Girmai Lemma is from Ethiopia but has lived in Chicago for many years.
He does not consider himself to be African-American- Lemma says he is African. And he’s not alone in saying so. Constant tensions between African-Americans and non U.S.-born Africans refute the notion that the term “African-American” is interchangeable with black. In the eyes of many native-born blacks and African immigrants, it isn’t.
“It would have been nice if we had a good relationship with African-Americans, but we don’t,” Lemma said.
How Lemma defines himself may be irrelevant to the larger American society. But within the black community, less than 2 percent are Africans. Lemma said that in the United States all black people are put in the same group.
“When we came from Ethiopia, we never thought we would be discriminated here,” Lemma recalled. “[The police] follow you all the way until your house. It is a suburb; not too many blacks living there. When they see you, what is black is black, until they hear your accent.”
While that might make police look favorably on African immigrants, it also cuts the other way.
Eugene Peba, originally from Nigeria, believes his accent causes African-Americans to look down upon him.
“We don’t sound like they sound,” he said. “It is a little bit weird. We think that they would say, ‘This is my brother,’ but there is a little bit of resentment.”
Garrard McClendon, who hosts a show on CLTV that often focuses on African-American issues, said those feelings of resentment go both ways. African Americans, he noted, can feel disrespected by immigrants, “because immigrants don’t see us taking advantage of the [opportunities] we already have.”
McClendon blames the media for perpetuating stereotypical images of black people as criminals, underemployed or womanizers. And African immigrants, noted a Chicago educator, pick up on those cues.
David Stovall, who teaches African-American and education studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, agrees that Africans have preconceived notions of African-Americans-some positive, some negative. “When people come to the states they already have an image of what black life is,” Stovall said.
He adds that some African immigrants see black people in the United States as a source of community. Others, however, wish to distance themselves from them.
The source of the tension, Stovall said, is that Africans don’t understand the history of oppression black people faced in American. Additionally, there are those American blacks who are unaware of the turmoil that Africans faced in their homeland. According to Stovall, the problem stems from an inability on both sides to communicate and engage each other’s history.
Though both groups have roots in the same continent, their histories and experiences differ significantly. To some, the American black community and the African immigrant community sometimes segregate themselves.
“Most of the African people seem to group among themselves,” said Alice Ogbarmey-Tetteh, a Ghanaian who has been living in Chicago for more than 30 years. “They have to learn how to socialize outside their community. If you want to survive in America you have to learn the system.”
A ‘different America’
From a sociological point of view, it is not simply a matter of integration between both groups. Mosi Ifatunji, race and ethnicity professor at UIC, explained African immigrants are unable to understand why African-Americans are still upset about racial discrimination-the immigrants arrived at a point when it was formally over.
“African immigrants are seeing a different America, and therefore have a different set of expectations,” Ifatunji said. “African immigrants are not upset with American whites about slavery.”
For many black Americans, it is still hard to not have resentment against whites,” the professor noted.
“To simply forget about the past for African-Americans is sort of to throw their ancestors under the bus,” Ifatunji said.
As for the children of African immigrants who were raised in the United States, they too may feel distanced from the African-American community.
“When you come from Africa to United States, your identity is formed by the African-American experience,” said Oluwabukola Adeyinka, who arrived from Nigeria when she was 5. “But I’m African. I have been my entire life.”
Adeyinka explained that older generations of Nigerians, like her father, have stereotypes of African-Americans as lazy and dangerous, despite having lived in the U.S. for years. The distance between the American black and African immigrant communities is particularly apparent for immigrants during the census count. Although they may not identify themselves as “African-Americans,” they have only a single choice on the census form to identify their race: “Black,” “African-American” or “Negro.”
Other races and ethnicities, though, have several categories from which to choose.
This category is particularly troubling for Africans who don’t consider themselves “black.” “Ethiopians are a little lighter-skinned than black,” Lemma said.
Despite the tensions, there are some-like United African Organization Director Alie Kabba-who think both groups should unite as minorities in the United States.
“I think that in terms of electoral processes, Africans and African-Americans can generally work together,” Kabba said. “The same issues that [affect] the African community, also have an impact on the African-American community.”
Ifatunji thinks the discussion shouldn’t be whether black groups could merge culturally, but rather can they enhance common political interest.
“Your cultural traditions-let it be your cultural traditions. Your history-let it be your history,” he said. “But political, if nothing else, we have a common interest across all lines of color against white supremacy.”