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|| All Identities Combined

Guinea, United States, France: the three lives of Abdel Camara

By Ryad Maouche and Alexia Sena

Lire en français (FR) - version originale

He was born in Guinea, studied in the United States, moved to France. Abdel is at the same time, Guinean, American, maybe soon French, and also, muslim.
So he knows a lot about what it means to "be black" in this world.

Why two podcasts ?

You understood, in this episode, you have two podcasts.

The first is the testimony of Abdel Camara. Forty-five minutes during which he takes the time to tell his story, which began more than 30 years ago in Guinea, continued in the United States and is now taking place in France.

In the second podcast, it is this time Maboula Soumahoro who has time to express herself. Maboula Soumahoro is a doctor in civilizations of the English-speaking world, a specialist in African-American studies and the black diaspora. We listened with her to Abdel's testimony. Personal accounts and a discourse analysis that gives a fascinating and enlightening interview.

Abdel arrived in the United States at the age of 14. He lived in Marietta, in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. He still remembers his first disturbing day in the middle school cafeteria: he’d seen kids sitting in groups at their assigned tables. Yet Abdel didn’t see himself fitting into any of the prescribed boxes. He is Black; but African. And despite having the same skin color, he neither spoke nor dressed like the Black Americans.

“No one wanted to be African, and no one of African descent spoke out about it. And I called myself Guinean when I arrived.” Between assimilation and self-acceptance, where does his Africanness lie? From encounters with his African American peers, for whom his African identity is “just a component of his Black identity”, to encounters with white schoolmates and co-workers, who viewed his Guinean identity differently (often misguidedly, ) from Black Americans; by way of Muslim acquaintances' projections regarding his faith, based on his appearance: it is in this environment rich in varied discussions, uncomfortable at times, that Abdel learns to position himself, and to embrace his complex and singular identity as a man who is above all Guinean, Black, Muslim, became American, and who now lives in France. An order of priorities that, over time, will change according to the codes that Abdel composes for himself.  The construction of his identity evolved simultaneously.

Migration, integration, homecoming 14 years later, and a new beginning in France. 

“Black in America, but not Black American. By the time people realize this, how do Black people, and non-Black people process it?” 

“For Black people, it was pretty simple,” replies Abdel. (...) “It was just a fragment of my identity, it didn't change much. For them, it was more like, do you talk like us, do you dress like us; if you do that, then there's no difference, you're part of the club. That's why at first I was a bit of an outsider, but a year later, when I learned to talk like them, dress like them, I was part of the club.” 

Among some white people, Abdel could spot two types of reactions: “The first reaction you get is that you're not even African American. (...) You're African. That's lower. (...) Clearly my identity confused them,” he recalls. 

The other group in contrast appeared to be more comfortable, as if relieved of a burdensome historical and colonial baggage. It would appear that hiring someone like  Abdel was a way for employers to have the 'diversity' box checked without having to deal with all the perceived problems they would face with an African American. On the downside, some people allowed themselves to make inappropriate comments, either unconsciously or in a passive aggressive manner.

“They can look at you as if you didn't have the cultural legacy that an African American has. They can feel more relaxed, because they figure you don't have the experience of Civil Rights, you're not part of the slavery discussion. So for them, you're just Black of skin, but a foreigner. And that too can have its positive and negative side, it means there are white people who feel more comfortable with you.” 

Another area of divergence: religion. At a time when African American Muslims were relatively rare, the Muslims he met were mostly immigrants from Pakistan, India and other South Asian countries. 

For them, Abdel explains, there were only two possibilities when a Black American was a Muslim: either a new convert, or a member of the Nation of Islam, a doctrine that differed substantially from Islam. “For them, Islam necessarily came with a tragic backstory: I went through something, I was in an accident, or I was on drugs, and afterwards Islam saved me. So when I was asked what my ‘conversion story’ was, I’d say ‘Well, I was born. That's it.’”

So after 14 years of absence, you went back to Guinea. How was it?

“It was a shock. I arrived, it was May, and the first thing I felt was the heat. [I’d ask] ‘I remember there was wind. Where did it go?’ And they’d say ‘Nothing’s changed, you’ve changed. What happened to you, you can't stand the heat anymore, even though you were born in it!’”

