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What Does It Mean To Be African?


Some time ago I was asked what does it mean to be African.  As if I’m some expert.  I asked the questioner for a little time to get back to them because I wanted to give some thought to the answer.  To be born in Africa easily qualifies.  But what does it mean to be African from a more Diaspora-tic perspective.  It should go without saying that being an African in the Diaspora could mean something different to each individual asked.  This is just my opinion.

About a week after the question was posed, Coming to America came on.  I used to think it was an example of Eddie Murphy’s best work, and that’s not really saying much.  I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve seen the movie last.  But I watched the opening sequence and I was disappointed by what I saw.  It hit me that whoever did this movie thinks that wealthy people in Africa, or in Prince Akeem’s African country, model their weddings after European culture where men wear tuxedoes and women wear gowns that could easily pass for something out of Cinderella.  And the wedded couple being carried away in a horse and carriage with all the finery seemed out of place.

And the dancers!  All the men and women had medium to light brown skin.  All the women had long hair and European features.  The only person who looked like they may have stepped out of Africa was possibly the late great Madge Sinclair as Queen Aoleon.  Not a very convincing display of genuine African culture.

Some of the most authentic looking African places that I’ve seen in the little corners of the Diaspora that I’ve visited have been the various Orisa houses that I’ve experienced.  A lot of them have authentic looking African decorations and everybody dresses in authentic looking African clothing.  And the clothes and decorations truly came from Africa.  But I have also learned that the authentic African environment is by design to help foster an impression that the people there are indeed traditional African practitioners with a genuine sense of spirituality.  Everything must be done by tradition otherwise the sanctity of the moment be disturbed.  Yet, when it was time for payment for spiritual services rendered modern dollars were just fine.

And the dancers!  I’ve actually seen people in these houses of African spirituality judge people’s connection to African on someone’s ability to dance or recite prayers or ability to sing or use of African language.  Being someone without the ability to entertain and without the drive to learn rote prayers or African dialect, my devotion to the African ways was found wanting.  I actually believed it was at one point.  I never said I was the deepest oar in the ocean.

I wondered if being an African in the Diaspora is to have a genuine concern for Africa or a connection to African people.  It is nothing that can be accurately quantified or measured.  It is nothing based on an appearance or style of clothing.  Some people who dress themselves in some of the most authentic African garb on the planet could give a rat’s ass about Africa or the African community.  Some people whose mother tongue is one of the many African dialects could care less about Africa or African people.

I wondered if being African is to have a love and appreciation of nature, both the physical and the spiritual even though we may not completely understand everything we experience.  I wondered if to be African is to be respectful of cultures different than our own.  I know a lot of people think that I may not respect my American culture, but I have the utmost respect and appreciation for my national collective.  My appreciation for my national collective does not blind me to the fact that it is neglecting and abusing the African American culture that I also have the utmost respect and appreciation for.

But again, there are Africans from Africa who don’t have much appreciation for the African cultures.  I met an African, steep in the Christian belief system who thought I was foolish for my Ifa belief system rooted in Yoruba or Nigerian culture.

Maybe to be African is to recognize that a successful, strong community is a collection of varying talents and abilities for common goals.  A strong community isn’t one where only the strong do well and the weak are left to scrounge off the weaker.  Everybody has a job to do.  Call it socialism if you want but when we feed everyone, when we take the steps to educate everyone, when we work to make sure everyone is in good health, we become a stronger society for it.  Maybe to be African is to recognize the fact that a community is a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link.

But then again, I know many Africans who strongly support an economic system that would allow a handful to become insanely wealthy while many wallow in stark poverty.  I remember seeing a report that some African king with a failing economy and responsibility for something ridiculous like upwards of forty percent unemployment rate and rampant healthcare problems was in the middle of building his umpteenth royal palace. He claimed that the people wanted him to live a life of ultimate luxury while the majority of his people lived in abject poverty.  And this was an African king.  His leadership provides the model of behavior for many of his fellow Africans.  So it really is no surprise to see so many examples of modern economic concepts not working very well in Africa for everyone.  Countries with all the natural resources necessary to support its own people are raped for their riches while entire communities of people go without.

So now that I’ve thought about it, I’ve come up with a well thought out, carefully considered answer for the question, what does it mean to be African?  To be African is to be from Africa and nothing more and nothing less.  I’m sure that many people would like to think that Africans are people imbued with some kind of gift of humanity.  But in the end, Africans run the gamut of human behavior just like everyone else.  Ultimately, I guess to be African is nothing more than a geographical reference to someone’s place of birth.

