How African are African-Amercians?

2011-03-03 00:00

WE'VE just seen the end of African or Black History Month in the United States. In February, African-Americans commemorate the heritage and history of Africa, professing their undying commitment to the continent and the people of Africa. The question that I have always asked myself is how genuine is their commitment?

When I was growing up I felt very proud that people as "civilised", advanced and gifted as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and to some degree Michael Jackson referred to themselves as black people. Even though to me they looked like what we call coloureds here in South Africa, I took my hat off to them that they insisted that they were black people. I was also impressed that they rejected the term coloureds — a term that at the time in South Africa was associated with physical beauty.

I felt encouraged that despite the conditions black people were subjected to then in South Africa, there were other black people elsewhere in the universe who were living the dream, but were not ashamed to be associated with we who lived here in Africa.

Recently, Busani Ngcaweni and Dumisani Hlophe wrote in one of the Sunday newspapers that those African people who are obsessed with the debate on who is African and who is not African are people who are guilty of conduct and lifestyles that are anathema to anything called African. They wrote: "It is a soul-searching exercise for African identity by those who have suddenly realised the widening gap between them and their cultural roots." I believe the same can be said of Americans who insist on being called African-Americans.

The only things that are African about black folk from the U.S. are their skin and their African ancestry. Those who publicly profess their love for and commitment to the African continent are merely romanticising Africa. Kissing the soil while shedding pre-packed tears when landing in "Mother Africa", is nothing but an act which means absolutely nothing.

If African-Americans are so passionate and committed to the continent of Africa, why don't we see them coming in droves to stay in the "motherland" permanently so that they can contribute to its development? Their wearing of Nefertiti-style turbans, Ghanaian fabrics, Egyptian jewellery and bright African colours is akin to us wearing Zulu, Xhosa or Swati regalia on Heritage Day — just plain and pure romanticism, signifying nothing.

When I was a young boy, I wanted to identify with African-Americans. I wanted to look like them. Now I don't anymore. I have resigned myself to the fact that the challenges facing black people of Africa will only be solved by the black people of Africa.

Multi-award-winning film-maker and progressive African history writer Owen 'Alik Shahadah has criticised Black History Month in that it has become a marketing month providing opportunities to advertise and sell more goods. According to Shahadah, Black History Month "focuses more on celebrities than on ancient African history".

It is fitting therefore to salute those African-Americans who have left the comfort and riches of the U.S. to come and give true meaning to the concept of being an African-American. There are a few of them — African-American women who understood early in life that marrying a South African man is not tantamount to surrendering oneself to incurable diseases and unspeakable poverty, and African-American men who are clear that there is nothing antiquated and backward about living under the African sky.

These people I salute. As for the rest of them, they come to this country and this continent as tourists with their "clean" bottled water, mosquito nets and their binoculars ready to catch a glimpse of a lion and chimpanzees as soon as they land at OR Tambo. Unfortunately their rhetoric does not impress me any more.

• Sihle Mlotshwa is an independent social commentator.

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