The second thing he noticed was that he was entirely and exclusively surrounded by Black people. “The race issue didn't exist anymore (...) no energy to be spent on that. (...) The question was more like: are you a local or a vacationer.”

While Abdel considered himself Guinean, local people considered him a visitor in Conakry. “I realized that people knew I was no longer from here. I didn't know how they knew, but it was obvious for them. I couldn't hide that I came from elsewhere.”

A trip that made him ponder, and even made him a little sad, because he was happy to be back, but many things had changed. 

“This raised a lot of thoughts. Up until then, I used to behave like a transient in the States. (...) That's when I realized that America was also part of my identity, and that I had to invest in that country from then on.”

Moving to France

“If Trump wins, I'm leaving the country,” he had casually blurted out on the eve of the U.S. election in 2016.

For his part, Abdel seized a job offer in France as an opportunity to explore new ground. Here again, the question of identity was about to be a multifaceted challenge. Although he came as an American expat, he was already preparing himself to receive questions related to his ethnicity and his religion, his wife wearing the hijab…

Up to his expectations and beyond, he quickly noticed the treatment was different between his status as an American expatriate and as a Guinean. “As an American, regardless of your skin color, you are the guest of honor outside the States.” However, if the first thing people saw was his West African-sounding name, Abdel Camara, then he would be viewed as an immigrant and be treated otherwise. The young expat recounts one of his first racist experiences in France at a bank appointment: the employees’ attitude immediately shifted when Abdel took out his American passport.

The racial problem in France exists as much as it does in the United States, Alexia Sena points out, but in a different way: in the States, people know it is a problem that has never really been solved and it is talked about, whereas in France we chose to avoid the vexing question and fuel the fire. For instance, practices that favor non-mixity discussions in America such as Black employee networks, would be seen somehow as segregation in France. “In France, everyone is French, meaning that, in a way, you can't really be who you are 100%, but the other [the person of French descent, born and raised in France] one can. Whilst you come from somewhere else, he is at home. You change, and it's okay.”

Being Black in a white community 

“I had stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets about Black people: that most of us weren't interested in revolt; that most of us were tired of thinking about race all the time; that if we preferred to keep to ourselves it was mainly because that was the easiest way to stop thinking about it, easier than spending all our time mad or trying to guess whatever it was that white folks were thinking about you.” (Obama, in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. 1995)

“When you stand as the only Black person in a city, you represent all Black people and it's very exhausting. Even in Paris, one day I went to a Black meeting, because I needed to be around Black people. One man said to me, ‘It feels good to have melanin around me,’ and I felt it. I could just be myself. We all deserve to be comfortable and whoever we are, like musicians, even poets, or soccer players: at some point, they want to be with people like them, talking about the same things. You just want to be comfortable in your community, and to be free.”

Who are you today and who will you be tomorrow?

The Black experience is not a monolith, Abdel needles. Diversity is a matter, of course, for a white person. “[When you are a Black individual,] there is always an attempt to find out where you are from. You are what you have to defend. I will always have to defend the fact that I am Black. If there is a crime committed by a Black man, and I am walking on the street, I’ll be arrested. No matter what he looked like, no matter his description, he was only a Black man.”

“I don't let anyone define me anymore," he said. I also give myself the opportunity to choose who I am whenever I want, sometimes in my favor. I am just a Black man, who grew up in America and who now lives in France, who’s gonna go back to Guinea one day. Just a Black man in this world.”

“It was from the Americas that I started to anchor myself more firmly to France”

In the previous podcast, we listened to Abdel’s story, a Black Guinean and American man who now lives in France. He discovered his blackness through the eyes of others, living on each of the three continents. Similarly, Maboula, who was born in the Paris region from Ivorian parents, was raised in the Dioula culture, and studied in the United States and Jamaica for several years.

Maboula Soumahoro is a doctor of civilization of the English-speaking world, specializing in African-American studies and the Black diaspora. She is also the author of The Hexagon and the Triangle : Thinking Black Identity, an autobiographical essay which examines the making of Black identity in France through the prism of the transatlantic triangular trade. In this enlightening interview, Maboula Soumahoro intertwines her personal story with critical reflection, echoing the words of Abdel Camara. Interviewed by Alexia Sena.

