Are Africans Exempt from the Black Struggle in America?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Sometime in August last year, I had dinner at the home of a friend, a former diplomat in the erstwhile Obama administration. The food was great! The conversation…? Interesting. It was me, her [a Black woman] and two of her older White male neighbors — one a retired executive of a large manufacturing company, the other a former Medical professor at a leading US college. Good people, I am sure!

“So, you are from Ghana, I heard” one of the men, quizzed? “Yes, from Ghana, West Africa”, I replied. He went on to ask, “how long have you been in America?”, “two years and a few months,” I said, and the conversation went on for a while. After a couple of minutes of delightful banter, he asked, “I had an African [Nigerian] student, tell me, you Africans and African Americans do not get along…is this true?” to which I responded,

“the perceived bad blood between Africans and African Americans is rooted in colonialism and racism among other things — whether true or not is immaterial”.

“it is always dangerous here if you are Black”.

In my experience, many Africans living in the United States do not consider the struggles of African Americans against racism, police brutality, and white supremacy, their own struggle. This posture in itself is sponsored by colonialism and white supremacy which causes some African immigrants to commit the howler that they are better than their African American counterparts. The reverse is often true as well. Lorretta also told me that while growing up in America, she always struggled to belong. She was “neither White nor Black enough”. She continued “being Ghanaian only recently became cool”. I get it — both sides.

Protesters in Downtown Cleveland. Photo by Sam Allard/Cleveland Scene

The murder of George Floyd by the white police officer, Derek Chauvin, and his accomplices, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao have sparked protests all across America and many other cities of the world; London, Paris, The Hague, Sydney, etc. Take note of how African cities such as Accra [the champion of the #YearofReturn] were conspicuously missing!

When I decided to attend the Black Lives Matter protest on Saturday, in Downtown Cleveland, I was very clear in mind, why?

Saturday, May 30th, 2020. Downtown, Cleveland
Saturday, May 30th, 2020. Downtown, Cleveland
Protesting in Downtown Cleveland, Ohio
  1. I am a Black man. Six-foot tall and distinctly dark-skinned. That in itself by American standards is dangerous. Please don’t ask why…
  2. My children will be Black and so will my grandchildren and I don’t want to worry that they might get killed by the police or get the police called on them by the likes of Amy Cooper, or get racially profiled or denied basic human dignity because of the color of their skin
  3. The past and future of Africans [home or abroad] and that of African Americans is intricately intertwined even if the present doesn’t seem that way

It is never lost on me that I am a Black man first before I am African or African first before I am Black or whatever comes first even though there should never have been the need to make this distinction or even imply it.

When I first moved to America in the fall of 2017 to begin my studies toward a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University, I lived with my friend and professor, a Harvard educated African American, his wife, an MIT educated African American engineer, and three children for one full year. Conversations on race within the American context, Ghana, and in the diaspora as a whole, was a dinner table staple. These conversations helped deepen and crystalize my understanding of race as an African. That same year, I helped in his research to pull together his keynote address at the 2017 Progress Institute where he asked the central question: “What if We Got Really Serious About Racial Equity in Cleveland?”

When his whole family moved to Ghana in 2014 for his 6-month sabbatical, the goal among others was to ensure that his children learned that their struggles or triumphs as African Americans were not disconnected from the struggles and triumphs of an African like myself. More of this bridge-building is required!

The reality of my non-exclusion from police brutality or racism even though I had largely enjoyed what my friends, Jessica and Lauren termed “International Privilege” was even more real to me after a late-night conversation with my host mom.

On September 1, 2017, barely a month after I arrived in America, I had this conversation with my host mom after a late night out with friends, two blocks from the house… this is how it was recorded in my journal;

“I had drinks with [redacted] and [redacted], both classmates… we were at the Academy Tavern…down the street…we were there till around 11 pm-ish…[Host mom] texted a few times but I didn’t see any of the texts…when I got home, she was still up waiting for me.. She chastised me about staying out that late at night…She reminded me of ‘my vulnerability [the vulnerability of my black skin] and lack of innocence in this space; this place called America…’ This reminded me of the vulnerability and violence unleashed on the black body Ta Nehisi Coaste speaks of in “Between the World and Me” which I read shortly before coming to America.

I captioned this journal entry “fear”, a fear that stays with every day as I make my way through this America, the America Childish Gambino speaks of in his song “This is America”.

This conversation was one that I know every black mom has had with their black son. It doesn’t matter if they were African or African American. It is a conversation I am sure I will need to have with my sons if nothing changes [which I doubt it will].

Therefore, the struggle for an America that respects and dignifies the black body enough not to unleash violence upon it as it did in the cases of Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and Tamir Rice, and all the millions of African slaves that lived and died through slavery, Jim Crow and Police Brutality, is also my struggle as an African. The struggle is Black, and Africans are not exempt!

