Between Africans and African Americans:
Misconceptions, Myths and Realities"
looks at relations between Africans and African Americans from the perspective
of an African, and of shared perceptions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Incorporated into the analysis are stories of individuals who have interacted,
worked and lived with members of both groups in Africa and in the United States,
including the author himself. Stereotypes and misunderstandings of each other
constitute an integral part of this study, explained from both perspectives,
African and African-American.
The author, a former journalist in Tanzania and now an academic author whose books are found in public and university libraries arund the world, has lived in the United States, mostly in the black community, for more than 30 years. He articulates his position from the vantage point of someone who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, focusing on a subject that has generated a lot of interest among Africans and African Americans through the years. And it continues to be one of great misunderstanding between the two sides, in spite of increased contacts and communication between Africa and Black America, and between individual Africans and African Americans in the United States and in Africa.
Chapter One: Enduring Ties Between Africa and the Diaspora
Chapter Two: My Life with African Americans
Chapter Three: The Image of Africa in America
Chapter Four: The Attitude of Africans Towards African Americans
Chapter Five: The Attitude of African Americans Towards Africans
Chapter Six: Misconceptions About Each Other
Chapter Seven: African Americans in Tanzania: Black Panther Leader Pete O'Neal and Others
Chapter Eight: Back to the Motherland: Fihankra An African-American Settlement in Ghana and Other Diasporans
Appendix: What Africans and African Americans Think About Their Relations: Voices From Within
About the Author
Excerpts from "Relations Between Africans and African Americans: Misconceptions, Myths and Realities"
What is the state of relations between Africans and African Americans? How do Africans see us, and how do we see them? What is their experience with us and what is our experience with them, individually and collectively, in general? How are they accepted by black people in the United States? How are we accepted over there in the motherland? Do they see us as fellow Africans, cousins or distant cousins, or just as Americans?
These are some of the questions answered in this book, written by an African, and based on his experience for more than 30 years interacting with African Americans, and on the experiences of many Africans and African Americans quoted in this study.
Here are sample chapters four and five:
Chapter Four: The Attitude of Africans Towards African Americans
AFRICANS don't feel the same way about everything just like other people don't; nor do they think alike anymore than whites, Orientals and others do. But there are some things on which many of them tend to agree or share perceptions because of their common African background and history. One of those subjects is their attitude towards African Americans. But even on this subject one cannot generalize and say that is how all Africans feel or think.
The purpose of this chapter is to explore what is perceived to be a consensus among a large number of Africans on how they see African Americans, and what I myself have observed in my dealings with both in the thirty years or so I have been in and out of the United States.
I am here reminded of what I heard after I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, from Detroit in 1976. I moved to Grand Rapids to attend Aquinas College in this conservative and predominantly white mid-western city in southwestern Michigan that is also a Republican stronghold as much as it has been for decades. I was the only African student from Tanzania and the second in the school's history to enroll there. There were a few other African students and they all came from Nigeria, except one student who came from Sierra Leone.
I got to know all the African students well and we interacted on regular basis on- and off-campus. Since they were mostly Nigerians, it was they who invited me to their homes, as much as I invited them to mine, to socialize and talk about what was going on back home in our continent.
Now and then, the subject of African Americans crept into the conversation since we were also around them and even went to school with them. We lived mostly in the inner city, which was predominantly black, and we interacted with quite a few of them, inviting them to our homes.
The black American students at Aquinas College, most of whom came from Detroit, was another group we dealt with, especially on campus. But, almost invariably, whenever the Nigerians talked about African Americans, they would use the term akata. I didn't know what they meant by that and I never asked them. It didn't take me long to figure out that they were referring to American blacks. I did not detect any hostility towards them, or a condescending tone when they talked about these cousins of ours in the diaspora. They were always friendly and laughing, although I am not sure I interpreted correctly what the laughter meant most of the time back then. It was not until years later that I found out what the term akata meant after I read an article in the Detroit Free Press by a Nigerian reporter, or someone with a Nigerian (Yoruba) name, who explained what it meant: a brutal wild animal or something like that. It is said to be a Yoruba term.
Shortly thereafter, I again stumbled upon the term on the internet when I was reading an article posted by an African American who was a member of a Yahoo discussion group, Mwananchi (meaning countryman or citizen in Kiswahili), which addresses many issues in a Pan-African context and in a very intelligent if not highly intellectual manner; and one of whose members is the acerbic and highly controversial Ghanaian professor of economics, George Ayittey, who teaches at a university in Washington, D.C.
The writer of the article was hurt and deeply offended by the use of the term akata by some Africans to describe their brothers and sisters in the diaspora and who had the misfortune of having their African ancestors shipped in chains to America as slaves. The same subject again, later in November 2004, came up for discussion and one of the members of Mwananchi, a Kenyan, had this to say:
"I am not in a position to fully address the issues you raised in your recent posting on the perjorative term "akata" used by others in this or other forums to refer to African Americans. I am an old member in this forum but rarely comment on issues raised by others unless I have something meaningful to contribute.
I am from Kenya and the only information I have on the Yoruba is scant and unhelpful in this discussion. I studied the history of West Africa in high school back in the mid- to late 1980s for examination purposes and other than the gods: Sango, Oranminyan and Oduduwa, there's nothing else I can say about the Yoruba.
However, as America wakes up to the reality of a new wave of immigrants from Africa, it is inevitable that a number of socio-political and economic issues will come to the fore pertaining to the interaction that we Africans have with our African American kindred as well as the rest of the host population. As a well informed African who has spent close to a third of my life in America - and still learning - I am very aware that we all share the burden of ignorance of and on each other as we struggle to be part of this mosaic that makes America what it is.
Up until the late 1990s when a clear increase of refugees from war torn countries started pouring into America, most of the African immigrants came to America on student visas. This is the cream of society back home. As of today, there's clear research that shows that Africans in America are some of, if not, the most educated, well paid and upward mobile group of all immigrants in this country. Many people will dispute this and I for one am not well paid, my high education in America notwithstanding.
However, most of us come here with little understanding of the history and complexities of the African American experience in this country. Beside Martin Luther King and Marcus Garvey, very few Africans - even the educated ones - know about thhe pivotal role played by numerous prominent and other nameless African Americans in the development of this country. Without understanding the history of the African Americans and their relationship with the White establishment, we will forever be wallowing in the cesspool of misconceptions and hearsay.
On the other hand, very few African Americans have an understanding of the new Africans migrating into this country. It is a sad FACT that there are more black men in prisons in America than there are in colleges. This is due to a myriad of factors that are a daily reality of this American life (sorry, Ira Glass).
To most Africans, our experience in America with African Americans is not a pleasant one. May be this is because of the low educational levels of most of the American blacks that we are likely to meet combined with our scant knowledge of the aforementioned African American experience.
I, for one, was once told by a not very well educated black brother to learn to speak English properly. I was not offended because I knew the brother did not understand my accent. The setting was not proper for me to teach him a few basics of socio-linguistics.
Speaking of English, I am not sure he'd ever heard of Pope, Chaucer, Moore, Marlowe or Thomas Hardy and how different they would've sounded to him if he ever heard them speak. I studied these literary giants in school in Africa and have even made a pilgrimage to Canterbury, Kent, to drink a beer in the Marlowe: the very pub where my favourite English poet of all, Chrsitopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Sheikh El Zubeir (Shakespeare) was stabbed to death at the age of 29 back in the 1600s. But this is beside the point.
To the bratha, I needed to learn some English. It is saddening that to most African Americans, according to comedian Chris Rock, Africa is far, far away beyond the oceans! True but not so quite exact. A lot of African Americans have been bought into the stereotyping that Africans have perpetually received from the mass media in the West: that we are all dirt poor, ignorant, uncultured and at various stages of starvation living in the Hobbesian world where life is short, bruttish and nasty.
Well, there might be some truth to that but NOT quite entirely.
It is imperative for us to address our differences as black kindred in America in every imaginative way. I personally live in a state that is 97% White. It is the second whitest state in the nation wedged between the first and third whitest states. I have minimal interaction with African Americans unless I go to the club for a drink. I know less than 8 African Americans and yet I have lived in the US for close to ten years. As a student of humanities, I know that my minimal exposure to my African American brethren is something I must personally overcome.
I will recommend anyone in similar circumstances to utilize the many opportunities that are available to us in order to bridge this sea of ignorance. The internet, is a prime example. There are quality TV programs out there too that are very informative on the African and the African American experience. PBS and C-SPAN as well as National Public radio offer a window of opportunity to those of us struggling to achieve this goal. That's how I met some of my favourite contemporary African American thinkers: Eric Mike Dyson, Cornell West and Charles Ogletree.
To those who live in places well populated with African Americans, try and attend their church services and other social functions and you will all be amazed how wrong we are in our pre-conceived notions of each other. May be with a little understanding of our respective experiences, we will overcome our differences and even celebrate them with those bonds that tie us together as we try to improve ourselves and stake a better claim in this great American experiment.
Well, for someone who rarely posts, this is so long a letter. I would recommend a book by Mariama Ba by the same title: "So Long a Letter" to those who want a glimpse into the life of a Senegalese woman in the last century in Africa. Let the discussion continue.
This posting on the internet by an African from Kenya highlights the profound ambivalence we sometimes have towards each other, while many of us don't try hard enough, if at all, to bridge the communication gap and learn more about each other.
In fact, the use of the term akata is at the core of this misconception of what we think and know about each other, fuelled by stereotypes manufactured by the white dominant society which portrays Africans as primitive savages, and black Americans as advanced savages in a civilized white society they seem determined to destroy with their propensity towards violence. And that is the meaning of akata which is used to describe black Americans as brutal wild animals.
