I always knew I was black. My childhood was the scent of coconut oil hair cream and the taste of bean pie after Friday prayers in a Bilalian mosque on Chicago’s south side. I knew the words to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and called Harold Washington my mayor, even though I lived in the suburbs.
My parents had immigrated to the United States from Sudan in the late 1970s and raised my sister and me to be comfortable in our skin. I spoke Arabic at home and English at school where it seemed no one else agreed that I am black.
Outside of the Box
My father – raised in a post-colonial Sudan mired in ethnic tensions and civil war – wondered aloud why the government was tracking pupils based on race.
The administrator recommended that since Arabic is the language spoken at home, we should mark “white”. My father, whose adolescence was shaped by Frantz Fanon, Patrice Lumumba and Malcolm X, laughed. He patted his conspicuous Afro and wryly said, “We may speak Arabic at home, but you can clearly see that we are black.”
My experience highlights the absurdity of US racial classifications. The US Census Bureau classifies all Arabic speakers as white, owing partly to the fact that the earliest Arabic-speaking immigrants to the US were Levantine Christians who could, and wanted to, pass for white.
US history is defined by centuries of rigid racial hierarchy, with enslaved Africans and their descendants at the bottom of the heap.
Catholics, Jews, and southern European immigrants were not automatically granted whiteness and its legal benefits (PDF).
But by the 20th century, if a man looked white, he enjoyed full benefits of citizenship. But if he looked or was suspected of being black, then he would have to contend with racist laws designed to disenfranchise and terrify African Americans.
The views of the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Africa Speaks 4 Africa or its editorial team.