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Hussein Samatar: American first, and African-American

After a recent story I wrote about a candidate forum, Minneapolis School Board candidate Hussein Samatar sent me an e-mail asking that I not refer to him as Somali-American.

After a recent story I wrote about a candidate forum, Minneapolis School Board candidate Hussein Samatar sent me an e-mail asking that I not refer to him as Somali-American. His preference: Just American, or, if I insist on using a modifier, African-American.

A former banker and the founder of the African Development Center, Samatar is a thoughtful, accomplished man — not the kind of guy, in my experience, who would make such a request without an interesting reason. Once I heard it I thought this blog would be a good place to lay out his explanation, which follows in his words.

But first a smidgen of context is in order: The story was the second I have written taking note of the strange electoral mix that may, for the first time in half a century, leave the Minneapolis School Board without any representative who is African-American or from the city’s north side, and about the tensions this has generated.

The topic interests me for several reasons. The new board will most likely have a Puerto Rican member and one from Somalia — great news for a school system struggling to meet the needs of English-language learners. But MPS in recent years has campaigned hard and made headway wooing back some of the thousands of African-American families who have fled for charters and suburban schools. In part, this is because the current board has dived in to issues of race and equity that its predecessors often found too charged to take up in any meaningful way.

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Now, with the possible loss of two African-American members — Chris Stewart, who did not seek re-election, and T. Williams, who did not get endorsed — and one white member, Pam Costain, who was adamant about the issue, will the discussion continue? Samatar says it will, and offers his thoughts on being African — and American — as fodder:

MinnPost: Tell me about your feelings about being described as Somali-American.

Hussein Samatar: There is really nothing wrong with the description of Somali-American, and I know there are a number of people who came either themselves from Somalia — either first generation or even second generation who were born and raised here — who are comfortable with Somali-American. But for me, I always felt that no matter where we came from, if we are to be serious to be part of Minnesota and of the United States and we took the allegiance to be naturalized or to be born to an immigrant family, we are Americans. So I always tell you if at all possible to avoid the hyphenate. I consider myself to be an American.

But I also know that race does matter in the United States because of its history and its context, and if people want to put me in a small box, which I don’t like, the only box that I would accept, that I am comfortable with is African-American. Because I am from the mother continent and I am an American at the same time. So that would be a category I would be comfortable with but not that small, very specific place in Africa that I am from.

MP: Can you say more about the difference between being African and being Somali?

HS: Africa, to me, encompasses everybody who is from the African experience or of African heritage. Africa is the mother continent of all humankind. The African community everywhere in the world I can be part of and not feel excluded. For example, the largest Afro-Latin communities are Brazilian, there’s Afro-Colombians, Caribbean countries, the people from African countries who have been enslaved and have been living in the United States for generations. Africans are in Europe, everywhere in the world. I am a part of that community. In particular, I am American so I have my unique Minneapolis, Minnesota, experience. Again, I am fine with anyone who wants to call themselves Somali-American or Nigerian-American or Liberian-American. 

MP: Did you feel this way when you emigrated?

HS: No. That’s a really great question. I would never have left Somalia willingly. I was 21 and I was a college graduate. I was fortunate to be educated until I was 21. I left due to the civil war, ran away from it, and you know, you go, you learn who you are. And again I was extremely, extremely lucky to be alive and also to live in one of the best states in the country. So no, that feeling grew out of my diaspora experience, being a black man from somewhere where I was never a minority but [who], because of my life’s journey, I now understand what it means. So to answer your question that was something that came out in 1991 when I had to flee from Somalia.

MP: Have people on the campaign trail said to you that there would be a difference in the representation you would bring to the board and representation by someone who fits the more traditional definition of African-American?

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HS: Yes, that has been said and suggested — but also remember that we are in Minnesota and sometimes don’t say our feelings and suggest those in a subtle way. It really pains me. Because obviously, as I said to you, there is a distinction, just as there are similarities, of the black experience. Somebody who is black and lives in Jamaica and myself in Minnesota and somebody in Colombia or Brazil or even within the context of the United States, people who have been here for generations and people who are new — you can agree there are differences and similarities.

I was really shocked and dismayed when the suggestion was made that I am not understanding the issues of black people in this state or the city of Minneapolis. That I may not get it, what a traditional African-American family or a new African-American family, what they go through daily to educate their children and to hold themselves accountable and to be helpful.

I thought that was not right. Obviously I will learn and grow, but I can do the best I can to understand and do the best for everybody. And not just my talk, but my walk: If I am elected I will do my best for every child in this district, regardless of their race. All are our children.

How all this started was this election is the first in the city of Minneapolis where we will have the opportunity to elect people at a district level. And we have at-large candidates running. It’s very strange, it’s adaptive change, not just routine. So what happened is I had received the endorsement of the DFL and of labor. And going into the DFL [Minneapolis city endorsing convention last May], people knew that I might end up getting the endorsement for the third district. And at that time it was becoming clear that there may not be someone from the traditional African-American community to get the endorsement of the labor or of the DFL. Therefore, some people started trying to make a critical distinction between me and the traditional African-American. That is where the whole thing started.

And then it becomes obvious as we get into the race we may have a board, and I hope this is not the case, that does not have a member from the traditional African-American community or from the north side of the city. And that’s when people decided to put me in whatever category, or define me however they wanted,  because of their own agendas or their own way of thinking. For a while I kept quiet, but it gets old, and after a while I decided I have to define myself and share how I see myself regardless of what people say or the politics of it.