About two months ago (yes, I know, I’m very behind), I went to a seminar about contemporary African immigrants in the United States. Though there were at least 150 chairs in the lecture room, so many people attended that several of them had to sit on the floor and lean against the wall, but it was well worth it. Our speaker was Nigerian historian and professor of African studies, Dr. Toyin Falola, and he spoke about the cultural, social, and emotional issues affecting native Africans who had immigrated to the United States.
One issue that Dr. Falola discussed bothered me more than any other: the way in which many of these African men and women admitted to feeling inferior to people who were native to the United States. Dr. Falola explained that he had studied African communities and populations in Houston, Texas, and that many of them perceived themselves as being unsuccessful, even though they had accomplished quite a lot, especially by “American” standards: For one, they had vehicles, houses, they were debt-free, and they were holding steady jobs. They had, as much as they could, adapted to life in the United States, further developed their English speaking and writing skills, and had learned to navigate a new country very gracefully. Still, they were unhappy, and he said that, after speaking with them and further studying their situations, he found that their unhappiness (and resultant feelings of inferiority) stemmed from the void that had resulted from their leaving of Africa. Even though many of them were leaving behind conflict and precarious situations, life in the United States had made them feel like outsiders.
Because I do not have any explicit religious or cultural customs and thus few ties to any particular group of people, I could not relate these problems to any of my own experiences, but I sympathized. I have been fortunate to live in a place where I am usually very safe, protected and where I feel at home, but I can imagine how isolating it would feel to have to start life in a foreign environment.
A few of the other issues that Dr. Falola described were similar to the African people’s feelings of inferiority and isolation. He said that they described a loss of social status in the United States, a status that had once been crucial to their livelihoods in Africa. Further, an environment of alienation, invisibility, and discrimination was very prevalent in their lives in the United States, despite their attainment of higher education, high incomes, and other general fulfillment (having a family and friends). Basically, the loss of culture was profoundly felt among most all of them, and they found this difficult to handle.
During the lecture, I found myself grieving for the African immigrants and what they had lost upon leaving Africa: their culture, their homes, and their identities. I wondered how they were doing and what they had tried or were trying to do to cope with these losses. Dr. Falola was optimistic, though, and told us that as more and more African peoples came to the United States and connected with others who had already come, they were rekindling parts of their old lives and creating a living environment in the United States that was more like home. Even more, he explained that awareness of African culture was growing, thanks to globalization, technology, and academia, and that our being there at the lecture was even more progress toward acceptance and understanding of African immigrant circumstances. I was pleased to hear this and even more grateful to have been able to meet Dr. Falola. I was sitting in the front row, and before he began his lecture, he walked over to me and shook my hand, welcoming me.