Yet, for some inexplicable reason, I had never heard the term akata before, until I moved to Grand Rapids, although I lived in Detroit and knew many Nigerians including Yorubas some of whom were my schoolmates at Wayne State University. But they probably used the term as much as the ones in Grand Rapids did. And just like the ones in Grand Rapids, the Nigerians and other Africans who may have used the term in Detroit to describe or insult African Americans were not all Yorubas. In Grand Rapids, there was only one Yoruba student who was also my classmate at Aquinas College. The rest of the Nigerian students were Igbos, and they used the term akata quite often. I don't know if some of them were just joking or used the term in a different context. But I do know that, for whatever reason these Nigerians used the term, many African Americans who knew what the term meant back then would have been highly offended as much as the ones today are, had they heard them call black Americans akata.
There is no question that to many African Americans who know what the term akata means, its use only confirms what they have known or suspected all along: "Africans don't like us; they just don't." In fact, that is one of the subjects that comes up quite often in conversations between Africans and African Americans, with black Americans asking: "Is it true that they don't want us over there?" I have been asked the same question a number of times and have done my best to respond accordingly.
I even wrote an article on the subject, published in a school newspaper and quoted in the Michigan Chronicle, in the early seventies when I was student in Detroit.
And there seems to be some credibility to the charge that may be a significant number of Africans, not all of us but probably a large number amongst us, have a negative attitude towards black people in the United States. Some people attribute it to arrogance among Africans who think they are better than American blacks, for whatever reason including cultural differences, loss of identity among black Americans since they no longer have their true African identity that was destroyed during slavery; and even an "identity crisis," as some Africans may see it, contending that black people in the United States really don't know who and what they are: they don't know what part of Africa they came from, and which tribes they originated from or belong to; they are not as African as black Africans in Africa are, because they are racially mixed, with only very few of them, if any, having retained their true
biological African identity.
Others, especially African Americans, at least some of them, say Africans are just jealous of them because black people in the United States are better off economically than the vast majority of black Africans most of whom are desperately poor and live in the most backward and poorest continent on earth. There are also those who may feel that Africans are not as civilized as they are. The list goes on and on.
But whatever the case, we cannot deny that problems exists, or that a significant number of Africans don't have a negative attitude towards black Americans. And it didn't just start. I remember reading an interview with Andrew Young by Charlie Cobb, a prominent African American journalist and civil rights activist from the sixties who at this writing was working for a major African news organization, allafrica.com, and who once lived and worked in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when I was still there before coming to the United States, which is highly relevant in this context. Andy Young said when he was a student at Howard University, he met a Nigerian student who was very bright, probably the smartest on campus according to Young, but who also was very arrogant, thinking he was better than black Americans; and asked Young, "When are you going to get civilized?"
meant by that, there is no question that he had preconceived notions about
African Americans which did not correspond to reality. And coming from Africa,
the "Dark Continent," he really had a lot of nerve to ask Andy Young such a
question. It would have been very easy for Young or for any other black American
to hit right back and bring the Nigerian to his senses: "Look at who is
If black Americans are not civilized, how civilized are the Africans? And in what ways black Americans are not? Having dealt with Africans for a long time, Young knew how to handle the situation and probably handled it the best way he could. He explained in the same interview that he grew up with Africans in his house, since his parents were used to taking in African students studying in the United States. As he stated in the interview on July 22, 2002:
"My parents always had African students in our home in the 1940s. They felt that they had been educated by American missionaries - New England missionaries - and that part of our responsibility was to educate others. So, our home was almost a boarding house for African students at no charge.
I [also] started in 1974 with Arthur Ashe bringing [African] students to the US. We'd bring them in and keep them in Atlanta for a while at my house and we'd find places for them at Michigan State [University] or Texas Southern or other colleges. We had a kind of Underground Railroad on education....
When I was a freshman at Howard University, the smartest guy in the school was a Nigerian. And he used to say to me very condescendingly: 'You're a bright boy. When are you going to get civilized?'
And there is a Nigerian success tradition that is older than the African-American tradition. It is not as successful as ours but it is older. It's like Jamaicans. They have a hard time listening to us as African Americans. They were ahead of us in their decolonization and West Indian thinkers have always been....Well, it's like Stokely [Carmichael] didn't think he had anything to learn from John Lewis. Our view is seen as somewhat neo-colonial."
What Andrew Young said illustrates a very important point concerning the attitude of a number of Africans, and some people from the Caribbean, towards African Americans. It is condescending; it is also paternalistic reminiscent of what Dr. Albert Schweitzer said, although in a very perverted way, about black people: "With regard to the Negroes,...I have coined the formula: 'I am your brother, it is true, but your elder brother.'"
That is a loaded statement with all that it implies. The conclusion is obvious on who stands where and for how long. Chronologically speaking, the younger brother will never catch up with his elder brother. Also remember this: elders are wiser. And therein lies the arrogance of some Africans and their negative attitude towards African Americans: they are the original Africans, true black people; black Americans are not. They come directly from the motherland, African Americans don't; Africa is the repository of knowledge, wisdom and genuine black African culture. Black America is not. Case closed.
Is that why "Africans don't want us over there?," a question African Americans ask often. "Is it because we are not really black or African? Aren't we really the same people?" Those are legitimate questions. But is it really true that we, those of us born and brought up in Africa, really don't want to have anything to do with black people in America?
Whenever I have addressed this subject, I have always assured my listeners, African Americans, that it is simply not true that "we don't want them over there, in Africa." I also remind them that African Americans are not the primary target or the only people on the defensive against this kind of attack by some Africans. Many people of different ethnic groups - or tribes, whatever you choose to call them - in many African countries also don't like each other anymore than they do black Americans.
It is not selective prejudice against black Americans only. In fact, when African Americans go to Africa, some of them end up being welcomed and embraced by some of the very same people who are at war with members of other tribes right there in their own country.
Also just remember this: hundreds of thousands, and even millions, who have died in wars in Africa - for example between the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi, the Hema and the Lendu in eastern Congo, the Tiv and the Hausa in Nigeria, the Igbo and the Hausa-Fulani during the Nigerian civil war in the sixties - all these people who have been tortured, slaughtered, and sometimes even burnt alive, are Africans right there in Africa, killed by fellow Africans. They are not African Americans from the United States. It is carnage, it is hate far more deadly than what is or has been directed against African Americans by some Africans who don't like them.
But whatever hostility exists towards African Americans, overt or covert, it is definitely not an omnipresent phenomenon on the African continent. African Americans have through the years since independence been welcomed in large numbers in Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria, and in all the other African countries. And many of them have settled there permanently. You will find them today.
Yet, there have been some incidents, not many but enough to raise eyebrows, arising from misunderstandings, mistrust and suspicions of one kind or another including negative attitudes, which may have strained relations between Africans and African Americans in some countries. For example, some members of the Pan-African Congress-USA, the group based in Detroit which sponsored me and other African students in the early seventies, were unceremoniously kicked out of Ghana, right from the airport where they were denied entry into the country. That was not long before the organization offered me a scholarship to go to school in Detroit.
I don't know exactly what the reason was, why they were tossed out of Ghana, but I remember some of them saying they were kicked out for no reason at all. What may have come into play here, like in some other incidents involving African Americans on the African continent, is ingrained suspicions towards all Americans, black and white or whatever, as some kind of spies or agents of the government, working for the CIA or being involved in some kind of scheme to undermine African countries and governments. And it is not difficult to find "sinister" motives behind any trip by any American to Africa, given the highly notorious track record of the CIA and the American government on the continent through the years.
Ironically, Pan-African Congress members were some of the staunchest supporters of Africa, and of leaders such as Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana, a country from which some of them were tossed out in a very humiliating way. And it defies rational explanation to assume that every American who goes to Africa is on a spying mission for the CIA. But whatever the perception, there is no question that it has had tragic consequences in some cases. Perception is reality, no matter how you look at it.
Yet another reason why Ghanaian officials at the airport in Accra may have been hostile towards African Americans who were not allowed to go beyond the airport but were instead put on the next plane back to the United States is the perennial problem many black Americans complain about in their relations with us: the negative attitude of Africans towards African Americans borne of prejudice against their own people, and for no reason, none whatsoever. It's just hate, is the way they see it.
What happened in Ghana to the Pan-African Congress members reminds me of what happened in my country, Tanzania, in 1974. The parallels are almost exact in terms of treatment. Just as the African Americans who went to Ghana from Detroit were kicked out of the country as soon as they arrived, a number of African Americans who had just arrived in Tanzania were caught in the same predicament, detained and tossed out of the country for security reasons. Like those in Ghana, the black Americans who went to Tanzania were some of the strongest supporters of Africa and of African leaders such as President Julius Nyerere, the leader of the very same country from which they were kicked out. But that is the subject of another chapter in this book.
Suffice it to say, regardless of what happened in Ghana and Tanzania and elsewhere in other African countries where African Americans may have run into problems with the authorities, as a case of mistaken identity or deliberate decisions by the authorities of the host countries to kick black Americans out for no justifiable reason, there is ample evidence to show that in general, and in overwhelming cases, African Americans have been welcomed by Africans without any problems and have enjoyed the hospitality extended to them in a way they probably never expected. The best proof of all this is the African Americans themselves who have been to Africa and who live in Africa.
It is true that there has been some distance, in terms of communication and direct contact, that has been maintained by both sides for different reasons mainly because of misunderstanding and preconceived notions about each other. For example, when I was still in Tanzania, I remember seeing groups of African American visitors in Dar es Salaam, the nation's capital, walking up and down the streets, and going into Indian shops - what Americans call stores - without any of the local residents welcoming them or talking to them.
