1/23/09

Anecdotes on Relations Between Africans and African Americans

I have been putting this post in the back burner for a while now. But as you may have noticed, I now have the perfect excuse to share my personal point of view on the complex issue of relations between Africans and African Americans in the United States.

Yes it is a complex and an ever-evolving relationship. I will try to stay away from the gross generalization as much as I can. But some cliches may have to be mentioned for some of the stories that took place.

My first semester of college in the US ( Tulane, New-Orleans LA) was spent mostly with the members of the Tulane African Student Association (TASA). Because of Tulane strong International Public Health program, the association had quite a few members every year. In fact, TASA was one of the most active international student association after the powerhouse Latin American Student Association (LASA) who also threw the liveliest parties in town.
A Kenyan and an Ivorian were in charge of activities when I first came. The welcoming TASA party is also where I met my buddy Nkamany from DRC who some of you may have met.
He went to high school in Miami-Dade and his roommate was an African American corner back on the Tulane team. He would be instrumental in helping me forged friendships with African Americans that I probably would not have otherwise because I was just too insecure with the language barrier to speak with anyone outside the classroom (I only attended lecture-type classes my 1st year to avoid public speaking and team assignements).


( African dancing class at Tulane U photo via an-to-the-drew)

So as the semester went, I would usually just hang out with his friends and try to keep up with the conversation. They were fine with me not saying much and did not try to get me to say something either.
Once I got more comfortable, I would try to start a conversation about Tupac and MJ because I thought it would be a good conversation starter. They would indulge me but their amused looks told me that I walked right into a cliche and that there is so much more I need to learn.

My first good conversation was with Charles who told me about this cool software called napster :) if I wanted more unpublished tracks from my fave artists. I did not even know where my email where stored so it was total magic for me. He also opened up about his trip to Nigeria to understand his roots that he traced there. At the time, I did not get why he got emotional telling the story (hey, I was 19).

Nkamany and his friends took me to a stepping competition. Stepping is a coordinated dance where pledges from a fraternity compete with other fraternities. It is dynamic, synchronized and often very impressive. I never got the point of fraternities but I could appreciate the beauty of the team work in display.



( stepping by Joe Focus)

Nkamany and I were a bit of an oddity at TASA. The African and African Americans students just never find common grounds on campus. Basically, We did not "get" each other.

Tulane as an African Heritage Museum on campus (Amistad Center) that African Americans are rightfully proud of.
That somehow ticked African students off. The feeling was that" why would you even bother with an African Heritage Museum when you don't try to bound with Africans ?" Everyone started pointing fingers so we decided to hold a public discussion on African and African American relations organized by TASA and the Black Students Association.

One Nigerian graduate student in chemistry started the public panel discussion: " why do you insist on being called African Americans ? Most of you don't want to know about Africa and your so-called brothers right here". Oh boy, way to start a mature conversation, my man. A girl reciprocated: " Africa is part of our heritage hence we are African American. What is the problem ? Have you ever been our functions? I do not recall any of you ever coming to our events"
A Kenyan on the track team wondered: " why is it that it is easier for me to interact with international students from Colombia, England or Japan than with with you ?"
I was tense and probably not as productive as we hoped for. We mostly aired grievances and promised each other to organize more joint functions but we never got around to do so. One student had the most pertinent input of the session and she was white Porto Rican, not sure what that said about your panel.

I wished that Nkamany and his friends were present there but they were all away for job or med school interviews.

I think the dynamics are not the same anymore. Mostly because of guys like Nkamany, Africans who grew up here and are as comfortable in a maki in Kin as they are at a Master P concert at the House of Blues. Because of Obama obviously, who rocks to both Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder in his Ipod as well as Amadou and Miriam from Bamako.

The assumption was that because we all had an African heritage, it would make sense that we would bound more readily ( I know that the diversity within Africa is also an important factor here). Yet, as someone said, the commonality of being a foreigner was a stronger bond than the common heritage.

