Black History Month a two-way street for Africans

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Many feel more understanding is needed before all U.S. Blacks can celebrate together

“Many people always associate Black History Month with African Americans,” said Gambian Yankuba Jambang, a student at the University of Minnesota. “I didn’t know about it [Black History Month] when I was back home in Gambia. In a broader perspective, we can always include Africans.”

Jambang reasoned that since Africans and African Americans have all gone through years of segregation, colonization, slavery, and other forms of maltreatment, they should celebrate Black History Month together.

“It is important to have history in order to know where we are going,” said Dr. Richard B. Oni, a health consultant at the U of M and president of the Minnesota Institute for Nigerian Development. “The Black History Month creates an awareness of what people have gone through before coming to where we are today.

“I think it is important to know that, especially for our new generation that takes things for granted,” said Oni. “When the new generation doesn’t know what is going on, they think life was like this all the time.”

Jambang has another reason why Africans and their neighbors should celebrate Black History Month together: “Because many people were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World from Africa,” he said, “it would be difficult for Africans and African Americans to separate from each other.

“We cannot separate ourselves from the African Americans; their origin is Africa,” Jambang continued. “So, inasmuch as one would associate it [Black History Month] to the struggles against segregation in America, we should not be forgetful of the slave trade that started in Africa.”

Over the past few years, Africans have seen many African Americans returning to Africa to establish their roots. For them, it means Africans can welcome African Americans and cannot distance themselves from them.

“Can they [Africa Americans] do that?” asked Jambang. “They might try to separate from us [Africans], but in reality, you cannot.”

Jambang and others we interviewed believe that, on many occasions, African Americans try to isolate themselves from Africans for various reasons. “No matter how much worse the condition is, and no matter how bad Africa seems to be in terms of poverty and wars in our continent,” said Jambang, “the fact remains that they don’t call them ‘Americans.’ They use adjectives to classify them as African Americans. So, essentially, we are part of them and they are part of us.”

The other problem is that many people from Africa find it difficult to interact with African Americans. Africans here complain that African Americans sometimes “make fun” of their English accent when they, Africans, try to communicate with them. Africans feel more comfortable communicating with fellow Africans without “accent problems,” some of whom boast of speaking more than three African languages.

To understand Africans, Jambang and others say African Americans should try to understand that the African continent, known here as “the Motherland,” consists of 54 countries once colonized by other nations and the “European stock” (Britain, Portugal, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, etc.), as Baffour Ankomah, editor of the London-based New African magazine, describes them.

In view of this, there is a difference in the spoken English in Anglophone, Francophone, and other parts of Africa that is considered an “accent” in America.” Jambang and others agree that this problem can limit discussions with their neighbors.

Africans largely left out of celebrations

Funmi Olade, a Nigerian medical assistant, sees a division in celebrating Black History Month. For her, African Americans celebrate the month without recognizing the independent struggles in many African countries.
Her reasons for the rift: “Because they brought them [African Americans] here, they have to celebrate their freedom,” said Olade. “We celebrate our independence from Britain, France, Germany and others.”

Olade said she was unaware of Black History Month in her country, Nigeria. “We are happy we got our independence from the Whites,” said Olade, who sees the U.S. Black History Month as strictly an African American celebration.

Like Olade, many Liberians said they have heard about Black History Month but have never been invited by anyone to celebrate it in the Twin Cities or other places.

“I don’t have any idea on that, and I’m not following what is going on,” said Leo Massaquoi, a Liberian student at Hennepin Technical College. “I was a boy when I left Liberia; I heard people talk about it.”

Other Liberians interviewed also said they are unaware of any Black History Month activities in their community in Minnesota. “I don’t hear people talk about it,” Massaquoi, 25, emphasized. “I see it on TV… I’ve never been given the opportunity to [participate in] something like that.”

Blaming the media

Jambang blames the media for some of the rifts in the relationship between Africans and African Americans. “Because of the media, they [African Americans] think that nothing good is coming out of Africa,” he said.

The onus, according to him, lies with the African and African American media to educate their people on pertinent issues related to both communities. He suggests that some members of the African communities and public organizations should reach out to African Americans by sending articles to the media and “telling them about ourselves.”

“Some of these African Americans do not know about the realities on the ground in Africa,” Jambang complained. “Some of them see us as a threat here.”

Jambang said some of his friends at the University of Minnesota told him, “Many African Americans are angry. They thought we are given scholarships when we come here to study, sometimes given assistance in the housing market, and that they [African American] students who are receiving degrees in this country don’t have such opportunities.

“The law provides certain privileges to make sure that they fit into the society, and make something of themselves. Some of them [African Americans] don’t understand that,” said Jambang. “They just think that when we come here, the U.S. government just gives us money. There is a whole lot of misunderstanding, and things like that need to be addressed.”

A call for more dialogue

“I think it requires some of us to be educated on this,” said Oni, “and again it goes to the conflict between Africans and African Americans. We do know that we have the same root, but we have a different orientation.

“I think a lot of people say that what happened then [in U.S. Black history] happened to African Americans. But what happened then, if it continues, it is going to happen to Africans if we do not join the effort.

“I think what we need to do will require the leaders from both entities to reach out to each other and educate each party that this is a fight for all of us,” said Oni. “The moment we are here, we’re Africans in America. What happens to the African Americans happens to us every day. In a different way, we may have different types of issues, but it still goes back to the race issue.”

Oni wants leaders from Africans in the Diasporas and African Americans to start common dialogues. He also wants Africans and African Americans to see the problems affecting them as everybody’s issue. “Instead of saying this is an African American problem, we should see it as an African problem as a whole. And this requires leaders to really get down to working together.

“I did not know I was Black until I came to this country,” said Oni. “To me, where we all came from [Africa], there is no issue of Blackness. Everybody is Black, so nobody cares about the color. But, I realized I was Black when I came to this country.

“So I now value Blackness. I now see Blackness in a different light than I used to see it,” said Oni. “I think that is what is happening here.”

Coming together

Many people we interviewed told the Spokesman-Recorder that Africans and African Americans should come together in a forum to find ways to understand their different cultural backgrounds. To bridge the gap, Oni and others suggest that Africans and African Americans should organize workshops together to work on issues that are common to both communities.

“We should reach out to our African American brothers and sisters and tell them we are all the same,” suggested Jambang. “One thing I want to emphasize is [that] if people like Martin Luther King and other civil right activists did not stand up against the injustice, there wouldn’t be justice today.”

He believes Africans should join their African American brothers and sisters during Black History Month to celebrate “the efforts undertaken by their [African Americans’] great grandparents or grandfathers centuries ago in fighting against injustice in this country.”

“We should all acknowledge that,” said Jambang. “I mean, Africans who have been in this country should acknowledge the effort that African Americans played and the suffering they went through, too, as a people.”

Jambang said it is also important to remind people about Africa, since it is not long ago when the struggles for independence in Africa and against racial segregation in America ended. These days, memories and flashbacks of such struggles where many people were killed in Africa during the colonial era continue in silence. Africa still remembers Kwame Nkrumah, Bai Bureh, Patricia Lumumba and Thomas Sankara.

“They stood as a people. Many sacrificed their lives to make sure that their voices are heard,” said Jambang. “People like Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of other civil rights activists laid down their lives for the sake of freedom.”

Issa A. Mansaray welcomes reader responses to iamansaray@yahoo.com.

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