A Reaction to "Divided by a Common Color"

By Winston E. Beysolow

The Perspective

March 8, 2001

I sense a compelling need to react to Harald Franzen's article, "Divided by a Common Color", that appeared in the Africana.Com Internet website on January 25, 2001. In the article Mr. Franzen brought to light an unwholesome situation in Harlem, New York between African-Americans, and residents that immigrated to America from Africa - predominantly from Senegal. In the article Mr. Frazen shared remarks and opinions expressed by members of both groups and objectively called attention to the situation. My concern is that the problem could open a Pandora's box if not put into perspective and discussed beyond the scope of his article. The article is poignant, and it affords all people of goodwill an opportunity to generate meaningful dialogue toward bridging the state of cynicism that exists between these two groups of people of the same race.

In Mr. Franzen's Article, Africans from the Continent (AFC) claim that African-Americans do not accept or respect them because they are from a different cultural background, and because they do not speak English fluently. They feel that they do not have much in common other than the fact that they are both of African origin. Accordingly, they have decided to "keep their distance" and fellowship exclusively amongst themselves. African-Americans claim that AFC manifest disrespect toward them in many ways. They claim that AFC have neighborhood stores that they use more like community centers than as stores. They claim AFC congregate in these stores to socialize, and when they get in conversation with their compatriots, they speak in their African language and keep going on with complete disregard for them as customers waiting to be served. They admit that Africans from the Continent work hard but do not get involved with the community or in community activities. African-Americans see this as an affront to them in their own country.

My effort in this article is not to justify not to defend the action of Africans from the Continent (AFC) or African-Americans in Harlem, New York, but rather to initiate the kind of dialogue that will broaden the discussion toward enhancing a better understanding and appreciation for their respective cultures and circumstances. I see this effort as an important first step toward bridging the schism that characterizes the relationship within the Black Race in Harlem, New York.

It is a known fact that the people of Africa are not a homogenous group. They come from separate and distinct ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Added to the ethnic cultural divide is the fact that the Republic of Senegal, like Cote d' Ivoire and Guinea are francophone countries, meaning they speak French as their official language. Furthermore, these countries were once colonized by France, just as Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone to name a few, were colonized by the British and are anglophone countries, and that English is their official language. Although all of Africa was not colonized in the conventional sense, colonization added another dimension to the African experience. Historically ethnic differences in African countries have often degenerated into rivalry and or hatred. Africa is beset by these differences, and many African countries have to grapple with the fear and trauma that result from war and acts of dehumanization meted out to them particularly by fellow Africans.

Moreover, the horrors of war have rudely awakened the consciousness of the world to the plight of the African people. War has devastated several African nations and peoples to the extend that it was manifested in South Africa, the Biafran (Nigerian) civil war of the 1960's and 1970's, and in other countries such as Sudan, Mozambique, Somalia, Angola, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Peoples of Africa have been traumatized by ethnic animosities, by colonialism, and by war. In recent wars they witnessed the most gruesome examples of man's inhumanity to man. In some of these countries they saw the maiming of minor children, the decapitation of their fellowmen, disembowelment of pregnant women, and in other cases people saw their property being looted or destroyed. For others their wives, mothers, sisters, and minor children were raped. Many of our people that went through these horrifying experiences have emerged introverted, traumatized, cynical, sensitive, and overly protective of themselves and whatever property they were able to salvage, or managed to have acquired since their ordeal.

The attitude of Africans from the Continent (AFC) has to be addressed against this background of experiences. Africans coming to America from war torn countries usually bring along their burdens and sad memories, not to mention the level of inhibition and cynicism that is normally associated with experiences such as they have had. The present generation of African-Americans cannot identify with these experiences, and this generation of AFC seem not to have yet elevated their level of understanding, awareness, and concern to the African-American struggle in the US. It is insensitivity to these facts by both groups that tend to exacerbate the apparent state of tension between them.

Most People from Anglophone countries come to America well versed in the English language and Western culture, but speak with an accent, which is often foolishly equated with being backward or unable to speak English. Some AFC come to the US with misgivings about whether the African-American community will accept them, and this gives them cause to feel ostracized when they enter the country. As a result they find solace in fellowship only with each other because they share a cultural identity and a commonality of interests. Some African-Americans on the other hand may not be inclined to fellowship with AFC because they have been led to believe that the AFC have a superiority complex, and also because they do not share a common culture and a commonality of interests. There are AFC as well as African-Americans, who do not subscribe to this line of thinking, but neither side is making any effort to reach out and so the misunderstanding ensues.

