A little over a decade ago, while researching what became my first book, I spent two months in Trinidad conducting archival research at the University of the West Indies. I stayed in a guesthouse run by a Presbyterian Indo-Trinidadian family. When my hosts learned that I was Ethiopian, they told me about the Ethiopian Orthodox community on the island and introduced me to the archbishop who oversaw the congregations in the Caribbean and Latin America.

My visit to one of the churches was a bewildering and moving experience. Thousands of miles from Ethiopia, the rituals with which I was raised were taken up by Trinidadians with a fervor that I had never mustered. In both Ethiopia and the United States, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church still uses Ge’ez (a classical liturgical language, akin to Latin) in its proceedings. Not knowing this biblical language, I had only been dimly aware of the meanings of the chants. In Trinidad the liturgy had been translated into English, granting me new access to a faith I had been born into.

During my visits to Orthodox churches around the island, I befriended a woman named Semrete (a name she adopted after her baptism) and spent many weekends with her family. We talked about how she had come to the Orthodox Church from Rastafari because it offered her a Black Christianity untainted by the legacies of European colonialism. She shared her aspirations to travel to Ethiopia, an opportunity her husband had already enjoyed as a priest. And she made me promise to send her religious calendars and white cotton Habesha dresses and shawls for church once I returned to the United States. It’s a commitment I still keep.

On my last Sunday in Trinidad, after church and then lunch, Semrete’s husband drove us to the eastern edge of the island. There Semrete told me that if we left Trinidad and crossed the ocean, the next piece of land we encountered would be Africa. It was a poetic moment, one that brings tears to my eyes when I tell the story. But while I understood the wistfulness with which she looked across the ocean, I could not share it. Twelve years earlier my family had looked to the United States from the other side of the Atlantic. The church that represented Black Christianity for Semrete was the one my father had abandoned as a student after concluding that it was an instrument of domination in monarchical Ethiopia. I, too, wished to visit Ethiopia, but I was burdened by exile, guilt, and an awareness of impossible expectations.

I do not mean simply to juxtapose Semrete’s imagined Africa with my “real” one. If Semrete had a romantic picture of Africa, I certainly had a rose-tinted view of African America, which I contrasted with Ethiopia’s political conservatism and cultural insularity. The bond she and I shared looking out across the Atlantic was built on recognitions and misrecognitions; it involved both seeing each other and seeing past each other.

I moved to the United States at thirteen and started attending what was then Washington-Lee (now Washington-Liberty) High School in Arlington, Virginia. My classes, full of recent immigrants from Central America and East Africa as well as the children of African American families with long histories in the state, represented the growing diversity of Northern Virginia. I don’t remember seeing any white students. In my sophomore year all of that changed when I was placed in advanced classes to prepare for the International Baccalaureate. Only halfway through the year did a second Black student join my math class.

It was clear that something called race was involved in this vertiginous experience, and I figured I should learn all I could about it. My classes offered few answers, but the Black History Awareness Society, a student group advised by the school’s minority achievement coordinator, a graduate of Howard University, became my entry point. I threw myself into researching the Harlem Renaissance and codirected a play on the great personalities of the period for our Black History Month assembly. I learned about the political movement of Marcus Garvey and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Dressed in a faux fur coat, I played Zora Neale Hurston, relishing the role of a confident and outspoken writer, so distant from my own awkwardness and uncertainty.

At the encouragement of the society’s adviser, I attended a summer program on international affairs at Howard. Two years later, when I arrived at the University of Virginia as an undergraduate, I chose a major—African American studies—and extracurricular commitments with the hope of immersing myself in Black politics, culture, and history. This was my effort to understand my new home and find a place within it. But ultimately, what I found in African American studies was a window onto the world, which brought me to Trinidad, and to Semrete.


