A score and half years ago, a Black American friend excoriated my “unsophisticated African” behavior — a decade after living in London, Paris and Madrid. His words still amuse me, for sophistication, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. I think it propitious to consider the relationship between African émigrés and Black Americans during this Black History Month. As a keen observer of human behavior and one sensitive enough to the nuance of a society’s vicissitudes, I can say that, all in all, when it can, Black America has been generous and kind to African immigrants and their children. And yet, we from “the motherland,” have not always been as understanding. The many miles journey has often dimmed our vision, blurring resolution. Let me explain.
After the “unsophisticated” comment I researched the trans-Atlantic Black-on-Black relationship, but there was very little there. As Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard — who has done a yeoman’s job connecting the many seemingly disparate strands of the universal Black experience — told me, “it’s a difficult relationship that’s full of misunderstandings.” Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton to whom Gates referred me to, was a dead end. I resorted to observing interpersonal relationships.
Thinking I understood Black Americans, I blindly wrote homilies in newspaper columns, quite similar to those one encounters in many white editorials — such as Wall Street Journal’s. I was corrected in more ways than one and in some instances and at conferences was dressed down as a “know nothing.” It takes sympathetic knowledge of the daily struggles of a people to arrive at truthful understanding. Truth and fact are not always self evident, I now know.
Black America is fractured into cantons of class, skin coloration and faith. Like in much of America, more often than not, Blacks seek not what joins them but rather what sets them apart.
They form tribes and sub tribes. It follows then that Africans with their strange accents and probably stranger habits form a group to be avoided.
I understand when Black Americans take umbrage at émigrés taking advantage of the civil rights won by Black Americans’ struggle for centuries. Lani Guinier of Harvard correctly complained that Ivy League schools were admitting more African émigrés’ children than Black American kids. Still, the situation needed and still needs to be remedied, by intentionally and actively developing strategies to qualify more Black American kids.