AFRICANGLOBE – Last year, I attended a conference that brought together African thought leaders. In a session about African identity, we explored the question of whether one could claim to be African without being fluent in any African languages. A passionate, and near disruptive debate ensued almost instantly.
What Language Do You Speak? (aka Do You Speak “Us”?)
I’ve had this conversation about language and identity time and again with Africans I meet on my travels. My Afropolitan (read: world citizen) accent throws them off – a mix of American, Nigerian, and what’s often mistaken for British diction, simply because I enunciate my Ts. (Perhaps it’s the remnants of attending a British-run primary school; not likely though.)
Bread-breaking usually comes to a halt until the matter of my accent (origin) is cleared up. They simply must know which language I speak so that they can place me in one of two boxes: one of us, or one of them.
When I tell the cultural gatekeepers that I’m from Nigeria, and my accent is the result of living in the United States for the past 12 years, they’re still not satisfied.
“Are you sure you weren’t just born there?” they ask, “You don’t sound like you grew up in Nigeria.” I usually respond by asking them what a Nigerian who grew up in Nigeria sounds like, then hear some variation of “Like the people in Nollywood movies.”
And when I tell them, I’m sorry to disappoint, I’m not an actress but an activist, I’m Nigerian through and through – I just went to the states for university, they deliver the kicker, “Well, prove it. What language do you speak?” The minute I respond with English (“Oh…”), it’s all downhill from there.
To Speak or Not to Speak: Assimilation vs. Accents
From tensions in Spain over mandating Spanish (versus indigenous languages like Catalan) to US debates over bilingual education and attempts to ban speaking Spanish at school, the issue of language is a sore spot for many communities.
Such language restrictions are often seen as direct attacks on minority cultures, especially for Black immigrants who struggle to affirm their cultural heritage in the absence of their native language.
Yet, ironically, immigrant parents in the US are less likely to teach their children their native languages, for the purpose – or rather, the sake – of easing their assimilation into English-speaking culture.
The latter scenario resonates deeply with me. I grew up with a father who wasn’t fluent in his mother tongue, Agbor (a region-specific dialect of Ika), because his father had outlawed the language being spoken in the house.
My grandfather – who worked as a civil servant during Nigeria’s colonial era – had valid reasons for doing so. In those days, speaking “proper” English meant you got the “good jobs,” which meant increased access to resources, and an improved livelihood for one’s family.
Sadly, even though my father openly resents never having learned his family’s language, his wife b-my mother – refused to teach me her native tongue, Igbo, for a similar reason.
Colonialism did a number on Nigeria’s education system; as I was growing up, public schools were plagued with lack of resources, frequent strikes, violence, sexual harassment, and prostitution.
Hence, my mother’s desire to see me succeed meant equipping me with tools to ensure I could thrive outside of the country I called my home.
For instance, I would attend an international British-run private school, where White teachers would single out the only other Black kid in the class for not pronouncing “stomach” correctly (“stuh-muck”, not “stoh-mack” apparently); only an American or British university would do; I would not learn my native tongue until I spoke English “perfectly” and no longer risked picking up a “bad, Nigerian accent” that would make it harder for me “over there.”
You see, both my parents studied in Los Angeles in the 70s; on top of the (incomprehensible to me) racism of the time, they also faced American imperialist views and discrimination against “foreigners.”
My mother was repeatedly rejected by employers for speaking too “harshly”, eventually forcing her to give up pursuing her dream career in television. It’s no wonder that every morning in my early childhood, my parents would wake up at 5 am to tape Satellite episodes of Sesame Street …They believed (or hoped) that watching British and American English programming would teach their children to speak “properly,” so they wouldn’t have to give up on their dreams.
The Blame Game: Colonialism, Forced Migration, and “Bad African Parents”
For a long time, I resented my parents for robbing me of learning both my native languages. Later, I resented Nigeria for being so poorly-run that my parents couldn’t see me thriving anywhere but outside of it.
Now, as I think about the players who created the environment I was raised to escape – who concocted a system so cruel it culturally orphans children for its own purposes, it’s become much harder to keep directing anger at my own family, and my own people.
My parents shouldn’t be crucified for acting in full awareness of the unjust systems that police indigenous cultures: the colonialist rubble left behind in Nigeria by the barbarous British Empire, and the resentment of Britain’s imperialist younger brother, the US of A, towards foreigners.
Their fears were rational; my Puerto Rican partner, who manages a Spanish-speaking client support team at work, comes home at least once a week to vent about some caller’s rude reaction to a supervisee’s accent, dismissing them as un-educated, or ill-equipped to perform their jobs because they perceivably don’t speak “proper English.”