A: To begin with, in what ways was your Black identity influenced by this triangle?

M: The construction of my identity as a Black woman was a journey through several stages. I didn’t realize immediately that my identity took root in that transatlantic triangle. I was only aware of one point of the triangle, and it was Africa. I was born in the suburbs of Paris, but instead of feeling French, I always viewed myself as African, Ivorian and more specifically Dioula, the ethnic group my parents belong to. Beyond nationality, I had internalized a sort of racial consciousness. We were Black, we were African, and therefore not French. The change happened years later when I went to the Americas: I felt connected with African Americans, African Caribbeans, and other Black diasporas.

A: By leaving France, you grew closer to other Black populations, Caribbean, Jamaican or even non-white French. But paradoxically it brought out your French identity as well. Did this happen simultaneously?

M: One identity certainly does not erase the others. I am Ivorian, French and many other things. 

Still, there is a sort of diasporic culture that appears in music, arts, literature, but also in the food we eat or the products we buy. In Harlem for example, African Americans, African Caribbeans or newer African immigrants go to the same stores and consume the same things. When I lived in Jamaica to study Rastafarianism, I met Rasta communities for whom there was an entire myth surrounding the African origin and the importance of Africa. For them, my Black body, my dreadlocks and my name made me  sort of an authentic African who hadn’t lost her culture, contrarily to them. Although I am a second-generation immigrant, and am still connected to my culture, unlike the other diasporas for whom the connection is more remote, there is a part of Africa and the Ivory Coast that I lost inevitably, since I was born in Paris. Therefore, there are as many cultural connections between the Black diasporas that help us bond, as there are cultural differences that set us apart. 

At the same time, that was surprisingly when I realised that a part of me was French. For instance, when I was returning for the holidays, I noticed that my family, my loved ones  and home were in France, rather than in the Ivory Coast. Another example is when people in the States could distinguish that I wasn’t an Afro-American with my French accent. I remember that people would mistake me for  Haitian. And my Parisian French identity opened a few doors for me to teach French. And most of the time, I was perceived and acknowledged as French, whereas in France, I was always asked where I came from, and I was fine with that, I had internalized the idea that I was not from here. Because for my parents, we were not from France, we were always going to leave eventually, although it never happened.

A: “Before Afrobeat and Black Panther, Africa was in the collective imagination an underdeveloped and unpopular continent where everyone was starving, living in huts. When I arrived in the States, no one wanted to be African, and no one of African descent spoke out about it.” (Abdel Camara)

M: I cannot really relate to Abdel’s story since I didn’t arrive in America from Africa, but from France. When I was asked the question of where I was from, I just had to answer that I was French. However, that vision people had of Africa was transcontinental. I’ve literally heard the phrase “African booty scratcher”: the image of an African kid who’s barely clothed, surrounded by flies, scratching his bottom. In 1997, Africa had just emerged from a great famine in the 80s, Ethiopia was known for poverty and wars, and the songs of charity fund-raising supergroup ‘USA for Africa’ in 1985 were still vivid in the collective imagination. It built a whole mental construct around Africa as an inferior continent. There’s a certain shame and almost a dead weight to carry for people of African descent, as if there were a pressure to be a cultural ambassador of Africa. 

Parents do not have that shame nor do they carry this burden though, I feel like it is really more of a second-generation thing. In Dioula culture, we literally have a myth in which our people are the kings of the world so this idea of an inferior African people certainly doesn’t exist. However the children of the second generation are caught up between their two cultures. On the one hand, an immigrant culture, proud and self-valuing, but socially devalued. On the other hand, a dominant white culture, stable and omnipresent. We grew up surrounded by overwhelmingly European or Caucasian cinema, music and arts, and Africa was wrongly or underrepresented and thus erased and impoverished in our imagination. We had to find refuges, subterfuges. And at some point we came back to our African roots, we understood that we didn't have to hide, but we know that at some point in our identity journey, each of us carried a certain shame regarding our places and cultures of origin. 

A: It is interesting to see how the first-generation and second-generation view their African roots differently. Why do we have a sense of shame and responsibility that even our parents don’t have? Does the difference lie in our different relationship with society, since we are always among other peers, whereas it was purely about a job for the parents? Or is it because they have known a glorious Africa, especially those who grew up in the context of fighting for independence?

