In her sophomore year at Macalester, Christine Ohenewah ’15 (Mankato, Minn.) was advised by Professor Duchess Harris of American Studies to apply to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, a multi-year program aimed at encouraging students of color to attend graduate school.
In the summer following her selection as a Mellon Mays fellow, Ohenewah read the autobiography of Assata Shakur, an African American activist and member of the FBI’s Most Wanted list who escaped prison in 1979. It was while reading this autobiography that Ohenewah discovered the direction her Mellon research would take.
In Assata: An Autobiography, Ohenewah came upon a line that really stood out to her: “Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.” Says Ohenewah, “That got me started remembering all the stupid stuff people told me when I was little like, ‘Don’t trust West Indians because they’ll stab you in the back.’ ‘Don’t trust Africans because they think they are better than we are.’”
After reading this line, she became determined to research tensions between Africans and African Americans, says Ohenewah, because the topic “is so integral to my own life. I was raised by African parents in America, and as a second-generation immigrant, you see both sides—how both Africans and African Americans respond to each other.”
Although Ohenewah was raised in Minnesota, she and her parents emigrated from Ghana. Growing up, she initially noticed the intra-racial divide within her own community, hearing comments such as, “‘African Americans don’t work hard. They make us look bad” or “Africans don’t understand racism in America. We’ve had to deal with slavery, and they don’t get it.”
Last summer she began her Mellon Mays research—a combination of literary analysis and ethnographic interviewing—by exploring existing tensions between these two groups in the Twin Cities. She interviewed five participants—male and female, African American and African, all of whom were 30 or older and had lived in the Twin Cities for at least five years.
Both sides agreed that misunderstandings and stereotypes precipitated these tensions, Ohenewah found. She argues that White citizenry has polarized relations between Africans and African Americans. “The notion to aspire for success, to achieve the American Dream, and to display anti-Blackness, is what gets in the way of the two ethnicities,” Ohenewah says. “Neither group wants to be considered inferior, so that creates competition.”
Last fall Ohenewah expanded on her research in an American studies course called Critical Methods. Then in March she flew to Massachusetts to present her Mellon research at the Ivy Plus Symposium, hosted by Harvard and MIT.
Highlights of the conference included listening to keynote speaker Dr. George Church, who helped develop the first commercial genome sequence; touring the Hip-Hop Archive; and walking by the office of noted scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates. “I was so disappointed he wasn’t there,” Ohenewah says. She also had the chance to connect with Professor Harris’s former mentor, Dr. Herman Beavers, chair of the Africana Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ohenewah will stay in the Twin Cities this summer to continue her research with Professor Harris. She’s hoping to turn her work into an honors thesis. With plans to enter graduate school immediately after Macalester, she would eventually like to shift her research to look at issues faced by second-generation African immigrants.
“I hope my research will let people be aware that the term Black is not monolithic and does not signify automatic unity,” Ohenewah says. “It can include people who are African, African American, or Caribbean American. And even within each category, there are so many differences.”