LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
For American children born to African immigrants, balancing two identities - both African and a black American - can be a challenge. Big life questions such as who to marry or what to study in college can threaten cultural norms that go back generations. But Christabel Nsiah-Buadi reports that in many ways that struggle creates a uniquely American story.
CHRISTABEL NSIAH-BUADI, BYLINE: University of Southern California student Omete Anassi recently walked with me to the school's Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs.
OMETE ANASSI: I think the school is perfect for me because I've always loved like a family aspect, and I get that from the black community specifically. It's like a little baby family where you know everyone.
NSIAH-BUADI: With his school family, he feels most at home in theater, acting, yet with his biological family, there was a push in a different direction.
ANASSI: When growing up, I definitely was pushed into the medical field by my African parents.
NSIAH-BUADI: Anassi's major is neuroscience and his minor - performing arts. He studies science to please his parents, but he's making his degree work for himself, too. He says his knowledge of neuroscience helps him understand human behavior, something he's exploring in a play he's writing about - the complexity of being a first-generation American.
ANASSI: It would be entitled African - comma - American, which is a play on words for the fight that me and my brothers and sisters had in the household.
NSIAH-BUADI: Torn between the culture of their African parents and the culture of their African-American friends is a real-life drama for many U.S.-born children of immigrants. Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel "Powder Necklace" and the U.S.-born child of Ghanaian parents. She says navigating friendships with African-Americans could be challenging, especially when stereotypes were operating on both sides.
NANA EKUA BREW-HAMMOND: Being a black girl, being a dark-skinned, black girl, being an African, being called African booty scratcher, you know, making up aliases for myself that I was Nicky and from the South and really sort of being mortified by and embarrassed by anything that outed me as other.
NSIAH-BUADI: The desire to fit in often clashed with what her parents wanted for her.
BREW-HAMMOND: They would say things like don't be like those black Americans. In their mind at the time that meant, you know, don't be all the stereotypes that we know about black Americans.
NSIAH-BUADI: Stereotypes that persist like being poorly educated, violent and living in hell. Meanwhile, stereotypes of African immigrants are shaped by images like a West African High School prodigy who gets into every Ivy League, the model immigrant. Yaba Blay is a political science professor at North Carolina Central University who wrote a book about black racial identity. She says these biases are created through images we see in the media. She visited Ghana regularly in the '80s as a child and was struck at how dated the imported U.S. TV shows were at the time.
YABA BLAY: Those things that did come across the screen that were from America and were black were shows like "Sanford And Son" and "The Jeffersons."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVIN' ON UP")
JA'NET DUBOIS: (Singing) Moving on up to the East Side...
NSIAH-BUADI: These vintage sitcoms rarely featured African characters. In one episode of "Good Times," another popular sitcom at the time, Thelma Evans, a lead character, falls in love with an African exchange student called Ibe. Her family isn't thrilled with the development, and her mother, Florida, voices her concerns.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")
ESTHER ROLLE: (As Florida Evans) I admit that living in Nigeria sounds romantic, but Africa isn't America by a long shot. It's a different world and a different place in time, and I'm afraid that Thelma just won't be able to handle it.
JOHNNY SEKKA: (As Ibe Wubila) But Thelma's intelligent. She can adapt.
RALPH CARTER: (As Michael Evans) Yeah. If she can survive 19 years in the ghetto, she can survive anywhere.
NSIAH-BUADI: Blay says commentaries and images like this have a profound impact.
BLAY: If you've been fed stereotypical images of, quote, unquote, "black Americans" and you see how America treats black Americans, you're not coming here to, quote, unquote, "act like a black American" and receive that same treatment.
NSIAH-BUADI: But, she says, the way to navigate those two worlds is to understand that being black in America and being African aren't mutually exclusive.
BLAY: It's about me knowing when to be black and when to be Ghanaian and those things aren't competing. There are times when I don't readily say I'm Ghanaian because I don't want someone to treat me differently. Like, whatever excellence you attribute to me, please attribute to all black people.
NSIAH-BUADI: It's something that Omete Anassi has learned to do ever since reconnecting with Kenya, the land of his parents' birth.
ANASSI: Now even as I'm trying to figure more things out about myself, it's less of a whole - more of a treasure hunt.
NSIAH-BUADI: Perhaps his is the quintessential American story. For NPR News, I'm Christabel Nsiah-Buadi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.