In the United States, One Can Not Be Here and Simply Be African6 minute read

In the United States, one cannot be here and simply be African. One must also be black, and being black and being African in America are completely distinct identities. With blackness in America: some are born black, some achieve blackness, and others have blackness thrust upon them. In this latter category, I would place those like my parents who emigrated from countries where they were in the racial majority. As with any black African who emigrates to America, as soon as my mother arrived in the U.S. from Kenya and my father from Ghana in the early 1970s, they were perceived by every American around them as black first. Being seen as black first in the eyes of others also imposes the history of American slavery and white supremacy, the stereotypes, and the discrimination of the black experience in America. It must have been quite a shock for my parents to suddenly see themselves against America’s sharp white backdrop, especially when trying to ease into predominantly academic and professional settings.

My grandma Ruth and her girls in the garden in Kenya (my mum is bottom right, looking disgruntled at being forced to knit)

My sister and I were born in the United States to a Kenyan mother and a Ghanaian father. Growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods and schools, I often felt alienated and excluded from my black American classmates’ shared experiences, histories, and cultural reference points. To them, I was the African girl. I had never heard of grits or collard greens. I rarely ate at school or friends’ houses so that I could go home and fill my stomach with fufu, kontomire, and sukuma wiki. I had never learned double dutch nor watched The Jeffersons; instead, I was an ace at mancala, and I knew that any Nollywood film starring Osita Iheme was about to be lit. But my childhood was not totally separate from the black American experience. When I was young, my family and I dabbled in black American culture the way black Americans dabble in African culture. While Black Americans put on and take off ‘dashikis’ with the changing tides of fashion and embrace Afrobeats when popular music trends sway towards the continent, we moonwalked to Michael Jackson and rocked Timbs (although we didn’t know that we were supposed to keep them fresh).

As I grew into myself though, I increasingly understood the many linkages between me and my long-lost black American cousins. We all suffered micro aggressions at every turn from grade school into adulthood. Together, we fought to be seen and heard as unique and valuable individuals when college classmates attributed our achievements to affirmative action or when our professors used all the black students’ names interchangeably. I also learned about the joy of celebrating my blackness – my hair, our dances, our music, our fashion, our inventions, our successes – in addition to celebrating my Kenyan and African cultures.

Me as a toddler

In adulthood, and especially in the last year, it has been nearly impossible to avoid having some sort of political awakening while existing in the United States, especially as a person of color. Rooted in a zeal for human rights and justice, my own political consciousness has always been about far more than race; still, race consistently seems to serve as the bookends of nearly all my conversations and actions around economic inequality, feminism, immigration reform, sexuality, gender identity, and more.

“Once here, white immigrants don’t need to warn one another about the dangers of looking at police a certain way”

Donald Trump’s immigration ban really does not hit home for white immigrants the way it does for my black and brown immigrant friends and family. I have observed white friends and acquaintances, who themselves immigrated to the United States from England, Canada, Australia, and Europe, fail to have the same visceral reaction to the United States’ current political maelstrom. The white immigrant’s privilege is freedom from fear for the safe passage or physical safety of their relatives. Once here, white immigrants don’t need to warn one another about the dangers of looking at police a certain way, don’t need to study and practice how to speak to police during routine traffic stops (especially if said police become belligerent).

Two years ago, Asma Mohammed Jama, a Kenyan woman of Somali descent was brutally attacked at a Minnesota Applebee’s diner by a white woman who was enraged by seeing an immigrant woman not speaking English. We don’t hear about immigrants from France being attacked for speaking their native tongue in public – America’s liberty for all does not always extend to the liberty to speak non-English languages in public without fear of recrimination. Jama’s attacker, Jodie Marie Burchard-Risch, was only charged with third-degree assault, even though the police identified this as a racially-motivated attack, and in spite of legal advocates pushing on Jama’s behalf for the attack to be categorized as a hate crime. As part of her guilty plea, Burchard-Risch was given a mere 180 days maximum jail time followed by five years’ probation while Jama, in addition to having permanent scars across her face, stated publicly, “I used to be a carefree person, and now I can’t go anywhere by myself.” America’s “justice for all” does not mete out the same standards of justice to black and brown people.

“Different parts of the diaspora may have undergone very different types of trauma, but we walk a shared path to healing and resisting.”

As the worst of America’s seedy white underbelly continues to bubble up in the alarming convergence of virulent nationalism, xenophobia, and white supremacy, every person of color, immigrant or not, is forced to take some sort of stance. Most of us from immigrant families live permanently with our attention also trained upon the news and politics back home, so that we know what’s happening with our families there. Still, we also must pay close attention to the politics here, and how that will affect our employability, our student loans, our access to healthcare, and our basic human rights when we walk down the street or, God forbid, interact with law enforcement. Most of the fellow Africans I know here in the U.S. were already well-informed long before November 2016, but many have had to shed the voyeuristic quality of their engagement in America’s political and racial afflictions.

My graduation in 2012 from my juris doctorate program at Georgetown Law in Washington DC

Engaging in America’s political resistance as a black African woman is not only about simply fighting to protect my own individual rights or fighting against policies that would harm me and my family. Reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing reminded me of how inextricably bound I am to every black person in America, especially as a daughter of Ghanaian parentage. While my grandparents and great-grandparents suffered and resisted colonialism, our black brethren across the Atlantic suffered and resisted slavery and the Jim Crow era. American slavery, colonialism, and apartheid have inflicted deep and generational wounds on both sides of the Atlantic that are still manifesting themselves in black communities today. Coming to grips with these traumas and learning to sit with and, hopefully, heal from these wounds as we decolonize our minds, is a vital experience that is shared in many ways by people of African descent all over the world. Different parts of the diaspora may have undergone very different types of trauma, but we walk a shared path to healing and resisting.

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Melanie Habwe Dickson is the American-born daughter of a Kenyan mother and Ghanaian father. She was raised and educated in Washington DC, New York City (Columbia University), and London (SOAS and Kings College). She is a lifelong wanderlust who feels equally at home in Kenya as in Ghana and is seeking her place in the world. She is a lawyer who cares deeply about injustice and who specializes in international corporate accountability. She loves food, frolicking, corny jokes, and all things African. Most of all she loves hearing peoples' stories and helping people elevate their voices.


  1. Melanie, I am so proud of you. This piece brought tears to my eyes. You are the face of America and an advocate for those who do not have a voice. We are experiencing dark days, but you sing of hope for a better future.

  2. Melanie. Pass my regards to your mum. This International Women's Day I wanted to pay tribute to your grandmother Ruth.