We knew they were black Americans - they were called "American Negroes," or just "Negroes," even by Africans in Tanzania and elsewhere in those days. And we could tell from their accent, the attire, and many times from the way they looked that they were Americans, and not black Africans born and brought up in Africa. They had their own look, hard to describe but easily detectable by us; their Afro hair style, for example, which most local residents didn't have; and even colorful dashikis they wore which most people in Tanzania didn't wear like they do in West Africa. Yet, there was no overt or covert hostility towards them. It's just that neither side took the first step to try and bridge the gap between the two. We were so close, physically and genealogically as well as biologically, yet remained so far apart, face to face.
It was a yawning gap that remained through the years even when I was in Detroit. A couple from Detroit affiliated with the Pan-African Congress-USA, and fiercely proud of their African heritage, went to Tanzania in 1975. They stayed in Dar es Salaam, the capital, and the same city where I went to school and worked as a reporter. When they came back to the United States, they were somewhat disappointed because of their experience in Tanzania.
They said no one welcomed them, the people just glanced at them or stared at them and stayed away from them. And I understood their frustration. The deeper problem is that neither side addressed the fundamental problem: lack of communication. Again, as in many other cases, neither side took the initiative to try to bridge the gap although, I concede, it is the local residents, Tanzanians, who, may be, should have taken the first step to welcome their cousins from the diaspora. You welcome visitors or strangers into your house, they don't welcome you.
This partly explains why African Americans say Africans don't want them over there. But that is only a part of it. Most of the people who say that have never been to Africa. And many of them don't even know much about Africa. As one cabinet member under President Robert Mugabe said on BBC when President George W. Bush criticized Mugabe for rigging the 2002 presidential election - forgetting what he himself did in Florida in 2000 - and whipped up sentiments among Americans against the Zimbabwean leader: "Most Americans don't even know where Zimbabwe is."
Even Americans themselves, including blacks, couldn't dispute the validity of this statement by the Zimbabwean cabinet minister. Therefore, while African Americans have legitimate reasons to blame some Africans for their negative attitude towards them, they themselves should also admit that there are many African Americans who also have a negative attitude towards Africa for a number of reasons, including being brainwashed by the white man to hate their motherland by always portraying Africa in a negative light on television, in books and newspapers and magazines; and their own lack of interest in Africa regardless of what the white man says. It is a two-way traffic. One is no more guilty than the other. And it is up to both to bridge the gap.
Many Africans and African Americans are doing that. But we still have a long way to go, as has been clearly demonstrated by the stereotypes both sides continue to have about each other, although neither is better than the other.
One of the worst stereotypes is that Africans hate African Americans; conversely, you hear some Africans saying black Americans look down upon them and make fun of them for being backward and uncivilized. There is some validity in all this but, mainly it is a clash of perceptions, and dangerously misleading. As Kwame Essien, a Ghanaian student and president of the African Students Union at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, stated in his article "Dispelling Myths about Africans and African Americans" in the school newspaper, The Carolinian, March 18, 2002:
"I had a great awakening about racial stereotypes when the members of the African Students Union did a presentation during the Shades of Color Conference. The Multi-Cultural Affairs Office deserves applause for the great program. Some of the issues raised by some of the African-American participants were 1. There's the notion that Africans HATE African-Americans. 2. Africans who were born and raised in Africa say that they are the only 'TRUE AFRICANS.' Such stereotypes shows that black students do not know a lot about each other. I am not speaking for all Africans. Before I address these problems let's say a little about slavery and how it has affected the relationship between blacks in the diaspora.
It is obvious that Africans contributed to slavery, but what most people fail to see is the bigger picture. Slavery was not only intended to exploit free labor from Africans; but it was set up to destroy the black race.
During slavery white supremacists in Europe and America did their best to sever the relationship between Africans and the descendants of slaves. Dr. W.E.B. Du-Bois and others who wanted to bridge the gap between the black freedom struggle in colonial Africa and the civil rights movements in America were terrorized and destroyed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They wanted to divide us so that they could suppress us forever. Roots, the film by Alex Haley explains this notion.
The white slave owner terrorized Kunta Kinte, the African slave who wanted to keep his African name and culture. Slaves on the plantations were held hostage and stripped of their African heritage because of the threat it posed to the white power structure. Some of the confusion and mistrust among us as black people could be attributed to the legacies of slavery.
To make the situation worse in the twentieth and twenty first century some racist people capitalized on their monopoly over the media to create more divisions among blacks in the diaspora. Whenever you hear about Africa on the news or in the newspapers you see famine, diseases (AIDS, Ebola), civil war or some negative images of Africans. Why do you think nothing positive is said about Africans? Some blacks outside Africa deny their African roots because of such depressing and distorted images.
In Ghana (West Africa) where I was born nothing positive was said about African-Americans; we only heard about the greatness of white America. Think about the twenty first century media propaganda against blacks. African-Americans are portrayed as criminals, violent and lazy while Africans are treated as 'uncivilized' and backward. They want us to believe this. The media should not mislead US. My opinion is that Africans do NOT hate African-Americans. In the African culture we are not raised to hate any human being. Hate is a human problem; we Africans hate Africans too.
Concerning the issue of a 'True African.' It is ignorant for any African to claim that we are the only 'True Africans,' this is a backward ideology. What about children of African immigrants who were born at Moses Cone Hospital? An African is not defined by a birth certificate from an African hospital, neither are we defined by our Mandingo accent.
NO African has the right or the license to approve who qualifies as an African. You are an African if you accept that your ancestors were Africans. Don't be surprised; we have some WHITE Africans too.
We Africans owe African-Americans for the sacrifice they made during the civil war and the civil rights movements. Desegregation benefited Africans too. Without Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas, Ida Wells, and many others, Africans would not have enjoyed the social privileges we have today in America. All of us need to be open-minded and have a dialogue to help us eradicate the stereotypes and ignorance we have about each other. We cannot blame everything on racism and do nothing to change our situation. Let us continue the legacy of Pamela Wilson, Director of Multi Cultural Affairs (deceased), with a 'UNITY DAY' program to address our differences. Please join the African Students Union to help dispel these myths among us.
As Dr. Martin Luther King said: 'We have to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.'"
What is sometimes so disturbing about some of these negative remarks by Africans when they talk about African Americans is that they come from different parts of the continent, delivering the same message of indifference towards American blacks. And because they are not orchestrated or coordinated, they give the impression that hostility or indifference towards black Americans is a pervasive phenomenon among Africans on the African continent and in the United States as well as in other parts of the world where Africans live. That is simply not true.
Yet, conflicting signals now and then coming from some Africans only reinforce the notion or the perception that Africans in general don't want to have anything to do or have nothing to do with black Americans. And it is not just because they are Americans that they don't want them; it is not because these African Americans were born and raised on American soil, although that may be one of the reasons, such as jealousy. These African descendants in the diaspora are even denied their African heritage by some Africans who call them "white." And as Kofi Glover, a Ghanaian professor of political science at the University of Southern Florida, bluntly states: "Whether we like it or not, Africans and African Americans have two very different cultures."
I am not saying that Glover is one of those Africans who say black Americans have nothing to do with their African cultural heritage or are not African at all; I'm simply saying that he is emphasizing what is an indisputable fact: there are fundamental cultural differences between Africans and African Americans. The culture of black Americans is essentially European. They have been immersed and submerged in the culture of their European masters and rulers for centuries, although there are still remnants of African culture across black America.
It is not their fault that they lost their African cultural identity - which many of them are trying to reclaim - but it is also true that when they lost it, they became Europeanized culturally, although they did not and could not become European for the simple reason that they were still an African people. And that causes some misunderstanding between the two sides, with some Africans going to the extreme and calling black Americans not African at all, as demonstrated by the following examples.
When some African Americans went to Kenya - I think they were business executives or some other kind of businessmen and may be even scholars - and said they were also Africans, their Kenyan counterparts, black Africans, said, no, they were not; they were "white Africans" born in America, as reported by The Economist, obviously because they lost their African culture and identity after centuries of slavery and living in a predominantly white country of which they had become an integral part.
In Ghana also, a significant number of Ghanaians don't accept black Americans as Africans and even have a term, obruni, they use to describe them. They call them "white." The word obruni is used in that context, meaning white, and may be even in a derogatory sense - or to maintain distance - by some people in the case of black Americans; in spite of the fact, the indisputable fact, that many of these very same black Americans whom they call "white" originated from the same place, Ghana, are members of their tribes - the Fanti, the Ewe, the Ashanti and others - and even of their families.
And as Ghanaian president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, stated: "All peoples of African descent whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean or in other parts of the world, are Africans and belong to the African nation."
And it is consoling to our brothers and sisters from the diaspora when they find out that not all Africans feel this way and treat them as total strangers or outcasts. They learn this when they deal with different Africans in the United States itself; they also find out about all this when they go to Africa and meet many Africans who welcome them and embrace them. There are some problems now and then, here and there, but the hospitality extended to African Americans by Africans makes many of them feel at home in Africa; be it in Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Gambia, Senegal, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Swaziland, Togo, Benin, Uganda or any other black African country. As one African American, Imahkus, who moved to Ghana with her husband, states in an excerpt from her her book, Returning Home Ain't Easy But It Sure Is A Blessing, published in Escape From America Magazine:
"Ahead of us loomed this enormous, foreboding structure. The sight caused me to tremble; I almost didn't want to go inside. The outer walls were chipped and a faded and moldy white exterior. The sea had eaten away some of the mortar. It was gray and dismal as we climbed the steep steps, following the sign leading to the reception area. When we entered the reception area of the Cape Coast Castle Dungeons a smallish man with a bright smiling face met us. His name was Mr. Owusu and he had been working there as a receptionist and sometimes Guide, for many years.
After introductions were made all around, Mr. Owusu, our guide began the tour around the Castle. Entering the inner part of the castle overlooking a large courtyard, our guide gave us the background history of the Cape Coast Castle Dungeons. This was one of the more than sixty castle dungeons, forts, and lodges that had been constructed by European Traders with the permission of local rulers (the Chieftaincy) and stretched for 300 miles along the West Coast of Afrika to store captured Afrikans, until a shipload of enslaved Afrikans could be assembled, for shipment to the West.
