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Play Explores an African Immigrant’s American Experience

Divisions between African Americans and Black immigrants, often stemming from cultural misunderstandings and belief in harmful stereotypes, prevent meaningful dialogue about commonalities.

This upcoming weekend, audiences at a Silver Spring, Md., venue will explore this issue through the eyes of a Kenyan comedienne and songstress who portrays the evolution of her Black consciousness in a one-woman play.

“I didn’t think I was Black because there’s no issue of color when Africans look at each other through our ethnicities,” said Anna Mwalagho, star of “Never Thought I Was Black Till I Came to America,” showing at The Silver Spring Black Box Theatre on Sunday.

The production, written by Mwalagho and directed by Mkawasi Mcharo Hall, outlines Mwalagho’s experiences upon her arrival to the United States in the early 2000s, including her introduction to fast food, American culture, and the realities of Blackness.

“When you get here, you realize you’re part of the Black struggle, and we’re looked at because of the color of our skin,” Mwalagho said. “I was quite surprised, and I embraced it because I know the struggle for Black people was my struggle and I know that we came far as Black people,” she added.

“Never Thought I Was African Till I Came to America” opens with Mwalagho standing by the suitcase she brought to the U.S. in 2001 as she explains the warnings friends gave her about “driving while Black.” Later, she experiences racial profiling in a dollar store as she walks around in awe at the variety of goods, and on the train as she speaks loudly on the phone in Swahili to her mother.

In the play, Mwalagho thinks about the backlash that would ensue if Black people imposed their culture on white communities and changed inhabitants’ names, as had been done to her Kenyan ancestors by the British. She says her character’s trials and tribulations reflect her development in the U.S. over the last 17 years, none of which she would change.

“I had a positive experience and embraced my time, even with the discrimination,” Mwalagho said.

The U.S. Black immigrant population increased five-fold within the last two decades with Africans accounting for nearly 40 percent of that group, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center. Black immigrants and their children account for one-fifth of Black people.

In recent years, some American descendants of enslaved Africans have railed against what they described as Black immigrants’ simultaneous disrespect of the African-American struggle and use of laws intended to benefit African Americans.

Similarly, some African immigrants have criticized African Americans reclaiming their African identity.

“My fellow Africans were telling me not to mix with Black Americans, but it’s not true that they are all lazy or gangsters,” Mwalagho said in her appeal for unity between Black immigrants and African Americans.

“This has become an issue where everyone doesn’t want to be at the bottom of the totem pole, so they put down other people. Your forehead doesn’t say your ethnicity. We need to understand there are not too many differences between us.”

Last weekend, Mwalagho performed “Never Thought I Was African Till I Came to America” before Black audiences of various ethnicities in Minnesota. Sunday’s showing at The Silver Spring Black Box Theatre follows a similar function that took place in July at the same venue.

Singers Ayanna Gregory and Nana Malaya Rucker attended that showing.

“It felt good coming from an area where I was proud to be African,” Mwalagho continued.

“It was positive being with strong Black people. I feel the similarities, like our love for singing and dancing. No matter what part of the Diaspora you come from, you get the beat right and cook great food. You walk down the street and see we look the same, [regardless of] the 400-year separation,” she said.

The production of “Never Thought I Was Black Till I Came to America” comes on the heels of Mwalagho’s burgeoning career in comedy and spoken word, which she balances with her job teaching Swahili in African-centered schools throughout the D.C. metropolitan area.

A couple of years ago, a video she posted about living as a Kenyan woman in America went viral, paving the way for a set at the Apollo Theater in New York City, and other opportunities.

“As a comedienne, I talk about coming to America and seeing Popeye’s Chicken everywhere, the differences between African men and African-American men, and celebrating my Blackness as an African woman,” Mwalagho said.

“I also talk about white people, colonization, and how they can’t dance. We make it funny. With the anger and animosity from not understanding each other, people don’t want to hear the truth, but they can see it while laughing at themselves.”

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