It is hard to keep the importance of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in perspective in the midst of the relentless reports of end-game, American-assisted bombing assaults on Libya, an African country, and as I ponder the deaths of another dear friend and fellow warrior in the struggle–Nzingha Heru, [head of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC)], Nick Ashford, and way too many others. But in 2009, right after the death of Michael Jackson, President Obama made his first trip to Africa as the president of the United States. Both symbolically and substantively, the trip was highly significant.
Remember when President Obama emerged from the old slave dungeons at Cape Coast castle?
Those of us who have been there recognized the face of someone who had just understood a deeper truth: man’s inhumanity to man has not been color-coded. The president said his brief visit to the slave dungeon, with a church chapel right above the pits used to hold captured Africans, reminded him of the visit he had made a few weeks earlier to the memorial for Jewish concentration camp victims. Hmm. This indeed was new–an American president making equivalent the Jewish and the African holocausts.
To African Americans, they just did not want an ugly African incident while the visit was going on, and they prayed not to have too many scenes of naked, dancing Africans in front of American cameras. They did not want to be reminded of “jungle-bunny” days and in some way feel embarrassed. That wish was granted. However, that attitude, revealed in several interviews of persons watching the proceedings, brought into stark relief one of the central issues still haunting African Americans–how they really see continental Africans.
Outside of the Pan African, Africana Studies and traditional Black Studies programs in American colleges and universities, African Americans are hard put to claim any solid information on or about Africa. The Africa they constantly hear about is filled with poor people; it is one famine after another; it has too many coup d’etats; it is a mess, and yet it also has the DNA samples African Americans need to re-establish where their people came from.
Those are most of the tidbits commonly known and acknowledged. Oh yes, and one more thing–there may be too many African immigrants coming over who do not respect the Black American experience. In essence, most of the African American relationship with continental Africans is based on misinformation and stereotypes that have not been worked out in face-to-face interactions.
That is significant, since as goes Africa, so goes the African American. Looking at Libya and Somalia these days, that is rather frightening.
But that truism speaks to both a real world and spiritual connection that is more often felt within the African American community than it is stated. It was frequently a theme in the ‘Shouts’ and the ‘Spirituals’ sang by the enslaved and the freedmen during the 17th and 18th centuries of ante-bellum slavery. It was a theme in David Walker’s Appeal of speeches and writings, and in fiery sermons from early ministers like Rev. Henry Highland Garnett. It is still present when African Americans hear about another mass murderer or public menace and silently hope the perpetrator is not Black–not just not kin, but just not Black–so that there is not another reason to be ashamed.
It is present when African Americans keep hoping against hope that some nation in Africa will rise up during their lifetimes and become truly great at something positive–putting a satellite up successfully, getting a common currency for all African countries, or just beating England, Germany or France in the World Cup. It is part of the same joy felt by African descendants worldwide, when Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency. His triumph was a victory for all Black folk everywhere–the rich, the poor, the downtrodden, the caste births, the shunned, the modern slaves.
Even those among the African American community who claim not to be African or interested in anything African (and there are many thousands of those), still wince or smile with every public acknowledgement of Black success or failure. The young lady from Compton who just made her, and the female side of the Black community’s first successful intercontinental flight, accompanied by a Tuskegee airman, brought joy to a lot of people, even though most will not remember Ms. Anyadike’s name (and pretend they cannot pronounce it).
And when the legendary Smokey Robinson writes in his current poetry that he is American not African, and he has no recollection nor connection with the place, a more careful reading reveals this longing to be accepted, to be acknowledged, and to be a part of something big, something Black, and something positively meaningful in and outside of Africa. But wanting too much can lead to gigantic disappointments, so there is public caution more often than not in the African and African American relationship.
But things are being stirred up. President Obama’s trip and his clearly respectful but constructively critical comments generated conversation and reconsideration. The U.S. Senate’s 2009 resolution of apology for slavery and the effects of Jim Crow discrimination sparked reparations and repatriation fervor anew. This August’s commemoration of Dr. King’s 30-foot statue and Washington Mall presence is bringing pride to all Black folk.
The DNA fashion trend of Black celebrities tracing their ancestry to various parts of the continent still fits in with part of the continuing Michael Jackson retrospection (“Remember the Time”), and the consultants for such inquiries have reported an increase in clients in the last month or so. The PBS connection of musical roots worldwide, particularly in various parts of Africa, through using Ben E. King’s legendary song, “Stand By Me,” bought the rhythm and authenticity back to the front of the table, and noticeably a larger number of African Americans have been bobbing their heads to African beats and grooves than usual.
Additionally, the African Union’s invitation to the Diaspora to join the organization as voting members means that, on the surface, African Americans are being openly courted and counted as part of Africa’s future. There has been much progress in accepting that invitation currently.
Yet, for many of the activists on this issue, the pot is still not stirred enough. A critical mass of African Americans still argue over whether they are Negroes, Colored or just Black Americans rather than how African they are. Given the huge current reverse migration of continental Africans to the U.S.–Ethiopians, Somalians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Kenyans, Angolans, and South Africans, among others–is there any significant reconciling going on? Are there enough coffee klatches happening, cultural meetings at the Afiba Center or Eso Won bookstore, common worship services and student interactions occurring to re-discover and re-unite the common interests?
Certainly hundreds, even thousands, of African Americans have made pilgrimages to Ghana to be enstooled or otherwise lauded, and visited other renowned African areas like Senegal’s Goree Island slave port (and viewed the magnificent and gigantic Renaissance Statue in the Dakar harbor). They have African masks and artifacts aplenty in their houses and offices. But the question remains, have they decided yet on how African are African Americans and how African is enough?
The historical and political truth of the connection that President Obama reminded us all of is still operative and will not fade away: the future of African Americans and the future of Africa is and will continue to be intertwined. So sooner or later, that central question will have to be answered. It seems that African Americans are being strongly urged, by presidential words and daily circumstances, to do their due diligence about their Africanness.
In the past, the question was, are you Black enough? Now, it is, just how African are you?
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). It is the step-parent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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