WHO'S A TRUE AFRICAN-AMERICAN?
by Chika Onyeani
Snippett: "As I pointed out earlier, Prof. Guinier's mother is white and her father immigrated from Jamaica. The question then arises as to what locus standi does she have for bringing up these charges since essentially she has been the beneficiary of what she is accusing others of doing? Should the children of immigrant blacks be discriminated against though they are fully American citizens? My wife is an African-American and I am an African. Why should our children suffer because I am an immigrant to this country; why shouldn't they be accorded the same rights of citizenship as accorded to the first generation Europeans and Asians?"
Former right-wing Republican presidential candidate, Mr. Alan Keyes, who is grappling at any straw to lift his drowning carpet-bagger campaign for the senate in Illinois, has chosen to fan the flames of inter-cultural bigotry by accusing his Democratic senatorial candidate Mr. Barack Obama of not being a true enough African-American. Mr Keyes was quoted in a New York Times article of August 27, 2004, titled "'African-American' Becomes a Term for Debate," to have said that "Barack Obama claims an African-American heritage," Mr. Keyes said on the ABC program "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. "Barack Obama and I have the same race - that is, physical characteristics. We are not from the same heritage."
Mr. Keyes continued in the quote, "My ancestors toiled in slavery in this country. My consciousness, who I am as a person, has been shaped by my struggle, deeply emotional and deeply painful, with the reality of that heritage."
It is yet to be understood what former Ambassador Keyes meant when he said that he and Obama may have the same "physical characteristics" but are not from the "same heritage." Yet Mr. Keyes acknowledges that his "ancestors toiled in slavery in this country," in effect acknowledging the fact that, if we were to assume the "slavery" he talks about is that of his African ancestors, both he and Mr. Obama might be from the same stock. Why Mr. Keyes would want to disown Obama's African-Americaness is beyond comprehension. Mr. Obama's father was a black man from Kenya in Africa, who died in 1982. His mother is a white woman from Kansas. It has been drowned into our heads that if your blood is 1% black, then you are negro/black/African-American, since the term 'mulatto' has become pejorative, and we are quick to criticize and cast aspersions at individuals who, like Tiger Woods, may want to acknowledge their other ancestors. So, it becomes a matter of serious concern when in the height of trying to win a vote, a candidate like Alan Keyes decides to inject this inter-cultural bigotry and question the authentic African-Americaness of Barack Obama, or would Mr. Keyes prefer Obama to disenfranchise himself by acknowledging his other ancestry to call himself African-White-American so that Mr. Keyes could corner the African-American vote and have himself elected to the Senate? What some people of Keyes' political persuasion could do to get elected is beyond imagination.
Of course, Ambassador Keyes is not the first to raise the issue of the twirling divide between immigrant blacks and native African-Americans. It has become an issue that has been raging in the black community since both Prof. Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law Professor and Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the chairman of the Harvard's African and African-American department, ignited the controversy at an reunion of the third Black Alumni Weekend of Harvard University which took place from October 3-5, 2003, which was estimated to have drawn more than 600 former students.
According to the Harvard University news of January-February, 2004 there was a lot of pleased talk at the reunion about the increase of black students at the university which has 'ballooned' to 530 or about 8% of Harvard's 2003 enrolment. However, the celebratory mood of the evening was broken by Prof. Guinier who charged that the majority - perhaps as many as two-thirds - of the students were not true African-Americans, but West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples. She was followed by Prof. Gates, Jr. who supported her charges. Mind you, Prof. Guinier's mother is white and her father immigrated from Jamaica.
It is quite pathetic that these highly regarded and prominent black scholars should be making these kind of charges rather than extolling the virtues of what the immigrant groups impact on the consciousness of the African-American psyche as role models for success. Prof. Guinier, the first female black tenured Harvard professor, it should be recalled, came to public attention in 1993 when President Clinton nominated her to be the first black woman to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and then withdrew her name without a confirmation hearing. Prof. Gates, Jr. has profited immensely from his writings and filming about historic achievements of Africa which were not known before, and we have a lot to thank him for.
Why wouldn't we thank him? For instance, here is how the announcement for his series on Africa on PBS was made, "For centuries, the history of much of Africa has been hidden from the world, lost to the ravages of time, nature and repressive governments. Now, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. uncovers an Africa most people never knew existed. In WONDERS OF THE AFRICAN WORLD WITH HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., Gates challenges the widespread Western view of Africa as the primitive "dark continent" civilized by white colonists. He shatters myths as he tells the true stories of proud lands filled with great civilizations, cities and centers of learning long before any Europeans set foot there. He also shares his poignant personal odyssey as an African American, the great-great-grandchild of slaves, returning to the cradle of black civilization. The six one-hour programs air on PBS Monday-Wednesday, October 25-27, 1999.
"I wanted to bring this lost African world into the consciousness of the larger public, black and white," says Gates, chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard and director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research. "It's important to debunk the myths of Africa being this benighted continent civilized only when white people arrived. In fact, Africans had been creators of culture for thousands of years before. These were very intelligent, subtle and sophisticated people, with organized societies and great art."" It is inconceivable that someone who has praised the accomplishment of his ancestors to the high-heavens should turn around to question the zeal with which the children of these ancestors should be pursuing their education in America.
As I pointed out earlier, Prof. Guinier's mother is white and her father immigrated from Jamaica. The question then arises as to what locus standi does she have for bringing up these charges since essentially she has been the beneficiary of what she is accusing others of doing? Should the children of immigrant blacks be discriminated against though they are fully American citizens? My wife is an African-American and I am an African. Why should our children suffer because I am an immigrant to this country; why shouldn't they be accorded the same rights of citizenship as accorded to the first generation Europeans and Asians?
Can you imagine this type of infantile discussion taking place within the Asian community? Of course not. They are more than welcoming to the new arrivals and do everything to ensure their upward mobility as it benefits their society. It isn't about fighting with or overcoming the new Asian immigrants so that they could progress. They are both progressing together. In the New York Times article I quoted earlier, Dr. Bobby Austin, an administrator at the University of the District of Columbia was quoted to have said that "some people feared that black immigrants and their children would snatch up the hard-won opportunities made possible by the civil rights movement." Dr. Austin unfortunately goes on to say "We've suffered so much that we're a bit weary and immigration seems like one more hurdle we will have to climb. People are asking: 'Will I have to climb over these immigrants to get to my dream? Will my children have to climb?'"
Why, why, why? Why should this be the question that African-Americans should be asking of their black immigrant brothers and sisters rather than how Asian immigrants have effectively seized the enrolment at the top colleges of America, without as much as a whimper from African-American leaders? It is not a question we should be discussing; if we were smart, our focus should be on how the 'true' African-Americans could learn and emulate the black immigrant group to bring sanity to both our collective psyche.
The type of divisive discussion now going on within the black community will heighten in the next few years as black immigrants, especially Africans, decide to make their homes in America rather having one foot in America and the other foot in Africa. It will heighten especially with the new entrepreneurial class of Africans who are bent on following the same foot steps that other immigrants have followed in climbing out of the doldrums of the economic poverty ladder. It will heighten as the schism widens as to who controls the black community as black immigrants lament the invasion and economic stranglehold of the black community by other non-black immigrant groups.
As much as the 'true' African-Americans fear the erosion of their perceived gains hatched by black immigrants, let me categorically state that black immigrants, be they Africans or West Indians, are not going to stand idly by and let Asian-Americans overwhelmingly seize the miniscule opportunities that white America has thrown to us. They intend to compete. It is a matter of pride.
Chika Onyeani is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the African Sun Times, and author of the No.1 bestseller "Capitalist Nigger: The Road to Success."