April 3, 2018

The lost African tribe

King T'Challa and Killmonger battle for the throne of Wakanda. Courtesy Matt Kennedy - Marvel Studios
What comes to mind when you try to describe the Black narrative? Sure you can come up with a number of things. Matter of fact you can spend days exploring just one aspect of it. For one reason, it is so layered. Do you think there are disparities in the Black culture? What about the seeming divide between different Black peoples, specifically the one that exists as a privilege of knowing one's heritage vs. losing such heritage over time? Are we (Black folks) as they say  "all brothers"?

I had the privilege of attending and filming a symposium of said topic recently. Mending the Bridge™ between Africans and African Americans attempted to address the issue head on, no holds barred, with no one feeling out of place in the conversation. This is a start of such series as curated by the event host, Christiana Thompson whose goal is to keep such conversations going from now on as she plans more events like this in the future. The first attempt as a start showed promise, although it could have used more balance between the two different groups being the topic of discussion, as it seemed African immigrants outnumbered African Americans in attendance. This topic became more poignant on the heels of "Black Panther" - a movie grossing over 1 billion in sales till date, becoming Marvel Studios' #1 best selling blockbuster of all time. The film barely touches the surface of the disparities between Africans and African Americans. Folks left the theaters either really overjoyed or very perplexed. For once, Hollywood tells the African narrative from a different lens, showcasing fictional Africa as a giant with rich resources and advanced technology as opposed to painting with the usual brush stroke of strife and poverty. For once as an African, it was gratifying to see the continent portrayed in this light. Some believed that it totally missed the point and may have fueled many misconceptions.

The great things aside, there were obvious problems highlighted in the film's narrative. African Americans have long had a chip on their shoulder—the trauma they'd endured in the hands of colonial masters as a result of the slave trade, the resultant slavery, segregation, discrimination and still on-going prejudice, making African Americans today feel like second class. The average African American feels like forever, he'd have to make up for heritage lost; he doesn't quite feel at home in America, but then, he doesn't know where he comes from. That's enough to arouse some animosity towards other groups, especially the African immigrants, whose lives have not be irreparably altered in such manner. They come to America knowing fully well that they can always go home. The Africans immigrants on the other hand have a natural bias towards others like them. An average African in America would rather do business with fellow Africans than with African Americans. They regard AAs as the lost tribe  or "Akata," giving into the notion that the AAs are without direction or real purpose, perpetuated by the high numbers of those that come from broken homes, dropped out of school, often caught up on the wrong side of the law or incarcerated.

What it means to be "African"


Misconceptions abound between the two groups towards one another, causing an unspoken divide between them as Dr. Malachi Crawford, Assistant Director of African American Studies at the University of Houston would point out. Not so long ago being a Black American was cool, almost a badge of honor amongst the African immigrants who often fantasize the Hip Hop culture, many quickly shed their cultural identities in other to blend into the American culture. The paradigm has shifted in the time of increased racial tension and divide, many African immigrants want to distance themselves from the African American label, that's assuming this would protect them from racial profiling or being lumped into the general negative African American narrative. African immigrants have long drilled into their offspring that AAs are not the people you bring home to marry. They must marry their own kind so as not to have the culture infiltrated, or perhaps lost. Extra pressures mount upon the children to focus on education, attain the highest levels of learning and marry within the culture. AAs feel African immigrants come to usurp all of the opportunities America offers, African immigrants blame AAs for remaining in a slave mentality, embodying the very label that they reject. As a result there's only so much openness with one another. Social media and technology culture has created an open conversation on who's the gatekeeper to the African culture. The divide has become more pronounced, cuts across not just cultural lines, but also color lines. It's now particularly difficult for those that pass the brown paperbag test. African Americans feel like they are the gatekeepers to the African culture in America, can dictate who's allowed to celebrate it while African immigrants feel like they are the true gatekeepers.
Where do you draw the line on cultural appropriation?


The obvious divide

As problematic the divide is between Blacks and Whites, even more pervasive is the divide between factions of the African culture, as brought out by Aisha Koroma, founder of Lift-a-Village. There's an inherent fear that dwells within Africans that prevent them from finding out who they really are as peoples, they might just find out that after all everyone's connected in some way. It's easier to ascribe labels that either include or exclude groups. The divide is mild enough to cause a debate on who made the better Jollof rice between a Ghanian and a Nigerian, or serious enough to cause ethnic genocides. More than ever, African immigrants hold on to their culture and regard African Americans as "Akata," African Americans in turn resent African immigrants for the same reasons.

