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Identity, images, and African-American–African relations

In the wake of Barack Obama’s presidential election victory, Doreen Lwanga considers the state of relations between African-Americans and Africans living in America. The author explores some of the derogatory influences, driven most notably by sections of the Western media, informing negative stereotypes on the part of both black Americans and new Africans, stereotypes that perpetuate misinformed and divisive views within the wider pan-African community. In this historic period of the first election of an individual of African ancestry to the highest seat of US power, Lwanga argues that any residual suspicion and negativity between these two broad groups should give way to lasting solidarity and unity.

A lot has already been said about the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America. Immeasurable excitement expressed all around the world, tears shed, hope revealed and work already started. Almost two weeks since the elections, the main word on the street is still about Obama. And no, Obama's supporters have not yet gone out of business, as ‘The Onion’ suggests. It is the first topic of conversation every time I call my family in Uganda or receive an email from friends outside the United States: ‘I hope you have began seeing some changes.’ Well, not really but emotionally yes. It feels like a heavy stone lifted off my chest.’

So, what does this election mean for Africans in America and who are these Africans? I am referring to the African diaspora called ‘The new Africans’ in migration studies, who trace their immediate belonging to one of the 54 states on the present day post-colonial continent of Africa. I am aware of the debates surrounding this definition, and sensitive to the fact that there are some among Africans in America taken away as slaves of Europeans who identify with a country in Africa. However, I wish to use this distinction of ‘the new Africans’ not to perpetuate the divide but illustrate my point. For this purpose, I will use the terms ‘the new Africans’ and ‘African-Americans’ to distinguish between the two groups and conclude with reuniting the two.

The new Africans in America are overjoyed that one of ‘their sons’ and black man is now president of the United States. Even those who had never identified with Kenya see Obama first and foremost as a black man, although the Kenyan media is steadfast in identifying Obama as a Kenyan-American. It doesn't matter that his entire upbringing was outside Kenya in the United States and Indonesia, that he does not speak Luo or did not make Kenya one of the central themes of his election campaign. It no longer matters what his nation group is – Luo, Kalenjin, Masai or Kikuyu – he's Obama the Kenyan and American. But what does Obama's election mean to all Africans in America?

Perhaps it is time to re-examine ourselves, our place in America, and our relationship with African-Americans from the ‘slave ship’ (no pun intended). The relationship between these two sets of Africans has never been a smooth one, but on 4 November they all came together to usher Obama to the US presidency. Obama received 95% of the black vote and overwhelming support from African-Americans. He was able to break through to the US presidency because of the groundwork laid by African-Americans fighters and the struggles of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshal, Rosa Parks, Harriet Turban, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others. Their struggles for the humane treatment of coloured people in America, for equality, justice, and civil rights made the dream of having a black leader a reality in the election of Obama as US president. Granted it took the vote of non-black voters to get Obama elected, but the significance of the black electoral turnout and togetherness is election cannot be downplayed.

Yet, the tension and sentiments between the new Africans and African-Americans in the US did not go away. These two groups see each other as different. Many new Africans are resistant to identifying as black in America because to them, it refers to African-Americans. Many have confessed that when filling out US legal forms, they check ‘other’ instead of ‘black’ under racial category and insert either Eritrean-American, Ethiopian-American, or Ugandan-American. To many new Africans, African-Americans are lazy, violent, racially bitter, and poor, while many African-American view the new Africans as coming from impoverished, disease-, and conflict-ridden countries. The question most African-Americans ask is, ‘Why don't [new] Africans love African-Americans?’

