Africans vs African Americans

africans in america

Africa is not a country, and Africans generally do not live in trees or hunt game with spears. Nor do they all walk around in the nude among lions and zebras.

African immigrants to the United States say cartoonish caricatures and a Western media penchant for reporting on Africa’s disease, hunger and war — rather than the continent’s successes — trivialize their cultures. They complain they have trouble dispelling the stereotypes once they arrive in the States.

They concede, though, the myths run both ways and some say they were surprised to find their values more often aligned with those of white Americans than African-Americans.

“I have been laughed at because of my accent and asked all the ignorant questions,” said Ajah-Aminata N’daw, 25, of Fall River, Massachusetts. “Questions like: Did I live on a tree? Roam the jungles naked? Have wild animals at home?”

N’daw emigrated from Dakar, Senegal, in 2001. She works in a hair-braiding salon and has met African-Americans who share her values of hard work and family, but in most cases, “we are raised differently, taught different values and held up to a different moral code.

Gaddafi Nkosi, 18, recently graduated from The Piney Woods School, a historically African-American boarding school about 22 miles southeast of Jackson, Mississippi. He has since returned to Pretoria, South Africa, but recalled well the misnomers he faced in the U.S.

“I came down from South Africa and so many people thought that maybe that’s a jungle or maybe I’d go out chasing lions or something like that,” he said.

Nkosi’s American classmates acknowledge their misconceptions. Cydney Smith, 17, of Nashville, Tennessee, said she once believed Africa was populated with “uncivilized tribes.”

Raphael Craig, 17, of Hyattsville, Maryland, said the television misinformed him as well.

Before Craig visited the continent in 2005 and 2006, he thought of Africans as “half-naked, running around with tigers in the jungle,” Craig said, confessing he was unaware tigers roam only Asia.

But in Ghana and Nigeria, Craig saw children playing the same games he and his siblings played. He saw many signs of modernity, including Mercedes and other brands of cars found in the United States.

“OK, this country is running how we’re running, just two different schools,” Craig recalled thinking. “It really opened my eyes to the point that everything you see on TV is not always the actual thing.”

If the Western media are doing Africans no favors, then the African media are also a disservice to African-Americans because it portrays them as criminals, some immigrants say.

Sandi Litia, 19, a Piney Woods graduate from Limulunga, Zambia, said she was initially scared of African-Americans because the African media show them “wearing clothes like gangsters and killing each other.”

Nkosi concurred that African media “made it seem as if they were these aggressive people that did nothing constructive with their lives except occupy prison space.”

Trying to fit in

Chinedu Ezeamuzie, 21, of Athens, Georgia, arrived in 2003. He had spent the majority of his life in Jabriya, Kuwait, and came to the U.S. to pursue his education.

The recent Georgia Tech graduate said he considers himself Nigerian because his parents — both from the village of Uga — instilled in their four children strong Nigerian values of family, community, spirituality and self-betterment.

In Athens, Ezeamuzie found his ideals at odds with those who shared his skin color at Clarke Central High School, his first stint in a public school.

On his first day, he donned khakis, a button-down dress shirt and nice leather shoes. He caught the African-Americans’ attention upon stepping into the cafeteria, he said.

“They give me the look,” he said. “Why is this guy dressed like the white folks, like the preppy guys?”

Ezeamuzie didn’t understand why so few black students were in his advanced-placement classes. He didn’t understand the de facto lunchroom segregation or the accusing glances he got for eating with white classmates. One classmate called him a traitor and asked, “Do you not like black people?”

“My whole life I had reaped benefits from being in different circles and bridging them,” so he wanted to fit in, he said.

He found clothes akin to what he saw many African-Americans wearing — baggy pants and an oversized T-shirt. He relaxed his British-trained tongue and tried out for the basketball team, the 6-foot-5 Ezeamuzie said.

Ezeamuzie recalled finding himself more confused by his experience with some African-Americans: Why were they so cliquish? Why did they mock students for being intelligent? Why were they homophobic and bent on using the n-word? Why did every conversation seem to involve drugs, girls or materialism?

“They kind of accepted me. They saw me a little differently, but I was thinking this is a very narrow mindset,” Ezeamuzie said.

Ezeamuzie and other Africans say they feel African-Americans too often dwell on slavery and the racism that has persisted for more than a century since the Emancipation Proclamation.

“We have all been tortured,” said iReporter Vera Ezimora, 24, a Nigerian student living in Baltimore, Maryland. “Now that we are free, holding on to the sins of white men who have long died and gone to meet their maker is more torture than anything we have suffered.”

Values at core of misunderstanding?

