ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Visitors to Africa will also find that the relationships between employers and employees are
much more diffused than in the United States. In Africa an employee frequently is called upon
to assume multiple roles. For example, a skilled worker coming to the home of a wealthy African
to repair the air-conditioner might find himself detailed to running to the store for some beer
Africa and Afro-American Identity
Problems and Possibilities
By Everett E. Goodwin
One afternoon last summer, while walking along a crowded, dust smogged street in Accra, Ghana, I overheard an exchange between two young Ghanaians and a fellow Afro-American. Upon spotting the Afro-American, the Ghanaians shouted out, Hey, Negro! The other took a few more steps, then whirled about and retorted angrily, Im a Black Man, not a Negro. Dont call me Negro. The Africans, while they recognized the term as pejorative, could not know the full extent of the distress they caused. The Afro-American was left trembling with anger and frustration. This was only one of the many misunderstandings between Africans and Afro-Americans which I witnessed and heard reported to me while in West Africa.
The Black Americans history in America can be thought of as a long struggle for identity as well as survival. While Blacks are deeply enmeshed in American society, they are not simply White Americans in Black face. They have succeeded in retaining and creating a strong variant culture of their own. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first to point out the two-ness experienced by Black Americans. He felt that the dual realities of their being both Black and American were never wholly reconciled.
In recent years young Afro-Americans have attempted to resolve this troublesome two-ness by emphasizing their Blackness. In addition, they have chosen to identify Blackness with their African inheritance rather than with their peculiar American experience. Their enthusiasm has sparked an African explosion in the States. African names, costumes and symbols have proliferated. Efforts have been made to transplant African life-styles. Thousands are looking to the Motherland for renewed pride and confidence.
It is only in recent years that numbers of young Afro-Americans have been able to find opportunities to visit the Motherland. Because of the intensity of their emotional involvement with their ideas of Africa, most of those who travel do not regard themselves as mere tourists. They expect to be greeted by Brothers not only of skin but also of spirit. They anticipate near instantaneous communion and relationships free of exploitation with their African kin. They believe that they will be entering countries where Black People are in control of their own destinies and where their own aspirations for influence and self-determination are resounded, even realized.
Largely because of their soaring expectations and lack of solid preparation, many young Afro-Americans who go to Africa are experiencing frustrations and coming away discouraged. Unfortunately, nothing can diminish the fact that all communications between those held captive and the Motherland were severed when the slave ships set sail. Distance and darkness were set between the captured and the roots of their own culture. The hostile circumstances of slavery forced the enslaved to make many cultural adaptations. Those who remained in Africa had no way of following the plight of their Brothers. While Africans today exhibit a great deal of enthusiasm for Black American entertainers, such as Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, James Brown, and heroes such as Muhammad Ali, they lack even minimal information concerning the average Afro-Americans past struggles, present challenges, family life, etc. Africans and Afro-Americans do share a basic heritage. Neither, however, understand the significance of the past 300 years of separation of how that separation can now be bridged.
There are several sources of the problems which disrupt communications between Africans and Afro-Americans. One of these is the economic distance which now exists between them. Much to their dismay, many Afro-Americans traveling in West Africa find themselves regarded first of all as Americans with money. They are victimized by what one might call a rich American syndrome. Prices for craft items and taxi service escalate as soon as they appear. Tradesmen gives them no slack in the unfamiliar bargaining processes. Many Africans approach them but with economic benefit rather than affirmation of Brotherhood in mind.
For many young people, especially those who go to Africa on limited budgets, this aspect of their encounter is particularly distressing. They can attempt to remind Africans that Afro-Americans have long been the economically depressed people of the United States. Africans are, however, generally quick to point out the fact that these tourists have sufficient resources to purchase transport across the Atlantic. They obviously have a great deal more money available to them than do the vast majority of Africans. They would expect to spend money if they were touring elsewhere and they should hold no different expectations for Africa. Of course, these mild forms of profiteering are not peculiar to Africa. It is just the fact that traveling Afro-Americans often have such lofty expectations of their encounter with Africans that the appearance of the same old human tarnish brings them such acute disappointment.
Attitudes Toward Whites
Another source of misunderstanding between Africans and Afro-Americans lies in their differing attitudes toward white people. Afro-Americans know that they have been grossly mistreated in the United States. They are also aware that the peoples of Africa have been exploited by whites over the course of centuries. Black American scholars and activist have written and spoken much about the common cause existing between Africans, Afro-Americans and others of the Third World. Many young travelers assume that they will find Africans sharing their own negative evaluations of white people.
The fact is, however, that the Africans experience with whites has been significantly different from the Afro-Americans. The European has always been in a minority position in Africa. In West Africa, he always had to bully or bribe African chiefs and dignitaries into his camp before he could carry on with business. Most Africans outside of the coastal areas knew of the European primarily, if not entirely, through African middlemen. Later, when the Europeans were entrenched as administrators, they usually handled themselves adroitly. The British, in particular, usually managed to maintain a correct if distant relationship with their African subjects. Many Africans still venerate European life-styles and standards.
