My little Habesha baby. There’s nothing I love more than seeing her twirl in her traditional clothing. She knows exactly who she is and where she comes from. That’s part of what makes her so confident in who she is.
I didn’t have that experience growing up as a light-skinned black girl with no connection to my ethnic background. I was asked many times “what I was” which is a not-so gentle question about what ethnicity I was.
Many people assume I’m Ethiopian now, and while I’m not by blood, many of you don’t know that I married into a beautiful, large, African family. Inheriting Ethiopian culture through my marriage is something I’m extremely grateful for. I had never been exposed to African traditions in a way that extended past reading about it in a history book.
Being African-American and being African and American are vastly different things. It’s largely due to the culture of each and what factors shape each culture.
Being “African-American” or black means your family members are descendants of Africa. The term “one-drop” has historically meant any trace of African lineage meant you would be considered black in this country. My family has been here for generations. Our African culture was almost completely wiped out with factors like American slave trade and the pressure to assimilate.
The aftermath of slavery left blacks with a pseudo shell of our bold African culture. Things like soul food, Baptist Christianity, the love of classic R&B music, and the innate social cue to assimilate or “blend in” is something many of us share. It is not common for black Americans to embrace strangers even if we share the same ethnicity and standing out will get you pushback even from your own family. Not being “accepted” is a common theme in a black American household.
Black Americans are plagued with traces of slavery. The biggest being the instilled mindset that some of us are “better” than others. That mindset breeds jealousy, hate, and toxic relationships between families and friends. That mindset also affects how we look at each other and support each other when one of us has a moment to shine. It is a problem I see time and time again at prominent universities like Hampton University and Howard University which I was a student at, and as an adult living in the outskirts of Washington DC.
In many ways Black culture lacks unquestionable loyalty that binds us. We could push each other so much further if our commonalities-the shared struggle of all of us facing discrimination-could connect us more than our differences separate us. We lack the instant brotherhood/sisterhood connection that is at the center of African culture.
Black Americans could do more to encourage each other instead of competing against another. In my eyes, if one of us is successful, it opens doors for more of us to be just as great. This is not to say that there is no value in black culture. We are strong and we are resilient. As a people, we have overcome lots of social challenges when we’ve come together to collectively work for the same causes.
My kids are both African-American and African. They are product of myself and my husband who is Ethiopian-American. His Ethiopian heritage is something he wears proudly and his family ties are incredibly strong. Most of all his family now resides here on the East coast but a few still live in Africa. The closest relatives of his in Africa are his two sisters, one lives in Ethiopia and the other in [one of my favorite places] South Africa.
Over the last 10 years together, his Ethiopian family has taught me so much about Amharic language, the love of traditional food, festive parties that happen often, and treasuring deep, deep bonds that cannot be broken with time or age. The bonds are rooted in their love for their heritage which is something that connects them. I should say us now because I may not have been born Ethiopian but I have definitely been adopted into the culture.
Part of the “blending in” problem present in Black culture is the unfortunate reality of assuming traits of who you’re blending into. Black Americans emulated European society structure. By doing so, they hoped to assimilate into white neighborhoods. Mimicking the white-American mold to some was the only way to be able to provide for their families and move up on the social ladder. Saying so could be controversial, but I have core evidence to support why I feel this way.
For too long “black” was synonymous with things like “uneducated”, “ghetto”, “poor”, “second-class” and the ideology stuck. Not just to white Americans and non-African-Americans, but to black people too. To counter the stereotype, many families like mine, stuck to a rigid path to be considered acceptable in society. Their values include traditional avenues into adulthood like college and a job in corporate America. This is worked for a brief period of time to get my grandparent’s generation to get them out of poverty-stricken segregated suburbs and into gated communities like they live in now.
By doing so, my family’s lost pieces of our ancestry and lost our connection to African culture. My family raised me in all-white neighborhoods and named me Ashley. Needless to say, my family was far from wearing dashiki’s or embracing their African roots. Trying to get my black family to understand why it’s so important for me to root my kids in both cultures- African and American is difficult because they don’t understand African culture and don’t understand the significance of what our kids will learn about themselves by understanding their African heritage when that knowledge of heritage can offer them a deeper connection to their own identity.
I love and value both cultures and understand them deeply. I’m hoping that through learning about both cultures-both Ethiopian and Black American culture, my children will have a strong sense of self and appreciation for both cultures that shape who they are and that they can find a way to connect with all of the people they share common heritage with.
Habesha: Term to describe someone as Ethiopian or Eritrean.
Amharic: The official language spoken in Ethiopia
“One-Drop”: Prejudice American ideology that meant any amount of African bloodline means you’re considered black.
Black: Synonymous with African American