Professional mixed martial fighter, Israel Mobolaji Adesanya, is one of the finest combat fighters of modern times. Adesanya was born in Nigeria before moving to New Zealand when he was 13. Both Kiwis, as people from New Zealand are known, and Nigerians claim Adesanya, and he has fans in both countries. Internationally, he has competed under the New Zealand flag.
Adesanya also doesn’t shy from speaking his mind. In mid-August this year, at a press conference preceding one of his fights, Adesanya was interrupted by a member of the audience. The man wanted to know which country Adesanya considered to be home. It is hard to tell if this line of questioning was innocent and random. It seemed odd for a press conference. But it is not unusual in New Zealand. Like elsewhere, in countries that identify with the West, whites have questioned the identity of black and brown people they consider “immigrants” and politics have moved to the right. In one instance, it resulted in tragic violence when a gunman murdered 50 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019. New Zealand First, a party that promotes a restrictive immigration policy, is in a coalition government with the ruling Liberals,
Adesanya seemed ready for it. From his reaction, it was quite obvious he was tired of explaining himself, tired of having to choose one country over the other and publicly explain why to random people at a press conference. Adesanya replied in a rather forceful and philosophical manner saying “Home … I said home is where the heart is. I have Africa and Nigeria outline tattooed on my chest for a reason. Look at my skin, my (expletive) skin is black, do I look like a Kiwi to you?” Adesanya made sure he addressed the issue of his appearance. Adesanya went on to list places he grew up in New Zealand before concluding that home is where one’s heart is.
Adesanya’s philosophical and symbolic reply to this line of questioning was akin to dancing in the ring against opponents. He referenced the images of Nigeria and Africa tattooed on his chest and their symbolism to his identity. He also reflected on the pride he feels when he flies back into New Zealand. He ensured that he gave gratitude to New Zealand, the country that raised him. This was a smart political dance by a man who had the awareness to appreciate the burden of belonging to two places at the same time and to the treacherous politics of loyalty.
Adesanya’s responses have not just occupied my mind because Adesanya was put to task to explain his loyalty. That happens all the time. “Go back to Africa,” a common racial slur is just one that white nationalists use to disenfranchise and deprecate black and brown people in the United States. US President Donald Trump used a similar card from a racist playbook against two black members of Congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, a few months ago. His words were meant to remind these women of the perceived lesser value of their citizenship.
The concept of home is therefore something that black people, especially black immigrants are very aware of. This puts pressure on immigrants at all levels to express absolute gratitude to these countries that “saved” them when immigration in many instances, confines people to hard labor, in small peripheral spaces in the society, where immigrants live under a dark cloud of fear of backlash from the majority.
In the month of June, 2019, Rui Hachimura was selected ninth by the Washington Wizards in the NBA. Hachimura was a standout star for Gonzaga, and as basketball lovers we were excited to see him join other players of African descent in the NBA. Unlike Adesanya, Hachimura did not give a philosophical answer to questions about his home and identity. Hachimura identifies as Japanese, the country of his birth and where he was raised. Hachimura’s father, on the other hand, is African from Benin, a West African nation. His mother is Japanese. Hachimura’s home is obviously where his heart is—in Japan. There is no doubt he does not consider Benin his home and he doesn’t consider himself black or African either. And it is within every individual’s right to identify with one nationality or race when they are of mixed ancestry and nationalities.
This choice might be easy to make in Japan and other places. In the United States, this choice is complicated by the legacy of slavery and the ugly reality of racism—where race can determine if you live or die during a routine police stop or wellness check. And as Hachiumura will realize, some of the paths he will walk, have been paved by black people who fought against this systemic racism. Hachimura may also come to recognize that he has been connected to black people in the United States for hundreds of years, through Benin, his father’s country, and through the transatlantic slave trade that flourished from Dahomey Kingdom of Benin.
As my mind was sifting through these different responses from supremely talented athletes with African roots, I reached out to Wyclef Jean’s album, Welcome to Haiti/Creole 101 to revisit a dialogue on identity between a Haitian father and his son. This album has a powerful opening interlude, an excerpt from an interview with the late Jean Dominique, a very well-known Haitian journalist. His voice beams over the speakers:
I was 4 years-old when the US Marines left Haiti, I was a kid. And every time a Marine battalion passed in front of the house, my father took my hand and said: Don’t look at them. Don’t look at them. And every May 18th, the Flag Day, defiantly he put the Haitian flag in front of the house.
And I said: ‘Father what is that? What does that mean for you?’
He said: ‘That means that you are Haitian. That means that my great-grandfather fought at Vertières. Never forget that! You are Haitian! You are from this land. You are not French! You are not British! You are not American! You are Haitian!’
Wyclef Jean must have had explicit intentions of reminding immigrants never to forget their roots and homes.
In his early life, former US president Barack Obama grappled with this question of home and identity. He captures this odyssey in his book, Dreams From My Father. He writes: “The world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal.” Obama is expressing his feeling on discovering home in Kenya. In this place, Obama was struck by the blanket of kinship he enjoyed freely amongst Kenyans. Obama was black, the people were black, and most importantly, this was his father’s land. Even though Obama’s heart may have not been in Kenya, he realized he was home. This place, where he could enjoy freedom without anticipating any boundaries for looking different from the majority, was home.
Can your home reject you? In the month of June, the Kenyan parliament recommended that Mwende Mwinzi, a presidential nominee for a diplomatic position, renounce her US citizenship before taking up this post. Mwinzi was born to a Kenyan father and a white American mother in the United States. Both Mwinzi’s parents relocated to Kenya where she grew up and has held various senior positions within government. Mwinzi has since taken her case to the Constitutional Court.
Mwinzi’s case is as interesting as it is confusing. Her heart is in Kenya, her home. Kenya is also her father’s land, yet she cannot get unconditional acceptance to serve her nation because of fear that the United States may claim her. This perceived tussle for loyalty and continuous suspicion between country of birth, country of residence and ancestry is one of the biggest dilemmas of immigration. Is home where the heart is? Or is home where one derives identity from no matter their ancestry and or roots? Or is home the lands that one’s ancestor’s fought for as according to Jean Dominique’s father? Or is home the place one can achieve freedom, a powerful sense of belonging and identity, and automatic kinship on arrival as Obama experienced in Kenya? The complexities surrounding the concept of home amongst immigrants is precisely why Adesanya danced around this question.