Afro-Americans often display shock when they see what they consider overly deferential attitudes toward whites being assumed by Africans. On one occasion I even overheard an Afro-American berating a Ghanaian university student because the student had associated with three visiting young white Americans. The student was left dumbfounded. He simply could not relate to the strident tones and harsh content of the Afro-Americans race conscious rhetoric. Africans have their own race and revolutionary consciousness. They exhibit a growing sense of indignation toward exploitations by Europeans and other foreigners among them. They are increasingly able to affirm the values of African art and culture. Obviously these developments in Africa have been encouraged and enhanced by concurrent developments in the States. African young people respond to the message of Black and Proud. Africans feel themselves strengthened by the successes of Black people here. But theirs is a different scene. Their own struggles for unity and power must take different forms. The Afro-Americans cannot expect to transplant the American racial reality to Africa.
Ideas of Social Relationships
Another cause of misunderstanding between Africans and Afro-Americans lies in their differing concepts of appropriate social relationships. Visitors without an African orientation tend to react with indignation when they find relatives of their hosts serving in some of the same capacities as domestic help. They do not realize that any African who has acquired wealth and position also has been awarded a multitude of additional responsibilities by his family and fellows. Relatives with fewer resources generally feel free to send children to him for maintenance and education. If he is to remain in respect of traditional practices, the wealthy one cannot refuse the poorer ones even though his household might grow to unmanageable proportions. On accepting his additional charges, he gains only some increased authority over them. He must require that they make some contribution to his household in return for their upkeep.
Visitors to Africa will also find that the relationships between employers and employees are much more diffused than in the United States. In Africa an employee frequently is called upon to assume multiple roles. For example, a skilled worker coming to the home of a wealthy African to repair the air-conditioner might find himself detailed to running to the store for some beer or assisting the lady of the house with her groceries before he takes his leave. To Westerners steeped in the ways of modern industrial society where lines of specialization are adhered to strictly, such practices seem strange. While it might appear to the visitor that the employer is taking advantage of the worker, this is not the understanding of the people involved. Of course, salaries and fees paid in Africa are only a fraction of those paid here. Many workers feel the need of securing for themselves sources of financial aid or influential backing for times of difficulty. They are, therefore, eager to ingratiate themselves with wealthier, better established individuals by serving them beyond required limits. While the employer might receive the extra benefits initially, if the relationship continues, he will eventually find that he has built up a fund of obligation he must honor.
As it is, both the tradition of extended family responsibility and the overall economic situation encourage the African to accept relationships of authority and dependency which are practically unknown here. To the Afro-American who is aiming at achieving equality in all of his relationships, whether with parents or employers, these relationships appear demeaning. He sees in them shadows of a past he would prefer to forget. Unfortunately, number of visiting Afro-Americans have voiced profound distaste for the habits of their Brothers before they learned much about African society. When this has occurred it has served only to increase estrangement.
Styles of Speech and Dress
A fourth factor complicating the exchange between Africans and Afro-Americans is their differing standards of dress and speech. In the area of dress, young Americans have a penchant for wearing blue jeans. Not only do they find them comfortable, they also feel that wearing jeans identifies them with the plight of the common man, presumably African as well as American. Regrettably, Africans do not know of their symbolic importance. They cannot believe that rich Americans would wear such coarse clothing at home. Instead, they believe that the Afro-Americans who appear in them are dressing down to meet their poor cousins or ignorant people of the bush. They sometimes view the wearing of blue denim as a direct insult.
Likewise, the low-cut tops, bralessness and brief skirts or hot pants worn by many American girls for comfort, and also as symbols of their liberation from earlier repressive codes of dress and decorum, are not appreciated by Africans. African parents fear that the influence of young Americans will precipitate a decline of morals among their own youth. While there are some in Africa who wear little clothing, they are not so many as the National Geographic would lead us to believe. Most Africans today feel that the body should be covered.
It was the British rather than the Americans who set African standards for the use of the English language. As a consequence, many English-speaking Africans show a marked distaste for any but the proper British English. When they hear Black Americans using such idioms as dig it or groovy they are sometimes amused. Often they regard it as clear evidence of lesser breeding.
Americans have never been noted as gracious tourists. Coming from the richest and most modern of countries (in term of hardware), they are often impatient with the inconveniences and inefficiencies they find elsewhere. A vociferous people, they do not hesitate to let their dissatisfactions become known. Too readily they conclude that some deficiency in the other people is responsible for their lack of achievement and assume an air of moral superiority. As tourists, Afro-Americans display many of the same virtues and vices as other Americans. They also complain about lack of hot water or difficulty in finding a good hamburger. They also allow their personal discomfort to be expressed as impatience with any nearby person who might be held responsible.
