Why I Call Myself Black American and not African American

by Aisha Harris for Slate.com One of the first times I recall being asked the question “Where are...

by Aisha Harris for Slate.com

One of the first times I recall being asked the question “Where are you from?” was also one of the first times I realized that being black wasn’t a sufficient answer. For a sixth-grade project, I had to create my own version of a family crest to be presented to the class. The idea was for each student to celebrate her ethnic heritage. I knew my ethnicity, but where were my ancestors from? While almost all of my classmates in my predominantly white Connecticut elementary school could proudly claim that their grandparents—or great-grandparents—had come to America at some point from Ireland, or Italy, or Greece, I was forced to acknowledge that I had no idea where my forebears had lived, as they were brought here against their will and any records of their origins had long since been lost. My grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of my family were born in the South and the mid-Atlantic—hardly an interesting story, or so I thought at the time.

I was recently asked where I’m from again—multiple times—in an entirely different context: while in Kenya for a wedding. On one occasion, I struck up a friendly conversation with a young armed guard (and aspiring engineer) who stood watch within the gate of the compound where my boyfriend and I, along with several of the other foreign wedding guests, were staying.

“Where are your parents from?” he clarified, after I told him I was a visiting American. “They’re also from America,” I explained, slightly confused about what he was getting at.

Eventually, it dawned on me: He was asking the same question my school project had asked: He was curious what non-American country my family was from. Kenya, Nigeria, both? I tried to explain that as far as I know, I have no immediate or extended relatives outside of the States, but he didn’t seem to fully grasp what I meant.

Later, another Kenyan I met—the cousin of the bride—posed the same question to me during the wedding afterparty. His complimentary response: “Ah, you look like you could be African!”

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