Saturday, November 22, 2008

Africans and African Americans in Conversation

It is not often that a large group of Africans gets to talk for several hours with a large group of African Americans about their differences, stereotypes they hold about each other, and their respective notions of success. Yet today, November 22, 2008, I attended such a gathering, at the Center for Families in Minneapolis,

After the usual introductions and an African-style libation, the two keynote speakers--Ahmed K. Sirleaf II and Professor Mahmoud El-Kati--took the floor. Ahmed talked about the slave trade, and the various manifestations of it in Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. El Kati dwelt on Pan Africanism.

Then the group split into two: the Africans went into one room and the African Americans into another. Each group was asked to put together their responses to three questions:

1) What are the unwritten rules for your group's success in America?
2) What biases and stereotypes are there about your group?
3) What do you want others to know about your group?

Naturally, I went to join the African group, which consisted of people from many countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Nigeria, and Somalia. To the first question, the Africans wrote down such things as, hard work, education, perseverance, positive thinking, and cultural competency.

The Africans reported a number of biases and stereotypes people hold aboutt them: their accents are inferior; they are taking the jobs of the Americans; they are primitive, poor, dumb, arrogant, close minded and snobbish.

Regarding how they want to be perceived by others, the Africans noted a number things, including the following: we are brave; we are civilized by our own standards; we welcome people to our continent; Africa is a continent, not a country; we are not persons of colour; we have an open attitude to race issues; not all Africans are black.

As an African, of course, I found the African American responses often eye opening. On the issue of success, the African Americans noted criteria for success as including marrying a white person, being in sports, being wealthy, raising and educating a family, keeping male children out of prison, keeping daughters without being pregnant, exposure to other cultures.

African Americans listed the stereotypes about them including the following: they all can dance and sing; they are lazy, not smart, stuck in the past, irresponsible, violent, lacking in social skills, always late; they play the blame game, party too much, have low self esteem, and settle for less.

Regarding how they want to be perceived, the African Americans said many things as well, including the following: they are individuals, not a homogeneous mass of blacks; they want to know about the past--the history of Africans and African Americans; they want to work together with Africans; they are not where they want to be yet; they have something to offer to the Africans who are in America; other people should make the effort to know African Americans.

The two groups presented their observations during a joint session. The resulting flurry of comments, questions and arguments was intense and most enlightening. People gave testimonies about negative attitudes they had held about the other group and each group apologized for its transgressions. It was an event that allowed bitter memories and unpleasant sentiments to be expressed freely as an attempt to achieve catharsis and healing. There were moments when tears were shed. In the end, however, this proved to be a most beneficial event for both sides.

It is not often that Africans and African Americans gather in such a manner, to explore their differences, which are deep-seated and which continue to bedevil their relationships. The relationship between Africans and African Americans continues to be impeded by many factors, including ignorance, mutual disparagement, and cultural differences. This gathering stressed the need for education to address some of these impediments. There was a strong feeling that such gatherings should be arranged on a continuing basis: once, twice, or several times a year.