Unbelievable, twenty-seven of those houses of misery were located in Ghana. Various European oppressors had occupied the Cape Coast Castle Dungeons during the Trans-Atlantic European Slave Trade. It began with the Portuguese in the 1500's, followed by the Dutch, then the Swedes, the Danes and finally the English who occupied it in 1665. It remained under their control, serving as the seat of the British Administration in the Gold Coast (Cape Coast) until they re-located their racist regime to Christianborg Castle in Accra in 1877.
Our next stop was the Palaver (which means talking/discussing) Hall, the meeting place of slave merchants, which also served as the hall used in auctioning off our ancestors. The room was huge, the only light coming from the windows which lined both sides of the walls; one side facing the ocean, the other side overlooking the town; a bare room, echoing the voice of our Guide, a haunting echo, which reverberated off the walls, as the Guide explained how they bargained and sold us. When slave auctions were not going on, Palaver Hall was used as a meeting place for the Governor, Chiefs and other visitors. We then moved on to the Governor's apartment and the church, which I felt like burning down!
But nothing could prepare me for what we would experience next. We descended the stairs into a large cobble-stoned courtyard and walked through large double wooden doors, which lead into a long, dark, damp tunnel.
The stench of musty bodies, fear and death hung in the air. There was no noise except the thunderous crashing of the waves against the outer walls and the roaring sound of the water. Deeper we walked, into large, dark rooms which had served as a warehouse for enslaved Afrikan people awaiting shipment to the America's and Caribbean.
This was the Men's Dungeon. As we stood in that large cavernous room the air was still, the little ventilation that was available came from small openings near the 20-foot high ceilings. Our ancestors had been kept underground, chained to the walls and each other, making escape impossible.
The mood of the group was hushed, as several people started crying. We were standing in hellholes of the most horrific conditions imaginable. There were no words to express the suffering that must have gone on in these dungeons. I became caught up, thrown back in time. I was suddenly one of the many who were shackled, beaten and starved. But I was one of the fortunate souls to have survived the forced exodus from their homelands to be sold, branded and thrown into those hellholes, meant to hold (600) people but which held more than 1,000 enslaved Afrikans at one time. The men separated from the women, as they awaited shipment to the Americas. According to our Guide, the chalk marks on the walls of the Men's Dungeon indicated the level of the floor prior to the excavation of the floor, which had built up over years of slavery with feces, bones, filth etc. As the guide continued to describe the horrors of these pits of hell I began to shake violently; I needed to get out of there. I was being smothered. I turned and ran up the steep incline of the tunnel, to the castle courtyard, the winds from the sea whipping my face, bringing me back to the present. I couldn't believe what I had just experienced. How could anyone be so cruel and inhuman?Following the guide we proceeded across the massive courtyard and down another passage way to the Women's Dungeon, a smaller version of the Men's Dungeon but not so deep underground, it had held over 300 women at any given time.
As we entered that dark, musty, damp room, the sound of the crashing waves was like muffled, rolling thunder. A dimly lit, uncovered light bulb hung from the ceiling on a thin, frayed wire. After standing silently for a time in this tomb, the Guide began to lead the group out. I was the last person left in the room when the Guide turned and said he was continuing the tour.
'Please,' I said, 'I'm not ready to leave, just turn off the light for me and I will join the group shortly.'As the group walked silently away, the tears would not stop flowing. I dropped to my knees, trembling and crying even harder. With the light off, the only light in that dungeon came through one small window near the very high ceiling, reflecting down as though it were a muted spotlight. Darkness hung in every corner. As I rocked back and forth on the dirt floor, I could hear weeping and wailing...anguished screams coming from the distance.
Suddenly the room was packed with women...some naked, some with babies, some sick and lying in the dirt, while others stood against the walls around the dungeon's walls, terror filled their faces.
'My God, what
had we done to wind up here, crammed together like animals?' Pain and suffering
racked their bodies, a look of hopelessness and despair on their faces...but
with a strong will to survive.
'Oh God, what have we done to deserve this kind of treatment?' Cold terror gripped my body. Tears blinded me and the screams wouldn't stop. As I sat there violently weeping I began to feel a sense of warmth, many hands were touching my body, caressing me, soothing me as a calmness began to come over me. I began to feel almost safe as voices whispered in my ears assuring me that everything was all right.
'Don't cry,' they said. 'You've come home. You've returned to your homeland, to re-open the Door of No Return.'
Gradually the voices and the women faded into the darkness; it was then that I realized that some of the screams I'd heard were my own. The eerie light beaming down from the window was growing dimmer as day began fading into night. As I got up from the dungeon floor I knew that I would never be the same again!
'After years of wandering and searching, I have finally found home. And one day, I wouldn't be leaving again.'
The book that you hold in your hands, Returning Home Ain't Easy But It Sure Is A Blessing, speaks to the visions of our ancestors and demonstrates the efforts both positive and negative, the humor, the tears and the frustrations of a Diaspora Afrikan family diligently working and struggling within the blessings of being back in our ancestral homeland. It faces the startling realities plagued by those of us who are trying to return home. Realities of the fact that many of our continental Afrikan born brothers and sisters have very little knowledge of the Afrikan people born and raised in the Diaspora that resulted from the Trans-Atlantic (European) Slave Trade.
Ironically, every Ghananian we spoke with wanted to go to the United States. We were coming and they wanted to go. We were like ships in the night, passing each other unseeing and uncaring.
My story contrasts these with those realities of life on the other side. Brothers struggling to survive were being killed on a regular basis while driving taxis in New York City. A few years before we repatriated to Ghana, two men held up my husband with a shotgun, while he was working his taxicab. When they entered the cab and sat down, the man with the gun, who spoke no English, put it to my husband's head, as the other man announced in broken English 'Dis es ah stickup, don' turn roun' or jew dead, Mon.'
They then tied and bound him, before throwing him in the trunk of the taxi. Riding around the Bronx and Manhattan they ended up dumping him on a dark street in the early morning. At a deserted Terminal Market in the Bronx, they ordered him to stay still and not move for 15 minutes. Thank God, he was unhurt that time, but what about next time? Certainly no one could doubt there would be a next time the way things were happening in New York City.
Children were being gunned down playing in the streets and in playgrounds. Safety was a problem even in the school system. These chaotic conditions, among other problems caused us to run like hell from New York, out of the United States and straight home to Afrika.
Here we found
our family of four could live in comfort on my husband's pension from the New
York City Fire Department. We set about pursuing economic empowerment for
ourselves and the development and betterment of our Afrikan family on the
However, since arriving here we have found that there are many jobs that are either reserved exclusively for Ghanaians or require certain monetary stipulations designed for big corporations. My husband, who owned and operated his own taxicab/car service in New York, would have to have a minimum of 10 cars to go into the car service business here.
If we could afford to purchase 10 cars, would we need to open a car service? We owned our own Travel Agency in the United States but in Ghana we would have needed ($10,000.00) US Dollars operating capital and a Ghanaian partner, or ($200,000.00) U.S. Dollars to do it alone. In the absence of that kind of up-front cash, we have had to call upon our God given creativity. Returning Home Ain't Easy chronicles how we maintained ourselves, re-connected with our extended family, developed business interests to secure a good future for our families, while trying to make a worthwhile contribution to our community.
It has been ten years since our family returned to 'Mother' Afrika leaving behind mayhem, racism, creeping anarchy, bedlam, etc. (That's not to say things arenít far from or are perfect here in Ghana). We've been tricked, accused of being racist, called Obruni (White man and foreigner), but we've also been loved and welcomed home by many of our Ghanaian brothers and sisters. They are anxious to learn about us, as we are about them. Each of us wants to know who the other has become. Who, we have become while we were separated from our 'Mother' land.
This healthy exchange makes a stronger bond between us. Together we can set about correcting those wrongs committed against us and remember the strength and greatness of us as Afrikan people. Just as a two-chord rope is stronger than a one-chord rope, our knowledge of the truth of our separation from one another will enable us to go forward as a stronger, united Afrikan front, a power source to be reckoned with spiritually, economically and politically..
One of our great Afrikan Leaders and Statesman, the late Osageyfo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, 1st President of the Republic of Ghana from 1957 to 1966 said, 'All peoples of Afrikan descent whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean or in other part of the world are Afrikans and belong to the Afrikan nation.'
That being so, it is with the blessing and fulfillment of Prophesy that we have returned home on the wings of the wind."
Her experience, of course, contrasts sharply with that of other African Americans who have returned home, to Africa, and who have lived in different African countries, including Ghana. Some of them complain that they have been rejected or ignored by their brothers and sisters in Africa. Others say "all they want is our money, the dollar," nothing else. "We're nothing but bags of dollars for them," as one African American woman who went to the Ivory Coast said. They don't want to have anything to do "with us," as another African American woman, who lived in Ghana, reportedly said, as quoted by The Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2001. She got tired of the hostility and negative attitude towards African Americans and returned to the United States.
The story in The Wall Street Journal raises a number of questions, in a larger context, as to the relevance of what was reportedly said. Even if it is true that there were indeed some Ghanaians who were not very friendly with the African Americans quoted in the article, out of how many? Are most Ghanaians hostile or indifferent towards African Americans?
There are definitely those who are, just as there are other Africans who feel the same way in other African countries. But to tarnish the image of the entire country simply because some Africans feel the way they do towards black Americans in a negative way, is unwarranted. It also calls into question the motives of the writer. But that is typical of the Western media. They love to portray Africa in a negative light. And they hate to say anything good about the "Dark Continent." That would be too good to be true, is their attitude.
