Relationships between Africans and African-Americans are not as simple as they seem. What makes a successful one?



Nadirah Angail Habeebullah is a member of the Facebook group “American Wives of West African Husbands.” Whenever she needs a recipe to perfect a Senegalese dish or becomes frustrated when trying to communicate the undertone of an English word she vents to the other 17 women in the group.

They understand aspects of her marriage that she believed no one else could. “There’s this thing with the towel on the door,” she said, laughing. “We have towel racks but he always puts his towel on the door. So I put a picture up on Facebook and it was the funniest thing because everyone put up pictures showing their husbands won’t use towel racks, too.” These women have become Nadirah’s confidants. “I feel pretty close to them even though none of them live in the city,” she said.

Nadirah, 28, grew up watching “The Cosby Show,” “Martin” and “A Different World.” These sitcoms have become a large part of her life and even the center of most of her jokes. While her friends and family can share a common laugh, Abdou Aziz, her
husband of five years, is still catching on. He’s seen an episode or two but not enough to fully understand. He’s a Senegalese man from Paris, and she’s an African-American woman from Missouri.

The couple met in Philadelphia at Drexel University while he was working on his master’s degree in finance and she was interviewing for graduate admission. Initially, she wasn’t interested in dating someone from another country, but he was persistent. She realized they had a lot in common and eventually they fell in love. When Nadirah and Abdou Aziz married they had a mutual understanding: she will not expect him to be American and he will not expect her to be African.

Marrying Out, a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, found that one in seven, or 14.6 percent, of new American marriages were intercultural – couples who did not share the same race or ethnicity. Among these intercultural marriages, three percent were between African-Americans and blacks from other nations.

“Cross-cultural relationships are a reflection of all the migrations, all the movement and location we encounter,” said Esther Perel, a New York marriage therapist who specializes in cross-cultural relations. She says it’s a sign of progression. “People who would have never met before are meeting.”

In 1980, interracial marriages accounted for approximately 6.7 percent of all marriages in the U.S and by 2010 this number more than doubled to 15 percent, according to a new Pew Research study on the rise of intermarriages. Research by Daniel T. Lichter shows there are currently more Africans married to Americans of African decent than to Americans of European decent. Lichter is a professor of sociology at Cornell University and author of Interracial and Intraracial Patterns of Mate Selection Among America’s Diverse Black Populations.

In recent years, researchers and psychologists have begun to explore and understand the complexities of unions between Africans and African-Americans. Their differences may not be as visible as other interracial relationships because they share a common skin complexion. While issues of communication, gender roles and sexuality are commonplace for any intercultural marriage, psychologists have found that the cultural dynamics that function in African and African-American relationships are unique.

For example, Maya Angelou wrote about her 1960 romance with a South African freedom fighter in her 1981 autobiography, The Heart of a Woman. While many African immigrants were moving to the U.S at the time, she was among a group of American women who retraced the trip back to Africa by moving to Cairo, Egypt. She, like many American wives of African men, had romantic views about Africa. She described their relationship as “the joining of Africa and Africa-America. Two great peoples back together again.” Philippe Wamba, author of Kinship: A Family’s Journey in Africa and America, wrote that Angelou’s union was not about the pairing of individuals, but the reunification of two long-separated communities. “They seemed willing to see themselves, and each other, as cultural prototypes of an imagined identity,” he wrote.

The dream of reuniting the ties that have been broken for so many years is what Joseph Mbele, a Tanzanian citizen, believes attracts many African and African-American couples. “When we see African-Americans you say, ‘Oh my brother or sister.’ There is a connection—the feeling that African-Americans are apart of the African family,” he said. Mbele is a professor of literature St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn,. founder of Africonexion, an organization that focuses on strengthening African and American relations, and author of Africans and Americans Embracing Cultural Differences.

