Why are the relationships between Africans and African Americans so strained?
I came across this question on one of the rare times that I ventured back into the fantastic and mildly frightening universe that is Tumblr. On the social media platform, there is a burgeoning community of black people, most of whom are African American. In general, Black Tumblr is a place of solidarity, a place of collective effervescence, where we rejoice in the success of black people and mourn the senseless loss of black lives. In moments like these, African-Americans and Africans alike are united.
However, these are times of division and derision between the two factions. This was one such a time, for the question was met with answers ranging from “NOOOO! We love you guys!” to “Stfu, you guys invented African Booty Scratcher and now you wanna play the victim?!?!” I declined to comment, knowing that getting into an internet discussion is like entering a black hole of miscommunication and unnecessary anger. Nonetheless, the question kept weighing on my mind - do we think we’re better than African Americans, and if so, why?
Africa is not a monolith, and there is no unified ‘hive mind,’ so I cannot possibly speak for all people across the continent. However, in my time growing up in various countries in Southern and East Africa, some (but certainly not all) people shared the sentiment that African-Americans were loud, low-brow people who were called ‘Laquisha’ and ‘Laquanda’ and other such faux-African names, and celebrated a quasi-African holiday called ‘Kwanzaa.’ Their actions were seen as an insult, an ignorant and odd conglomeration of vaguely African customs that made a caricature of Africans. I grew up hearing complaints and rants about African Americans from my teachers in school all the way to the women doing my hair for hours in a little corner salon. I can confidently say that their attitude towards African Americans was less than favourable.
It wasn’t as though there was a mass influx of African Americans to give us a first-hand impression of their supposedly ‘ghetto’ ways. Our knowledge of them came from the media, in which they were portrayed as the lowest rung of society. They were set up as the antagonists, as the ‘Other’ to the white men whom we were told we must admire. Their every mannerism was a direct contrast to whiteness, and since western superiority was ingrained in many of us due to colonialism and cultural imperialism, we rejected all that wasn't ‘white’ - both in ourselves and in others.
Whatever the American media told us, we believed. For many people, to see their black counterparts struggling in the USA (the land of milkshakes and honey), was an insult. When so many Africans aspired to enter America, where they were convinced they could get a better job and a better education, it was baffling to see the ‘lazy’ African Americans on TV who dropped out of school, who fell pregnant, who didn’t bother to get a job but instead went on talk shows to find out ‘who’s the baby daddy?!’ We saw the single story of the “Neo-Negro” and believed it, because we didn’t know any better.
What puzzled me, however, was the ambivalence - the vitriol of their “ghetto” ways, coupled with an obsession with their urban culture. The people around me absorbed Hip Hop and R&B culture with a veracity like no other. They adopted their slang, sagged their trousers, wore bandanas and chains, and perfectly emulated Ne-Yo and Usher when the formal occasion presented itself. Amandla Sternberg famously explained that the USA’s problem is that it loves black culture but does not love black people. Perhaps the same could be said about us - that we too were guilty of taking the culture but disdaining the people from whence it came.
However, not all of our information was spoon-fed from the media. Some of it also came from the ‘lucky’ few who had managed to emigrate, who called home to tell us about the truth behind the Golden Curtain. Not all of the recent émigrés could afford to live in suburbs, where they might have been surrounded by the more successful black folk who would have been able to show a different side to the story. Instead, many lived in the inner cities, where there was more crime, more violence, and where the poorest of black people had no choice but to reside.
It is no secret that the US education system is appallingly inadequate for low-income families, and that the resultant mentality amongst the youth in such schools has been of apathy and anarchy. However, for the African children in these schools, there was no room for such. The current jokes and viral videos we see about the absurdly strict ways of African parents are not far off in many cases, which meant that the African students worked long and hard to excel in school, as it was their only option. Thus, African immigrants began outperforming their local peers. The students being called ‘African booty scratchers,’ and being stereotyped as disease-riddled and uneducated were in fact amongst the highest achievers.