But if nothing good comes out of Africa, and if the vast majority of Africans are indeed hostile towards American Americans, it defies rational explanation why they keep on going there every year, and why many of them have even settled permanently in Africa. As Retha Hill, an African American, put it: "A trip to Ghana is not just a vacation; it is a balm for a broken soul."
African Americans are not the only ones who like going to Africa. Hundreds of thousands of whites from North America and Europe, and other people, also go to Africa every year, and definitely not to suffer.
However, those of us who were born and brought up in Africa and are members of indigenous tribes or ethnic groups should not deny the fact that there are some Africans who are either indifferent or hostile towards black Americans, for whatever reason or reasons. And even the few African Americans who complain about the negative attitude of some Africans towards them, should be taken seriously in order to set the record straight, instead of being ignored and dismissed as an insignificant minority.
When I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for, example, I talked to a number of African Americans who said some Africans they dealt with had a very negative attitude towards black Americans, saying they commit a lot of crime, don't want to work hard like Africans do, and complain too much about racism instead of helping themselves. Others said Africans like to associate with whites more than they do with American blacks.
Yet others said some Africans claim whites like them better than they do black Americans for different reasons: they are not troublemakers like black Americans are; they are achievers; they behave well, unlike American blacks, and so on. There is also latent anger among many African Americans who blame Africans for capturing them and selling them into slavery. I remember a black schoolmate of mine at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1976, who said to me: "You sold us into slavery. You sold us!" The list goes on and on.
Now, whether or not all this is true, and I am sure some of it and may be even most of it is true, is not the point. Fantasy or reality, fact or fiction, the point is that don't ignore it. Perception exists and defines reality as much as it affects relations between Africans and African Americans. Constructive dialogue is the only solution. And it entails tolerance on both sides. Response to every question raised by either side is also critical to a better understanding between the two sides, as much as it is with regard to the article in The Wall Street Journal of March 2001 which, even if it contained some truths, deliberately distorted reality and omitted some facts in order to conform to the stereotypical image not only of Ghana but of Africa as a whole. One of the responses came from an association of African Americans living in Ghana, published on newsinghana.com, under the title, "African-American Association of Ghana Angry with Wall Street Journal publication":
"A publication in the March 14 edition of the Wall Street Journal, the most widely read business newspaper in the world, has been described as an attempt by American neo-colonialists to stop the transfer of wealth from the US to Africa.
According to the article, some African Americans who moved their families and their businesses to Ghana with the hope of linking up with their ancestral homeland feel unwelcome and betrayed because Ghanaians are only interested in their money.
The article said Ghanaians see African Americans as an arrogant breed that have a lot of money and should be taken advantage of.
Reacting to the damning article at a press conference in Accra, the President of the African American Association of Ghana (AAAG), Victoria Cooper said Ghana should demand an apology and a retraction of the story, which could stop potential tourists in the US from visiting Ghana and affect the successful organization of this year's Pan African Historical Festival, PANAFEST.
Miss Cooper, who was quoted in the article as saying that the African-American community in Ghana felt betrayed by the failure of parliament to pass the bill on dual citizenship, denied making any such statement in the interview with the white writer of the article, Paschal Zachary.
Flanked by other members of the AAAG who were mentioned in the article, Miss Cooper, who works for Price Waterhouse Coopers in Ghana, said she is considering legal action against The Wall Street Journal. According to her, she has already asked the editor of the paper to retract the story. 'I have still not heard anything from them ever still I told them to retract the story. I am still monitoring the paper and will resort to other means if they fail to do so. America is a country ruled by law and I will make sure the publication does not tarnish my image,' she added."
The article by The Wall Street Journal provoked furious responses from many quarters, obviously because it distorted the truth, did not present the whole picture, and tarnished the image of the entire country and an entire people who were portrayed as hostile towards their kith-and-kin from the African diaspora. It was written by Gregg Pascal Zachary and entitled, "Tangled Roots of African Americans in Ghana, The Grass Isn't Always Greener," a title that sent mixed signals to its readers, especially those interested in Africa in general, not just in Ghana. As he stated in the article, reproduced here in its entirety:
"ACCRA, Ghana -- Kwaku Sintim-Misa, a popular comedian here, likes to tell a joke about the African American who emigrates to Ghana.
'Brother, I've found my roots!' the African American crows. A local shakes his head, wondering why anyone with a coveted United States passport would choose to move to Ghana. 'Move to the Motherland?' the Ghanaian cries, 'I want to escape the Motherland.'
Mr. Sintim-Misa's story gets laughs because it rings true. Last year, the number of Ghanaians applying to legally enter the U.S. tripled. In the same year, Ghana's currency lost nearly two-thirds of its value against the dollar. So many skilled and educated Ghanaians have fled that Mr. Sintim-Misa has the impression that 'nobody wants to live in Ghana anymore.' Nobody, that is, except African Americans.
U.S. officials estimate that 1,000 African Americans live in Ghana, mostly in its capital, Accra, and that an additional 10,000 visit as tourists each year. By many accounts the country attracts more black Americans than any other in Africa, and by a wide margin. In recent years, hundreds have decided to relocate, drawn by beautiful beaches, a tropical climate, low living costs and, most of all, a sense that this historic heart of the slave trade is an ancestral homeland.
Mona Boyd, an Arkansas native married to a Ghanaian, runs a car-rental agency in Accra. Ada Willoughby, a retiree from Tennessee who moved here in 1995, remains even after her husband's death from cerebral malaria.
Michael Williams was the head of the African Studies program at Simmons College in Boston when he came here looking for a wife. He married a Ghanaian woman, Afua, in 1995 and stayed on to run an exchange program for U.S. students. Another professor, Lisa Aubrey, bought a house and, keeping her post at Ohio University, teaches part of the year at Ghana's leading university.
The country's appeal is not always obvious. Electricity and water supplies are often interrupted. Malaria is rampant. Wages are meager by U.S. standards. Given the number of people leaving, the arrival of enthusiastic African Americans might be expected to delight Ghanaians.
It doesn't. Far from seeing African Americans as kin, most Ghanaians lump them together with other Americans, calling the whole lot obruni, which in the local Twi language means "white" or foreigner. With better education and deeper pockets, African-Americans strike many Ghanaians as arrogant. 'When they get into any situation they want to take over, and we are not like that,' says R. William Hrisir-Quaye, an official with Ghana's commission on culture.
Indeed, many black Americans living in Ghana find they aren't particularly welcome -- and wonder whether they need a new civil rights movement to secure a place in their adopted home. Ghana forbids American residents from taking most government jobs. Hospitals charge them higher fees. Americans can't vote in elections or participate in local politics. It is virtually impossible for them to obtain citizenship, or permanent 'right of abode,' even after marrying a Ghanaian. The infamous slave castles along Ghana's coastline impose entrance fees on Americans that are 30 times as high as those paid by locals.
All this annoys Yvetta Shipman, who moved here from Atlanta five years ago with her husband, gave birth to a child, named FreeSoul, and started a business exporting locally made clothes. The 37-year-old Ms. Shipman realized a longtime dream by moving to Ghana and connecting with her heritage. In Ghana, she made friends and gradually learned local ways, but still felt like an outsider, she says. After three years, she tired of Ghanaians seeing her 'not as a black sister, but as a dollar sign,' and moved back to the U.S.
The gulf between Ghanaians and African Americans seemed to narrow a bit two years ago when Ghana's President Jerry Rawlings stood alongside President Bill Clinton during a visit to the U.S. and declared that any black American who wished to live in Ghana was welcome and eligible for citizenship.
Mr. Rawlings's declaration -- his way of demonstrating solidarity with American blacks -- was widely reported at the time, igniting a record level of interest in Ghana among African Americans. But Mr. Rawlings failed to make good on his promise of citizenship. Neither he nor John A. Kufuor, who succeeded him as president in January, will talk about the possibility of giving citizenship to African Americans. The required legislation failed to win approval under Mr. Rawlings and is now considered dead. 'We feel very betrayed,' says Victoria Cooper, who heads the African-American Association of Ghana and is a partner in the Accra office of PricewaterhouseCoopers. 'It's like we've been hoodwinked. Ghanaians want our money, but they don't want us.'
Frustration Bubbles Up
One February afternoon, frustration erupted. The U.S. ambassador, Kathryn B. Robinson, drove nearly three hours on a crumbling, pot-holed road in order to address the African Americans who live in the historic slave-trading communities of Cape Coast and Elmina. While the gathering was billed as an annual visit to report on Ghana, Ms. Robinson's actual purpose was to meet the vocal African Americans here. In an outdoor restaurant, called Mable's Table, set against a breathtaking stretch of rocky Atlantic coast, the ambassador peered out at 30 residents, all but four of whom were black.
The crowd at Mable's was diverse. Nathaniel Ha'levi, from Mount Vernon, N.Y., owns the restaurant with his Ghanaian wife and is a self-styled Black Hebrew who counts among his ancestors an ancient tribe of African Jews. John Childs is a retired teacher from Philadelphia who lives here year round but admits that 'without my pension I'd be on the next plane out.' Imahkus Robinson, dressed in a headscarf and an African dress, stages re-enactments of slaves being sent to the New World for African-American tourists. Gladys Rice, a nurse from Detroit, runs a health clinic, supported by her U.S. church. All share a belief that Ghana is a special place for African Americans and that this is where they belong.
The ambassador and her two aides steered the discussion away from emotional issues, but Ms. Robinson's husband, Okofo, a retired New York firefighter, complained about his humiliating experiences trying to renew his visa. Ghanaians have threatened him with 'deportation,' he insisted, perhaps as a way of getting him to pay a bribe. Since he considers himself 'a surviving descendant of Africa,' why can't he be a citizen of Ghana?
that the visa process is unfair and that citizenship is overdue. The ambassador
was sympathetic but said this was a matter for Ghanaians to decide. And that's a
problem since most Ghanaians feel they owe nothing to African Americans, seeing
slavery as the legacy of Europeans and Americans, not
'The African role in the slave trade is not an issue in Ghana,' says Audrey Gadzekpo, a newspaper columnist in Accra. 'People here are totally detached from any guilt or responsibility for their ancestors selling other Africans into slavery. It's like there's some collective amnesia.'