Nadirah’s special appreciation for Africa came from her mother, who told her, she recalled, never to look at the continent as “ugly, dirty, poor or less than.” As an adolescent Nadirah often said that she was an African trapped inside of America. It wasn’t until she met her husband that she actually realized how “American” she was.

Nadirah was attracted to Abdou Aziz’s charm and it was a major plus that he was Muslim, like her. After completing their graduate studies they decided to marry and start a family in Kansas City. Today, they have a 2-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son, and Nadirah, a marriage and family therapist, stays home to care for them. She’s learned to cook West African foods, particularly lamb mafe with peanut sauce and bissap, a tea made from hibiscus flowers —although she often wonders if it tastes authentic. She loves to wear traditional garments she brought from their 2008 trip to Senegal around the house.

While in Senegal, she met her husband’s family and saw the place that he once called home. She was overwhelmed by the dozens of friends and family at his parents’ house. She had met so many relatives that she started to question how they could all be related. “She is in the house so just shake her hand,” Abdou told his wife about one woman. “I don’t know who this is.”

This same hospitality translated back to their home in Missouri. Abdou Aziz’s two younger brothers live with them, and his closest friends decided to move next door. “This isn’t something you see as an African-American,” Nadirah said. “It was hard for me to get used to it because I am used to my own space.”

The couple also hosts weekly gatherings with other local members of the African community at their home. Nadirah is always present for the prayer, food and conversation, but most of the time she feels like an outsider. She’s tried to connect with the other African wives in Kansas City but language barriers have made conversations difficult. “It’s harder to build a friendship. I don’t want to disrespectful to them by asking them to speak English,” she said. “They speak English in their everyday lives so this is their time to be themselves.”

While Nadirah struggles to learn a new tongue, her husband speaks four languages: French, Wolof, Fulani and English. When they married she thought she would pick up the languages naturally but she got frustrated and gave up for a while, she admitted. But, not knowing how to speak her husband’s language has hindered her from getting to know some of the important people in his life. “I can’t just sit and talk to his mom and dad and I can’t just communicate to them as I want to,” Nadirah said of their monthly phone calls. “I communicate through him.”

Esther Perel says that language barriers are the most common frustration among intercultural couples. For this reason, Juone, 38, decided to learn Twi, her husband’s native tongue, when they married in 2004. He had pressured her to learn Twi, and an African language was a requirement for her Ph.D. in African Studies, so she spent a summer taking classes at the University of Illinois.

Originally from Birmingham, Ala., in 2002 Juone moved to the Washington D.C metropolitan area, home to one-fourth of the African-born population in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute. “I found many West African men were attracted to me,” she said, and that surprised her. While dancing at Bukom Café, a local West African restaurant, she was approached by a Ghanaian musician, the drummer of the live band that evening. He asked if she enjoyed the set, and then asked for a date. She agreed, and four months later they married.

After marriage, Juone was shocked to see the women in the Ghanaian community give her a hard time. At parties and church gatherings the women often commented on how she talked and questioned why she wore her hair natural. They often called her an “Akata,” a Nigerian word for savage or slave. “They didn’t know I understood them,” said Juone, who had learned Twi well enough to understand a conversation. “They kept asking my husband, ‘Why doesn’t she perm her hair?’”

But Juone said that he liked that she wore her hair natural. What she loved most about her marriage is she didn’t feel pressure conform to a European notion of beauty, as she did with African-American men in her past. The two had similar beliefs that black people were all one. “We’ve all endured something,” she said. “We didn’t believe there was a separation based on our place on earth.”

John Smith, a history teacher and marriage counselor from Baltimore, agrees with this philosophy. He created the networking site African Diasporan Relationships in April 2009 to promote cultural exchange and educate people on the diversity of the black community. “I think that the concept of African Diasporan Relationships is pretty new, to my knowledge this is the only site of its kind,” he said. “I think to most people, they see an African-American married to an African, or someone from the Caribbean, as just a black person married to another black person. In reality it is a big deal, there are two completely different cultures involved, and it takes a lot to make such a relationship work, regardless of the similarities in race.”