In the United States we are prone to understanding race through the neat binary of the color line—Blackness against whiteness—even as our rapidly transforming demographics disrupt that opposition. The scholar Louis Chude-Sokei has made his subject the intraracial encounters, like mine and Semrete’s, that shape the African diasporic experience. Across three books, Chude-Sokei, a professor of English and African American and Black diaspora studies at Boston University, has explored the everyday interactions through which people from differently positioned African diasporas negotiate their identities. The Last “Darky” (2006) is a study of the blackface performer Bert Williams. The Sound of Culture (2016) examines race and technology through music and sonic expression. In these and especially in his memoir, Floating in a Most Peculiar Way (2021), Chude-Sokei focuses on the “intersubjective and micropolitical process” of diaspora.

To encounter Chude-Sokei’s work is to come face-to-face with experiences that are often silenced—as either too painful to publicly discuss or unproductive to the political causes advanced by insisting on Black unity. He eschews grand moments of Pan-African solidarity, the kind that can demand a single united voice, and insists instead that conflict, contestation, hierarchy, and above all difference within Black communities be taken up centrally in African diaspora studies.

The task of reimagining the African diaspora as multiple diasporas is an urgent one. Reading Chude-Sokei’s work helps us understand the fractious processes that shape the meaning of Blackness, and also offers a way to make sense of the shifting landscape of Black America due to African, Caribbean, and Latin American immigration.

Chude-Sokei writes, in Floating in a Most Peculiar Way, that he learned the word “diaspora” in Los Angeles, at his Aunt Pansy and Uncle Owen’s Sunday dinners. Around the table were West Indians, Nigerians, and later South Africans and Ghanaians. Jamaicans made fun of Nevis for “being so small that you slept in your swimming clothes because if you turned over at night you might drown.” (In response, the Nevisian auntie laughed loudest.) The Nigerians at the table avoided discussing the civil war that pitted Hausa and Igbo against one another. When it did come up, he writes, “it wasn’t described as a national or personal or ethnic tragedy but an African or a colonial one. That way blame could be evaded and the experience shared.”

Eventually, in this group of Black immigrants, dinner conversation would turn to their relationship to African Americans; someone would relay a story of being mocked, or even threatened by a gang, because of their accent or foreignness. Chude-Sokei’s mother, hearing any of this, would “employ the abstraction of Black people” to find a compromise. She stressed what Black people regardless of nationality had in common. By invoking an “imagined global community of Blacks,” her son writes, she sought “to mediate the unpleasant details of personal experience.” This dining table is a perfect encapsulation of Chude-Sokei’s intellectual project: it preserved difference and plurality while also bringing people together. Bickering and bitterness were as constant as sustenance and fellowship.

Chude-Sokei was born on July 6, 1967, in Biafra, the short-lived breakaway republic in eastern Nigeria formed to realize an independent Igboland after a series of anti-Igbo pogroms. That same day war broke out between Nigeria and Biafra. According to family lore, while Chude-Sokei’s mother gave birth, “she could hear the first fruits of the federal government’s bombing campaign against Biafra, and when she’d given birth, there had been word of casualties nearby.”

Chude-Sokei’s father, who was Igbo, served as the commander of the Biafran air force and adviser to the Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu. His mother, a nurse from Jamaica, cared for the wounded and malnourished while comforting those who lost loved ones during the war. Chude-Sokei’s father was killed during the civil war. Just before the fledgling nation collapsed in 1970, Chude-Sokei’s mother fled with him to Gabon. From there she made her way back to Jamaica but soon left for the United States, while Chude-Sokei remained in Montego Bay, having been adopted by family friends. He eventually joined his mother in the United States, first in Washington, D.C., and then in Los Angeles, where relatives from his mother’s side already lived.

In his memoir Chude-Sokei narrates this journey, a personal cartography of decolonization and diaspora. It is a story that refuses the simple binaries of homeland and exile. The country of Chude-Sokei’s birth is found on no map. He arrives in Jamaica with few links to Igbo culture. All that remains with him from his previous life, ironically, is a mysterious song about someone named “Major Tom” that was played on repeat by aid workers in one of the refugee camps in Gabon where he and his mother sheltered. After arriving in America as a schoolboy, he realizes that this was David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a line from which supplies the title of the book.