M: Unlike us, our parents are confident about their own origins. They know where they came from and how they lived in their home country. It is easier for them to not be bothered by remarks, by that hegemonic speech they’re being served. However for the children, who’ve never actually lived in Africa, it is harder because they do not know this “elsewhere” they come from. That homeland they’ve never visited, the language they barely speak creates confusion. This remote land, that they’re allegedly from, is not fully theirs. Therefore, it creates distress because they live in a country that does not accept them but that they know well, whereas in contrast, they don’t really know the country that would cherish them and accept them. 

A: “For black people, it was pretty simple. You belonged to the community by the way you spoke and dressed. The African identity was just a fragment of identity for them.” (Abdel Camara)

M: Indeed, there is a whole African American history of memory and reconnecting with the African continent. Within the African American community, there have been projects to  return since the late 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Communities have been celebrating and preserving cultural aspects of a lost African life. So they carry a memory of Africa even though they are deeply rooted in America now, which is a very personal history specific to African Americans.

A: I was surprised because I was expecting a greater divide among the Black diaspora. In Americanah, a novel written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, there is a scene in which the narrator and another Black student have an argument, and the narrator doesn’t understand why certain words are taboo to use in the States, and that there is the whole history of civil rights behind it. In that way, I expected a greater difference in experience between Africans and Afro-Americans.

Indeed, there are big differences between African Americans and Africans. In Americanah, the two protagonists don’t share the same history. Nationality but also social class create differences between them. You can see that there have been attempts made by Black immigrants to disassociate from Afro-Americans. Because when you belong to a higher social class, you have no interest in being perceived as African American in the States. Among the post-1965 immigration wave from the mainland, some adopted the strategy of keeping their accent and their  distinctive culture. An African bourgeoisie had formed and became more socially successful than the African Americans. However, it turns out that whatever the degree of success of the first generation, the socio-economic indicators were exactly the same for people of African descent and Afro-Americans of the second generation. Moreover, there is now a greater solidarity and fusion between African diasporas. You can see that many people of African descent are in the first line of the BLM movement for instance.

A: “There are two reactions : either you are not even African American, or you are Black but harmless. My complex identity was often unsettling.” (Abdel Camara)

M: It is true that we are perceived differently than other Black people. As Abdel Camara said, there is this idea that you are inferior to an Afro-American person, reinforcing Africa as a big nothingness. It also enables white people to avoid national tension. They do not have to face History, inequalities and local slavery. Therefore, they are better disposed towards non-African Americans, sometimes creating unequal opportunities: I’ve seen a few university colleagues (myself included ) who have been given  teaching positions, which would not have been easily given to an African American. “At least we can communicate properly with you compared to Black people here, they get offended too easily,” some would say. It causes fractures between communities.

There was this rather nationalist movement, called the ADOS (American Descendants Of Slavery) which was almost racist, formed by African Americans who wanted to highlight the differences between them and other Black people who were not ready to carry the burden of their History. But I think that at the end of the day, even though this battle is understandable, the partition between communities won’t be beneficial to anyone. Just think about the Amadou Diallo case: that man, a Guinean immigrant, was killed by the police in 1996 in the Bronx. I doubt it would have changed anything if he had just said that he was not an African American, but only African. He wasn’t killed by mistake but due to ethnic hate. 

A: The Black man who comes from elsewhere allows the confrontation with one's own history to be avoided.  

It makes me think of how several French media reacted to episodes of police violence in the US, being more "critical" towards the American model, and forgetting that exactly the same thing was happening in France. 

M: I think it is worse than forgetting, since it was simply not being taken into account. To forget would mean that we were aware and lost sight of it, but there was never that historical consciousness of the active participation of colonial and imperialist France in the transatlantic slave trade, nor in its institutional practices. 

Journalists are being judgmental about the killings in America with the George Floyd case, but do not raise an eyebrow when the exact same situation happens in France. Just like the case of tearing down statues, some people would certainly wonder: 'what does it have to do with this?’ The country is separated between its overseas territories and the Hexagon. As a matter of fact, before the bodies arrive in the Hexagon, it is the products of this context that the Hexagonal French have in mind. Cocoa, tobacco, bananas... For them, it is clear that slavery happened in the US, we know that there were  Afro-Americans there since 1619, that they underwent slavery, the Civil War, the implementation of racial segregation, Barack Obama, etc. 

