The Newest African Americans: Identity and Incorporation among Recent West African Immigrants to the U.S.

Bridging the fields of immigration, ethnic and African American studies, this research project explores issues of cultural identity formation and socioeconomic incorporation nationwide among the understudied population of immigrants and refugees from West Africa to the United States during the last thirty years. The recent influx of West Africans to the United States is part of a much wider post colonial phenomenon, evident in a modern-day dispersal of sub-Saharan Africans within and outside the continent. We explore the intricate patterns of adaptation and incorporation among the immigrants and their children; the evolution of new forms of transnational connections with Africa and Europe; and the impact of the recent postcolonial and voluntary immigration of West Africans on the changing meanings of “African Americanness.”

Because people of African descent typically have not been counted as part of America’s migratory tradition, as a subject of social scientific inquiry, immigration from Africa has thus far lacked a primary academic address. With the exception of the recent burgeoning scholarship on the Caribbean influx, the research on these populations has fallen between the cracks of traditional disciplinary boundaries. The focus in African American studies has been on the coerced migrations of the slave trade era or the legacy of that movement, while the historiography of immigration scholarship has concentrated on voluntary migratory flows, first almost exclusively on generations of European settlers and more recently on arrivals from Asia and Latin America to the United States. What keeps being overlooked in this polarized framework is the systematic investigation of the voluntary African immigrant experience. Still largely invisible to the wider society, from coast to coast, the new African diaspora joins the mass migrations of people from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean who are radically reshaping contemporary America. Along with this far-reaching transformation, the false dichotomy between immigrants and racial minorities has been upended. Indeed, this research effort will finally bring the experience of those of recent African ancestry from the periphery to the center of current debates in the field of immigration studies especially regarding issues of cultural and economic adaptation in a global and transnational context.

The term West African connotes a panethnic conglomerate with color as well as some aspects of shared regional and historical experience in common. The nations included under this rubric represent the legacy of colonial intervention that coerced peoples of a wide variety of traditions, cultures, languages, religions, and worldviews who, otherwise, would not have necessarily grouped themselves in this way. Nonetheless, since this was the part of Africa where much of the transatlantic slave trade was conducted, the region signifies a cultural geography that represents continuity between long-standing African Americans who are the descendents of slavery in the United States and the newest arrivals from the continent. The bulk of West African newcomers, having migrated from the former colonies of Britain are English-speaking. Smaller numbers hail from Francophone Africa while those from the Republic of Cape Verde are Portuguese-speaking.

Areas of study include patterns of settlement, work—giving special attention to the formation of a small businesses and the ethnic marketplace, education, and the role of the religion, community, and associational life as well as festive culture. Finally, like many other migrant populations in a global age, transnational ties to the immigrants’ countries of origins are vital to the African diaspora experience. Their influence on various aspects of social, cultural, political and economic life in their homeland nations is being examined.

Central to the aims of this initiative are questions related to the percolating issues of ethnic and racial identity in the American context particularly in relation to the native-born black population. Will these largely sub-Saharan and overwhelmingly nonwhite African migrants who come from such wide-ranging cultural backgrounds become the newest African Americans? Will they identify as black? Does shared skin color imply a shared heritage? Will they take a strategy of accentuating distinctive hyphenated identities or will this diverse assortment of nationality groups come together to form a panethnic West African identity structure?

The primary methodology is ethnographic, making use of in-depth field interviews and participant observation at African community events, festivals, church activities, and cultural and social gatherings. Contact with the numerous immigration assistance and refugee services programs available to these populations facilitates the establishment of a network of study respondents. The mainstream and ethnic press is also being mined as are on-line links and resources.

The project is under the direction of Marilyn Halter (Boston University, CURA, Department of History and the American Studies Program) and Violet Johnson (Agnes Scott College, Department of History).