Harlem, N.Y., the cultural capital of African America, played host to a community dialog entitled "The Umoja Principle" last December, as American-Africans and African-Americans explored the conflicts and successes of living shoulder-to-shoulder in New York City.
The latest in a series of events conceived by the cultural assessment project "Mapping New Terrain: Communities in Transition", the event focused on the impact of globalization in urban areas. The project provides unique forums for civic engagement and opportunities for building strategic partnerships in communities undergoing change. Harlem is one such community.
Held at the PCOG Gallery at 1902 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, the discussion was organized by Dorothy Dsir, director of Community Arts Initiatives for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and was co-sponsored by The AFRican.
The gallery was converted into a small auditorium to host a panel comprised of entrepreneurs, activists, publishers and academics from all corners of the African world. Participants focused on challenges engendered by the newfound urban proximity of continental and Diasporan Africans in the Big Apple.
"It was an exciting time to be here," recounted panelist Dr. Rashida Abubakar about her days as a newly arrived African exchange student in 1960s New York.
"I was part of a young group of artists who believed that we were going towards an anti-colonial destination." Driven by the optimism of newly independent African nations, students of all disciplines poured into New York City, seeking to re-connect with their cousins across the Atlantic. "Nkrumah had said, 'Africans here had to go back, and Africans there had to come here,'" in what Abubakar described as a marriage to re-unite the complete African personality.
The professors overwhelmingly positive recollection of those heady days was tempered by the tale of Vigil Chime, a Nigerian-American filmmaker and producer of the public access television show, African Life.
"African-Americans told us things about Africa, and we would wonder where they got that from," said Chime, describing her youth as a young immigrant in Texas. "In Nigeria, my father was an architect and lived among the elite," said Chime, whose family was bewildered by the discrimination they faced from their Texas neighbors. It wasnt until her experience as an educator in the New York City public schools system that she came to understand the roots of the schism between the two groups.
"I found myself in Harlem teaching children. The children were greatjust as I had misconceptions about African-Americans, my God, they had misconceptions about Africans!"
After vacillating between law school and film school, Chime settled on her love of celluloid and began producing films. Her time with the children inspired her to create African Life, which chronicles the day-to-day activities of Africans living in New York.
Linda Howard Smith, the CEO of the haute African furniture store Ashanti Origins, gave an African-American perspective to the discussion. A well-traveled attorney, who has lived in South Africa, Howard Smith talked about her dedication to forging a commercial link between the continent and the United States, and her disappointment in the bald commercialism of some African crafts traders.
"Many Africans came to sell to African-Americans, not to become business partners. A lot of them engaged in what we call the suitcase trade," lugging mass-manufactured sculptures to Black cultural festivals across the country. She, along with her Ghanaian husband Kwabena Smith, decided to create a company that could present African craftsmanship in a dignified way and help it retain value. "We create the product, bring it to the US market, and control it," she said.
Akpan Oton, publisher of The AFRican, also added his unique point of view as the product of a pan-African union between a Nigerian and an African-American of West Indian descent.
Having grown up in Nigeria however, he initially knew very little of the Black world across the water. "Our perception of African-Americans wasnothing. African-Americans were incidental in the American movies we saw. Our strongest image of them came from music," he added, but they remained largely unseen on screen until the blaxploitation film revolution of the 1970s.
Oton also touched upon the use of the derogatory Yoruba term akata to refer to African-Americans, tracing its evolution from a term in a popular Nigerian sketch comedy show to its pervasive use today. Ascribing his own eventual embrace of a pan-African ethos to the influence of his father, Oton ascribed the tensions between Africans and African-Americans to a lack of perspective about the complexities of the African world.
"My father experienced what African-Americans went through when he lived in the United States as a student. I grew up in Nigeria knowing about the Middle Passage. I knew about slavery," said Oton. He stressed that his experience was far from typical.
Rounding out the panel was Umberto Brown, the international secretary of the Black Radical Congress, who also embodied an amalgam of African identities. A Panama-born activist of Jamaican descent, Brown recalled being inspired by African-American political militancy in much the same way Professor Abubakar had been.
"I knew African-Americans through James Baldwin and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. It forced me to understand my identity," said Brown.
His sojourn as a long-time Harlem resident also contributed to his rejection of what he described as the Social Darwinism of Latin America, the blanciamiento or whitening policies of many Latin American governments, which legitimized color prejudice in a quest to lighten the regional complexion through European immigration. "There's a history of relationships between African-Americans and Africans, Afro-Latinos, Haitians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. To fight oppression in the 21st century, we have to move from imagery to the root of the problem."
Desir closed the panel by asking the animated audience to focus on what she described as empowering solutions. Rather than wallowing in the mire of endemic racism, she advised listeners to define their own identities and defy imposed ones. "We can dismantle discourses that were invented about us and rewrite our own narratives," said Desir.