Too Black, but not black enough?

"I resent that I have to prove that I'm black." -Daniel Kaluuya

So I’m sure most of us have seen if not at least heard about Get Out, the surprise box office success written, produced, and directed by Jordan Peele. Basically, the movie is a comedic horror film that offers up a social critique of racism in America. I won’t spoil the movie for those of you living under a rock or dragging your feet to go see it.

I will, however, address one particularly interesting and equally concerning casting critique I came across whilst scrolling my life away on social media one afternoon. This comment was from none other than Mr. Samuel L Jackson.

I feel like there are a number of older black male actors that the black community just adopts as honorary uncles. These actors include, but are not limited to, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington,  Laurence Fishburne, and yes Samuel L Jackson.

But just like our uncles in real life, honorary uncles aren’t perfect, and say things they probably should have just kept to themselves.
While discussing Get Out, Uncle Sammy had this to say about the casting of David Kaluuya, the Ugandan/British actor who was cast to play the lead role.   
“I tend to wonder, what would that movie have been with an American brother who really understands [racism in the US]…What would a brother from America have made of that role?”

So what, you might ask. Who cares?
I do.
My problem with this statement is that it implies that Kaluuya’s performance was somehow less authentic than say another black actor’s would have been because Kaluuya wasn’t born in America. Wouldn’t the fact that no one knew he was British until after the movie serve as proof that Kaluuya’s performance was convincing and compelling enough to tell this particular story?

I mean, I get it: the experiences of black people in the US and in Great Britain are different in some aspects, but ultimately, these experiences are PARALLEL. Newsflash, being an ethnic minority in the Western world isn’t a cakewalk for anybody no matter what country you live in! So I’m not convinced that this movie would have been noticeably different had an African American played the lead role.

I mean, do we cast real serial killers to play the role of  murderers in movies to make it more “authentic” or do we trust actors to channel whatever role they’re playing to deliver a good performance? I feel like there’s a word for this phenomenon. Oh yeah, it’s called talent.

I know my annoyance may come off as petty, and I’m sure most people could care less, but let me tell you why Jackson’s comment really struck a nerve in me.

As a first generation Nigerian-American, I have at times felt alienated from my African Americans  counterparts who’ve sometimes claimed that I “wasn’t black enough” or believed that I couldn’t really relate to them because of my background.

I’m not writing this to bash anyone at all. I had 10x the amount of support growing up as I did critiques, but I feel compelled to shine a light on the unique experiences that first generation African Americans like myself experience regularly.  

Racism and prejudice don’t look past my black skin and ask me where my parents are originally from before they discriminated against me. Employees don’t ask me if  I’m “black enough” before following me around the store. And neither white, nor Asian, nor Hispanic people just welcome  me with open arms because I’m “not really black”.

Jackson’s critique of Get Out’s casting  was reminiscent of the “not really black” or “not black enough” comments I had heard in the past, and it was pretty disappointing to hear such a well-respected figure in the black community resort to this argument.

Daniel Kaluuya responded to Jackson’s comment by saying,
"I'm dark-skinned, bro. When I'm around black people I'm made to feel 'other' because I'm dark-skinned. I've had to wrestle with that, with people going 'You're too black.' Then I come to America and they say, 'You're not black enough.' I go to Uganda, I can't speak the language. In India, I'm black. In the black community, I'm dark-skinned. In America, I'm British. Bro!"

Like Kaluuya, my identity has been attacked on many fronts as well. Like I mentioned, I’ve heard from African Americans that I “wasn’t black enough”. And on the flipside I’ve heard from a few Nigerians that I’m  “white washed” because I don’t speak Igbo!

Again I’m not writing this post to demonize anyone, but to instead bring awareness.

At the end of the day I identify as both an African American and as a Nigerian American.

 These identities are not mutually exclusive. If they were then people wouldn’t scream “black girl magic” when Lupita wows in another amazing dress. They’d scream “Kenyan girl magic”, right?

More recently everyone was screaming “black girl magic” when Nancy Abu a GHANAIAN native became the first BLACK woman to become a neurology resident at Johns Hopkins.  It’s so easy to claim African women as black women when it’s convenient and makes all black women look good, isn’t it?

It took me years to unlearn and unhear the words that caused me to question my identity. I’m finally at a place where I love (like really LOVE) myself, and accept who I am. I am a first generation Nigerian American born and raised in Alabama. You can think what you want of that. I’m black enough. I’m Nigerian enough.

And for my other first generation African Americans,  Asian Americans, Latinx  Americans, Indian Americans, etc I know what it feels like to juggle multiple identities in America, and it’s ok. It’s normal.   

We all need to reject this notion that there is only one true American narrative. All of our stories are different, but that doesn’t make us less black, less white, or less American than the next person. Everyone’s experiences are valid whether they’re shared by the majority or not. Don’t ever attack the validity of anyone’s identity. We’re better than that. I know that we’re living in some pretty divisive times at the moment, but respect everyone’s story. Listen and learn.


originally published 4/23/17

Judy Oranika