Can the election of Barack Obama with the overwhelming support of African-Americans turn a new leaf in the mindset of the new Africans? It is disheartening that many Africans perpetuate the negative stereotype of African-Americans fed to us by mainstream media even before we step foot in the USA. Each community has its own ills and positives but the ills of African-Americans tend to override the positives in the minds of several new Africans. I came into this country carrying those negative stereotypes about African-Americans that I saw and read in US international media and Hollywood movies that often featured African-Americans in gun violence, drugs, and prison. During my early days here, whenever I encountered African-Americans on the streets of Washington, DC, I would get really scared and walk as fast as my legs would carry me to get out of their sight. Since then, I have learned many more and learned differently, thanks to my move from Washington, DC, to Atlanta. In Atlanta, I met African-Americans of all professions in banking, medicine, education, law, engineering, the arts, and self-employment to mention just a few. Atlanta is a mecca for black people and host to the ‘Sweet Auburn historical district’ of the richest blacks in America during segregation and the home of Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site. It also hosts the prestigious historically black colleges/universities (HBCU) conglomerate of Spelman College, Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morris Brown College. During segregation when blacks were not allowed to enrol in white institutions, African-Americans founded colleges like Spelman and Morehouse, whose educational standards today match places like Harvard University.

The experience of living in Atlanta has exposed me to the ‘other’ face of African-Americans as pioneers of their lives as hardworking, high-achieving, and respectable people, in sharp contrast to media depictions of violent, lazy, gangster, and thuggish lifestyles. It also made me re-examine some of the stereotypes I had carried with me about a lazy, underachieving, and unqualified group. If African-Americans are lazy, how were they able to build this country that we now enjoy on free forced labour without pay? How come they fought hard, endured racial prejudice, lynching, murder, assassination, unfair court sentences, and segregation to make life better for future generations including the new Africans? Many new Africans claim that African-Americans are underachieving because they do not work hard to become successful, yet when Africans come to the US, they work hard and become successful in a short time. My question is, if the new Africans are more hardworking (than African-Americans), why do they have to leave their countries in order to become successful? Why can't they apply that same ingenuity in their own countries? Secondly, with all these smart Africans, how come African countries are still a mess and perpetually begging the United States for help? It is true that we achieved our independence but war, famine, deficit budgets, and dependency on Western governments and Western consumerism are still rampant in Africa. Why aren't our smart brains being put to work and develop Africa and, perhaps forge lasting respectful relationships with African-Americans?

We could excuse many African-Americans because they have not been exposed to Africa as much as we have, both on the continent and in America. Our education and social life is filled with Western lifestyles and systems of government and development. In fact many of us know more about New York city skyscrapers and St Lawrence Seaway through our geography classes than the average American living in this country. Thanks to CNN, we live with the rich and famous of America and are constantly fed with images of the high-class life of America. On the other hand, Americans, including African-Americans, get the ugly face of Africa – war, famine, hunger, disease, witchcraft, and cannibalism from CNN. Their opinions are shaped by what they are fed by their media sources. Granted Americans have the highest access to the internet, but generally very few utilise it to learn about other countries, unless of course if the US is bombing a particular country. This is not an excuse but to see and to travel is to learn.

We the new Africans – especially those in America – have learned enough from our stay here to continue the ill stereotypes about African-Americans. We have witnessed racial prejudice in America, poor services, and ill-treatment of black and coloured people in America which can hold back the formation of fresh and better perceptions of African-Americans. Even though we often get a better reception from white America compared to African-Americans, Amadou Diallo did not have to be an African-American to be shot dead by racist police. No! We are not more hardworking that African-Americans, we are simply transplanted from the comfort of our homes and have to make it or die trying. Yes, we might be more educated than many from the African-American population but that's just as a percentage of the many uneducated masses back in Africa. In fact we might be misinformed about our black/African-American history. We should take advantage of how Obama's presidential campaign brought together black people in the US and Africa toward a common good and remember that even the struggle against colonial domination in Africa, apartheid South Africa, and the global pan-African Movement was a union of Africans on the continent and in the Americas, from Bob Marley to W.E.B. DuBois, to Malcom X and others. We should used this opportunity to forge new and lasting relationships not built on fear or denigration of one another but on respect, similarities and solidarity. As a mother of a four-month old son born out of a union of a new African and African-American father, I would like my son to grown up in an America where all Africans (new and American) will enjoy an abundance of justice, liberty, opportunities, leadership, and respect for one another.

* Doreen Lwanga is a pan-Africanist living in Atlanta, Georgia.
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