Africans and African Americans in the Bronx
By Oscar Johnson
It is easy for African immigrants who increasingly call the Bronx home to "just get along" with their American-born black neighbors. But it is a chilly coexistence - a fact both sides acknowledge from across a subtle yet vast cultural divide.
True, a certain kinship is noted. "We see them as the same," said the Rev. Michael Aggrey, 38, a visiting Catholic priest from Ghana who serves a growing congregation of Ghanaians in the West Bronx. "We used to have the same culture."
Indeed. The new immigrants and the descendents of those once imported by force share African origins. They both fit into America’s "black" racial category, and often scrape by on low incomes.
But African immigrants differ from their black predecessors, not only culturally, but in experience and perspective. Those differences are rarely discussed but widely understood to be at the root of a great divide.
Like a dozen African immigrants and African Americans who in interviews were pressed about their lack of relationships, Aggrey evinced a diplomacy that eventually gave way to candor.
While some African Americans are "very nice," he said, "the difference is the way we have been raised. The few African Americans I have interacted with are embittered with the past."
Aggrey’s candor soon revealed bewilderment. "Why are the African Americans so into sports?" he asked. "We can go higher. We can make education our priority. But if we are into basketball they (whites) can still be in control."
G. Ofori Anor, 50, a Ghanaian immigrant who moved to the Bronx 14 years ago, echoes Aggrey. Sober in spirit and conservatively casual in dress, he is the editor of Asante, a monthly newspaper. He said he renounced his first, or "Christian" name, but keeps the initial "G" in honor of his father who named him.
According to Anor, some aspects of African culture "embarrass" American blacks because the practices appear primitive to those used to more European standards. He said this embarrassment causes some black Americans to distance themselves from anything - or anyone - who is explicitly African.
"On our side," Anor said, "we don’t understand the way it appears that African Americans treat one another: Black on black crime - especially the youth killing themselves.
Recalling a visit to a largely African-American housing project, he lamented "the propensity for African Americans to run down their own neighborhood in protest." Someone had urinated in the building elevator, he said. "If you are really mad at the white man why don’t you pee in his elevator? He doesn’t ride in this one - you do."
For those more aligned with the African-American experience, such as Jalani Ja Lion, a walnut-hued Rastafarian who claims Cherokee and West Indian lineage, there is another perception.
"Africans come here and they are under a lot of misconceptions that African Americans are losers" and don’t take advantage of opportunities, said Ja Lion, who sells incense, scented oils and other sundries from a folding table near Jerome Avenue. "But not everything here is a bed of roses. As long as there’s a cultural barrier it’s going to breed ignorance."
In the last decade there has been ample opportunity for cultural barriers to arise among black people in the Bronx. More than 1,600 Ghanaians now immigrate annually to the city - a 380 percent increase since the early 1990s - according to the city Department of City Planning report released last year.
Immigration and Naturalization Service data shows that in 1996, about two-thirds of those Ghanaians visiting the United States (6,269), and nearly three-quarters of those naturalized (3,084), arrived in the city. Many have clustered in communities in Morris Heights, Highbridge and Tremont, making Ghana the No. 3 place of origin for immigrants to the Bronx, according to the report.
Meanwhile, city and community district data for the new millennium show that the borough’s native-born black population - largely consisting of those traditionally called "black" and "African American"- is leaving the South Bronx.
In the last decade, many have migrated north to Coop City. Some have left the Bronx altogether. Now, a full two thirds of the borough’s "black" population is foreign-born.
Neither the immigrants nor the native-born seem to harbor any intentional ill will towards one another. But both speak of distinctions, assumptions and de facto segregation.
"I wouldn’t say the relation is cold but I wouldn’t say it’s warm either," said Randolph Hinds, 38, president of the African American Association in Coop City, and adjunct professor of sociology at New Rochelle College. He said one reason relations are tepid is because many African Americans feel the immigrants "are so clannish that they’re not going to let you in...It’s almost like an arrogance and a put down."
But African Americans have their own misconceptions about Africans. Hinds said some Africans are seen as "stupid" because of their accents and Third World origins, or deemed "annoying" because African women in Harlem often solicit would-be customers to get their hair braided.
Hinds said he once tried to get the association, which formed in 1978 to meet the cultural, educational and social needs of Coop City’s black population, to change its name to one that would be more inclusive of immigrants and native-born blacks alike.
Hinds, the youngest member of the group’s board of directors, said the idea was voted down overwhelmingly by the older majority. "I’m one vote on a board," he said. The others simply "are not as progressive."
On another occasion, he said he attended a meeting for a Harlem-based rites-of-passage organization for black youths. When it was proposed that the program include a trip to an African country to mark the youths’ transition to adulthood, the idea met with opposition. "Some said ‘We’re not welcomed over there,’" recalled Hinds. "‘ They treat us badly.’"
Negative images and impressions both of African Americans and developing African countries in mainstream media helps perpetuate the rift, according to Philippe Wamba, editor-in-chief of Africana.com, an online publication that covers a variety African and African-American topics. Wamba’s father is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and his mother is from Michigan. He spent much of his youth growing up in the native countries of both parents.
"The main thing is ignorance on both sides," said Wamba, who has also written a book and several articles on the relationship between Africans and African Americans. "If the people know anything at all (about each other) it is very little, and it is very skewed."
Newspaper editor Anor, who acknowledges that one reason so many Ghanaians come to the Bronx is because of the borough’s black population, has similar thoughts.
"I think there is a flood of information from our experience of colonialism and that still keeps us from understanding," he said. "It still dogs our relationship."
Ghanaian immigrant Georgina Tackie, 38, who manages the African American Restaurant, which serves Ghanaian and American soul food, has been in the United States for 15 years. The fathers of the single mother’s four children are African American.
Like other African immigrants, she notes the differences between the two groups but has stumbled across at least one trait from the other side of the divide she admires.
"Ghanaians like to work, pay your rent and stay out of trouble," Tackie said, echoing almost verbatim how nearly a half-dozen other Ghanaians distinguished themselves from African Americans. "We are not outspoken. That’s one good thing about us. Where you have Ghanaians living you never have trouble."
Then, after a pause, she added: "The only thing that bothers me is this guy Amadou Diallo. It’s the African Americans that have stood up but it should be us - he is one of ours. I felt so sad that we were not particularly involved."
Tackie’s afterthought is a common one among African immigrants who have lived in the states for a while, according toWamba. He said incidents such as the fatal police shooting of Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, cause many African newcomers to "consider going beyond our insular immigrant community."
According to Wamba: "It’s an awakening to many Africans that, to many white people, they are indistinguishable from African Americans."
Similar histories of colonialism and slavery, or current experiences of discrimination in the United States and abroad can often serve as a bridge between the two groups’ because racial inequality "seems to be a problem that all black people face," he said.
Hinds, the African American Association president, also finds something to learn from across the divide.
"It would be good to improve our relations between Africans and people here in America," he said. "We need to develop more of a world view, to not see ourselves so much as a minority.
"Because we have a breakdown in our history, I think it would help with our schizophrenic world view," Hinds said about the view of some black Americans that they are neither fully American nor African. "It could help with our social agony."
But Hinds said that only about 1 percent of his personal friends are African immigrants, despite the fact that he works with many of them. After some reflection, he adds: "My circle of friends could enlarge. It should.
"When I say it’s only 1 percent, then I say: ‘Maybe there’s still a bit of work for me to do.’"
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