A better look at the rift between black Americans and Africans

This week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues her seven-nation African diplomatic mission in Nairobi, Kenya for the 8th Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation (AGOA) Forum. On the agenda are American-African partnerships in a myriad of areas, including development, hunger relief, science, technology, entrepreneurship, agriculture, investment, trade, and sustainable economic growth.

Unfortunately, what won’t be discussed at this important meeting is perhaps the most devastating of all the lasting effects of The Holocaust of African Enslavement and Colonialism: the shattered bond of kinship between African-descended peoples in diverse locales.
Many refer to this phenomenon as a “continental divide,” but I fear that it has gone beyond that to what Lola Adesioye of theGrio terms a “full-blown rift.”

The extent of this rift became distressingly apparent during my first trip to West Africa in 1997 to study abroad at the University of Legon, easily the most impactful period of my doctoral studies in Temple University’s African American Studies Department.

It was summer and I was all set to travel to the Motherland and commune with the spirit of my ancestors. And I did – for the most part. But I never expected to confront the reality that many of the Ghanaians saw African Americans, for the most part, as mere Americans. White Americans, to be exact.

This realization shook me deeply in a way I found difficult to articulate until now. But continued silence is not the answer. As the Ethiopian proverb goes, “he who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured.” And this continental rift is a symptom of the cancer that plagues the psyche of African peoples.

Lola Adesioye’s July 10 piece for theGrio gets at the heart of this transatlantic rift. In the central anecdote, Adesioye takes offense upon hearing an African American woman on a train discuss her impending travel to Senegal and her desire to bring back, in the words of the author, “an unusual souvenir: an African man” so dark you couldn’t “see him at night.”

While the woman’s choice of words might have been unfortunate, I think, in contrast to Adesioye, that the sentiment was meant to convey appreciation of the beautiful black skin of our African brothers and sisters – and of many African Americans. I found myself wondering if the writer might have found this conversation less offensive if the African American woman had used a more poetic descriptive like “dark as a moonless night,” “black as night,” or something similarly cliché.

I suspect, however, that the real problem for my African sister Adesioye – even if only subconsciously – is that the African American woman on the train wanted to bring home an African man. Let me explain.

When I taught at Temple, I once had a young Kenyan student in my “Africa in the 20th Century” class who told me, in no uncertain terms, that her sister “hated” African American women because they try to take their men. I was stunned. Nonetheless, during the very fruitful discussion that ensued, I learned that some African women view African American women much like many African American women who resent white women and their pursuit of black men.

While I’m wary to project the Kenyan student’s viewpoint onto Adesioye, the author’s “unusual souvenir: an African man” comment signals to this writer that her visceral reaction to this subway scene was likely not about the African American woman’s choice of words but rather her proposed choice of a man.

My interpretation of Adesioye’s objection to the woman’s words reflects a parallel we might find uncomfortable. Perhaps the misunderstanding and judgment between African Americans and Africans resembles the too familiar misunderstanding and judgment between white and black Americans.

As Adesioye asserts, far too many African Americans are blissfully ignorant about modern African culture and Africans. The problem is that, like white Americans, most of what African Americans know about Africa comes from American TV: mostly “huts,” civil wars, famine, babies with distended stomachs – and the ever-present flies. And many want no part of that Africa. Many African Americans have no idea of the rich history and legacy of accomplishment that the African Continent represents – or of its possibilities because it is typically not taught in our schools.

But ignorance cuts both ways. Like African Americans, many Africans have been socialized with American media (TV, film, and hip hop) to believe the worst about African Americans. Consequently, continental Africans may not fully appreciate the historic struggle that my ancestors waged in this country, paving the way for us to have the rights that we do today – limited though they may still be.

My objection to Adesioye’s reaction to the woman on the train, and Adesioye’s reaction itself, reveal that the transatlantic rift between Africans and African Americans resembles the racial rift on our very own soil. And it is just as important to address.

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