Out of place and struggling to understand his origins as a young child in Jamaica, he learns that “Africa,” the place with which he is indelibly associated by his last name and his accent, is freighted with contradictory meanings. Associated with “darkness, magic and trauma,” “‘African’ was still an insult.” And for Chude-Sokei, “being called [African] by Black people was the beginning of my consciousness of self.”

At the same time, an older cousin exposed him to Rastafari teachings and reggae music, which idealized Africa as a historic homeland and a future site of redemption. This cousin took an interest in his Nigerian roots and was particularly enamored of Chude-Sokei’s middle name, Onuorah, meaning “voice of the people.” In exchange for her protection from neighborhood kids who called him “African bush baby,” he satiated her interest in Africa by fabricating “exquisite” stories he passed off as memories.

Years later, while an undergraduate at UCLA, he dates an African American woman, a student of African history, with a similar investment in his Africanness. Until the moment he takes her home, his unplaceable accent, quirky taste in music, and other eccentricities are all signs of an endearing foreignness. As they drive through the streets of South Central Los Angeles, however, the young woman decides that what she had taken to be markers of Chude-Sokei’s African identity were a mask, an elaborate subterfuge orchestrated to hide or reject his rather unremarkable “ghetto identity.”

Long before they set foot in the United States, Africans and West Indians engaged Black America through cultural products that ranged from jazz, gospel, and hip-hop to fashion, gestures, and slang. In Jamaica, a young Chude-Sokei and his cousins acted out scenes from American TV shows that featured African Americans. They learned what “give me five” meant and honed elaborate handshakes. Above all they practiced their accents in the hope of “spend[ing] eternity sounding like Black Americans.”

When he arrived in the United States at around the age of ten and began to come to terms with what he calls “America’s unique relationship to skin,” Chude-Sokei soon learned a different lesson: rather than mimicry, distinction from African Americans would protect Black immigrants from American racism and best serve their aspirations for mobility and security. He hears from the aunties who later become like family to him that “despite how others might see us we are not like them.” One Gabonese auntie instructs his mother “to keep his accent strong. They must hear him before they see him. The whites have to know who we are so they won’t treat us like them.” Sounding different and reinforcing one’s distinct history and culture were guards against the American tyranny of racism.

This advice is driven home in one of the book’s funniest and most painful moments. When a white classmate calls Chude-Sokei the N-word at a Catholic school in Washington, D.C., and he relays the incident to his mother, the same auntie insists that this has happened because he has been mistaken for a Black American. She tells him that the next time this happens, he should declare, “I am not a slave. My father was not a slave. My grandfather was not a slave. My father’s mother was not a slave…. We are not slaves. We came to this country by choice!” When the boy uses the N-word a second time, Chude-Sokei, now prepared, repeats this catechism to him. But rather than providing the vindication Chude-Sokei hoped for, it prompts the offending kid to break into tears—and Chude-Sokei is the one forced to go to the principal’s office.

While the elders of Chude-Sokei’s family insisted on establishing distance from African Americans, he sought identification and assimilation. In this, Aunt Pansy and Uncle Owen’s son Brian—the “Black American” of the family—became his guide. Brian had lost his Jamaican accent, styled himself in fashionable streetwear, donned an Afro pick in his uncombed hair, and learned the codes of South Central LA.

For a time Chude-Sokei modeled himself on Brian, copying every word and gesture, lifting weights at the local YMCA, and subjecting himself to his cousin’s beatings in an effort to harden up and exude street cred. This hypermasculine expression of Black identity was punctured only by Brian’s love of Prince. From Brian’s perspective, “only one black identity mattered in America.” He told Chude-Sokei that

accent doesn’t matter, racism doesn’t matter, white people don’t matter. Nigerian, African, Caribbean don’t matter either…We—our people—are stupid to hold on to those types of things. That’s why people hate us.

