African heritage, an American dream

Schoenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Barack Obama is often viewed as a singular sensation: a disaffected teen with no family wealth or connections who went on to become president of the Harvard Law Review, a U.S. senator and the first black president of the United States.

But if the president-elect is in many ways unique, he’s also part of a broader phenomenon.

Immigrants from Africa, who claim the son of a Harvard-educated Kenyan father and a white American mother as one of their own, are starting to draw attention, both for their strong presence at elite colleges -- where 13% of black students are first- or second-generation African immigrants -- and for the rise of high-profile individuals.


There’s the Senegalese American rapper Akon and Nomvuyo Mzamane, the South African-born educator who made headlines when she was chosen to lead Oprah Winfrey’s African girls school and again when she sued the talk show host over her dismissal.

Liberian-born fashion designer Korto Momolu, who was a “Project Runway” runner-up and was voted the fan favorite, celebrated her heritage with gowns melding visual inspirations from Africa and Arkansas.

“I definitely think that we’re having an impact,” said Chioma Achebe, a Nigerian American from Evanston, Ill., who is president of the Harvard African Students Assn.

“The fact that a lot of us were brought up with these different strands of African culture woven into our experience, I think, makes us care a lot more about what’s going on there,” she said, pointing to new initiatives at her school, including a fundraiser for clean water in African villages.

“And I think as time goes on we’ll be even more of an influential group.”

There are about 880,000 African immigrants residing in the U.S., and they are a highly educated group, with census figures showing that they are more likely to have a college degree (43.8%) than Asian Americans (42.5%) and the U.S. population as a whole (23.1%).


First- and second-generation African immigrants are quick to point out that Obama represents many experiences, not just their own.

Still, many find the stories of Obama and his father familiar. The elder Obama came to the U.S. for college in Hawaii, left with a doctorate degree from Harvard and wanted his American son to achieve academically.

In the president-elect’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” he recalls a visit from his father, also named Barack, when he was about 10. Young Barack was watching TV -- a long-awaited Christmas special -- when his father told him to go to his room and study. It didn’t matter that his son was a good student or that he had apparently -- the memoir isn’t clear on this point -- finished his homework.

If young Barack had done his homework, his father said, he could start on the next day’s assignment.

And if the boy had done the next day’s assignment, he could move on to the work that would be due after winter vacation.

The story draws chuckles of recognition from young people such as Abimbola Oladokun, a junior at the University of Chicago whose parents hail from Nigeria.

“When I’d get an A-minus, my dad was like, that’s great, but you can do better,” Oladokun said.

The message from her father wasn’t harsh or negative, Oladokun said. He was telling her that she could do anything she wanted: “The sky’s the limit.”

Tsion Gurmu, vice president of political affairs for the University of Chicago’s Organization of Black Students, said high expectations were a family legacy for her too.

Her father, she said, was active in the democracy movement in Ethiopia and endured five years as a political prisoner.

“After my parents brought us all the way here and started over -- in terms of education, economic base and everything -- it’s not even an option to come here and not do well,” she said.

College-age African immigrants also identify with the president-elect’s strong ties to his home continent, where many of his relatives on his father’s side live.

“Time and time again [Obama] thanks the people who helped him on his way: his mother, his grandma, his grandfather,” Oladokun said. “He realizes he would not be here had it not been for the contributions of these people, and that’s definitely an African principle that resonates in me.

“I definitely know I wouldn’t be here without my parents, my uncles and my aunts, who just take a vested interest in my future because if I succeed, then they succeed.”

Oladokun hopes to make contributions in Africa and the U.S., and that’s typical of the new generation of African immigrants, said Paul Zeleza, a professor of African American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“They’re an extremely crucial generation,” he said, citing their potential to foster stronger ties between the U.S. and Africa, as well as between African Americans and Africa.

“They are likely to be the real bridge-builders.”