Martin Mohammed, president of the U.S. African Chamber of Commerce, estimates there are 3 million African immigrants in the U.S. — about twice the U.S. Census Bureau estimate. He has heard from numerous immigrants struggling to find commonalities with Americans who share their skin color.

Mohammed emigrated from Somalia in 1998 and is now naturalized. He considers himself African-American, but “it does not mean that I have already assimilated into the culture.”

Values and upbringings may lie at the center of the cultures’ misunderstanding of each other, he said.

Many Africans come to the U.S. to escape dire conditions such as poverty or civil war. Their objectives are often advancing their education or finding good jobs, Mohammed said.

They also strive to reunite their families, or at least support them back home. Remittances from the U.S. to Africa total about $20 billion annually, according to the World Bank.

However, African immigrants find that education and good jobs elude their African-American brethren, and there is a perception that many African-American men aren’t committed to supporting their families, Mohammed said.

The two cultures have much to teach each other — especially politically and economically — but they must accept they have something to learn.

“Honestly, what we need to do is realize both cultures are important,” Mohammed said.

Myths thrive on ignorance

Emeka Aniukwu, 35, hails from Ebenebe, Nigeria, and said he has heard all the American mis-perceptions about Africa, but the cure to ignorance is communication.

He began dating Sonya Roberts, 25, of Austin, Texas, shortly after he arrived in the U.S. four years ago. She taught him about African-American culture, and he taught her about Nigeria. The two married last month.

“Talk to people, stop showing ugly face and don’t be shy about your accent,” he advised African immigrants. “Most of the media coverage about Africa is all about hunger, diseases and war, so what do you expect? People are curious and just want to know, so calm down and educate them as much as you can.”

At Piney Woods, where about 35 of the 200 students emigrate from Africa, the school’s president, Reginald Nichols, concurs that education is integral to understanding.

He’s heard Africans say the African-Americans are aggressive, while the African-Americans accuse Africans of being reserved — but the more they mingle the more they mesh, he said.

“You have the African students tell me that they have learned so much about standing up from the African-American students, and the African-American students said they’ve learned how to simmer down, so it’s a wonderful thing,” Nichols said.

Mohammed, too, said he’d like to see more African-Americans dispelling myths about Africa, which is increasingly important as Africans in the U.S. begin wielding more economic influence.

The chamber estimates African immigrants have about $50 billion in annual purchasing power. Numbers from the University of Georgia’s Selig Center of Economic Growth indicate the number is just behind the nation’s Native American community, which had $61.8 billion in buying power last year. The entire African-American market was estimated at $913 billion and the Hispanic market at $951 billion.

History dictates that economic power precedes political power. Mohammed said Africans can learn much about politics from African-Americans because of their “level of influence in Washington.”

“I’m also interested to the extent that the black population can play a role in solving global conflict. We can help these discussions around the globe, but we must begin here in the U.S.A.,” he said.

Faraji Goredenna, 53, of Layton, Utah, said he encourages African-Americans to learn more about Africa and lend a hand to Africans so they know “America’s institutions and opportunities are open to them, too.”

But he’d like a symbiotic relationship, he said, explaining, “We African-Americans want to learn more about our history and culture as it exists in Africa, but we have also created a culture for ourselves here that we ask our brothers and sisters from Africa to respect.”

Courtesy of CNN
By Eliott C. McLaughlin
Jackie Adams contributed to this report.
CNN

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0 Comments

  • Joe

    Reply Reply July 16, 2009

    As an African American who is married to a South African and has lived there and visited Kenya, Zambia and Cape Verde, I must say that many stories like this are just as narrow in scope as the misconceptions they claim to expose. It makes no difference who you are or what your color, race or ethnicity is, if your idea of another people comes from what you see on television, newspapers or the movies, you’re likely misinformed or just plain ignorant. But those misconceptions and prejudices are a human tendency, which is why you hear similarly disparaging comments from people within the African continent about other people on the continent, or from people from different groups within a particular country. And as quiet as it’s kept, you also hear such comments from people in Europe about other Europeans _ be it from another country or from within their own country. Same thing goes for those from Latin countries. And, you hear African Americans make disparaging comments _ mainly based on class _ about other African Americans.

    The difference is that often such sentiments never reach the mainstream, but they do exist. But it is there.

