The smell of nail polish, hair spray and the loud sounds of laughter and jazz music fill Main Abstracts Hair Salon. It is an ordinary day at the West Loop hairdresser, where black women go to have their hair straightened and talk up the latest news and gossip.
“You think Barack will run for president?” asked one woman to no one in particular, but all eyes moved in her direction.
A chorus of “yeah,” “oh yes” and “he’ll get shot” responded.
“He’d be the first black president,” said another woman who was getting a manicure.
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is the son of a Kenyan father and a white, Kansas-born mother. He and Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State and son of Jamaican immigrants, have increased the visibility of blacks in public life while also contributing to the growing debate on black ethnicity and heritage.
“It’s weird how we can see some people as black and others as Africans,” said Richelle Williams, 28, a stylist at Main Abstracts. “Black people don’t always see Africans as being black people.
“There is a kind of divide between blacks and Africans living in America, and it’s kinda funny because with other cultures, it’s not that way,” Williams added. “Blacks see whites as being just that: white. But white people know where they’re from, whether it be Italy, Poland, or Germany.
Other people, she said, “look at us and they see black. And for many people, that is the end of it. The farthest we can go back may be to Alabama or South Carolina. We don’t know where we really come from.”
Many black Americans are the descendents of an estimated 500,000 African and Afro-Caribbean slaves involuntarily transported to the United States between 1770 and 1860. But according to U.S. Census data, more Africans have arrived in the United States voluntarily since then.
The American Immigration Law Foundation and the U.S. Census Bureau approximate close to 50,000 legal Africans arrive annually in the United States, and of the nearly 35 million blacks living in the United States today, 1 million are African born.
These immigrants are multilingual, highly educated and of middle to upper income. But, their relationship with blacks born in America is complex.
John R. Logan, a sociology professor at Brown University, has studied African migration and its impact on black communities in America.
“There’s greater diversity than we tend to notice,” he said. “American society tends to treat all the blacks the same way and to create a single category. But there are a lot of differences. The paradox lies in the way that society sees people and in the way people see themselves.”
Logan’s research shows that between 1990 and 2000, African migration to the United States increased 170 percent, with Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana having the largest new immigrant communities in this country. But the largest number of blacks immigrating to the United States comes from English-speaking, Afro-Caribbean countries, such as Haiti, Jamaica and Barbados.
“Africans [and Afro-Caribbeans] immigrate because of family connections, educational reasons and for job opportunities,” Logan said. “The education levels of African immigrants and Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the U.S. is higher than black Americans. African immigrants will come to do graduate study or come with a professional degree and get a professional job. Out of the immigrant population, black immigrants are more likely to naturalize and to stay in the country.”
Ademola Dada, president and CEO of the Continental Africa Chamber of Commerce in Chicago, immigrated to the United States to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Roosevelt University.
Dada, of Naperville, sees a cultural and economic divide between African immigrants and blacks living in America.
“Italian-American, Asian-American, Mexican immigrants participate [and expand capital] in American business through their immigrant origins,” he said.
Dada explained that these groups create wealth by supporting cultural businesses domestically, sending money to family members living in home countries and investing in ethnic community businesses and charities.
But the same is not true of the black American community. Dada noted that despite investments from African immigrants in domestic and foreign African businesses, the black American community remains uninvolved and unaware of the economic potential of merging community resources.
“There are billions of dollars that [they] can use to create wealth,” he said.
Beatrice Dosunmu, a-43-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Nigeria now living on Chicago’s South Side, owns Borat Restaurant, a quaint, candle-lit cafe at 3346 N. Clark St. The restaurant is frequented by Nigerians, Ghanians, Asian Americans, whites and some blacks.
“I am black and I am an American, but there’s more to it than that,” she said. “I identify with my home country first.”
When asked about her restaurant clientele, Dosunmu said she is trying to reach out to black Americans.
“Black people don’t really understand African cuisine, so that’s why there aren’t so many black people who know or who eat traditional African food. Chinese restaurants are all over and everybody eats Chinese food, but I want to make Nigerian food as popular as Chinese food. If I have the money, I’ll open more locations so everyone will have the privilege of tasting Nigerian food.”
Third-year Northwestern University medical student, Ehididiame “Didi” Omiyi, 25, of Uromi, said Borat’s jollof rice – a Nigerian dish – is almost as good as his mother’s home cooking.
“I identify myself as black…as black as my friends who grew up here [in America] and in Nigeria,” he said. “I’ve had my interactions with blacks who say I’m from Nigeria and that I’m not really black, that I can’t really relate. I grew up in a country where everyone is black, so I didn’t have experience with racial discrimination.”