Europeans and other frequently visited by Americans have had their own sense of pride in their traditions and accomplishments to shield them from the criticisms of Americans. Africa, however, has been described as the follower continent with relation to other parts of the world. Africans are painfully aware of this and are, with justification, extremely sensitive to any kind of criticism.
It is easy for Afro-Americans to make tactless comparisons between Africa and the States. Hot water is scarce, transportation erratic and dust thick. Few Americans are immediately, if ever, able to show enthusiasm for African food with its generous spicing of pepper. Few can show unqualified enthusiasm for African tastes in popular music, which includes American country and western, a form still linked in the minds of most Afro-Americans with the most virulent white racism. Many Afro-Americans feel compelled to say something about the ways in which the real Africa fails to meet their grand expectations. Probably they do not intend their comments to be hurtful. Most Africans could, however, appreciate a bit less honesty and a bit more diplomacy.
One final block to African-Afro-American rapprochement is white resistance. I have never met a white individual in the States, Europe or Africa who was anything but skeptical about the possibilities. The white-controlled media insist that Africans and Afro-Americans are wholly distinct as peoples. White academicians tend to require complex scientific proofs before giving any credence to cultural bonds.
White people feel that their attitudes reflect only the realities of the modern world. It seems more likely, however, that the roots are deeply embedded in the psyche. Perhaps, despairing of their own ability to reach and understand Africa and Africans, white people feel jealously and anger when Afro-Americans suggest that they might have some special basis for success. The attitudes could also proceed from residual racism and accompanying fear that Black people united would represent a sort of Black Peril.
Whatever its roots, there can be no doubt that white resistance has hurt Black cohesion. Whites still control most of the worlds resources and institutions. They feel that they can, therefore, control how many of these resources are allowed to assist Africans and Afro-Americans in their efforts to improve their communications and cooperation. White people have been able to place themselves in positions of authority as teachers, preachers and entrepreneurs throughout the Black world. Using these positions they can easily disseminate their messages of skepticism and cultivate distrust among Black people.
The problems involved in relating to Africans seem to force many young Afro-Americans who visit to arrive at conclusions about African significance for them which are unnecessarily restrictive. Some come away admiring only the primitive in Africa. They feel that the traditional culture alone is legitimately African and dismiss as unworthy and clearly tainted by Western influence the efforts of urbanized and educated Africans to improve their lot. Others come away impressed only by the fact that Black men do control the political structures in many African countries or that progress toward modernization is being made. They neglect exploration of the fantastic depth and fertility of the ages-old culture. Some return home completely disgruntled, claiming that they found nothing of value. Their communication and the deprivations which one must encounter when traveling in Africa submerge their sensitivities.
It is lamentable that barriers do exist and inhibit understanding between Africans and Afro-Americans, for our kinship is real and not so difficult to discover. Visit any African spiritualist church or village celebration and see if shades of the Fifth Baptist Church are not evoked. Ceremony and spontaneous dancing and singing are interwoven. All are free to participate, and sometimes the offerings of the least are appreciated above those of the most dignified. Africans are also keen at observation and skilled at detecting the humor in social situations. Their penchant for open debate in the chop bars and markets reappears in our barber shops and pool halls. Their debate, like ours, is often undertaken as much for the enjoyment as for the edification. Respect is given the man with the agile tongue and the ability to sway his audience. Go to any party given by Africans, sophisticated or not, and see if, while the language might be different, the feeling is the same. Someone once told me, Everytime you find four Afro-Americans together, theres a fifth and a party. The same is true in Africa, although the fifth might be replaced by a sizeable calabash of palm wine. Africans do not come together to engage in trite conversation but to enjoy.
In addition to their affinity of culture and character, Africans and Afro-Americans share the reality of being Black in a white-dominated world. While this reality might confront each a bit differently, it nevertheless exists for both. Both have been consciously excluded from critical social, political, and economic spheres. Both must now gain access to and overcome severe accumulated technical deficits. Each can be strengthened in efforts to deal with these momentous problems if he will pool wisdom and resources with the other. We must express our solidarity with African peoples now.
Experience of Africa is essential to the Afro-American who wants to enlarge and enrich his identity. A trip there is necessary step in his coming to understand himself as part of a vast, energetic, complex and wonderful people. Only interaction with Africa and Her people can illuminate the roots and full significance of many aspects of Afro-American culture. Coming to grips with the full extent of the exploitation, deprivation and potential in Africa must deepen the Afro-Americans sense of what it is to be Black in todays world.
While she can make substantial contributions, Africa cannot provide the answer to the Afro-Americans search for identity. While we are an African people, we are not Africans, nor are we white Americans. There is no reason why we should want to merge with either of these identities. Our own experience has provided us with much that is unique and of great value. Our particular challenge is to create and live an identity which recognizes our total heritage
Everett E. Goodwin, both of African and Afro-American Identity: Problems and Possibilities, is a resident of Washington, D. C.
Source: Black World May 1973 Vol. XXII No. 7 Chicago, IL 60605
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 16 March 2009 / update 1 January 2012