What makes one African? What does it mean to be African and what, if any, are the criteria that determine "Africanness"? These appear to be very important questions, considering the countless online debates about Blackness and Africanness. I have learnt that Africans have various ideas on what being African entails. For some, having a certain skin tone coupled with certain set features makes you African. For others, skin colour is not enough, geographical location also matters and respect and love for African traditions is a must.
That Africans at home and in the diaspora are having this discussion at all is indicative of the insecurities we inherited from our experience of the slave trade and colonialism. Some of us still identify with the colonisers, and want to somehow escape our identity. Others, in their desire to hold fast to their Africanness, seem to automatically exclude anyone who they believe resembles the colonisers in any way, no matter what they look like. So we end up arguing among ourselves about who is African and who isn’t simply on the basis of skin tone, ignoring the fact that there is more to being African than how much melanin you’ve got in your skin, and forgetting also that there is more human genetic diversity in Africa than anywhere else on the planet.
Besides, if skin tone is a marker of one's Africanness, then why is it that Africans in the diaspora are sometimes deemed to be not African? And, on the matter of geographical location, usually the same Africans who tout regional significance exclude North Africans from the group. So North Africans and Africans in the diaspora are excluded because "they truly hate Africans and do not want to be associated with us", notwithstanding the fact that many self-hating "true Africans" still get to be African.
Arguments about the importance of skin colour, geography, cultural differences and "them loving us" can get tiresome. It upsets me when I see people being denied the right to claim their identity so my personal rule is to accept that someone is African if they say they are. At the same time, it is important to keep a few points in mind for example, the issue of being indigenous.
Those who are indigenous to the African continent, should not be denied their heritage. It should not matter if they look like this:
Some of those who exclude North Africans say they do so because pale skin is something no African should have, and that all North Africans are pale-skinned, therefore they’re not African. This makes no sense. The girl in the image above is Amazigh, indigenous to North Africa.
This is what Miss Morocco looked like in 1932:
And both of these women, proudly wielding the Imazighen flag, are from Morocco:
The Imazighen, also known as Berbers, come in a wide variety of skin tones. If you point out darker-skinned North Africans to those who claim that all North Africans are "white" and therefore not African, they counter by saying the dark-skinned North Africans descended from slaves originally from West Africa. However research has shown that the Imazighen are more genetically African than anything else and that the genetic connection between the Imazighen and southern Europeans is there because the former influenced Europe by populating parts of it, rather than the other way round.
The Kel Tamasheq (Tuareg), closely related to the Imazighen and indigenous to the Sahara and North and West Africa, have also been referred to as "white", which would make the people in these photographs white:
In Burkina Faso:
Portrait of a Touareg in Gorom Gorom market, northern Burkina Faso (photo by RonnyReportage)
(photo by Eric Lafforgue)
People who refer to indigenous North Africans as "white" or "Arab" may need to read up more on the Imazighen. It has even been suggested that that word "Africa" has roots in the language of the Imazighen, with "ifri" meaning "caves" and "-ica" coming from Latin influences to denote a land. In medieval history, the Kingdom of Ifirqiya reigned in Tunisia, Libya and parts of Algeria.
As far as I’m concerned, people indigenous to the African continent have enough "Africanness" in them. On the other hand, things aren’t so straightforward for African ethnic groups that claim non-African origin when this may not always be the case. I still find it difficult to accept that people who self-identify as Arab and identify with the Middle East want to claim Africa as well. A significant number of the Arabs on the African continent came as colonisers, so in my opinion granting them access to "Africanness" will be akin to granting the descendants of white European colonisers that cherished African title.
African in the diaspora
Moving on to the descendants of Africans who were forcefully taken off the continent to the Americas. There is a lot of disconnect between Africans, that is those at home and those who are first or second-generation Africans abroad and those in the diaspora. To clarify, by diaspora, I mean those who have been several generations in the diaspora, the African-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and AfroLatinos. Tensions exist between Africans and African-Americans, and between Africans and Afro-Caribbeans, and such. I was told that African-Americans looked down on Africans and did not want to be associated with us even before I had the pleasure of knowing any African-American. After all I’d heard, I was surprised when I met African-Americans who self-identified as African.
I respect anyone's right to chose their own identity based on their heritage and ancestry, but there are many who refuse to allow African-Americans to claim their Africanness. Possibly because they feel African-Americans are more accepted in America than first and second-generation Africans, and so shouldn’t have the additional advantage of being able to say they’re African too.
The tensions, complexities and lack of dialogue between Africans of all shades has been examined so many times, and I long for the day when the mutual distrust and false visions of superiority will come to an end.
It is clear that self-hate, xenophobia and cultural misunderstanding are at the root of these ideas about "Africanness". Yet, if I suddenly became ashamed of being Nigerian and distanced myself from the continent, I would not become any less African. I believe the same applies to Africans in the Diaspora, and to those from Northern Africa, or even South Africa, who distance themselves from any sort of African identity.
The answer to the question "Who is African?" is more complex than it need be. It varies depending on individual. I seem to ask more questions than I answer in this essay. I make no claims to being the voice of Africa, Africans and "Africanness".