Over the last year, New African readers have increasingly enquired about my racial background. I hope that in satisfying their curiosity, their attentions will be directed once again at the content of my columns rather than the colour of my skin.
A little over a year ago, I received an email with the subject line “Ok I wonder why you call yourself ‘black’ and ‘African’” from a self-described long-time New African reader. Even if subsequent emails have been less direct in their articulation of the same underlying sentiment, they all point in a similar direction: some people are confused about my racial background and about the way I racially identify myself.
Their need to seek clarification suggests that being able to label me is important to the way in which they understand the content of my columns. I was perplexed at first by this seemingly sudden preoccupation with my race. After all, I had been writing for New African for several years and never had anyone raise the subject before.
It then occurred to me that these racial enquiries started happening almost immediately after my picture began running with my column. Obviously there was a disconnect in the minds of some readers between my appearance and my writing, especially when I refer to myself as both black and African, and use the collective “we” to talk about the past, present, and future of black people worldwide.
Indeed, the fact that I claim my place in the global African world annoyed one reader so much that he asked: “Why do you keep on writing ‘we’?” Just in case he hadn’t already made his point clear, he added: “You are not black in my eyes. You look much more Italian or Spanish. I can assure you, if you go to Africa you will be called ‘white’.” I always find it amusing that people seem to forget the proximity of southern Spain and Italy to Africa. There is a reason after all that Spaniards and Italians from the south look a lot like North Africans – centuries of exchange between the two regions certainly wasn’t limited to material goods.
And Africans from North Africa actually colonised the countries of the Iberian Peninsula for centuries! Ironically, however, the reader was partially right. I am a quarter Italian, but I don’t look anything like my blond hair and blue-eyed Italian paternal grandmother who came from Turin in the far north of the country. Nor do I look anything like my paternal Irish grandfather. The reader wasn’t off the mark either when he guessed I might be Spanish. My mother is part-Spanish. She is also Taíno Indian and African, most likely of Yoruba ancestry, as were many of the enslaved Africans who worked the sugar plantations on the island of Puerto Rico where my mother was born. So there you have it: Taíno, Spanish, Northern Italian, Irish, and yes, African too. Why, you might ask, if I am so thoroughly mixed race do I identify as black and African?
Let me begin by providing the context necessary to understand the particularly unique way in which black is defined in the United States, where I was born and raised. Black, as a legal-cum-racial category, was historically constructed in the broadest possible way in order to expand the number of people who could be enslaved and to limit the legal right of racially mixed people to claim their freedom. Known as the “one drop rule”, the idea that a person with even the slightest trace of African ancestry is black has long outlived slavery in America.
What was once a legal construction became a socially constructed category that has, and continues, to encompass a broad range of very phenotypically diverse black people. While the racial landscape of the US is home to black people of all hues, hair textures, body shapes and sizes, and facial features, we do not all experience our blackness in the same way – far from it. Phenotype, class, gender, and geography all play major roles in shaping our individual experiences as black people in America. Hierarchies based on skin tone, alone, have been at the root of painful divisions within the black community, and are often the basis for preferential treatment within the dominant white society. It has not been lost on African-Americans that if Barack Obama was the complexion of his father, he would likely not be our president today.
If blackness in America has been defined broadly enough to claim me as one of its own, that still leaves the question of why I claim my blackness. I could call myself mixed race or even Latino/Hispanic. I certainly recognise that I am multi-racial, but I don’t feel a common bond with mixed people simply because we have parents of different racial backgrounds. Equally, I’ve always been unnerved by the categories Latino and Hispanic to describe people from the Spanish Caribbean and parts of Latin America that are heavily populated by people of African descent precisely because they erase/e-race our ties to Africa.