In spite of the stereotypes of ultra hard-working East Asians, they are not actually the most educated immigrant group in the USA. According to a 2015 article by Bloomberg, over 43.8% of African immigrants hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is almost two times higher than the US average of 23.1% (whereas Asian Americans come in second with 42.5%). Nigerian immigrants in particular are outperforming their counterparts - their median household income is $53k per year (higher than the US average of $51.9k), and almost two thirds of them hold college degrees.
Thus, when families abroad called home, they complained about the African Americans and their perceived under-achievement. From what I am told, both sides often stuck within small communities of their own kind, and limited their interactions with each other, causing friction, resentment, and greater misunderstanding. Even during my time in high school, whenever alumni would return, they would bring stories about how the people they had the most tension with were surprisingly African Americans, and that little effort was made by either side to understand each other or bridge the gap in most cases.
Lastly, I think that to a certain extent, we as Africans lack empathy of the situation of African Americans. The whole world does, really. Scholarly books downplay or truncate the history of slavery, or focus on the practical rather than the personal. Until recently, the United States did not even have a single museum solely dedicated to the history of Slavery. Not one. Sure, there were bits and pieces scattered through other museums, but none were solely dedicated to educating people about the horrific history.
On our side, we never had to learn about it in school either. In Southern Africa, it seems so far removed because we are still recovering from the horrors of apartheid from only two decades ago. The resultant sentiment was ‘get over it!’ Although slavery was abolished 150 years ago, we so easily forget that the institution of racism still exists, and that only a few decades ago, black people could not vote, and were still being segregated and persecuted. To this day they are still being unfairly incarcerated, and murdered in the streets by the very people who swore to protect them.
Generations of African Americans have lived and died in a country that is not their own, in a country that hated them. We may have had a raw deal in Southern Africa, but we still had our roots to hold onto. Our roots were never violently ripped away from us, we were amongst our own people, we could trace our family lineage, and we were in our own land (arguably only 13% of it, thanks to racist laws, but our land all the same). Too many African Americans cannot say the same, yet we as Africans look down upon them and esteem ourselves over them because of this.
Whatever superiority or resentment we felt towards African Americans for their disassociation and misunderstanding of our continent, our customs, and our people, was terribly unfair considering how their culture was stamped out of them time and again. Only now, with access to the Internet and petabytes of data easily available, would I criticise anyone (not only African Americans) for not taking the time to learn about Africa.
All things considered, I firmly believe that there are many people on both sides who believe that they are better than the other. African Americans are guilty of using the term African Booty Scratcher, and the lack of knowledge and initiative to learn about ‘the Motherland’ is quite appalling at times, but we hold our own prejudices and misconceptions too.
I won’t lapse into a song and dance about how ‘we are all brothers’ and all, and all, because far too many of my dreadlock-toting brothers and sisters have done so several times already. However, I will stress that in times like these, where injustices are being committed to black people in so many parts of the world, and where no one except us cares to differentiate African from African Americans (because in the eyes of the racist, black is black), we cannot afford to scorn the other party. We cannot afford to look down upon each other.
Thanks to the Internet, black people across the world are connecting with each other more than ever, and the resultant support and solidarity is awe-inspiring. Regardless of your own origin or even race, I would highly recommend watching the new TV series, Roots, which is a gripping story about the slave trade that was created by the History Channel. It is very painful to watch, but I think it is necessary to understand how the disassociation with African culture came about, and why today so many African Americans are yearning to connect with their own roots.
Moreover, for African-Americans, since it is easier than ever to learn about ‘the motherland,’ there really is no excuse in 2016 for not being able to identify Ghana on a map, not knowing the stories of King Mansa Musa (the richest man who ever lived) and Shaka Zulu (not your people, but still important), or not knowing the origin of the Dashikis of which you are so fond. Also, to the African American poet who addressed herself as a “Zulu Princess,” girl, those are not your people. Your people most likely came from West Africa, and Yoruba Princess still sounds just as beautiful.