Some African Americans are determined to end this amnesia. In eastern Ghana, Kwadwo O. Akpan, who moved from Detroit here with his wife and two children a decade ago, sits under a straw gazebo, watching three men saw a piece of wood. One holds the wood, the other saws, and the third watches. From his seat, Mr. Akpan, who is 56 years old and has taken a local name, can see a banana plantation and the man-made Volta Lake below.
He calls this spot Rosa Park Lake View, in honor of the African-American civil rights pioneer. Around him, seven houses are going up slowly. Mr. Akpan wants to build a total of 50 homes by the end of the year. 'This is a personal quest,' he says. The homes are to be sold to African Americans and other descendants of Africa. Prices, ranging from $19,000 to $30,000, are low because Mr. Akpan has persuaded local leaders to give him a tract of land as compensation for the misdeeds of African slave traders hundreds of years ago.
In all of West Africa, the gesture accorded to Mr. Akpan is apparently unprecedented. In the village Akwamufie, a short drive from where he sits, a council of chiefs granted him use of this land. One chief, Nana Darko II, who is Mr. Akpan's closest ally, says his presence represents 'a revisitation of our people who left these shores. Why not accept our own people back?'
When Mr. Akpan first approached him six years ago about creating an African-American community amid rural poverty, Mr. Darko replied, 'Everyone wants to go to the U.S. Why do you want to come here?' Mr. Akpan explained that for some African Americans Ghana is a spiritual home, preferable to the U.S.
Mr. Darko appreciates Mr. Akpan's aims and effort but admits, 'this is still very difficult for me to understand.'
As difficult to fathom is the pace of work set by Mr. Akpan. In blazing midday heat, he issues a fresh batch of complaints to Mr. Darko, who supervises the local construction workers. Mr. Darko shrugs. 'African Americans expect us to have the same output as them,' he says, yet pay scales are vastly different, with Americans accustomed to earning in an hour what Africans earn in a day or a week.
Mr. Akpan, meanwhile, must keep expectations from running out of control. The locals, who are normally limited to such jobs as harvesting bananas for a dollar a day, hope he will be followed by hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of well-heeled African Americans. Prosperity should come in their wake, they think. Yet such a torrent seems unlikely given the remote location of Mr. Akpan's settlement, 90 miles over poor roads from Accra.
Darko hopes his community will benefit from African-American interest, though
how this will happen remains a mystery. 'We've never done anything like this,'
he says, 'so we don't know how it goes.'
Persuading Ghanaians to experiment may be the best hope for African Americans. In Elmina, the seaside town where the ambassador spoke, Eric Thompson produces vegetarian foods, prodding Ghanaians to diversify their starch- and meat-heavy diets. In a rented bungalow a hundred yards from the ocean, he and several Ghanaian women every morning whip up an array of yam balls, fruit cakes, banana breads and ginger-laced soy milk -- a menu that was never seen in these parts before his arrival. The food is sold to businesses and restaurants along the coast.
40-year-old Mr. Thompson, who goes by the name of Shabazz, wears his hair in
dreadlocks and sports a small tattoo above the bridge of his nose. He moved here
four years ago from Atlanta, where he ran a record store in a neighborhood so
rough that he never worked without a handgun.
When a friend was gunned down, he decided to leave for Ghana, where he hoped to find tranquility as well as roots.
Way With the Locals
Mr. Thompson has proven adept at winning over locals, making common cause with the leading physician in town and even some village herbalists who dispense drinkable 'bitters' that help with a variety of ailments. And he is preparing to build a small school in Elmina where he plans to teach local children about nutrition.
One recent morning, he pulled his pickup truck into the University of Cape Coast, parking near a student cafeteria. The manager was a recent convert to vegetarianism, and Mr. Thompson plied him with his latest culinary creations. 'Try these,' he said, handing the manager a bag.
Mr. Thompson wants to turn the campus bus stop into an open-air cafe where commuters could munch on his vegetarian goodies while waiting for a bus. Nowhere in Ghana is this done, and the cafeteria manager, a small smiling man named Freddie, knows that a higher-up must make this revolutionary decision. He agreed to make the case to his boss. Mr. Thompson flashed a big smile and hit him with a high-five rather than Ghana's traditional finger-snap handshake. 'I'm counting on you Uncle Freddie,' he said.
This is a rare moment of delight for Mr. Thompson, who still anguishes over his decision not to follow his wife, Ms. Shipman, back to the U.S. two years ago. He wants to visit his wife and their son this spring, but he now has a problem. Having returned to the motherland, he is legally unable to leave. His last visa to live in Ghana expired a year ago. Until he normalizes his status by paying a fine or giving additional explanations for his visa violation, Ghanaian authorities won't let him leave the country.
Mr. Thompson is struck by the oddity of this situation, as he considers Ghana his home. 'I have a lot left to do here,' he says. 'It isn't always easy, and I wonder why I stay sometimes. But I am building a community and I want it to last.'"
Victoria Cooper, president of the African American Association of Ghana, denied making the statements she was quoted to have made in the interview with the Wall Street Journal reporter Gregg Pascal Zachary, implying the quotation was manufactured. Whatever the case, manufactured
or not, one also wonders if the rest of the statements quoted and attributed to African Americans living in Ghana were also manufactured and, if they indeed were, what their response was. If they did not dispute what is attributed to them in the story, it means they said what
the reporter said they did.
One of the African Americans quoted in the Wall Street Journal report, Kwadwo Akpan, was one of the leaders of the Detroit-based Pan-African Congress-USA, the organization that sponsored me and other African students in the seventies as I explained earlier. I learned that he and
his family moved to Ghana in 1991 but I have not been in touch with him since the late seventies after I moved from Detroit to Grand Rapids, Michigan. So, I cannot confirm the veracity of the statements attributed to him or dispute what Gregg Pascal Zachary said in his report from Accra, Ghana.
But I do know that Kwadwo Akpan was then, and still is at this writing, a leader of an African-American Community in Ghana, called Fihankra, and was installed as its chief in 1997. He is a very outspoken person and a committed Pan-Africanist who would not have kept quiet if Zachary lied about him in his report in The Wall Street Journal. He was always very defensive of Africa, as was his wife who also worked as a reporter and features writer at the Detroit News, one of the nation's largest newspapers, and would have responded accordingly. As one of the main African-American leaders in Ghana, he probably did not like the tone and slant of the article. But I am not sure he, or any of the other African Americans quoted besides Victoria Cooper, disputed everything that Zachary said in his report.
Some of the strongest responses to the Wall Street Journal report came from Ghanaians living abroad. I got the chance to read quite a few of them and would like to reproduce some of them here to put things in proper perspective. As Dr. Kofi Ellison stated in his commentary, "Whose Tangled Roots, Zachary's or Ours?," in Profile Africa on March 30, 2001:
"Ghanaians in the diaspora, are still fuming over an article that was published in the March 14, 2001, edition of The Wall Street Journal. The article, written by Gregg P. Zachary under the headline: "Tangled Roots: For African Americans in Ghana, The Grass Isn't Always Greener", sought to highlight the lives and activities of the hundreds of African Americans who have 'emigrated' to Ghana.
That would be an interesting reading considering that at least a thousand African Americans have 'permanently' settled in Ghana, and nearly ten thousand African Americans visit Ghana yearly. Indeed, Ghana is the destination of choice for African-American tourists who visit Africa. African-American oriented Radio stations, newspapers, and churches in Washington, D.C., and other major American cities tout successful visits to Ghana or as they say, 'the motherland,' thus fueling more interest! Ghana has been assisted in so many ways by African Americans since independence.
However, the article elicited mainly protests and opprobrium from Ghanaians and African Americans alike. For Ghanaians, the article was deemed derogatory for its emphasis on the negative aspects of our underdevelopment: 'rampant malaria', 'electricity and water interruptions', and 'corruption'. By emphasizing African-American frustrations with the provision of services in Ghana, among other issues, the African Americans felt Gregg Zachary's article could antagonize their hosts; and undermine tourism! Thus, both the Ghana government, and the African American Association of Ghana (AAAG) had to disown much of what was written. Mrs. Victoria Cooper head of the AAAG, and Mr. Akbar Muhammed, the AAAG spokesman, called for a retraction.
Ghanaians in the diaspora were similarly outraged. Short of calling for Gregg Zachary's blood, Ghanaian Internet sites encouraged people to flood The Wall Street Journal with e-mail letters and telephone calls to protest the 'biased' reporting. Such was the outrage that Gregg Zachary (who lives in London) had to personally engage in written discussions with Ghanaian contributors at a Ghanaian Internet forum where he was grilled as to his motives for, to use a Ghanaian proverb, pointing his left finger in the direction of our father's village! Needless to say, much of the debate was not civil; and as happens on that particular website, the debate degenerated into the unprintable!! As I write, Gregg Zachary was also expected to appear on an Accra (Ghana) Radio station for further discussions on the issue on Friday, March 30th.
Indeed, Ghanaians in the diaspora had every reason to be incensed at the way the article portrayed events in our great country, especially when one considers the outlet used to air our dirty laundry. The Wall Street Journal is the most important business and financial daily in the world, and it is also the most widely read newspaper in the field. By unwittingly portraying Ghana negatively, and Ghanaians as unfriendly and hostile to 'foreigners', especially of a group that wishes to live and invest in Ghana; the article could do irreparable harm to Ghana's image in so many areas. Rather than emphasizing the negatives aspects of Ghana's under-development, a problem that our newly democratically elected government has vowed to tackle, Gregg Zachary could have delved into some of the many positive aspects of Ghana and Ghanaians which I am sure he benefitted from during his visit. Were Mr. Zachary so inclined, he could have done a ton of good to his readers who would be interested in exploring investment opportunities in Ghana.