Although Juone and her husband shared a love for all things black they expressed those feelings in different ways. She soon realized that the concept of being in love was, perhaps, an American idea. “I don’t think that necessarily fits into the ideas of some African cultures,” she said. “Not that they don’t love each other but as far as the fairytale aspect.”

Her observation is only partly true. While love does fit in African culture, the ways of expressing that love can be different. Joseph Mbele says that West African men show their love in different ways. “In America if someone loves you they show their love in public. They will kiss you. Husbands and wives show their affection,” he explained. “But Africans, we don’t do that. Our science of respecting your wife and husband is keeping your distance. From an African point of view kissing someone in public is showing disrespect.” This misunderstanding was the cause of many arguments for the couple.

After finding text messages and seeing exchanges with other women, Juone began to question if her husband was having an affair. When she had decided to marry him after just three months of dating, her family insisted she make sure he didn’t have a wife or other girlfriends on the side. When Juone did decide to ask him about other women she never received a direct answer. He wasn’t comfortable with his wife questioning him, she said. “He just said I was being jealous and insecure.”

“In America we are taught to be individuals. Individualism is a part of our culture. And we’ve been raised with a feminist perspective,” Juone said. “In Africa there is a role of the women. And the shock that I didn’t play the submissive role was alarming to him.”

Some African men come from societies where polygamy and infidelity are considered normal. Perel says that sex normally represents power in marriages. “There are certain societies in Africa where sex is seen as a marital duty of the wife,” said Perel, “while African-American women have an American idea of sex for pleasure and expression.” Within the African-American community there has been a legacy of rape and abuse against women. This history mixed with the custom of polygamous marriages often creates a power struggle, Perel explained.

Through conversations with other wives, Juone discovered that some women expected their husbands to cheat. “They aren’t happy about it but they accept it,” she said. “I couldn’t accept wondering and not knowing.” They were married for four years and divorced in 2008.

Although there’s a wealth of literature on other intercultural marriages, psychologists Beth Durodoye and Angela Coker saw a lack of literature about within-group diversity among black couples. “Most of the literature on intercultural relationships talk about black men, white women, or black women and white men,” said Coker, a counseling and family therapist professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “I have not seen a lot on African-Americans and African; racial differences as opposed to inter-group differences.”

Coker and Durodoye, both African-American women married to Nigerian men, collaborated to write Crossing Cultures in Marriage: Implications 
for Counseling African American/African Couples, a resource for counselors to better assist these couples.

“I’ve been contacted by several individuals over the years, African and African-American couples, for counseling,” said Durodoye, who specializes in multicultural therapy. “Depending on where they are in the country, I check different folks who are familiar with this specific type of information.” She says a counselor has to understand the history of the two communities to deal with the complexities of an African and African-American union.

Dr. Kofi Glover, a Ghana native and a professor African Studies at the University of South Florida, said that a shared complexion among Africans and African-Americans “does not equal a shared culture, nor does it automatically lead to friendships.” He said, “Whether we like it or not, Africans and African-Americans have two different and very distinct cultures.” He was discounting the idea that all people within the black diaspora have a similar “black” experience. African-Americans, as a result of living in America for 400 years, have developed a culture different from that in the land they once called home.

While the African-American experience involves a history of slavery and the fight for civil rights, Africans moved to this country more recently, and in many cases, their arrival has revealed a gap in knowledge and social, cultural and historical divides between the two groups. Although, Africans who have lived in in the U.S. longer or moved the U.S at a younger age tend to have a better understanding of the African-American community and the politics of race in America, according to Msia Kibona Clark, author of Identity among First and Second Generation African Immigrants in the United States.

Philippe Wamba, the child of a Congolese father and African-American mother, described the reunification of immigrant and native blacks as “gazing at each other across the Transatlantic divide like a child seeing itself in the mirror for the first time.”

