It’s all good. Hopefully we can learn to be proud of our African as much as we are proud to tout all of the other sides we embody. Peace.

  • Alice Mills Robertson

    “If we want to be seen as humans, we should be allowed to hold on to our cultural connections just as much as our European peers”. That says it all. This is my first here and I really enjoyed reading. I am an unapologetic Ghanaian-American woman. And no, we don’t live on trees and leaves.

    • Animated Moi

      Hey Ghana brethren!!

      • Alice Mills Robertson

        Hey Ghana brethen!!!!!

  • Halimah Armstrong

    Well said. You made this Pan African baby boomer real proud. Raven is lost. As for me personally, I do not feel African or American, I am a member of the Diaspora without a country to pledge my loyalty.

    As for any of you who are curious about your African ancestry. Seek it out. DNA is amazing.

    Find your Africa in your American.

    http://www.africanancestry.com/home/

    https://www.africandna.com

    Thanks Jouelzy for this dialogue!

  • Milos Mom

    Hear, hear! You hit this one square on the head J.

  • Blackwomannucleus

    My first visit to your blog and I must say you are spot on in this instance. Your well written, concise response cannot be stated any better! The last paragraph encapsulates this piece brilliantly! You have a new fan (and I am not a millenial:)

  • Randal

    I really enjoyed reading your article. It introduced many theories I didn’t think about or considered. It has helped me to see that acceptance of ones identity starts with fully acknowledging ones history and educating one self of own history. Its help me to see that I don’t know my own African American history as much as I claim. Thanks you for this informative read.

  • Tonia682

    This is a great article. I just had a conversation tonight about Raven-Symone and the post racial view of some Millennial and how it befudfles me.I was born in Dec. 1968 and consider myself to definitely be in the first generation of the post Civil Rights Era . Growing up in the 70s and 80s there was a strong sense of black pride and identity. Somewhere this was not passed down as throughly as it should have been.

  • Btekeste

    This is the best opinionated piece based on cultural distinction I’ve read in a while. I am biased though, proud Eritrean-American… If only i could count the blank stares or how many times I’ve shared “oh its next to ethiopia”. I mean come on! Not only do I find myself being too considerate of American ignorance but I also don’t want my fellow blacks to feel offended.

    • Thanks! And I do know where Eritrea is lol.

  • Kashana B.

    Thank you for this well written piece! I’ve felt lost & disconnected to what my black culture is suppose to be. I don’t think I can identity being African American because I don’t know where my ancestors came (beyond my grandparents) but I am part of the African Diaspora in some way. I now consider myself a melanin endowed United Statesan. Again, there is a cultural but I’m not sure how to describe it or where I fit into it.

    I need more peers like Jouelzy! I sometimes feel isolated even though I’m surrounded by a mixture of people.

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  • k

    I really do worry that we are forgetting our history, or not realizing that it’s not just “a story you heard in class” but real, actual events.

  • SciFi Fanista

    Thank you for a well thought out discussion regarding this issue. I love how varied African descendants have become. We’re so beautiful and complex and wonderful. It is difficult to see how someone would want to erase that because it is seen as undesirable. Difficult, but not impossible and I think your discussion points have aided in that.

    I’m African, born and raised. My heart breaks for those who do not know their African roots, but it is not as easy as that, even for us.

    Historians cannot figure out where my ancestors came from. All I know (and this is because my Dad knew his grandfather) is that my people did not always live in South Western Uganda. Some historians think we came south from Ethiopia. Others think we are the out come of Shaka (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaka) march north. Then the Berlin Conference split my family into three different countries! So what does that make me? Ethiopian Ugandan? South African Ugandan? Congolese/Ugandan/Rwandese-Ethiopian Ugandan?

    The point I’m trying to make is that even those from the continent hardly know anything past the grandparent generation. We’re all just swimming along. There are Somalis in South Africa, Kenyans in Nigeria, Tanzanians in Egypt, Ugandans in Canada, Trinis in New Zealand, African Americans in South Korea…

    If any person of African descent sees a strange brown woman smiling at them or complimenting them, that will be me, trying to connect with you, hoping that I will positively impact your day and let you know that I recognize the bit of African you have coursing through your veins. I love it. I want you to know it.

  • Alea Smalls

    This piece was so well written that I am actually speechless. I can relate to every point you made, and it feels refreshing to know another African-American felt as I do. Born in America, a descendent of African slaves meant that I am part of the African Diaspora and part of that narrative. My first trip out of the United States was to Ethiopia (most of my friends are from countries within Africa and suggested Addis) because I told myself that I would travel the rest of the world until i have made it to Africa first.

  • rainydaze80

    I LOVED this article, but I still disagree with you on the African-American labelling part. I identify as a Black American or American of African descent, but that’s where it ends for me. I would love to know more about my African heritage, but personally those traces of African heritage that you brillantly pointed out just aren’t enough for me to proudly label myself as African-American. I never appreciated the uniqueness and depth of Black American culture until I decided to live outside of the U.S. Even when I meet up with fellow expats, I still feel like a foreigner because my experiences, language and culture are vastly different from the white American expats and the only person I can sorta relate to is my Canadian homegirl who is Malaysian. And even with my African friends, I feel like an outsider, because they readily associate me with Black American culture. Maybe at the end of it all, Black American culture is some kind of syncretization of African and American traditions or a African traditions transformed into a new and different culture, but I maintain that Black culture in America stands alone and doesn’t need to be hyphenated.

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