As a student at UCLA Chude-Sokei split the difference, joining both the Black Student Association and the African Student Association, relieved that no Caribbean Student Association existed at the time. Striking the balance became difficult when the BSA adopted the Afrocentrism in vogue at the time. “Radical students were no longer black but African, and the spelling wavered between the conventional spelling with a c or a more militant k,” he remembers.

The BSA soon took the name Afrikan Student Association, leaving the Africans incapable of either claiming Blackness or Africanness. Yet this interest in constructing an African identity coincided with “an open and casual prejudice towards Africans,” who, Chude-Sokei writes, were described by Black students in the association as smelly or dirty. These petty student politics, soon overshadowed for Chude-Sokei by the Rodney King riots—which reinforced the centrality of anti-Black racism in American life—indicated the sharp dissonance between Africa as an idea that played a significant part in Black political and cultural life and the actual, living, breathing Africans who were now present at the same campus cafeterias.

By the time I arrived in the US the Afrocentrism of the 1980s, itself a last gasp of an earlier Pan-African politics that looked to Africa’s decolonizing nations as sources of inspiration and solidarity, had been eclipsed. No one I met in high school or college wanted to be Afrikan. Instead, classmates associated Africa with safaris or maybe The Lion King. I was asked frequently whether we kept lions as pets.

Still, Chude-Sokei’s experience resembles my own. My family met my growing interest in African American history and culture with suspicion and sometimes derision. I was either in the midst of a juvenile rebellion that expressed itself as rejection of my own identity or else America had brainwashed me. As I applied to college, classmates wondered whether I, a new arrival on American shores, might unfairly benefit from affirmative action policies designed to redress America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow. At the University of Virginia, when faced with a similar choice between Black student organizations and those tailored to African students, I chose the former, and was questioned about it by both Black American and African students. I reacted to this with deflection. I insisted that my Blackness was the most important thing about me. I swept the tensions under the rug.

Both Chude-Sokei and I are part of the wave of African immigrants to the United States made possible by the 1965 Hart–Celler Act, which removed the national quotas that had been in place since the 1920s and expanded pathways for Asian, African, and Latin American migration. This victory was only possible because of the civil rights movement’s wider effort to abolish racial discrimination in the country’s institutions. Opportunities for African immigration paradoxically increased in 1990 after the creation of the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which, in an effort to diversify the immigrant pool, grants about 50,000 visas annually to those who win a State Department–sponsored lottery. As the historian Carly Goodman recently documented in her book Dreamland: America’s Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction, the Diversity Immigrant Visa was initially designed to favor white, especially Irish, migration to the United States, but ultimately nearly half of those arriving in the US through this program have come from African countries.1 In recent decades the number of African immigrants to the US has only swelled. In 2005 The New York Times noted that “for the first time, more blacks are coming to the United States from Africa than during the slave trade.”

This rapid expansion of African presence in the US is transforming Black culture. African writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Dinaw Mengestu have added the immigrant experience to the themes of Black literature. Afrobeats artists such as Burna Boy and Wizkid are shaping hip-hop, while African immigrants are increasingly represented on-screen as both characters and actors, as in LaKeith Stanfield’s Darius, a first-generation Nigerian American on the hit show Atlanta, or Aida Osman, an Eritrean American who stars as half of a Miami rap duo in the more recent Rap Sh!t.

At the same time the new African presence in America is the source of anxiety and conflict. Africans, for whom American racism is not the crucible of political formation, resist and resent their conscription into American racial politics. They also fear the distance between themselves and their American-born children, who are more likely to identify with the historical and present political struggles of African Americans. For Black Americans, the growing presence of Black immigrants generates concerns about the distribution of already scarce resources and opportunities.

In 2017, for instance, student protesters at Cornell questioned the general practice of counting the children of recent immigrants as Black in the school’s demographic accounting. They called on the university to “increase the presence of underrepresented black students,” by which they meant “black Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country.” At its most extreme this might amount to the nativism of an organization like the American Descendants of Slavery, which supports more restrictive immigration policies and calls for reparations and affirmative action for Black Americans who can trace their ancestry to enslaved people in the United States—to the exclusion of opportunities for other ethnic minorities, including the descendants of people enslaved elsewhere.