There isn't a "come to Jesus" moment that happens in Africa, most African immigrants learn about colonialism and slavery when they land on American soil, as brought out by panelist Ayo Shittu. This leads to an initial culture shock experienced when they journey into the diaspora. Even then, American History, a general course offered in American colleges merely glaze over the topic, relegated to an option in African/African American studies.  The African immigrant quickly learns that he is different in a new environment surrounded by different people and culture. This, if not properly managed can lead to insecurities brought on by isolation and not fitting in. The shock quickly turns to disillusionment.

Where does it leave the "hybrids" —first generation African Americans by birth, offspring of African immigrants? A very peculiar place. To instill the culture, African immigrants have gone as far as expatriating their children to Africa, where they get a crash course on the differences between both worlds. This in turn has its challenges, as they try to blend in with their new peers and risk a unique isolation and ridicule for not being "African" enough. "Oyinbo" is a term ascribed to expats denoting "foreigner" a label that can easily create its own divide and stereotype. "Yankee" is another. Diaspora children find themselves having to prove how "African" they are as they are often viewed as "soft" and not good with "hard work." They must overcome language barriers, observe cultural constructs, perform manual labor, endure corporal punishment from time to time. The challenges faced with this kind of reverse culture shock is enough to send the children running, however it sets a solid cultural foundation. Many of them as adults become well adjusted and more capable to deal with life in both worlds, they are thankful for such an education.

Appropriate or Exchange?

The debate can become heated around the topic of cultural appropriation. It is ever okay for people of other cultures to adopt the African culture in dress, hair styles or language? Hollywood starlet Amandla Sandberg, has become a champion for this cause in her own way, famously calling out social media and reality tv star Kendall Jenner for donning cornrows. It was also recently reported that she dropped out of Black Panther because she felt she didn't fit in to be cast and thought a more "deserving" actor should take on the role, in other words, an actor with a darker skinned actor. No doubt she faced her share of criticisms for her stand, however it does beg the question, where do we draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange? Are we now perpetuating the idea that the continent of Africa can only be one color?

Erik Killmonger felt the need to revenge his homeland because to him there was no love lost. His love and allegiance was stolen from him. He wanted to take back what was stolen not only by invading Wakanda, but opening this secretly uncolonized African territory to the rest of the world and disrupting its peaceful and advanced technological ambiance to predators that might seek to pillage and take over the territory and steal it's prized resource and source of power - the vibranium. It is easy to argue that Killmonger represents the sentiments of AAs today. The need to try to preserve what's left of the natural resources in a lot of African countries, Africans parents wanting to preserve their culture in the diaspora, the ardent need they place on their children not to try to "act like the Romans" when it comes to the culture can be understood, even if mildly by King T'Chaka's resolve to keep Wakanda secret.

Is this what prominent black pioneers like Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkurumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe had in mind when they pioneered Pan-Africanism? These leaders where not seen in the diaspora simply as Jamaican, Ghanian or Nigerian, but as Negroes, as one tribe - Black, they had larger perspectives of what it means to be African, this in turn led them to being able to become pioneer leaders of their era, as Dr. Crawford would argue. It would not be enough to simply identify oneself as a member of one group or the other, one should be able to have knowledge of the history behind each group. African American history is by extension, African history and vise versa.

How we define what constitutes an "African American" is changing

The world has become smaller with the advent of the internet and its offshoot - the social media. Folks have become more in tune with the world around them. Today's generation are more vocal than ever, calling out the many biases and prejudices that have long plagued our predecessors. African Americans are now actively tracing their roots to reconnect with their origins. They are now more open to identifying themselves as they ought to have. More are celebrating the culture proudly, identifying with it in the way they adorn themselves, learning an African language. Record numbers have made the brave move to an African country. Many seek to redefine societal labels, reclaim their rightful place in the world as opposed to feeling less than, or a minority. The Black Panther premiere saw record numbers of folks adorned in traditional wear for the screening. Folks of African decent are seeing a possibility of Africa returning to its glory.

There's an increasing need to mend the divide between Africans and African Americans now more than ever, as they realize there's much more that unites them than divide them. It is not just the African Americans that need to trace back their roots, many that identify with a certain cultural group in Africa would be disillusioned to find out origins that pins them to another part of the continent. People are now starting to educate themselves on this fact and a panel discussion such as Mending the Bridge ™series is a step in the right direction.

4 comments :

  1. I loved the discussion! We need more like this. When is the next one

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    Replies
    1. The organizers are working on the next forum, TBA.

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    2. There is one on April 28th at the Shrine and a round table that will be happening end of May.

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  2. This is very true. There is a major divide between Africans and African Americans. However, I believe screenplays as Black Panther give light to this great divide. Very great topic! This is what I think of when I hear the expression “stay woke”

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