Immigrants and their children negotiate between two worlds: the culture, language and traditions of their homeland and those of their adopted country. Or as Kelechi Ibe-Lamberts’ mother put it: “When you come into this house, you’re Nigerian. When you leave this house, you’re American.”
Now an assistant professor of health at SUNY Cortland, Ibe-Lamberts considers himself a “1.5-generation transnational Nigerian-American,” having emigrated with his family from Lagos at the age of 8 to Chicago. That experience has inspired what he calls “me-search”: research that delves into issues and perspectives of one of America’s fastest-growing immigrant communities.
“It’s research about me, my experiences, my community and the people that I represent, and those who come after me that I hope will be represented as well,” said Ibe-Lamberts, who researches health behaviors, disparities and outcomes among culturally diverse populations, particularly immigrants.
Ibe-Lamberts and three other scholars participated in a Feb. 23 panel discussion hosted by Binghamton University’s Africana Studies Department and the Multicultural Resource Center for Black History Month. Called “The New African Diaspora: The Intersection of Identity, Race and Culture,” the event also featured Howard University Associate Professor of African Studies Msia Kibona Clark, CUNY Lehman College Assistant Professor of Sociology Dialika Sall and University of Connecticut Assistant Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies Funmilayo Showers.
“The question of how you identify, and what specifically do you call yourself, has always been a complicated one,” said Clark, whose research focuses on representations of pan-Africanism, African feminism and African identities in popular culture, as well as the engagement of women of African descent in cyber-activism, social media and digital spaces.
Born in Tanzania to a Tanzanian father and an African-American mother, Clark grew up in Cleveland. Her father died when she was a freshman in college, and she feared her Tanzanian identity would fade as a result.
Like Ibe-Lamberts, her experience puts her somewhere in between first-generation immigrants, who make the journey as adults, and second-generation immigrants, who are born in the new country. Often, this transnational population experiences what Ibe-Lamberts calls “reverse acculturation,” in which they identity with the native culture in the household and the adopted culture in the larger world.
While teaching her Introduction to Contemporary Africa class, Clark noticed students with backgrounds similar to her own, with one or more parents from the continent. For many of them, taking an Africana Studies course was part of a journey to connect with their identity. Sometimes, parents tended to strictly pass down their language, culture and traditions; other times, they raised their children without them. Divisions arose between parents and children either way.
As an undergraduate, Clark studied abroad for a year in Tanzania, which helped her connect with her roots. When she came to the Washington, DC, area in the early 2000s, the region was experiencing a significant influx of African immigrants.
In fact, Africans comprise one of the fastest-growing groups of immigrants to the United States, increasing nearly 100% from 2000 to 2010. However, this population is far from monolithic; they come from different countries and cultures, which are distinct from the African-American population.
“There is diversity in being Black,” Ibe-Lamberts pointed out.
Currently, we’re in another cultural wave of African influence in American society, which has a direct impact on how the adolescent children of immigrants navigate their identities, noted Sall, whose research focuses on second-generation West African youth in New York City. However, African influences on American culture aren’t new, especially if you think back on the 1960s and ’70s.
A Bronx native, her research is shaped by her own experience as the daughter of Senegalese immigrants. She ended up at a largely white boarding school in New Hampshire, where she was no longer considered African but as a Black American. Identity, she found, depends on context and situation; it’s not just about how you view yourself, but how others see you.
The experiences of African immigrants and their children weren’t represented in sociological literature on Blackness and immigration. Because of this, Sall decided to pursue a doctorate and become a researcher herself to contribute to the sociological understandings of race and immigration, she said.
Between 2015 and 2018, she conducted interviews and ethnographic observations with 71 high school students in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan who were the children of West African immigrants; she also interviewed almost 50 of their peers and teachers. She’s currently developing her research into a book and following up with her interview subjects, who are now in their early 20s.
“We know that adolescence is a critical moment for cognitive and identity development. I’m primarily interested in how these young people make sense of their racial and ethnic identities, especially in a society where both Blackness and immigration are criminalized,” she said.
Showers’ research, on the other hand, focuses on first-generation immigrants from West Africa who work in healthcare in the Washington, D.C., area. Originally from Freetown in Sierra Leone, she came to the United States at the age of 18 to live with her aunt, a university professor at a small liberal arts college. Like many African immigrants, her aunt began her American experience as a certified nursing assistant (CNA).
African immigrants comprise almost 5% of the total immigrant population, but 12% of the foreign-born workers in healthcare, where they often work as registered nurses (RNs) and CNAs. Back in their home country, many come from middle-class backgrounds and know little to nothing about nursing homes or care work.
Working in homes where they care for elderly individuals, many CNAs feel diminished by the nature of the work, in comparison to their prior middle-class professions. They also experience bias from clients, whether based on race or class status. Those who work in healthcare-oriented businesses owned by Africans reported more positive experiences, as did those who provide support for people with intellectual disabilities.
In hospital settings, RNs from Africa are often assumed to be CNAs by patients, another manifestation of bias. And it isn’t just their Blackness; they feel marginalized because of their identities as African immigrants and end up working harder or earning extra credentials to gain professional respect.
But as in other areas, the immigrant experience is far from monolithic.
“Even among the first-generation immigrants, ethnicity matters. Their regional origin matters,” Showers explained. “The stereotypes and meanings associated with specific countries of origin shape how Black immigrants are received, and by extension, the racial identities they develop and the survival strategies they enact.”
The panelists engaged in a thoughtful question-and-answer session with students on Zoom, addressing their research and their own experience as members of the African diaspora. Younger members of that diaspora face a different world, one in which culture is embraced with pride.
“Sometimes I feel like I was born a generation too early,” Clark reflected. “The Millennials and now Generation Z are growing up with more resources in terms of staying in touch with their communities, and African communities are more established, especially in the larger cities. They’re not little islands.”