Are African-Americans a displaced tribe?

2015-03-15 20:30

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Bound examines the tense relationship between Africans and African-Americans.

A new documentary called Bound: Africans vs African Americans, aims to unveil the tense, complex and rarely talked-about relationship between Africans and African-Americans.

Actor Isaiah Washington, a co-producer on the film, opens the discussion in the documentary’s trailer.

“There will be two people of colour in a class. One African and one African-American. And they will not look at each other. For fear of what?”

By gathering black Africans and Americans together in a room, writer and film maker Peres Owino aims to start a long-overdue conversation.

Why would some African-Americans rather forget their heritage? And what are the stereotypes surrounding both groups?

“I was called an African booty scratcher I don’t know how many times,” says one interviewee in the trailer. I’m not even sure what an African booty scratcher is. I don’t know if it’s a stick you scratch your back with.

“But it’s a term we've been calling each other since we were children. Typically, the darker you are, the more you get called it.”

Some Africans wonder about the presumed indifference to the African experience from their American counterparts. But questions of identity are not particular to this group and, as a white South African, the issue of displaced identity is not new to me.

“Africans wonder about African-Americans,” says Owino. “They wonder: ‘Why don’t they want to learn about Africa? Why is it that the Europeans are so interested in learning about my culture, but my African-American brothers aren’t?’”

Perhaps the reason is simple. I, for instance, don’t feel any particular attachment to the Netherlands where, looking at my surname, I am probably from. I am indifferent to its people and its happenings; I don’t even support their ­football team. I definitely don’t identify as Dutch.

But then I remember that if I did identify as Dutch, it wouldn’t come with the baggage that associating with being African does – those ill-conceived stereotypes of violence, barbarism and primitivism. I wouldn’t be putting my value as a South African citizen in danger, as African-Americans would.

As the recent protests in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York show us, black Americans need to constantly affirm their “Americanness” – their right to exist as equal and valuable citizens – identifying with being African would seem like saying they don’t really belong.

The US is still racially divided and black Americans must fight tooth and nail to have their lives valued as much as white Americans. Funny, seeing that white Americans aren’t the country’s indigenous people.

Dr Joy DeGruy, author of the book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, speaks to this issue extensively in the documentary.

“If you’re taught that everything that is black is to be despised, then I really hate the reflection. Not in white people, but in black people, because you remind me of my nothingness.”

Owino presents African-Americans as a displaced African tribe, but this might be too neat an analogy. They are displaced, but would hardly be able to mesh with Africans if they were to return. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if they’ve been fully accepted as American either.

As a result of slavery, they are a tribe in limbo, with no home. This is perhaps why the idea of Africa as the motherland – a place where they can be sheltered, a place to come home to, might seem appealing.

Many black Americans have embraced their African heritage as a point of pride, tracing their lineage back to its roots.

Oprah Winfrey is supposedly from the Kpelle tribe in Liberia, Quincy Jones from the Mbundu or Kimundu ethnic group in present-day Angola, and Whoopi Goldberg from an ethnic group in Guinea-Bissau.

Washington traced his bloodline to Sierra Leone and became the first African-American to be granted full citizenship to an African country based on his DNA.

Despite this move towards integration, there is still one area of fierce contention.

An incendiary point in the documentary is the idea that Africans should pay African-Americans reparations for selling them into slavery.

“When I was in Kenya, all I wanted to do was connect with African-Americans,” says Owino. “I thought: Every African-American I meet, I want to give a piece of Africa. But the first African I met told me: ‘I am not from Africa. I’m from North Carolina, and you people sold us.’” This saddened Peres, since this idea plays into Western stereotypes.

The system that allowed people to be sold into slavery was set up by white people, so who is to blame? But slavery wasn’t a uniquely Western concept; African tribes bought and sold slaves long before Westerners landed on their shores.

Ultimately, Owino’s documentary aims to foster a healthy curiosity between Africans and their American counterparts. Bound scratches the surface of a long-overdue conversation on a complex relationship.

The documentary brings to light an issue that remains relevant, but up until now has not had a clear discussion around it. Bound should act as a starting point for more honest conversations about these issues.

Watch the trailer for Bound on Vimeo

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