Regarding commonality of culture between AFC and African-Americans, Mr. Franzen's refers to a long time resident of Harlem, Mr. Daniel Perez, who feels that AFC will "have to change their ways." Perez is annoyed by the daily Islamic call to prayer at sunrise. "They call it prayer, I call it disturbing the peace," says Mr. Perez. I know many AFC non-Muslims who find the Islamic call to prayer equally disturbing. The call to prayer is an Islamic ritual or practice, and Islam is already a growing African-American religion in the US. It could equally be argued as well that African-Americans disturb the peace when they place heavy stereo speakers in their cars and blast through the neighborhood with their revolting hip hop music; but this kind of exchange only serves to perpetuate the state of tension between the two groups.

Here in the US as in most countries of the world, demographics tend to draw an imaginary line of demarcation that distinguishes the cultural diversity between the various sections of the country. Cultural differences exist in the US as well. African­Americans like all other residents that live below the Mason Dixon line are of a cultural orientation that is southern,
and as such they are often labeled as conservative or backward. African-Americans, like all Americans that live above the Mason-Dixon Line, are of a cultural orientation that is northern, and they are often labeled as liberal. People from the south speak with a distinctive accent, and they have a disposition or demeanor that is conservative. Other Americans tend to ridicule or look down on people from the South. Northerners are supposedly exposed and because of their "sophistication" they regard southerners as country, a label that relegates southerners as backward or rather unenlightened. African-Americans are having their own trauma in the US regardless of whether they are southerners or northerners. There seems to exist a form of neo-colonialism brought on by the indignities of racial hatred that have not completely gone away. The question is not whether or not racism exists in the US; the real question is how well it is disguised. In view of the reality of racism, some African-Americans question why Africans from the Continent (AFC) come to America and enjoy privileges that many of them feel to be out of their reach. They also wonder why Africans from the Continent have an attitude about themselves, but interestingly enough AFC also wonder why African-Americans displayed similar attitude.

On a personal note, I am originally from the Republic of Liberia, and now I am a resident in the US. Although Liberia was never colonized in the conventional sense, it is an Anglophone country because English is spoken as its official language. I did my undergraduate studies in the USA 1968-1971 and received my undergraduate Degree (BA). Thereafter, I returned to Liberia to make my contribution to the development of my country. I returned to America in 1987, and later decided to pursue graduate studies. I attended graduate school 1996-1998 and received my Masters Degree (MSQA). I shall return to my homeland, but only at such time when war and rumors of war shall have subsided and the country is back upon a course toward normalcy. I have been blessed through the years in many special ways, and I understand the sentiments expressed by African-Americans about what they perceive as privileges that Africans from the Continent enjoy that they believe are not within their reach. Africans come to the US with a yearning for freedom and opportunity, but with an equal determination to return to their homeland more accomplished than they were upon entering this country. If it requires pursuing higher education then they will pursue that end. The notion that most AFC in the US come from affluent or well-educated families might have been the case years ago, but the realities of present day Africa have changed the dynamics of life for most of its people.

However, It is important that those who read this expose¢ do not go with the impression that all AFC came to America because of war in their homeland. Many of us came to the US on our own volition. Some came directly from Africa, and others came from other countries where they resided before or after the proliferation of war in their homeland. In spite of the conditions or circumstances that prompted different peoples of Africa to come to America, the common denominator is that most of them come to America because this country affords peoples of the world the freedom to live in peace and the opportunity to do the best for themselves.

In Mr. Franzen's article, he quotes a Dr. Raymond Winbush (in a reference to the AFC in Harlem, New York) as follows " they want to distinguish themselves from African-Americans assuming that whites will make the same distinction." Certainly the two groups of people are of the same race, but their cultural differences are manifested in ways other than the fact that Africans from the Continent speak with a distinctive accent. It does not take a Rocket Scientist to make that distinction. White people make that distinction every day. I will seize this moment to share an experience I have had with some white Americans, and will refer to it as the Caucasian theory. Many white people feel that Africans from the Continent (AFC) are privileged to be in the US because of American goodwill. The theory follows that African-Americans, on the other hand have a right to be here because they are bonafide citizens with equal rights as white people, and with no intention to leave the US to go anywhere. White Americans seem fascinated with other cultures and the African culture and peoples seem to be of interest to them. AFC are aware of this and don't mind "milking" it for all that it is worth. This is not a superiority complex it is simply a matter of seizing the moment.

