Thursday, May 19, 2016

Assumptions About Africa and Africans in North America

Africans are very familiar, in North America, with questions about 'living with lions, giraffes, cheetahs, etc.' or 'how come one speaks English so well' or that 'your English is so good!'

Such questions are usually a surprise, if annoying, when one initially arrives. Undoubtedly, the questions become denigrating, annoying and alienating. However, as one continues to live in North America, the effect of such questions starts to lose power.

Africans start to perceive the questions as born out of ignorance or complacency of people who don't want to know anything about others; or people who see others (and their national origins) as merely objects to be marveled about. These exotic others (people) are 'admired' as beings from places that sound good to be visited. Places of exotica as Chinua Achebe would say!

What's fascinating about the above questions isn't the assumed ‘ignorance’ that motivates them. What's fascinating is how we, as Africans, respond to these questions. What we tend to forget is the proverbialism or inveteratism which informs the normative aspects of given societies. North Americans are informed by a tradition that looks at Africa and Africans in a given light. And this given ‘light’ is the only thing available to them. It’s unrealistic to expect people to know what they don’t know. Annoying as they are, the above questions are informed by a long established pedagogical and scholarly tradition that sees Africa and Africans as objects of virtual and intellectual play.

Even when scholars rationalize Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ as an indictment of colonialism in Africa, his debasing description of Africans played into the hands of those who wanted to put Africans down.  With that in mind, however, it’s good to remember that the only people who can change that eschewed narrative is us!

As long the narrative available to North Americans takes Africans to be the Africans of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, then it would be unrealistic to blame North Americans. We need to change the narrative. However, instead of changing the narrative, we tend to either whine without producing and effective countering narrative, or we conform to the negative realities about us. But then we complain when we conform to them.

We use phrases such as Third Word, Black People etc. These terms do nothing but reinforce the available narrative about us. People are not chicken, goats and cattle to be identified by colors! And how do you agree with Martin Luther King that people shouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character but then move back to use the same color as people’s identity? This is the eschewed thinking that’s counter-productive.

People have cultures and traditions that inform their societal norms, mores and identities.  But we can’t blame people who have their own societies to protect and self-esteem to elevate. It’s not up to North Americans to change epistemologically into a narrative that’s not offered!

As long as North Americans don’t get formidable counter-narratives to inform them that the African of the 21st century is not the caricatured African of the 17th century, we’ll continue to be asked about lions in our backyards! A Zulu asked about Wolof. A Jieeng man asked about Ashanti. This is the very oversimplification (or deadening) of African cultures that’s killing our universal image.

Instead of getting angry at North Americans, we should inform them. Instead of conforming with their narrative, we should dismiss them with respectable alternatives offered. Instead of becoming simply a ‘black man’ in America or Canada, you should remain a Ghanaian.

We turn to help North Americans in their perception of us while whining about the same perception we are helping establish. Blackness was a cultural deconstruction and reconstruction of the African Personhood into a utilizable OBJECT!

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SELF-ESTEEM AND DISCRIMINATION

As someone who grew up in war conditions and lived as a refugee for a long time, I'm sometimes considered by many people in the 'west' to be prone to (or have) low self-esteem, be poor or illiterate. Living as refugees or displaced persons, who depended on the good will of others put people in a situation where they don't think much about themselves. But that's not everyone though.

As I stood by our front desk at my place work talking about Race and Identity in relation to my book, Is 'Black' Really Beautiful?, the issue of why many African peoples in North America become so over-sensitive when racial issues come up! For many rational people, this owes its origin to slavery and racial segregation.

But one of my coworkers, a person of European descent, was surprised to realize that her 'black' friend, a very intelligent woman, easily becomes irritated by simple things she [friend] considers racist. The friend considers any mention of a watermelon racist; and complains a lot about 'white privilege.' This means that discrimination is considered something 'whites' don't face because of 'white privilege.' In any discussion between 'blacks' and 'whites', 'white privilege' issue comes up!