The struggle is Black, and Africans are not exempt!

Some names of Black Lives extinguished by racism in this decade

The successes of the African independence revolution of the 1950s and 60s and the civil rights movements in America were entwined. It will be an exercise in futility to try to measure which one had the most influence on the other.

Evidently, Kwame Nkrumah, the foremost pan-Africanist and independence crusader of his era, was greatly influenced by the writings and teachings of Marcus Garvey and the struggle for civil rights he witnessed during the decade he spent in America. The 5th Pan African Congress, held in Manchester in 1945, which was one of the most pivotal events in the African Independence Struggle saw the attendance of many of the future leaders of the revolution who at the time were studying in the United States of America and Europe.

A number of future African independence leaders attended, including Hastings Banda, later President of Malawi, Kwame Nkrumah, later President of Ghana, Obafemi Awolowo, later Premier of the South West Region Nigeria, and Jomo Kenyatta, later President of Kenya. In the following fifteen years, the majority of African countries gained their independence, with a peak of 17 countries in the year 1960.

The true influence was not simply that these leaders learned from the west, the values of self-determination, and wished the same for colonized African countries. It was that they saw and witnessed the struggle and wrestle of Black people in the diaspora from the clutches of white supremacy and racism and were inspired; they were exposed to the knowledge of the Caribbean slave rebellions, the Haitian Revolution, and the American Civil Rights movements. And today, there is much to be learned from the unabated struggle against the pervasive racism and oppression of Black people in America.

Conversely, Nkrumah and the many African independence fighters influenced the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and WEB Du Bois [who relocated and died in Ghana]. Dr. King in several of his teachings after visiting Ghana in 1957 on the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah to witness Ghana’s independence and also in 1960 to witness the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe alluded to this influence. In his last speech, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”, he proclaimed:

The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”

Kwame Nkrumah and Martin Luther King Jr in Accra, Ghana

Malcolm X was perhaps even more influenced by what was going on in Africa during those times. He found some inspiration in, for example, in the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya.

The struggles of Black people in the 1960s are no different from the struggles of 2020. Africans, African Americans, and the entire Black diaspora must again find the common ground and inspiration to fight the oppression of Black people whether it is in Africa, America, China.

For many immigrants, the protests and the struggle for justice in these killings is none of their business. Frederick Engles described this as a “False Consciousness”. Pardon my Marxist reference.

Many African immigrants hold the belief that once they attain higher education or build capital and wealth, they are insured against racism. For others, their Christianity and evangelicalism make them Trump-loving [if you’re wondering, the reference matters], homophobic, and generally oblivious of the actuality of oppression, even of their own oppression. Their belief in the prosperity theology makes them believe they can succeed in spite of their worldly environments or systems even when these systems are oppressive and inequitable. Both are wrong and often disappointed.

Many Africans have never heard about the story of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant, who was murdered by cops in New York in 1999. I make this reference to remind my fellow Africans and for that matter all immigrants that…

Wyclef Jean performs Diallo at Nobel Peace Prize Concert

Amadou Diallo is You
Amada Traore is You
Tamir Rice is You
Breonna Taylor is You
Michael Brown is You
Atatiana Jefferson is You
George Floyd is You

All these names mentioned could be you or me as long as it remains “traditional to destroy the Black body in America [or abroad].”

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.

- Ta Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

So the fight for justice is very much your fight. I can’t think of any other way to make it more relatable. Your ‘foreign privilege’ or education or money will not save you from the racism, your only salvation lies in a just America, a racially equitable America.

Additionally, I have often maintained that the fate of all Black people in the diaspora is intricately intertwined with the fate of Africans. That is why —

“All peoples of African descent whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean, or in any other part of the world are Africans and belong to the African nation.”

— Kwame Nkrumah, from his book Class Struggle in Africa

Africa, and for that matter, Africans need to do better!

Since I mentioned it earlier, let me explain what International or Foreign privilege means.
It is the effect of being liked or accepted by a section of society [the dominant group, in this case, the White] merely because of its obsession with exoticism and not because of some inherent goodness or benevolence. Many other factors such as level of education, class, or economic standing contribute to this privilege. Many African immigrants and other immigrants know this too well. We invoke it when it is convenient like when we need to get out of a speeding ticket or in the most trivial affairs. In a recent episode of the Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act, he jested…

As a Muslim, I am afraid of a lot of things, the FBI, CIA, the NSA, TSA, ICE…I can empathize with the fear and the anxiety around law enforcement but when it comes to police brutality, I can’t really say much about that…when the cops see me they think I own a hookah bar…

Cover of Cleveland Scene Magazine

I love cities, policy, and social impact. Passionate about creating impact and social change? Let’s talk.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store