The rift between African Americans and Africans

Since living in America I’ve discovered a deep-rooted, and often unspoken, prejudice against Africans within the African American community.

Some time ago, as I sat on a train from lower Manhattan up to Harlem, I overheard a strange conversation. An African American woman talked animatedly with her friends about a planned trip to Senegal, in which she anticipated returning with an unusual souvenir: an African man whose skin would be so dark that you wouldn’t be able to see him at night. Her outrageous comments reminded me of an exchange I’d had in Nigeria, where my family originates from, with a New Yorker who had confided that he had expected to see lions and tigers roaming the streets of Lagos.

Although I found both conversations offensive, I was most shocked by the fact that on both occasions, it was African-Americans displaying such ignorance about Africans. After all, we share a connection to the continent – don’t we?

Despite claiming Africa as part of their racial identity, the truth is that many African-Americans appear to be ignorant to the realities of Africa and its people. Msia Kibona Clark, a visiting assistant professor at Howard University’s African Studies department said in a student newsletter that, generally, African-American students think “Africans are backwards … and that all Africans are poor”. Some students, she says, “question the presence of big cities [in African nations]. They think that all Africans come from a village.”

I realize that such misunderstandings are not without context. Taking Africans from their homeland to America as slaves irrevocably broke the bond between them and those who were left behind – creating social, cultural and historical divides. With slavery and the struggle for civil rights being considered fundamental parts of African-Americans’ experience, it is believed that Africans who have arrived more recently – by choice – cannot relate to, or truly understand, the black experience. It doesn’t help that many African-Americans’ exposure to, and knowledge of, Africa is shaped by western discourse, which often presents a skewed picture of Africans as a primitive people stuck in the grip of tribal conflict, HIV, poverty, famine, civil war and corruption.

Such is the prevalence of that view of Africa that several years ago Keith Richburg, an African-American correspondent to Africa for the Washington Post, wrote a book entitled Out of Africa in which he proclaimed: Thank God my ancestors got out, because now, I am not one of them. In short, thank God I am an American”. He went on to say “I am a stranger here [in Africa], adrift. I look like them . . but I cannot understand what it is to be one of them. True, my ancestors came from this place, these are my distant cousins. But a chasm has opened up, a chasm of 400 years and 10,000 miles. Nothing in my upbringing, has instilled in me any sense of what it must be like to be an African.” Although his words caused controversy it seems from the conversations I’ve had, Richburg’s view is not all that uncommon.

The prejudices are keenly felt by African migrants, or those born to them. An acquaintance of Nigerian parentage who was born and raised in Washington DC told me that, while he had always referred to himself as African-American, at college he was quickly put in his place by “real” African-Americans who told him that his Nigerian heritage meant that he was not in fact one of them. He feels wholeheartedly American, yet is also considered an outsider by some African-Americans.

This inter-racial division cannot continue. Greater numbers of recent African migrants means that the face of black America is changing. Around 110,000 Africans arrived between 1961 and 1980, compared to 530,000 between 1981 and 2000. Africans and African-Americans need to get along because they will be rubbing up against each other more and more as time goes on.

One of the greatest tragedies of slavery, and its enduring legacy, was the gap it created in people’s knowledge of themselves, through a link to African culture and heritage. That link to African culture is still available, but misperceptions of Africa and its people continue to act as a barrier. While there are certainly part of Africa that are poor, there is also much about Africa that is great – and great beyond safaris and trips to slave castles. In the past few years, many parts of Africa have seen a boom in industries like fashion and music, in technology and in nightlife and other cultural activities. I look forward to my annual trips to Nigeria, South Africa or Mozambique as much as I do to trips to Europe or elsewhere.

The ignorance is, of course, not entirely one-sided: Africans do also carry some of their own prejudices – believing, for example that African-Americans have a “chip on their shoulder” about slavery and are not interested in educating themselves.

These mutual misperceptions need not exist. More importantly, the fact is that black people in America – regardless of background – are still disproportionately affected by issues like HIV/AIDS, discrimination and economic inequality. Both African-Americans and Africans have to deal with these inter-racial divisions, because the present day concerns that affect all of us are all too real.