Obama said that at first, he had a hard time understanding the black community. But he made a conscious effort to reach out. That was our mistake at the Tulane symposium, we were too busy blaming each other instead of reaching out. Back then, did you really expect a new foreign frosh to know Foxy Brown ?

Now with the interwebs, I sometimes get my new US hip-hop tunes from my cousins in Paris. Obama has shown a willingness to reach out to the rest of the world. I know more and more young black men and women volunteer for assignment in Africa.

I guess there is no need for a panel discussion on African and African American relations anymore if there ever was one. After all, was there ever a panel on European and European American relations ? Those things seem to work out naturally with a bit of good will, travel and the interwebs.

8 comments:

  1. It's a similar problem with Europeans and European Americans. The US is a bizarre country and despite being around for over 200 years, it's still trying to figure itself out. That is in one part the beauty of it, but at the same time, the mess. It all comes about due to the rootlessness of Americans. If they aren't trying to live through their roots, then they are often filling the void through excessive consumption.

    I think it's fine for Americans to identify with being a French-American or a Congolese-American as long as they don't fall prey to two typical sins:

    1) They use it as an excuse for stupidity without understanding it. If of French descent, then the 14th of July should actually have some meaning, like the 30th of June for Congolese. These dates are not an excuse to get drunk. If that's all they want, then the 4th of July provides ample opportunity. (what's up with all the summer independence movements by the way?)

    2) They use their past lineage to advance themselves solely on their roots. African Americans who are in Africa an getting praise for work they're doing because everyone assumes that they're Africa-born and then they don't bother to mention they're actually from the US are disingenuous at best.

    This issue of identity vs. nationality is going to be revisited more and more over the coming years and I can only hope that the countries and peoples that are dealing with this more will learn from the successes and failures of the US in this regard.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Miquel,

    Thank you for your input. As you said, I too applaud Americans who are seeking to understand where they are from in a thorough manner.
    But I think it is only the first step towards a better understading. Once the roots are understood, expanding that understanding to the neighboring regions would be much appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  3. When I saw the headline in my RSS reader, I knew I'd end up having loads to say on this. And I'll save most of it for next month when I SEE you! But an anecdote:

    I went to Senegal as part of a study/travel group in 2002. I was one of three white people in the group - everyone else was African-American or from the Caribbean. I remember this attitude among the African-Americans that when they arrived to Senegal they'd be "home." I remember one girl asking me why I was even going as I would never "fit in."

    A few of the girls assumed they could walk off alone and not be bothered - but of course, it was immediately obvious to people in Dakar that they weren't from there. And they were immediately hit with the reality of their privilege. I can't say I was all that surprised, but I do recall having this conversation a couple years later with one of the good friends I made in Dakar, and how all too common it is when African-Americans travel there.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Jillian,

    Yep, in many cases, thinking that we "know" part of a culture already hinders on how well one ends up understanding things ( like the assumptions I made). That might be one of the risks of the interwebs. It can help us get a head start but it can also fool us into false assumptions. The time variable is also a tricky one to accept. What I know was true about my environment during my childhood is totally changed now.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I had the same thing in Louisiana. I figured I'd get along very well with the African Americans but found myself hanging out with the International crowd more... the foriegn experience was a common bonding factor. Could never get my head around why that was. Eventually I figured that African-Americans had much more in common with non African-Americans than with Africans. Obvious, I know...

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous10:25 AM

    did you see this :
    http://bongoland2.blogspot.com/2009/02/looking-for-participants.html

    making a documentary on the issue and looking for opinions...

    sipaKV

    ReplyDelete
  7. Sorry for the delay in response. I did not realize all comments were moderated now and needed approval. Weird, because I don't remember changing that.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Anonymous2:36 AM

    We are all one people at the end of the day no Atlantic Ocean or continent can change that....from Kenya.

    ReplyDelete