It must have been the African print attire I was wearing on that Saturday afternoon that drew their attention. “Where are you from?” a group of Black teenage boys queried as they accosted me on the 3 train from Manhattan to Brooklyn. “I am from Africa,” I replied, not exactly sure what prompted the question. Then came a barrage of more questions:
“Do people have tails in Africa?”
“Is it true that people live on trees in Africa?”
“When last did you shave?”
They heckled me, bursting into raucous laughter, referring to my hairy legs exposed underneath a pair of colorful Ghanaian Kente patterned shorts I was wearing. Immediately, it became clear that these were not questions borne out of sheer curiosity, but ignorance nurtured by stereotypes about Africa and Africans.
In the United States, some scholars who have studied relationships between African-Americans and African immigrants have observed a “social distance” between both groups. In 2012, Adaobi Chiamaka Iheduru, a graduate student at Wright State University, Ohio, wrote her doctoral thesis on how “racism plays a prominent role” in shaping this dynamic. Internalized racism is the acceptance of stereotypes or beliefs that paint one’s racial group as “subhuman, inferior, incapable of dignified tasks, and a burden to society,” according to Laura M. Padilla, a professor at the California Western School of Law.
Howard W. French, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, provides historical context that explains how American politics, popular culture, and education have all combined over a long period of time to inhibit a close relationship between African-Americans and the African continent.
“For a very long time in the twentieth century, during the Jim Crow years in particular, African-Americans were encouraged to shun the idea of a connection to Africa, to think poorly of Africa—to celebrate traits in themselves, which supposedly distanced themselves from Africa, in other words, to think of themselves as more cultured, more Christian, more White, more civilized than Africans and therefore to look at ‘Africanness’ as a matter of shame or a kind of taint that needed to be avoided,” French told me in an interview.
Disconnected from their homeland and placed in “an entirely new and vastly different cultural milieu—to which they had to adapt rapidly,” African-Americans created a Black American culture that was distinctly different from their African roots, wrote Phillip Gay, a former professor of sociology at San Diego State University in the Los Angeles Times.
“The overwhelming majority of black Americans are, at the very least, six or seven generations culturally removed from Africa,” Gay said in his 1989 article. “They speak no African language. Their religious beliefs and practices are non-African. Their daily cuisine is non-African. Their marital and family structures are typically non-African. They have no relatives in Africa, and they have never themselves been to Africa.”
In their study about relationships among African, African-American, and African Caribbean persons, Jennifer V. Jackson and Mary E. Cothran noted that whereas these three groups in the US have “similar interracial struggles that create some semblance of common bonds, they fail to appreciate their common heritage.” According to their research, respondents indicated that Africans, African-Americans, and West Indians communicated poorly and didn’t get along due to “myths, misconceptions, ignorance, and stereotypes:”
Communication problems are blamed on the history of slavery, its divisiveness, and the doctrine of divide and conquer. Black people were set up against each other and told not to associate with other Blacks because of negative attributes.
Citing the work of Rhett Jones, former director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, Nigerian-born scholar Tunde Adeleke argues that slavery “accomplished the total destruction of the ethnic identity of African-Americans:”
The terrible experience of the Middle Passage and the brutal horrors of slavery eliminated any sense of ethnic identity among blacks. The rapid growth of the black American population meant that Africa was soon only a memory for the majority of black Americans. Knowledge of their ethnic affiliation and where they came from in Africa was soon lost.
Likewise, Iheduru observed that Western media representations of Africa as the “Dark Continent” have created negative images in the minds of African-Americans, who now see their ancestral homeland as a primitive place in need of civilization. This negative portrayal of Africa has gone on for years in American popular culture, and it is only quite recently that one can find positive examples of Africa or Africans being celebrated, according to French:
And these few examples that exist are not perfect ones. But, even people who are skeptical of them, like myself, somehow feel we must celebrate them because there are so few counter examples that to have an example, however compromised or limited, is inevitably satisfying.
Coming 2 America, Eddie Murphy’s recently released sequel to the 1988 comedy film Coming to America, has been criticized as another example of Hollywood’s poor representation of Africa. For instance, Kovie Biakolo, a journalist and multicultural scholar, berated the movie for its unfortunate sense of humor and archaic representation of African-Americans. “A combination of the trifold examples of an obsolete use of sexual assault humour, bygone representations of Africans and classist caricatures of black Americans altogether encapsulates the film’s unnecessary existence,” she wrote in The Guardian.
“The only thing worse than lack of information is misinformation,” Hawthorne Smith, a psychologist and Director of the NYU/Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture (PSOT), told me. “And oftentimes, we as African-Americans, that’s what we get in terms of knowledge about Africa.”
Smith recounted how, as an African-American, he experienced a greater culture shock when he returned to the United States from Senegal, where he had traveled to study at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. It was the first time he was forced to confront the reality of an American culture that revolves around “time is money, dog eat dog, and hustling”—things he did not experience in Africa.
After his return from Africa, Smith ran into an African immigrant who broke down in tears five minutes after they exchanged a warm greeting. “You know, I’ve been here as an exchange student in the country for almost 10 months, and you’re the first person who has come to me to say hello,” he told Smith during this emotional encounter at a park bench in Washington, DC.
Conversely, negative images of guns, drugs, and violence in African-American communities have greatly shaped how African immigrants perceive African-Americans, Iheduru noted in her study.
“We’ve heard people talk about when they first came to the United States and being afraid to leave their apartment because they just thought everyone out there was a potential threat. You hear people say, what I’ve heard about Harlem and all the bad stuff going on there, I don’t want to go out there,” said Smith, who has facilitated a support group for French-speaking African survivors of torture for the past 22 years.