    Yet for every person one would meet outside this country that harbors such attitudes, you meet 10 to 15 who simply see you as a person. They might harbor such attitudes but they keep them to themselves and instead get to know you individually. And, that’s what bothers me most about such articles; they lead you to believe that ignorance or tension are always dominant in interactions among people from the diaspora. I have friends overseas whom I consider as close as any blood relative. Do we see the world differently on many topics? Of course, and we should, because having the same skin color doesn’t make you see the world similarly (not to mention the fact that I also disagree with many folks over here, too). We come from different backgrounds and we’ve had different experiences. But we embrace a common humanity, we get to know one another without allowing preconceptions to get in the way, and we’re all better off because of it.

    My brother in law once told me that if he were home with some of the South Africans he’s met in the U.S. they wouldn’t have much to do with one another _ that the only thing they have in common is being from the same country. I told him I’ve often felt the same way when I’ve met some Americans abroad. And, I don’t think there is one person from any country who wouldn’t share the same sentiment.

  • dee adair

    Reply Reply July 17, 2009

    Why does the title have to say African Americans vs Africans. We are not against one another as some in the predominant culture would like to foster. We have had different experiences regarding oppression. Our responses have been different based on those differences. African Americans were denied connection with their african culture and denied family structures, but out of those struggles we developed strong communities and strong values especially up until the 70s when we became more accepted by the larger society.

    The bible says envy not the oppressor and choose none of his ways. Unfortunately african americans had begun to choose the way of the oppressor and began adopting materialist values over family values hence the break down of our culture. But it is really not that simple.

    You can not universalize every behavior because we are not a homogenous culture. At our core we still have strong values that has made us rise to the top of most every field that we have attempted to endeavor. No media can take our indisputable accomplishments as a race from us.

    We have made unique and valuable contributions to the world of culture and arts and science because of our unique experience.

    Blacks have throughout our history have reached out in various ways to our brothers and sisters around the African Diaspora. Experiences with a subset of African Americans can not tell the whole story. Just like I don’t characterize all whites by the negative encounters I have. We have to give each other grace and the benefit of a doubt.

    I have enjoyed wonderful relationships with my African brothers and sisters because I just have been fortunate to have a father which steeped us deep in our history and the history of Africa. For those who say we don’t share the same values they just have to know they have not met the whole of African Americans and television is not a good indicator. I limit my exposure to the media and have chosen to use the internet to get most of my information at the source. I am glad that there are great african websites for those who want to learn more about what is going on in Africa without being there. There are great news sites etc…

    I charge my african sisters and brothers to not over analyze your african american sisters and brothers. We have our ills just as africans from the various african countries has their ills. If you can understand the source of the ills it will help you to be a little merciful in your judgments.

    I was fortunate to grow up during a time of strong communities. When drugs were let loose on our cities thats when a rapid decline in the family structure began wreaking havoc in our major metropolitan areas where most immigrants congregate. There is not a single cause for the breakdown of the black family structure. Influx of and a promotion of negative steroetypes via music also contributed to the deterioration of families by its impact on youth.

    We need to value our relationships with one another and not contribute to the ills we already have by siding with the negative media. We can do a lot to forge the advancement and upliftment of blacks around the world if we work together.

    No one can talk bad about any of my sisters or brothers to me. Because what they say about them affects me. It becomes my issue and that’s the way I see it!
    Peace and God Bless
    Dee Adair

  • Orisha

    Reply Reply July 21, 2009

    Thanks for the article! It was a good read! Hopefully, this will continue to influence a discussion amongst Africans and African Americans so we can understand each other and work together economically and politically.

  • Mark W.

    Reply Reply July 22, 2009

    My Fellow Africans,

    There is no fight between African and African Americans and there shouldn’t be. We are all of African decent and all are immigrants to the USA. The nature of the immigration and the timing is what may differ but the treatment meted out is not that dissimilar. Infact, truth be told most of us Africans and now African Americans(like myself)reaped the benefits of the struggles of our brethren, who had won us equality and a right to education and opportunities in the west. Did the Africans that were brought here forcibly not face the same inconveniences such as being labeled animals and suffer misconceptions such as the thought of them living in trees etc. Ask yourself this question: If the african immigrant 300 years ago was asked if he lived in a tree, when in actual fact he was a citizen of the Benin Empire, and was a blacksmith by profession, did he take offence ? So Today, if as an African immigrant you are still being asked the same question, when you grew up in a metoplitan city like Accra and was a highly qualified professional. Does it not mean that we have work to do ?

    As “AfricanS” we should work together and unite and this is our greatest strength. The difference between today and 300 years ago is that when the African told people that he was from a great city in Africa, nobody cared to listen, but today those of us that are fresh of the boat can change this perception and educate the world about the real Africa, because now we have won the right to be heard, standing on the foundation built with the blood sweat and tears of those that came before us.

    Mark W.

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    Reply Reply March 31, 2010

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