Monday, August 17, 2009 - Posted by | African Americans, Black Community, Black Culture, Black People, Life, Thoughts


  1. Long circle to travel to find the most simple of answers.

    Comment by Mike Lovell | Tuesday, August 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. It seems to me that it would definitely be hard to find one consistent trait that would signal being “African” but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find meaningful connections. I guess you’ve done that with your spiritual practice. But Africa as a continent is so huge and complex, with so many peoples and languages and diverse histories that you of course will find anything you want to find or expect to find — and its opposite — somewhere in Africa.

    So I think the meaning it has is what you want to make it mean for you, and/or perhaps what you believe it meant for your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond.

    Comment by Bettina Hansel | Tuesday, August 18, 2009 | Reply

    • Wow Bettina i got to agree with you on that, straight forward to the point answer that makes one put something to mind and think. good answer lol.

      Comment by Zett | Wednesday, February 24, 2010 | Reply

  3. Interesting post. One of the problems of defining what it is to be “African”, is that people fail to comprehend that Africa is a continent and not a homogeneous entity. There are many different countries, with a variety of cultures, colors, religions, languages, dialects, ethnicities and tribes that make up Africa. There are people born in Africa who are of European, East Indian and and other Asian heritages, who do (and some do not) consider themselves as African as their black-skinned neighbors.

    One of the things I came to realize when I made my pilgrimmage to West Africa, was that I was not “African” in the “classic” (eurocentric) definition of the term. However, my Caribbean (Jamaican) roots and culture was very much steeped in West African culture. I came to appreciate, love and identify even more those roots and it’s connection to my Motherland. I visited the Kormance region in Ghana, where it is recorded that most slaves in Jamaica came from. People would come up to me speaking the local dialect thinking I was related to someone they knew.

    You touched on some of the aspects in your post of what being “African” means in a variety of aspect. I believe it’s a definition which one ultimately have to make on an individual basis. There are Black people I know who do not consider themselves to be of “African” heritage at all and take it as an insult if you refer to them in that way.

    Thought-provoking post.

    Comment by asabagna | Tuesday, August 18, 2009 | Reply

  4. I wish it were as simple as that. As an American born to Nigerian parents, I grapple with this question often. It’s a struggle–you don’t feel authentically African but not quite 100% American either. And then you wonder, what is “authentic African” and “authentic American” in the first place as all these characterizations are changing and have all different kinds of interpretations depending on who you ask.

    Comment by Chi-Chi | Tuesday, August 18, 2009 | Reply

  5. Thank you for the response to my query, it has spurred to do some reflection of my own.

    Dark Frosty

    Comment by Dark Frosty | Tuesday, August 18, 2009 | Reply

  6. Thanks for the feedback Dark Frosty,

    And thank you for your patience. I was pretty sure you would think that I was blowing you off. But this one really took some thinking. In the end, the answer was right before my eyes. I learned something about myself and about my prejudices doing this one. Thanks for the thought provoking question.


    Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Wednesday, August 19, 2009 | Reply

  7. Lol. wow my people are realy confused. Africa -correct spelling is AFRAKA or AFRIKA. Now AFRA means “children of” or “Sons of” and KA or kha or Jah means GOD U will notice that the Africans in the Americas uses the Jah or Kha to refer to GOD.So kha was use in Acient khamet(Egypt) all over Kush(Ethiopia) rememba many of us Africans traces our oringins from egypt n ethiopia infact north africa even today we still use kha or Jah to refer to GoD .

    Comment by Mojalefa Moremi | Saturday, November 6, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks for the feedback Mojalefa Moremi,

      What’s really interesting is that based on what you have said, Antarctica and America should be spelled ANTARCTIKA and AMERIKA. They were probably named after the African reference to god as well. But we both know that’s really not the case now is it? It is the people of European decent that set the standard for naming conventions. And I’m sure that the European suffix of -ca can find its history rooted in the African word for god. But nevertheless, those places are named as they are.


      Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Saturday, November 6, 2010 | Reply

  8. AFRA-means “Children of” or “Sons of”. Ka or kha or Jah means God. So it simply means “Children of God”.Now AbraHam – ABRA means “Child of” and rememba HAM is the father of Africans acording to the Bible .so AFRA refers 2 many people ABRA refers 2 one person. So Abraham means the child or the Son of HAM(Africa) thats Why african Diaspora uses rituals words like ABRA KHA DA see african religion went underground

    Comment by Mojalefa Moremi | Saturday, November 6, 2010 | Reply

  9. If you talking about this it means that you must practise ubuntu and respect for the reputation of others

    Comment by Xoliswa Gama | Tuesday, February 18, 2014 | Reply

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