Around 110,000 Africans entered the US between 1961 and 1980, the largest wave of black immigration into the U.S. since slavery. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 loosened restrictions on immigration based on geography, allowing more black people from the Caribbean and Africa to come to America. This increase in African immigration, against the backdrop of the civil rights and pan-Africanism movements, created relationships and marriages between Africans and African-Americans, most commonly among black American women and West African men who met at American universities.

Beth Durodoye, 49, met her husband Raifu while they were students at Marshall University in Huntington, W.V. He had come straight from Nigeria and she was attracted to his curiosity and eagerness to learn. Now, as a multicultural therapist, she draws most of her knowledge from her own marital experiences.

In the beginning of their marriage, Beth said, she and her husband were both naïve about how deep their cultural differences actually were. They showed in subtle ways: the length of time guests stayed over, and how often she cooked dinner. “I don’t cook a lot unless it is cookies and cakes,” she said. “He got upset because I wasn’t cooking like he thought I should as a wife.” She soon found out she was not the traditional idea that he had about a wife.

After three years of marriage, Beth discovered their bank account began to shrink. She had no idea Raifu was regularly sending money to support his family in Nigeria. “I didn’t like that,” she admitted. “You get marred and it is about us, this family here. But there is an expectation that his money will be going back to family in Nigeria,” she said. “I felt he should only contribute to building us here.”

Marita Golden described her husband’s contributions to his family’s collective fund in her 1983 autobiography, Migrations of the Heart, a coming of age story about her experience of marrying a Nigerian man and moving to Africa. Although she voiced her opinions in their marriage, she soon realized that she came second to the demands of his extended family.

Beth first experienced this when her brother-in-law came to visit their home in West Virginia. In Nigerian culture a younger brother is expected to obey his older brother. “There was a lot of bowing happening and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t bow up and down,’” Beth said. “I saw it as disrespectful for him. But I didn’t know that in his culture it was respectful.”

These are the types of things Raifu wished he had been able to teach his sons first hand. Their children are now 26 and 28 but have never visited Nigeria. “They were raised in U.S. culture and around my family,” Beth said. “So he hasn’t been able to transmit everything to them as he could have if we lived in Nigeria.”

Msia Kibona Clark, 27, who lives in Los Angeles, is also the product of a bicultural union. Her mother is African-American, her father Tanzanian. For her, dating has always been about knowledge and appreciation for both of her cultures. She’s found it easier to find an African man who understands African-American culture than an African-American man who understands African culture, which has led her to solely date African men for the last 13 years. She and her Ghanaian boyfriend welcomed their first child in March.

She’s always been more comfortable with the African family structure. Most African cultures believe in patrilineal lineage, where the child is a part of the father’s clan. “There is no question of him abandoning his child even if he and I don’t work out,” she said. Coker and Durodoye attribute Msia’s preference to acculturation, the degree by which she has been able to examine the aspects of her American culture that she most and least values.

Like Maya Angelou, Msia’s mother was a product of the civil rights movement. She moved to Tanzania in the 1960s to experience Africa and become a teacher. Her planned short trip turned into 10 years after she fell in love with a Tanzanian politician.

They lived happily for a couple of years even though they never married. His sisters were very imposing on their relationship. They wanted to insure their brother’s soon-to-be-wife was properly submissive, taking care of the household and preparing good meals. After Msia’s brother was born, the pressure for her parents to marry became overbearing. Her mother was hesitant. In Tanzania, as in many African cultures, children are the property of the husband. She was uncomfortable with giving up her authority as a mother, part of the reason why his sisters felt she was too assertive. “Tanzanian women, by even African standards, are very conservative. And my mother, well, she’s from Cleveland. There was only but so much she would deal with,” Msia said. Her assertiveness was often too much in a land where women seldom raise their voices.

When the pressures of marriage became too much she decided to leave. She took her children, slipped away to Zambia and caught a flight to the United States. She called her children’s father once she reached Ohio. At the time Msia was 5, with an African accent and no knowledge of America.