Whereas in France, no one is aware of it. Yet you only have to turn towards Guyana for an example, to know that France played an integral part in this history.  Secondly, there is a long tradition of expatriation of Afro-Americans to Europe and to France in particular. Mostly intellectuals, sportsmen and artists who are  very well received. 

A: "I was the chair of the Black employees’ network in my former company, where people discuss issues related to being Black. When I evoked it to my colleagues in France, there was a serious cultural shock: ‘Why would you segregate like that?’ 

It still is a real issue, and I'm not saying it's solved. But if you can't even talk about the problem, we'll never find a solution. In France, everyone is French and that's it. You just have to adapt to the white male."

In your book, you seem to explain that it was quite a journey for you too, you started talking about the Black issue in the States and in English for the first time, and it was quite a complicated journey to get to talk about it in French and in France.

It is true that there is a real silence constructed around Black identity in France. I first started writing about these issues in America. My book was written in English at first. As a professor, I was invited to several universities where I would read some passages. When I got back to France, my editor wanted me to write it in French. I realised at that moment that I was having a hard time putting it into French, I felt like I was not authorized to talk about these issues in France and in French. So my editor told me to start by writing about why I couldn't speak about it in French. It ended up being the introduction to my book. 

In France, people would rather use the English word “black” instead of saying its equivalent term “noir”. The term “black” doesn’t designate an African immigrant. Migrants you sometimes see at the margins of the city, or even people who dress in traditional clothes, are called “Africans”, “migrants” or “refugees” or even  pejorative terms like “mamadou”. Therefore, “black” refers to a Black person from France, born in an immigrant family and raised in France, rooted in overseas French territories which have been French since 1848. Thus, beyond nationality issues, racial issues are real in France too. There is no term like in the States to show that there have been Black people in France for a long time. 

A: After facing so many struggles to say who he is, from linguistic difficulties to the psychological burden that comes with it, Abdel finally returned to Guinea, believing that it would be the end of his mental torment. 

For thoseexiled from their country, remains the existential question that all immigrants have in common: when are we going back, will we ever, or in fact, can we go back? Many dream of going back to their home country, and some people actually do. Afterwards, all discrimination  that does not fall under the racial charge can be deployed on the grounds of ethnic, religious, and social hierarchy other ways of categorizing human beings unfortunately. I think that there’s a part of the mental burden that vanishes when you get back to your home country, but it can be extended to other areas, religions, ethnicities, social differences. Unfortunately there are a million ways of putting human beings into boxes. But it might actually work, to get rid of that mental burden of race, to relieve some elements. You wouldn’t have to ask yourself if your body or your skin is the reason you are treated a certain way, or why you don’t have access to certain things. You won’t have to try and fit in, to ask yourself if you should style your hair that way, or behave differently in order to not be associated with a race. 

A: Here’s the final question we asked Abdel: Who are you today and who will you be tomorrow ? What about you, Maboula ?

M: Like Abdel Camara, I define myself as a Black woman, without necessarily taking away all the other layers of my identity. I am muslim, I come from a working class family, I am a woman. By saying I am a Black woman, my aim is to go against this belief and this construct. Let’s not forget that blackness is a category that was  created at the same time as whiteness in an inferior-superior relationship. I would say I am Black, even though I did not always present myself as such. It is so important to not hide. Our bodies speak by themselves anyways. Now it is very clear, I am Black which is fine, it is not shameful, there is no need to use another language to say what I am, I am Black.

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About the author

Ryad Maouche
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Born in the Paris suburbs, Ryad Maouche is 26 years old and has a master's degree in journalism from CELSA (Paris-Sorbonne). In 2020, he co-founded the media company Frictions.

Alexia Sena
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Alexia Sena lives in Paris, she is French by desire and Cameroonian by heritage. She created in 2020 Joyeux Bazar, a podcast that questions and explores the multicultural experience. Alexia enjoys writing, coloring, and red wine.