Among African countries, Ghanaians stand out as a peaceful, hospitable and friendly people. This view of Ghana is supported by reports coming from investors and tourists alike. As the Americans are wont to say, image is everything. Irreverent remarks such as the one in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) must be countered in order that Ghana's image is not sullied. Americans and other Western countries spend millions of dollars on advertising, lobbying, and image-makers to ensure that their credibility as secure edifices of stability and free enterprise remain unchallenged. The universal condemnation of the article by the Ghanaians in the diaspora must be seen in that light.
The security of investments and ease of transfer of funds to and from Ghana is comparable to what obtains in many developed countries. For the discerning investor, the high cost of life and property insurance in neighboring countries - brought on by armed robbery, kidnapping and civil strife - is another incentive in investing in GGhana. It is significant to note that the WSJ article's only mention of death in the African-American community in Ghana, was caused by natural factors, and not as a result of a drive-by shooting, or car-jacking which the immigrants were accustomed to in the United States of America.
The writer interviewed African Americans who said they felt betrayed by the unfulfilled promises of citizenship promised them by the government of Ghana. That promise of citizenship refers to a statement of the moment made by President Jerry Rawlings during a Press Conference with president Clinton at the White House last year. President Rawlings did not consult the Ghana Legislature on the matter, and thus the promise lacked any legal basis. Neither are the issues of African Americans being denied citizenship in Ghana, or having problems in renewing their resident visas (permits), peculiar to that group only. Ghanaians who have become naturalized citizens elsewhere face similar problems. One hopes the new government will address these issues. But it must take a complete fool to believe Gregg Zachary when he writes that one African American is stranded in Ghana because his visa expired; and he cannot therefore leave Ghana!
The article quotes one Yvetta Shipman, (formerly of Atlanta), regarding her frustrations at not being accepted as "a black sister" after three years sojourn in Ghana! A debilitating aspect of the African-American imagination of Africa, and hence Ghana, is the romanticism, and sometimes the naivete that attends their view of Africa. It is not as if our African-American 'cousins' are returning to Ghana after a few years' trip to America; to be recognized by uncles, aunts, and other relations.
At least four hundred years has lapsed since the initial 'forced migration' (to borrow historian Joseph Inikori's phrase on the subject of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade) to America. It shouldn't take a dose of reality to understand that it is the children of the 'new immigrants' who will be truly Ghanaian, just as say anyone born and bred from, Asuonwun in Asante! African immigrants in America report similar frustrations in their relationship (or lack of it), with African Americans in the United States of America.
And Ghanaians have also suffered from some of the indignities that African Americans have been subjected to in the United States of America. A noted example is the treatment meted out to the late Mr. Komla Agbeli Gbedemah. As Ghana's Finance Minister, Mr. Gbedemah travelled to the United States to conduct official government business.
According to a New York Times report of October 9, 1957, Gbedemah was refused service at a restaurant in Dover, Delaware; because of his skin color. It did not matter that Mr. Gbedemah had officially hosted the then U.S. vice-president, Richard Nixon, and the official U.S. delegation to the Ghana independence celebration at a feast in Accra in March 1957. One of the greatest Americans of any color, W.E.B. Dubois lived, died, and is buried in Accra! We have ties that bind. But African Americans must show restraint in their expectations while in Ghana, as further affirmation of their commitment to Ghana, and Ghanaians. They must not be seen as retreating to the United States (as some of the 'immigrants' have reportedly done) at the least perceived injury to their pride and sense of purpose; and then spread unfounded rumours
about life in Ghana!
Furthermore, African Americans return to Ghana, not as Black people imbued with African ideals and culture. Rather, African American return as know-it-all Americans; and products of centuries of being brainwashed about Africa. Most of them still subscribe to the racist Western view of Africa as a jungle inhabited by Tarzans gallivanting from tree to tree!
African Americans have also bought into the romanticism of being descended from "Nubian" (i.e. African) Kings and Queens. It is inevitable therefore that some of them would expect to be treated as Princes and Princesses upon their return to the 'motherland'! That is not reality.
Should our African-American 'cousins' shear themselves of whatever romantic pretenses they harbor about Ghana (and indeed Africa), and resign themselves to the reality of a 'Third-World' situation, that is completely 'unlike America', perhaps the initial culture shock will subside into a more mature relationship. That way, even some of the 'most alienated and bitter cultural migrants' from America will indeed find a home in Ghana. Above all, Ghana should endeavor to attract the upper-crust of American society to invest in Ghana (Black or White!); and not rely only on the 'Black Hebrews,' 'Nation of Islam' zealots, and retirees looking for sun and fun, who flocked to Ghana under Rawlings!!
Neither do African Americans have a humanitarian record once they are accorded citizenship in Africa. The last time African Americans were granted outright citizenship in Africa, the effect was the diminution of the African as savage and uncivilized, worthy only to be colonized, and treated as second-class citizen. That happened in Liberia since the 1820's when freed slaves made their home in those parts. In 1926, the League of Nations had to censure the (African-) Americo-Liberian (as the freed slaves and their descendants called themselves) government for
operating a system of forced labor on the 'natives', that was akin to slavery. It took the Samuel Doe coup d'etat in 1980 to right the wrongs in Liberia.
African-Americans can be a great source of investment in Africa, but there is no greater example than by their lack of similar investment in black neighborhoods in America!!
As a developing country, Ghana is afflicted by all the symptoms of under-development, yet the tendency to emphasize the negative aspects by the Western Media is mind-boggling. Gregg Zachary's attempt to introduce Ghanaian guilt in the slave trade in his article on the lives of African-American immigrants in Ghana is typical of ongoing attempts by the West, to shift 'the slave trade blame-game to Africans to assuage European and American guilt. It follows among others, earlier American TV documentary pieces on slavery such as those by Arthur Kent on the History Channel, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on public television's PBS Channel.
The gist of the new argument is that 'without African participation, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade could not have been possible.' That is simply hogwash. It is as if the Europeans sought African agreement before building the ships, the chains, the Forts, and all the instruments needed to effectuate the nefarious trade. Or as if Europeans sought African views at Berlin 1884 when the partition and colonization of Africa was discussed and planned. Did African concerns matter in these two wholly European enterprises, intended to benefit Europeans and Americans? The Slave Trade was a European enterprise into which Africans were dragged as bit players! Six years ago, a delegation of Ghanaian Chiefs led by Nana Oduro Numamapau, the Paramount Chief of Asumenya in the Asante Region did in fact travel to the USA to deliver an apology to an African-American group for Ghanaian chiefs' role in the slave trade.
It can only be surmised that African guilt in the slave trade is being employed in order to drive a wedge between the African Americans and Ghanaians, in this instance. Thus, the article could have the unintended consequence of destroying the fledgling tourism business in Ghana, by casting Ghanaians as ancient slave traders, and currently hostile to the descendants of slaves who have returned to the 'motherland'!
As a people, Ghanaians relish debates, criticisms, and differing opinions. We are our own harshest critics. Several of our idioms and proverbs such as 'Ti Kro Nko Agyina,' 'Dua Kro Gye Mframa a Ebu,' all speak to the dangers inherent in not accepting advise and criticism.
Ghanaians are aware that much of our roads are savaged by pot-holes; that our public health system is in disarray; and that corruption inhibits the deliverance of prompt service in the public sector. Such issues are debated and written about endlessly in the Ghanaian newspapers, and discussed on radio and television. Indeed, the government is taking adequate measures to redress these problems. Hence, Gregg Zachary's article is pointless and retrograde, in its portrayal of Ghana in rather negative tones at a time when Ghana is at the forefront in Africa's march to progress and development; activities to which investors such as the readers of The Wall Street Journal have been invited by the new Ghanaian administration to participate.
The new millennium presents new opportunities and challenges for Ghana. Ghana has just had peaceful elections, and inaugurated a new a president to office. The country enjoys peace and stability which are sine qua non to political and economic development. Gregg Zachary and The Wall Street Journal could have emphasized these positive aspects as a good service to its numerous readers who may wish to invest in, or visit Ghana. By deciding to focus on the trivial, and rehashing non-existing tensions, Gregg Zachary provided a disservice to his readers by continuing the inordinate and pernicious practice among the Western media to ignore everything but the negative in Africa. Such a view can only derail Ghana's attempt to entice foreign investors to assist in the development of the country. And that would be unfortunate!!!"
Yet some of the things Zachary said in his article seem to have been supported or substantiated by some Ghanaians, and even by a significant number of African Americans themselves, especially the cold reception some African Americans have been accorded upon their arrival and when staying or living in Ghana. As Ishmael Mensah, who did not dispute all, if any, of what Zachary said, stated in his article, "Marketing Ghana As A Mecca For The African American Tourist":
"There is talk of African-Americans feeling unwelcome to Ghana as well as allegations of mistreatment. They claim Ghanaians are intolerant to African Americans and treat them as foreign tourists to be exploited though they are their own kith and kin. As one African-American lady Nehanda Imara, puts it 'we were not greeted at the airport with open arms, and are perceived as obrunis.' Other factors that have contributed to this perception is the Citizenship Bill of 2001 with an additional provision which would have given African-Americans and Africans in the Diaspora 'the right of abode' which was only passed in 2002 by the NPP government. Even under this new bill, it takes seven years for them to apply and get the right of abode so as to be able to live and work in Ghana without having to resort to visa renewals.