Growing up in Cleveland, Msia never felt completely African-American or Tanzanian. American blacks, the group she felt should have embraced her the most, rejected her. At the time the African community in Cleveland was small. But even when she would travel to Tanzania to visit her father she didn’t fit in. “My cousins would speak to me fast in Swahili and they would laugh because they knew I couldn’t understand,” she said.

Upon her return to Ohio, she devoted herself to being to becoming as “African-American” as she could. “It wasn’t cool to be African,” she remembered thinking. “I was ashamed of my African side and really emphasized I was African-American.” When she lost her African accent in her teenage years, she said she had mentally and physically lost that side of herself. It wouldn’t be until college that she would again embrace her Tanzanian roots.

When Msia began teaching at Howard University in 2007, she observed that her story was common among her black students. “I noticed just on campus there was an increase in African students in my classes. Some from my generation that are from the wave of African-Americans that went to Africa and came back,” she said. Currently, she’s a professor of Pan African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and specializes in African and African-American social relations.
Migrations have created a new black diaspora in America. According to Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, black America can no longer be looked at as one group because African immigrants have redefined the term African-American. In his book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, he breaks down the black race into four groups with “increasingly distant, separated demography, geography and psychology,” he writes. “They have different profiles, different mindsets, different hopes, fears and dreams.” These groups consist of a mainstream middle-class majority, an abandoned minority with less hope of escaping poverty, a small elite with enormous wealth, and two newly Emergent groups of recent black immigrants and individuals of mixed-race heritage—which he says “that make us wonder what “black” is even supposed to mean.”

When people ask Nnedinma Umeugo, 24, about her heritage, she just says “black” to keep it simple. She has an identity and perspective different from her parents and as a result, she is more sensitive to the complexities of the Nigerian community, from her father, and the African-American community, from her mother. She says being bi-cultural child is like being an ambassador for the two communities. She’s defended African-Americans when she heard her African family talking about native blacks, and she’s defended Africans when she’s heard her African-American friends talking about African immigrants.

Tolani Martin, 44, a mother of two, actively works to teach her children the beauty in both of their cultures, African-American and Nigerian. She teaches them about African-American history, how to properly greet their Nigerian elders and she even cooks both Nigerian and American foods. “I tend to get that my kids are American but I think it is very important they are identified with both,” she said. “I think that their African and American identity can never be lost. Having two cultures is a positive thing.”

Tolani, who is Nigerian but was raised in London, met her husband, Steve, who is from Chicago, in 1995 while she was studying at Northwestern University in Illinois. The two decided to marry in 1999 and had a traditional Yoruba wedding.

When they started a family in 2004 she thought it would be nice for their children to have Nigerian names. “They are going to have their father’s last name which is Martin. If they didn’t [have Nigerian first names] that part of their identity would be lost when someone just meet them,” she said. “It was just something I had been thinking about. It started with my son and we took it for granted with my daughter.” She said her husband fully embraced the idea.

Today she’s a stay-at-home mom. While she was still working as an account director at an advertising agency, she hired a Nigerian nanny to help pass on African values to her children. “At the time it was great,” she said, recalling her working days. The nanny taught her son his first words in Yoruba.

When they visit her relatives in Nigeria the children have no problem communicating—and neither does her husband. He’s learned enough of the language to hold a conversation. And when his job at IBM asked him to relocate to Kenya last April, he embraced the idea of moving the family closer to Nigeria—only a five-hour drive from their home in Kenya.

Coker says this is one of the positive things about marrying someone of a different cultural background. “It takes a certain level of curiosity and world view to be involved in a relationships like that,” she said. In most successful multicultural relationships between Africans and black Americans, she says, the African-American “has an openness that there are more than just people who are in my neighborhood.”