Likewise, Kenneth Chan, a Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Northern Colorado, observes that this negative portrayal pervades the construction of Black male identity in Black action films of the nineties, noting that: “The capitalistic politics of the Hollywood system frequently influence filmmakers into succumbing into stereotypical constructions of black characters.”
The Harlem-born African-American filmmaker, St. Clair Bourne, who produced a variety of films documenting Black culture and the lives of eminent African-Americans, argues that independent Black filmmakers who can tell African-American stories without misrepresenting reality lack the resources to get their movies made. This situation, coupled with the deterioration of the American economic system, Bourne contends, has affected Black filmmakers more than their white counterparts and created “a wave of escapist images and stories which distort and/or reinterpret any creative elements that might seriously challenge the world view of those who control the principle resources.”
The majority of current images of Blackness emanating from Hollywood are created to “entertain, advocate no change and, more importantly, to suggest the legitimacy of the current social and political order,” he writes. Bourne continues:
It is not by accident that roles written for Eddie Murphy or Whoopi Goldberg usually portray them as police and have them paired up with white buddy figures. Again, a very few of the producers, writers or directors are black and the sleight-of-hand is that the white writers use the techniques and their perception of the cultural style of black people to legitimize these messages.
Beyond negative pop culture portrayals of African-Americans and Africa, there is a psychic burden that African-Americans carry as a result of their experience with slavery and racism in America—which inevitably affects how they see Africa or interact with African immigrants.
“African-Americans have been subjected to what I’m going to call ‘denaturing,’ whereby they were forced in the period of slavery and then later in the pro slavery era, strongly encouraged or constrained to put Africa behind them and to forget about Africa, and to erase memories of Africa as much as possible from their consciousness,” French said.
According to French, this mental detachment from Africa is most evident in how African-Americans, as descendants of slavery, were forced to abandon the use of African names for Christian names—a very powerful weapon that psychologically disconnected them from any recollection of their African heritage.
For Henry Ukazu, a Nigerian born immigrant in the US, the social distance between African-Americans and African immigrants is also a matter of competition for economic resources. Ukazu said:
A lot of Africans come here for different reasons. Some come for school, professional development, work, or vacation. When they are done with school, those who want to work are ready to start from scratch, accepting low income and entry level jobs. For the African-Americans already in the system, they might not be disposed to doing these type of jobs because they were born here and schooled here.
He added that, unlike their African-American counterparts, many African immigrants condescend to take these opportunities, “and struggle to work their way up the ladder in the system.”
Smith’s Washington, DC, encounter and the warm reception he received in Africa, revealed what he described as “a subtext of culture shock underneath some of what I see, because I think that for a lot of African immigrants, my friends, my colleagues, my clients, and my family, there is that layer of culture shock and pressure on the community ties—the extended family ties.”
This pressure exerted on African-American and African immigrant populations manifests in different ways, from housing to schools where kids tease one another—resulting in a situation where “we arrived groups in the United States—those on the low economic echelons fight it out for crumbs that are available and it can create animosity,” Smith said.
Violet M. Showers Johnson, Associate Dean and Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University, observed that in the last quarter of the twentieth century, when three high-profile incidents exposed the vulnerability of African immigrants and other foreign Blacks to the workings of race and racism in post-civil rights America, headlines by the American press highlighted the foreignness of the victims:
“Ethiopian Immigrant Bludgeoned to Death by Skinheads,”
“Haitian Security Guard Brutalized by New York City Police Officers,” and
“Unarmed West African Immigrant Mercilessly Gunned Down by NYPD Street Crime Unit.”
As Showers Johnson writes, “[d]espite these immigrant-specific headlines, many saw the incidents as racially motivated.” These incidents raised several questions about the Black immigrant experience in America:
How do black immigrants negotiate national, ethnic, and racial identities? What is the extent of their knowledge and understanding of race relations in America? How do their interests and agendas converge with and diverge from those of native-born blacks? What is the level of race consciousness among black immigrants? And what is their level of participation in and contributions to black activism?
The answers are enmeshed in a complex historical reality—one in which some African-Americans prefer to keep a distance from the African continent while some African immigrants avoid the subject of racism in America.
In this regard, Adeleke argues that “many black Americans remain skeptical of the potency, or even relevance, of a paradigm that situates their identity outside America,” and have come to regard the experience of slavery as more potent than the fact of African ancestry:
A leading advocate of this view is the black American playwright, Douglas Turner Ward, who raised the issue in his keynote address during the 1995 meeting of the Southern Conference on Afro-American Studies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He distinguished between two identity paradigms, “slavocentric” and “Afrocentric.” While acknowledging black American connections with Africa, Ward insisted that what shaped the black American identity was slavery, rather than Africa, and consequently, since enslavement was essentially institutionalized here in America, the study of the black American experience and, ipso facto, the determination and definition of identity, should focus on, and begin with, the American experience!
Part of the dynamics of social distance between African-Americans and African immigrants is the coinage of the term akata, a Yoruba name for “wild cat”—used by some African immigrants to describe some African-Americans, especially during hostile encounters. African-Americans consider the term derogatory, and it is partly fueled by stereotypes “manufactured by the white dominant society about African-Americans,” Iheduru stated in her study.
“I personally do not like the sound of the word so I don’t use it,” said Oshomah John, a Nigerian immigrant in the US. “I have a good relationship with African-Americans out here.”
Smith sees opportunities for healing, reconciliation, and collaboration between both groups. He echoes the optimism of Gloria Browne Marshall, civil rights attorney and Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College (CUNY) who wrote in her book Race, Law, and American Society: “By now, the need for coalition building should be quite clear. People of color need each other.”