This was originally published in the Weekly Trust newspaper on December 2, 2005.
By Farooq A. Kperogi
You would expect that it is natural that African immigrants in the United States and Black Americans should have a robust relational intercourse. However, the relationship between African immigrants here and Black Americans is often hallmarked by mutual suspicion and distrust.
“We may have a common ancestry, and even a common skin color, but we view each other as different,” said Andre Reynaud, a black American freshman from Lafayette, Louisiana, majoring in secondary education.
He said American blacks traditionally tend to have a dim view of all immigrants, and that African immigrants here are tarred with the same brush as other immigrants.
“Their accent is different; the way they live is strange,” he said. “What you don’t know, you either learn or ignore. And I think we generally ignore here.”
But Uwaila Osaren, a final year journalism student who was born in Nigeria but raised in the United States, said the strained relations between African and black American students at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette is not representative of the general pattern of relationships between African immigrants in the United States and black Americans.
“I grew up in Houston, Texas, and it’s not the same,” she said. “I think it has something to do with the African-American culture in Louisiana. “They’re not exposed to many different cultures. Here, it’s either black or white.”
Osaren opined that the reluctance of black Americans to relate with African students is not because they don’t like Africans.
“They don’t even mingle with the whites they grew up with,” she said. “Why would they mingle with Africans they never knew? It’s two separates, and they can’t mingle.”
She said she has been caught in the web of a huge relational ambivalence since she came to study at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, four years ago.
“I didn’t fit with Africans because they consider me too American, and I didn’t fit with Americans because they consider me too African,” she said. “I’m the true meaning of African American.”
For Richard Bargblor, a Liberian native majoring in nursing, the relational tension between African students and black Americans is the consequence of a historical grudge that black Americans have been conditioned to hold against Africans for the alleged complicity of their ancestors in selling the ancestors of black Americans into slavery.
“A lot of them have told me that our forefathers sold their ancestors to the white men,” he said. “Maybe, that’s why they’re holding back from us.” He insisted, however, that guilt is not inheritable. “Besides, our ancestors didn’t willfully sell their ancestors,” he added. “It was done under duress.”
Bargblor also said he finds black Americans’ use of swear words in their everyday conversations repulsive. “They use the ‘f’ word so easily,” he said. “We don’t use that in Africa. It’s an offensive word.”
Kyle Ward, a black American sophomore from Mississippi majoring in political science, suggested that it is difficult for African immigrants in the United States to mix smoothly with black Americans because over 400 years of spatial separation between the two groups also created an enormous gulf of cultural separation.
“They [Africans] are not used what we do,” he said. “They don’t understand why we do what we do. They have a totally different view of the world. That’s why they don’t hang out with us.”
He contended that most African students who come to the United States devote little time for leisure, entertainment and sports—areas he said black Americans consider central to their cultural uniqueness. He said this fact limits avenues for interaction between the two groups.
“They’re more focused on their studies because they appreciate the opportunities here,” he said. “We take these opportunities for granted. They’re foreign students. Period.”
For Ben Adobor, a native of Ghana and graduate student in engineering, a major stumbling block in the relationship between black Americans and African students is the almost mutual unintelligibility of their English accents.
“It’s ironic that I understand white Americans more easily than I understand my African-American brothers and sisters,” Adobor said. “But I realize that they have as much difficulty understanding my accent as I have understanding theirs. They’re easier to understand when you relate to them on an individual basis, but when you find yourself alone in their midst, they could as well be speaking Greek. You’re lost, and wonder whether they’re speaking English.”
This sentiment about language barrier is mutual.
Rosetta Pickney, a black American student from Lake Charles, Louisiana, majoring in health information management, also expressed frustration with African accents. “We don’t understand their accents, so we avoid them,” she said.
But Adobor said the language barrier is secondary to the distortion of the African image in the mainstream Western media as a contributing factor to the strained relations between African immigrants in the United States and black Americans.
“All that they see about Africa in their media are images of starving, barely clothed children, AIDS victims, and so on,” he said. “I wonder where the media get these images from. I think African-Americans are ashamed to identify with us because of this.”
Pamela Hamilton, a black American graduate student in communication from Shreveport, agreed. “We have negative views of Africa that we received from slavery, passed through generations and now transmitted through the media,” she said.
However, she pointed out that this negative perception is reciprocal. “Some African students that I have met also have negative views of African Americans,” she said. “Few Africans understand what slavery has done to us.”
Hamilton said although there are obvious cultural and even experiential barriers between Africans and black Americans, those barriers are not sufficient to break the social, historical and ancestral bonds that bind Africans and black Americans.
“There are people who have been able to overcome these barriers,” she said.
But Kimberly Malveaux, a black American nursing major from Lafayette, Louisiana, said she thinks there are no barriers to overcome.
“My personal experience is that I relate with African men better than I relate with African-American men,” she said. “There may be Africans who also relate better with African-Americans than with Africans. I don’t see any tension here.”
Meanwhile, Arinze Okolo, president of the University of Louisiana’s African Students’ Association and junior mechanical engineering student from Nigeria, said it is difficult to give a blanket and definitive description of the attitude of black Americans toward African students.
He said there are as many black Americans who are reluctant to relate with African students, as there are who are enthusiastic about mixing with them.
“I think those of them who take the trouble to go beyond media stereotypes and read up on Africa or ask questions about Africa tend to be friendly,” he said. “Many of them attend our social functions, and we attend theirs too.”
Bradley Pollock, Ph.D., professor of African and African- American history at the University of Louisiana’s department of history and geography, attributed the reluctance of black Americans to relate with African students to their lack of exposure to different cultures.
“On this campus, most of the African-Americans are from small towns,” he said. “They’re just frightened of what they don’t know. They may even be frightened of other African Americans they are not used to. It’s not a Louisiana problem; it’s a small-town problem.”
Pollock added that even though there is some basis for the hostility of some black Americans toward Africans because of the notion that Africans sold their brothers and sisters into slavery, “it is not an accurate historical assumption.”
“For instance, countries in East Africa, such as Uganda, were not involved in the slave trade,” he said. “In any case, if you’re nursing animosity against Africans because of that, what do you do with the white slave owners? It’s been centuries ago. It’s time for healing.”
For Patricia Holmes, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication, insufficient communication between black American and African students is the cause of the mutual distrust between them.
“When they communicate, they’ll realize that they have more reasons to come together than they have to stay apart,” said Holmes, who is black. “Our shared ancestry and our shared history of slavery and colonialism are big enough reasons for us to come together.”
She said the excuse of differences in accents as a reason for the low level of interaction between African students and black Americans is “rather weak.”
“People from New York also have a different accent, so you won’t talk to them because of that?” she asked rhetorically. “Africans don’t all have the same accent. Do they stop talking to each other because of that?”