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Africans and African Americans - 2002-03-01

Most African Americans will tell you they take pride in their African heritage and appreciate many aspects of African culture. For example, many collect African art and wear African clothing, such as Kente cloth from Ghana. But when it comes to identifying with issues affecting Africa, some say they see a disconnect or a lack of interest, especially at the grassroots level.

As the United States observed Black History Month, civil rights activist and radio host Joe Madison started a segment on his nationally syndicated talk radio program called “Back to Africa.” Mr. Madison says " I hear that complaint, observation, whatever you want to call it, now more than I’ve ever heard it before. Africans saying why, why, why aren’t African Americans stepping up to the plate demanding more information, demanding more development, demanding more news? Why don’t they do something, or say something about this issue in Africa, or that issue in Africa?"

Lawanda Johnson is editor of the Afro-American newspapers, a network of more than 200 African-American community newspapers across the United States. She called in to explain why she thinks African Americans don’t seem to identify more with issues affecting Africa.

Ms. Johnson said "I think it has a lot to do with the images that we get from Africa, and I think it makes a lot of people ashamed to consider themselves as Africans living in America. I think it comes from ignorance. When we get all those images of Africans sitting in the bush, we don’t get the image of African businessmen. Accra is a beautiful city, and if we see images like those, then we will have the tendency to align ourselves with that image to say, yes that’s where we’re from, or that’s where our ancestors are from."

But another caller to the show, Kadisha, provides this perspective on why she thinks Africa does not seem to have a constituency among grassroots African Americans. SHe says "I happen to be married to a Liberian man, and I can say that being around African people from the continent, they are some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Most of them come here with much higher learning than a lot of Africans born here in America. And I think that’s intimidating. And a lot of time, people here feel that they are coming to take their jobs. They have the same old misconception like they do with other people from other countries, instead of trying to build a relationship."

Yet another caller, Walter, says he lived in Nigeria for two years. He says since his return to the United States, he’s been trying to educate Americans about Africa. He describes the problems he’s encountered. "I stay in contact with some Nigerians here in the Washington area. As a matter of fact, I was talking with the guy yesterday I met at the supermarket. But anyway, many that I talk with here have in fact discouraged me from going back to Nigeria because of the conditions there. The corruption. Like the fellow yesterday was telling me that they very seldom go back themselves. But I would just like to see some of that kind of stuff alleviated or lessened either the tribalism; the everybody wants to get rich. When I lived there, I saw a lot of that and the common people of course were the sufferers and the “big man”, as the common say over there were the ones who were profiting and living better."

Reverend Walter Fauntroy is a former member of the U.S. Congress from Washington, D.C. He called in to share a unique perspective on why it is so important to build an African constituency among African Americans. He said "Politics in this country is ethnic. That is, people who come here from other counties have sought to influence public policy so that it benefits the people back home. I will never forget that in 1990, we had only the second and third non-heads of state to address the joint session of Congress. One was Lech Walesa of Poland. The other was Nelson Mandela. Lech Walesa gave an address, and I guess it got two ovations. One, when he got up and the other when he sat down. But he left with 500 million dollars in U.S. aid. Nelson Mandela gave a speech on the floor of the House, and it was interrupted 18 times. And he left with a pat on the back and say he can raise the money around the country.”

One caller to the show says African leaders are partly to blame for the lack of African American interest in issues affecting Africa because, he says, they do not invite African Americans to visit Africa. But others say this not the case. They point to the African-African-American Summit, which brings together African Americans and Africans every other year in Africa. Others mention organizations such as TransAfrica, which in the 1980s organized the “Free South Africa Movement” that contributed to ending apartheid. TransAfrica also lobbied against Nigeria’s military leaders in the 1990s. Still others point to organizations such as AfriCare, the largest and oldest African American organization, which has been involved in grassroots development in Africa for the past 30 years.

Nevertheless, the underlying theme heard from most callers was that any meaningful relationship between African-Americans and Africans on the continent must include grassroots African American individuals and institutions.

Talk radio host Joe Madison says he started the “Back to Africa” segment in his program to encourage the building of what he calls sustained bridges of understanding between African Americans and Africans on the continent.