5 Things ‘Coming to America’ Nailed About Being an African Immigrant

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I just want to start by thanking the universe for keeping James Earl Jones alive so he can reprise his iconic roles as both King Mufasa in The Lion King sequel and King Jaffe Joffer in Coming 2 AmericaThere is no denying both reboots will be much better for it. Having said that, I recently rewatched the original Coming to America and I don't know if it's because of the times we're in or how much I miss home, but I saw so much of my own experience reflected in that movie. As a native of Zimbabwe, I have been privy to several conversations about Americans playing Africans in movies and even TV shows. Oftentimes, we are depicted as uneducated, primitive people who slaughter goats and play with lions for leisure. Not to mention the fact that Africa is often depicted as a single country when it is in fact a continent made up of 54 culturally and geographically diverse countries. (And just so we're clear—lions are vicious killing machines no matter the continent).

And when it comes to accents, films or shows that feature African immigrants have a tendency of settling for that caricatured dialect—you know the one with the deep voice and the over-emphasized vowels (see Kevin Hart in Ride Along 2). That one. It's for comedic effect, I get it and it's worked for a long time, so I can respect it. But with a glaring lack of representation, those tropes tend to permeate the zeitgeist and become the only points of reference. Thankfully, the needle is moving, and more people are discovering the beauty in their blackness and how African culture is so influential that it's evident in practically every aspect of pop culture today. Films such as Black Panther are also making it easier for Black people to stand tall and proud to take ownership of their heritage.

Though the tide is turning, it's worth noting that the original Coming to America was lightyears ahead when it came to representing Africans on film. The movie was released in 1988 and was bold enough to depict African people in positions of power. So much of its wit and subversive tactics are overshadowed by the fact that it's a comedy, but it was a trailblazer in that it didn't show African people struggling and pinning for approval—an attribute celebrated in current shows such as Bridgerton. In my opinion, it's simply one of the best rom-coms out there and consists of several deep truths that resonate with people like me, who migrated to the States decades after it was released. Here are five things the film got right about being an African immigrant. 

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1. We don't speak in clicks

One of the things I immediately began resenting when I first got to the States was the notion that all Africans speak in clicks. That's just not true. Certain languages like Ndebele and Xhosa incorporate the clicking sound in their words but clicking is not a form of communication on its own. Watching the residents of Zamunda speaking in English, with dignified, crisp accents was so gratifying. 

2. We have to deal with ill-informed bullies 

Believe it or not, there are way more people like Daryl Jenks than Lisa McDowell in this world. "What kind of games do ya'll play in Africa? Chase the monkey?" and "I bet you learned all that stuff fighting lions and tigers..." are some of Jenks' ignorant assertions that many Africans are all too familiar with. Not all of them are meant to make you feel inferior, but when they come from teachers or other respectable figures, you can't help but feel small. 

3. We often have to start from the bottom 

Not all of us are royalty like Prince Akeem, but the narratives of self-made businessmen, notable doctors and respected lawyers coming to the States and taking on menial jobs are endless. So many immigrants have to trade in the cozy lives they created back home for the prospect of accomplishing the American Dream. 

4. We don't always give our families the full picture

If it weren't for Semmi, King Joffer would have never known that his son was living in less-than-stellar conditions and this is a familiar approach for many people who arrive in the U.S. How come? Well, it's partly because you don't want the people back home to know you're struggling since they're looking at you to uplift the entire family, but also because immigrating can be a solitary and daunting process and those "come back home" phone calls start to weigh on your psyche. 

5. The culture shock is very real

Remember when Prince Akeem gets his luggage stolen before he even gets an apartment? Of course he's royalty so he doesn't care, but something about that scene really struck a chord with me. Coming to America from Africa is a shock and as an immigrant, you learn very quickly to stay guarded and protect yourself once you realize the societal norms of the U.S. are starkly different from what you're used to. (It's not all bleak though, because Prince Akeem's newly found New York swag courtesy of a sidewalk store was peak relatable content.)

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Resident Hufflepuff, Beyonce historian, self-proclaimed tea sommelier

Steph is a native of Zimbabwe who is both enamored and genuinely baffled by the concept of silent letters. From 2020 to 2022, she served as Associate Editor at PureWow covering...