What it is to be Black in the United States is changing as the country’s composition changes and as we reexamine our history. Although some transformations of the meaning of Blackness are relatively recent, the constitution of Black identity through intraracial encounters goes back at least to the turn of the twentieth century, when West Indian immigrants slowly began to arrive in the United States, settling mainly in cities like New York and Miami. The historian Winston James has detailed how new West Indian migrants contributed to the radicalization of Black politics in the interwar period. Whether in Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association or in socialist and communist gatherings, West Indians had an outsize importance that was immediately recognized.

Chude-Sokei’s memoir identifies the crosscurrents in his own life. In his first book, The Last “Darky,he investigates “black-on-black” cultural contestation earlier in American history through the career of Bert Williams, a blackface performer from the Bahamas. Born in Nassau in 1874, Williams migrated to the United States at a young age and became one of the most successful minstrel performers of the early twentieth century. Chude-Soeki takes Williams’s performances as an opportunity to consider assimilation and the construction of a universal “Negro” or Black identity—“a transcendental ‘Negro,’” a figure who would represent the “emergent black counterglobalization that was pan-Africanism.” For Williams, representing a universal figure of Blackness involved suppressing his Caribbean distinctiveness.

More than on the skin, this transmutation of a West Indian Blackness into an African American Blackness occurred through the voice. “The voice is the mask when the flesh looks the same,” Chude-Sokei writes. Through careful study and imitation of southern dialects, Williams presented what many commentators, including African Americans, described as a “natural” performance of the “southern darky.” Offstage, he maintained his native dialect and insisted that African American English was as foreign to him as Italian.

Through his close examination of this Black minstrel performer, Chude-Sokei argues that what passed for a universal Negro was merely one iteration of the figure of the African American. This has broader reverberations for the cultural politics of Pan-Africanism. Does the demand for unity and solidarity among Black people ultimately require the submersion of difference and the elevation of one particular experience of Blackness? If so, what determines which experience of Blackness comes to stand in for the whole? For Chude-Sokei, the predominance of African American voices and experiences is closely linked to America’s geopolitical dominance, which grants those within its boundaries—even when marginalized—access to a world stage.

Something of this structure is visible in more recent history. The police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis galvanized protests around the world, but similar movements against police violence in Brazil and Nigeria, the two countries with the largest Black populations in the world, have not inspired the same global solidarity. This is both because news from the United States is much more likely to travel elsewhere and because the African American quest for emancipation and equality has come to stand in for larger struggles of racialized and colonized peoples around the world. Cousin Brian’s point that “only one black identity mattered” speaks to this disparity of attention.

The idea that the voice differentiates where the skin cannot is a through line of Chude-Sokei’s work. It shows up in the discussion of accents in Floating in a Most Peculiar Way, and it is the focus of The Sound of Culture, which examines race, technology, and humanism.2 Black music, and especially Caribbean genres like dub, inspire this consideration. Dub, an offshoot of reggae, emerged in the 1970s and involves the remixing of original tracks by removing vocal performance, adding effects like echo, and emphasizing the drum and bass to produce a new electronic music style. This highly technologized sound from Jamaica and its diaspora “would mutate and infect many strains of British dance and popular music,” Chude-Sokei writes. Jamaican sound culture also directly influenced hip-hop through one of the founding fathers of the genre, the Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc.

The technologized sounds of the Caribbean are a counterpoint to the dominance of African American sound. Moreover, the reverberation and fragmentation of dub refuses the claims of racial authenticity that were central to reggae and have long shaped Pan-Africanism. Within its domain of echoes and repetitions, there can be neither one voice nor one universal experience. Dub is a sonic collage that reimagines the African diaspora as a kaleidoscopic and conflicting multitude rather than a singular whole. The same, across his books, can be said of Chude-Sokei’s work.