The theory follows that AFC will eventually return to their countries, and even if they experience racial tension while in the US they regard it as a minor sacrifice in exchange for what they are privileged to attain while in the US. I have run into some of my African brothers who give credence to the Caucasian theory, but I do not subscribe to it. I am eternally grateful for the privileges I have had in the US, and will return to Africa in due course, but I do not agree that racial indignity is a quid pro quo for living in America, any more than I believe that African-Americans should be denied their God given rights that the US constitution portends to uphold.

In the article Mr. Franzen quotes one Mr. Moussa Geuye, a Senegalese resident, as making the following remark about African-Americans: "They have to understand we don't have the same experience. A lot of them have no dignity. And even they're not born in slavery but the legacy is still there." If this is what he said, then I find his remark interesting, because his country (Senegal) was once colonized by the French. Even where Mr. Geuye and his generation were not born during the era of colonization, would it follow also that the "legacy" is likely still "there" as well? Since there is no factual reference for this remark attributed to Mr. Geuye, one could cynically apply the same logic and suggest that colonization has had an impact on the psyche of the present generation of Senegalese. In Senegal, like the Cote d' Ivoire, the French Government and peoples are still forces to reckon with. I think Mr. Geuye's view could form the basis for an interesting study.

In the same article, Mr. Franzen refers to a report from the Center for Research on Immigration Policy in Washington, D.C., which places median household income for Africans from the Continent (AFC) at $30,907 and African-Americans at $19, 533 based on 1990 statistics. Based on the report, 47% of African immigrants coming to the US have a college degree while 14% of African-Americans hold a college degree. It is not clear the reason for quoting these statistics, but I will attempt to interpret it within the context of my expose¢. The educational system of a typical developing African country has for many years been geared toward the attainment of a college education as the main measure of success. To achieve less was tantamount to underachieving. Industrial pursuits were limited because the economies were mostly agricultural, and it could be argued that this is still the case in most African countries.

This is not the case in US America is a developed and industrialized country with an economic system that does not rely on a college education as the only yardstick for determining success or failure. It is a country where opportunities span the entire economic spectrum with or without a college education. Many Africans would feel just as fulfilled with a vocational certificate or less if their economies were centered on comparable levels of enterprise and remuneration for service rendered. No doubt a college education is preferable in the US as anywhere else, but relative to the situation in developing economies, the standard of living of an American minimum wage earner is comparable to the standard of living of middle level managers in many third world countries. But a college education is not a panacea for success within the American experience.

Median income quoted in this article was calculated on the income of a few AFC, compared to the statistics of a whole population of African-Americans. So when viewed in that light those figures are like comparing apples to oranges. They do serve a political purpose but the statistical significance appears to be illusory. It is obvious that income disparity would exist even amongst different groups of African-Americans. It does not make any group superior, it only shows the income levels of one group compared to that of another group.

In spite of the cultural, economic, and political differences between the peoples of this world, all cultures seem to converge into the "American melting pot." People come to the US from all walks of life, they bring along with them their cultures, which seem to diffuse into the American mainstream like wildfire. Americans are an adventurous people, and so they tend to inject new cultures into their own with relative ease. This is evidenced by the rate of intermarriage between the two groups, which I believe is a significant step toward bridging the circle of cynicism between them. In spite of the optimism that could emanate from this trend, Africans from the Continent (AFC) need to understand that it is counter productive to isolate themselves and ostracize African-Americans in their own country, as seems to be the case in Harlem. Then both sides need to exercise tolerance, and work toward building the kind of esprit de corps that will enable them to understand and appreciate their respective circumstances.

Regarding the African influence on African-American culture, it is only a matter of placing a claim on what is rightfully theirs. It is just as natural for African-Americans to wear the African Corn Roll hair style, the African Kente Garment, or proudly sing KUMBAYA, as it is for struggling peoples of Africa to come to the US for asylum with the song of WE SHALL OVERCOME in their hearts. In other words, no matter how differences in people may be manifested the truth is that the more different we may appear to be the more the same we really are. It is exactly as Harald Franzen conveys it in his article, Africans from the Continent and African-Americans need to appreciate the plight of each other and realize that they both yearn for the same thing. It is only when both groups can see one another in a fair and factual manner that they will move closer toward reaching the understanding that has always eluded them. both groups must begin to embellish the things that unite them instead of belaboring the things that divide them; and then they must proudly exercise their God given freedom TO BE, and the opportunity to prove that they are worthy in the sight of God.

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