African Americans have also accused Ghanaians of denying them government jobs, the right to vote as well as charging them higher hospital bills. In 2001, Wall Street Journal reporter Pascal Zachary talked about his first-hand experience with the above claims in his article ďTangled Roots for African-Americans in Ghana, the Grass isnít Always GreenerĒ . Though this received wide condemnation from the African-American Association of Ghana (AAAG) and numerous Ghanaians in the Diaspora, the damage that this article caused to the image of Ghana, cannot be underestimated."
Mensah seems to agree with Zachary and other observers including a number of African Americans themselves, one of whom he quotes in his article, that there are indeed some Ghanaians - hence other Africans - who don't embrace their cousins from the diaspora. He does not explain why, but obviously they don't feel any kinship with them; they are culturally different; they are distant from each other physically and spiritually; they each live in their own world; they have their own problems to contend with, and so forth. Some of this was brought into sharp focus by a Ghanaian who wrote to African Spectrum in April 2001 in response to a number of critics of Zachary's article and to African Americans themselves who had complained of mistreatment or rejection by Ghanaians in Ghana:
"When Ghanaians meet Americans, whether at home or abroad, they do not draw a distinction between White and Black. We do not feel any more emotionally drawn to American Blacks than Whites, because the forces that have shaped African-American history, politics and lifestyles are different from what we Africans have been through. That is why when African Americans expect us to treat them as sisters and brothers, they find us disappointing - we see them as Americans, pure and simple.
In fact, some African Americans don't even want us to treat them as 'fellow brothers or sisters.' They simply do not want to be reminded of their African roots. They are offended when we Africans try to establish a link between their history and ours, and relate to them as comrades.
They want to be left alone, so to speak, because as they say, America is the only country they have known - they have nothing to do with Africa. 'If people don't refer to Europeans who migrated from Europe to America as European Americans, why do they want to call us African American?,' they are often heard asking.
If all African Americans would show greater interest in their African roots as other ethnic groups that have migrate to America, probably it would draw the attention of Africans to the bonds that exist between us.
We would be sensitized to the need to draw closer to them and see them as sisters and brothers.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. When African Americans display contrasting perceptions about Africa, as they are doing now, it would dissipate the efforts of the well-meaning African Americans to draw Africans closer to them. This contrasting attitude makes some of us defensive at best, and at worst we become aloof, and standoffish.
Some African Americans are even hostile to Africans living in the United States. Some of them look down upon us as inferior people from a less developed part of the world; some are angry with us because of what they call the collaborative attitude of our ancestors who sold them into slavery. The latter school of thought thinks that our stay here in America affects their chances for education and employment because we compete with them for the few positions available. What is more worrisome to them is that many Africans come to the US as students to study in colleges. Even those who do not come as students eventually find colleges to go to. With such a high desire for college and professional education, some African Americans are concerned that Africans will steal the limelight from them.
Robinsonís (the Ambassador to Ghana) husband is a member of a diplomatic family;
so I wonder why he would have problems with his visa. An ambassadorís husband is
unlikely to be threatened with deportation, even under a military regime. I
donít see how I can reconcile this allegation with what I know to be the current
arrangement that the government of Ghana has for members of the diplomatic corps
and their families.
I want to comment also on the allegation that an African-American woman who had immigrated to Ghana returned to the US out of frustration because Ghanaians would only relate to her as a dollar sign and not as one of them. While this is an unfortunate thing to have happened to this woman, I would like to stress here that she suffered that fate not because she is American. What she went through happens to even native Ghanaians living abroad who return home to visit. Because we live in 'the white manís land' we are considered 'wealthy.'"
There is also some evidence showing that not every African American living in Ghana disputed the essence of what Gregg Pascal Zachary said in his article in The Wall Street Journal.
One of them was a professor at the University College of Education of Winneba who implied he had bad experiences with some Ghanaians, may be quite a few of them, simply because he was an African American.. As he stated in his letter to Zachary published in African Spectrum:
"Thank you so much for your article. It is very eye opening. I am an African American who currently resides in Ghana. Your article hits home a lot of my experiences....
I am not proud of these experiences, but it is easier to cope with them when you realize that this not something to take personally. I use these misunderstandings as an opportunity to 'lecture' to Ghanaians I meet about my decision to be here. I explain it is a cultural decision and not a financial one. I have mixed emotions about this being a permanent home for me, because of emotional loyalty and financial abuse.
This article has given me a lot to think about, as it reflects some of my past conversations with some of the people you have mentioned in your article. Is it possible to love Ghana in spite of the people, or can you only love Ghana only because of the people? Thanks again for the insight."
The African American professor who wrote this leaves the unmistakable impression that he has had some bad experiences with a number of Ghanaians which have jolted him into reality about life in a black African country where many black Americans automatically assume they will be wholeheartedly embraced by their African brothers and sisters when they "return home."
The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it does not correspond to reality. Many African Americans have a romantic view of Africa. But when they get there, they quickly find out that it is not the idyllic place they thought it was when they were still in the United States.
Compounding the problem is the fact that probably the majority of Africans in black African countries don't see black Americans as "returning home," to Africa, but merely as foreigners coming to Africa in spite of their ancestral ties to the continent.
It does not necessarily mean that they are hostile towards them - some are, of course, just as they are towards other foreigners and even towards members of other tribes in their own countries. It simply means that they don't feel any special kinship with African Americans because they have been separated for so long, prompting many Africans to conclude that black Americans lost all their African identity and are therefore no longer African.
To many African Americans, of course, this is tantamount to rejection by their own people, the very same people they embrace as their kith-and-kin yet who want to maintain distance from them. A lot of this frustration, and even anger, on the part of African Americans comes from the high expectations they have of Africa, and of the people themselves; expectations which do not correspond to reality or match the performance - in all areas across the spectrum including personal relationships between black Americans and Africans - they expect to see when they arrive on the continent.
What the frustrated African American professor said should be viewed in this larger context, especially when he asked: "Is it possible to love Ghana in spite of the people, or can you only love Ghana only because of the people?" It is a sentiment articulated in nationalistic terms - in this case in a Pan-African context - and reminds me of what French Prime Minister Monsieur Clemenceau once said when he talked about loving France without loving Frenchmen.
ideals we aspire to, but, sadly, they remain ideals. One of those ideals is the
acceptance and unification of all Africans and people of African descent in the
diaspora as one and the same people.
Attitudes, however negative towards each other, can never change this reality. It is a fundamental truth, it is an immutable fact. We have already taken the first steps towards achieving this goal, and we have made some progress. But it is one long journey. We still have a long, long way to go.
Chapter Five: The Attitude of African Americans Towards Africans
AFRICAN AMERICANS are not a monolithic whole anymore than Africans are. But there are some things that bind them together and shape their attitude, or attitudes, towards Africa.
There is a perception among a significant number of Africans, backed up by empirical evidence derived from personal experiences with black Americans, that their brothers and sisters, or cousins, in the United States, don't want to be closely identified with Africa, if at all, and have a negative attitude towards their ancestral homeland and its people.
There are several reasons for this. Probably the most important one is that black Americans are, first and foremost, Americans, not Africans in terms of national identity and upbringing; although they are also Africans in the genealogical sense. They were born and raised in the richest, most developed, and most powerful country in the history of mankind and are a product of American culture in terms of mentality, attitudes, values, and the way they look at the world.
By contrast, Africans come from or live in the world's most backward, most diseased, and poorest continent - as conventional wisdom goes - which also is the ancestral homeland of African Americans whether they like it or not. The contrast between the two is glaring, and ruthlessly public, often thrust into the international arena and spotlight when people around the world, including black Americans, see on their television screens and in newspapers and magazines, millions of Africans starving, dying of AIDS and numerous other diseases many of them preventable, and desperately pleading and begging for help from other countries including some in the Third World such as India and Brazil.
All this has had a profound impact on African Americans and their image as Americans, yet at the same time as Africans, as well, inextricably linked with their kith-and-kin living in misery on the African continent. It is an image many of them are ashamed of. But it is also reality, a harsh reality, they cannot evade and from which they will never be able to escape.
Even many African Americans who identify themselves with Africa have an ambivalent attitude towards their motherland, and ask themselves, like Countee Cullen did, "What is Africa to me?," in his poem "Heritage":
Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?"
The difference is that Cullen, who died in 1946 at the age of 43, wrote that poem in expression of his love for Africa, even if his passionate love for his motherland was somewhat tempered by the negative image of Africa he had known when growing up and during the rest of his short life.
And there are
many African Americans today who feel the way he did. But there is another group
of African Americans who are torn apart by two images of Africa. They are
attracted by its beauty, and a longing for their roots, reinforcing their
romantic image of Africa; yet they are repelled by the harsh realities on the
continent, the poverty, the hardship, and even by the primitive condition of the
people themselves, so close yet so far, separated for
I remember in the early 1980s talking to an African American woman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who was married to a Nigerian. After she went to Nigeria and came back, she said she couldn't live in Nigeria or anywhere else in Africa because she was not used to the lifestyle and the inconveniencies.
I talked to another one who once lived in Liberia and moved back to Grand Rapids after the 1980 military coup, disgusted with the place because of what the new military rulers did, executing Americo-Liberian leaders and wreaking havoc across Monrovia, the capital. As an African American, she easily identified with the Americo-Liberians far more than she did with the "natives," if at all. And she did not put in historical perspective the injustices perpetrated against the indigenous people which prompted a 28-year-old sergeant, Samuel Doe, and 16 of his compatriots from the Liberian army, to seize power after 150 years of Americo-Liberian hegemonic control of the country to the detriment of the native population.
Yet, when she first went to Africa, she had a very romantic view of the motherland as do the majority of black Americans who go there. Compounding the problem was the hardship one experiences living in a poor and underveloped Third World country like Liberia. The same applies to the rest of the countries on the continent, the poorest of the poor in the entire world. Many African Americans who intended to settle in Africa or live there for an indefinite period of time have been known to....
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