The Misunderstood African Diaspora in America

By Aminata Sy

The African diaspora has been a growing population in America over the decades, yet its people remain misunderstood in the country. The word “diaspora” is from an ancient Greek root meaning “to scatter about.” According to the United Nations,“diaspora” is broadly understood in terms to two categories: place of residence and country of origin. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “diaspora” as “the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland.” Over the centuries, a collective Western machinery -- explorers, missionary workers, historians, writers, media outlets, governments, anthropologists -- has narrated a stereotypical story of Africa and its people through a lens of hunger, disease, war, and wildlife. The American population has absorbed these negative messages of the continent and thus tends to view the African diaspora as a people who come from one country,  one city, one village where dysfunction and foreignness are the norms.

In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie recounts the story a her American university roommate who was shocked to find out that she spoke English and assumed that she was unable to use a stove. Adichie explained that her  “roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.” Author Curtis Keim analyzes Americans’ deeply ingrained stereotypes about Africa in his book Mistaking Africa. He concludes that Africa has its rich way of life and urges Americans to understand Africans for who they are -- diverse human beings similar to them. Since this Western stereotypical representation of the continent both misinforms its people and fails to capture Africa -- the continent with its ample historical, political, societal, and cultural diversity and realities, there is need to better inform the American population about its African diaspora in order to foster “a more perfect union.”

Research shows that the African diaspora population has been consistently increasing in America. According to the Pew Research Center, foreign-born Africans in America went from 80,000 in 1970 grew to 881,000 in 2000 and was up to 2.1 million in 2015. Foreign-born Africans made up 4.8 percent of America’s overall immigrant population in 2015, a rise from 0.8 percent in 1970. Among America’s black immigrant population, the African share has increased at the fastest rate by 41 percent between 2000 and 2013. These numbers show an urgent need to better understand the African diaspora in America to both facilitate their integration into American society and to encourage full contribution in the country.

Despite barriers, many members of the African diaspora have managed to integrate into American society. Responding to recent disparaging comments from America’s highest office toward Africans, American economist Tyler Cowen argues that Africa sends the U.S. its best and brightest. He highlights Africans’ “superior education”, noting that 41.7% of African-born living in the U.S. age 25 or older earned a bachelor degree or higher compared to 28.1% of American-born in the same age category and education levels. African diasporic people in America also hold decision-making positions on various levels of society from universities to governments to hospitals and the media. Given the increasing presence of the African diaspora in the U.S., a central question remains, when will America began to educate itself about Africa and its people?

Aminata Sy is the founder and president of African Community Learning Program, a multimedia journalist, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies international relations and English. She is also the founder, editor, and publisher of the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.