“Black in America” is like a fortress that is all at once forbidding and inviting. As an African arriving in America, I took it for granted that I would gain access to that fortress of black belonging by virtue of shared ancestry. How mistaken I was. When I moved from Kenya to New York City, my reception baffled me: The racist ridicule I got was mostly from black people, an experience many Africans in America tell me they have shared.
I was living with relatives in Briarwood, Queens, then a mix of Asians, whites, Latinos and some blacks, while pursuing graduate studies at a college in Manhattan and working as a teaching artist. In these classrooms of mostly-black students, I played a word-association game: I would write the word “Africa” on the board, and the volley of uncensored words the students contributed were all negative.