Obama, Africans and African Americans

Given a history of common origin, struggles against slavery, Jim-Crow and colonial racism, Obama should be the exclamation point to the intertwined relationship between Africans and African Americans.
US President Barrack OBAMA
US President Barrack OBAMA

Given a history of common origin, struggles against slavery, Jim-Crow and colonial racism, Obama should be the exclamation point to the intertwined relationship between Africans and African Americans.

Yet, even with the hundred day mark now well behind him, and with national and international approval ratings sky-high, Obama for Africans and African Americans has been and still remains two different people divided by two different histories.

For Africans, Obama is the son of a Kenyan immigrant who through hard work and personal initiative has risen to become the most powerful man on earth.

That he identifies himself and was voted into the White House as an African American does not matter. To some, in the murky world of identity politics, Obama is a first generation African immigrant who just might set a good example for African Americans.

For African Americans, Obama’s presidency is a dream that many thought would never come true in their lifetime.  It is the culmination of an inter-generational struggle, first against slavery and then against institutionalized white racism. 

But Africa itself remains a distant place of origin - A place to be longed for, but not actively wished for.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately.  I was born in Illinois to Kenyan parents in 1971.  My parents and I returned to Kenya shortly after, and I grew up there.

I did not come back to the US until it was time to attend college. Now, I have lived half my life in the United States.

Like the more than 3 million African immigrants in the US, I have multiple identities and languages not captured by terms such as citizenship or nationality.

Growing up in Kenya, it never could have occurred to me that back in the US I would be locked out of an African American identity in the same way I would deny African Americans an African identity.  I assumed we were natural allies.

But once while at a college party, an African American student asked me if in Africa we lived on trees and wore clothes.  Before we could come to blows, a mutual friend pulled me aside and explained that African Americans only know the Africa they see on TV.  The Africa of machetes and genocide, female genital mutilation, and of famine and hunger.

Africans too grow up on a steady diet of  American mainstream culture though which they view African Americans – welfare queens, gang and criminal violence, rampant drug use and a lack of industriousness.

True, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, like Muhammad Ali before them, transcend these images, but they are taken as exceptions.

Besides, Africans are always being saved by white Americans – Jeffrey Sachs, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Paris Hilton to name just a few.

Africans in their day to day living do not get to see the political activism of Danny Glover or Harry Belafonte.

They are more likely to read about the Bill Gates Foundation or Action Sudan before they hear of African American organizations such as Trans-Africa Forum or Africa-Action.

In schools and political forums, Africans and African Americans do not learn about their long history of working together - even about significant people like W.E.B. Du Bois, who immigrated to Ghana in 1965, where he died.

They do not learn about the activism against apartheid in South Africa by Martin Luther King Jr. and African Americans.

Or about Malcolm X’s tour of several African states in which he sought ways for Africans and African Americans to work together against racism in the US, or how in the turbulent 1960’s Black Panther members sought and found refuge in countries like Tanzania.

The short of it is that both Africans and African-Americans come to see each other, ironically, through a veil of white racism.

Throw in real and perceived competition for scholarships, housing and jobs in the US, and political leaders and activists who work top-down and the result is a relationship marked by tension, mutual suspicion, jealousy and at times outright violence.

It is not rare to hear Kenyans using the ‘N’ word to refer to African-Americans, not in a hi-hop sense of a rough solidarity, but with all the vehemence the word is meant to carry.

In fact, a violent fight once broke out between Africans and African Americans in a Kenyan owned club in South Orange, New Jersey that I used to frequent.

In 2005, a 13-year-old Liberian boy in Philadelphia was seriously beaten by African Americans.

In Seattle in 2006, two Africans were shot, one killed and the other wounded, by a group of African Americans after, in a strange historical turn, they were denied service at an Ethiopian restaurant.  These types of stories are scattered all over the internet.

And they will increase as the economy worsens and perceived competition increases.

We have been celebrating the promise of Obama without picking up his challenge.

If to white American his presidency is a challenge to racism, then for Africans and African Americans it must be that they stop seeing each other the eyes of the same racism.

We have to leave narrow nationalism that borders on the xenophobic if Obama is to be a bridge not a symbol of the divide.

* Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness (Poems AWP, 2006).Nairobi Heat, a novel about an African American detective investigating a murder in Africa, is forthcoming (October 2009) from Penguin, South Africa.

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