The decision about where to live causes conflict within many intercultural relationships. BabaJide Oluyemi, 47, moved to New Jersey from Nigeria as an economic refugee in 1991 but always planned to move back to Nigeria. When he met his wife, Dorothy, 44—who was enthusiastic about the idea of living in Africa one day—he knew she was the one for him. Dorothy had grown up in Colorado and moved to New Jersey to be closer to her family. She was looking for a friend in the area and responded to a personals ad placed by BabaJide, who simply goes by Baba.
The media had filled Baba’s mind with stereotypes about African-Americas. They were loud and all carried guns, he thought.
Dorothy, on the other hand, didn’t have misconceptions about Africans. She had dated Nigerian men before and always thought it would be nice to marry someone from Africa one day. “I wanted to travel to Africa but I didn’t want to go as a tourist,” she admitted. Today the couple lives in Edison, N.J. Baba works as a financial advisor and Dorothy stays home to care for their 11 and 16-year-old daughters.

The Oluyemis say communication is the key to their successful partnership. When Baba admitted that he doesn’t like when Dorothy wears her hair in natural styles, she asked him why instead of getting angry. He explained that only the uneducated women in his village wore Afros. “I could always feel that he didn’t like my hair,” she said, “but when I asked I began to understand why.” Today she wears her hair relaxed.

They have grasped the art of compromise. Dorothy is not a master chef so she and Baba split cooking responsibilities. He has learned to cook American dishes like spaghetti, even though he hates the idea of wasting a whole pot of water to boil pasta.
Baba attended an Episcopalian church when they began dating, and Dorothy was a Seventh-day Adventist. Today they are both members of a Seventh-day Adventist church where Baba is an elder. There was a time when Baba was embarrassed about this. “For a Nigerian to know that I converted, they already felt like she was the boss in the house; which wasn’t a good thing,” he said. “If they came to the house and see I cooked they would really think she is in control of this guy.”

But after almost 20 years of marriage, he’s realized they have to mold their relationship to the style that works best for them. “Many of our friends idolize our marriage,” he said. Having friends who are also in intercultural relationships as been an asset for the Oluyemis.

Dorothy even says couples come to them for advice on navigating cultural barriers. “We do a lot of informal marriage counseling. We are very thankful for our marriage,” she said.

Therapist Esther Perel, who is in a bicultural relationship herself—her husband is American and she is from Belgium—says tremendous amounts of respect and admiration are required to make multicultural relationships work across the board. “You have to accept there are parts of your culture others will never know,” she said.

In Mixed Matches: How to Create Successful Interracial, Interethnic and Interfaith Relationships, Joel Crohn recommends that couples experiment with rituals of both partners before making a lifelong promise.

“I think I read one newspaper and magazine article on Nigeria before I got married,” Beth Durodoye said, laughing. She says she wishes she had researched more about her husband’s culture. When she teaches marriage and cultural therapy, she often says that the answer is not always 50-50. “Sometimes it’s 90-10, other times it’s 60-40,” she said, “You have to work with the ups and downs and be flexible.”

John Smith agrees with Crohn. “I would recommend not only for people in African diasporan relationships, but for anyone in a relationship with someone from a different culture to learn more about the culture you are marrying into,” he said. “Be respectful and non-judgmental. It is also important to keep the lines of communication open always.”

The secret seems to be having a continuously open mind. Nadirah Habeebullah says she is constantly learning new, interesting details about her husband’s culture. “That’s fine that I don’t automatically know some things and vice versa,” she said, ”because we are both willing to learn.” On her blog, “On My Intercultural Marriage: When An African American and African Hook Up,” she frequently writes about her marital adventures. She wrote in a recent post that marriage is not always convenient but it is always worth it. “There is always going to be more to learn about each other, but I do think we’ve finally found our cool. He’ll never recite lines from Lion King and I’ll never feel the need to eat chocolate spread for breakfast every morning, but at least we won’t mind when the other does,” she wrote. “I wouldn’t trade my intercultural marriage for the world, and I’m certain he feels the same way.”


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