What’s in a Name?

So, what prompted Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden to write African Americans and Africa: A New History (Yale University Press, 2019)?

Several things – as she revealed during a recent radio interview with David Whetstone on WPFW.

She is the daughter of an African American mother from Worchester, MA and a father from Sierra Leone. She taught at the University of Texas, Dallas, where she recalled an incident involving an African American family in the Dallas suburbs waking up one morning to find the words, “Go back to Africa” scrawled on their garage door.

“Where would these people go back to in Africa?” Blyden wondered, seeing as the institution of slavery had long since systematically disconnected most African Americans from their African heritage.

This question of African Americans and our African ancestry sparked the idea for a university course. Blyden cobbled together materials from her own research, as a comprehensive book on the subject was not available. Then she decided to write her own book.

In the book’s Yale University Press release the question is asked: “What is an ‘African American’ and how does this identity relate to the African continent?” The release notes that “rising immigration levels, globalization, and the United States’ first African-American president have all sparked new dialogue surrounding this question.”

The release continues, “Blyden provides an introduction to the relationship between African Americans and Africa from the era of slavery to the present, mapping several overlapping diasporas. Stressing the diversity of African American identities through the lenses of region, ethnicity, slavery, and immigration, Blyden considers questions fundamental to the study of African American history and culture.”

I had the pleasure of proofing the book through my company, Write Market Communications, and came away learning some things I didn’t know before, including how historically black colleges and universities played a key role in educating many Africans, some of whom went back home to become leaders in their countries. My knowledge of the connection between the Gullah culture of my native South Carolina and Africa was strengthened. And I even learned about an African princess who sued Fisk University in the 1940s!

As we commemorate the arrival of enslaved Africans in America in the 17th century, and as the nation becomes ever more diverse in the 21st century, consider these facts:

African immigrants make up a small share of the nation’s immigrant population, but their overall numbers are growing – roughly doubling every decade since 1970, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. There were 2.1 million African immigrants living in the United States in 2015, up from 881,000 in 2000 and a substantial increase from 1970 when the U.S. was home to only 80,000 foreign-born Africans.

With these statistics in mind, I highly recommend Blyden’s book as a means to refresh our knowledge, challenge our perceptions, spark our intellectual curiosity, and open a productive dialogue on where we came from, who we are now and how we will identify ourselves in the future.

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