A Common Ground in African Heritage

Times Staff Writer

Growing up in Nigeria, Lillian Obiara and her peers idolized aspects of black America -- the vibrant culture, the dynamic music, and the movie and sports personalities they saw on TV. Some of Obiara's girlfriends dreamed that one day they might marry an African American.

But when Obiara finally came to the United States less than two months ago to pursue a nursing degree, she was dismayed by the lack of knowledge about Africa, the insulting comments about the way Africans live, and the hostility she encountered from some black Americans.

"Before I came, I thought that since they are black-skinned like us, they would be more open," said Obiara, 26 and a resident of Long Beach. "The reality here is very different. The whites are more receptive than the blacks."

Obiara's views are not uncommon among many of Southern California's 80,000-plus immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa -- the majority from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana.

Relations between African immigrants and African Americans pose a paradox.

Many African Americans feel an emotional and spiritual attachment to Africa. Some give their children African names -- Kwame, Kofi, Hakeem -- often employing elaborate African rituals. Weddings in which the bride and groom don ornate traditional attire, often a melange of costumes from across the continent, have grown in popularity.

Ethnic arts and crafts gathered from a growing number of festivals and fairs celebrating Africa's creative talent fill the homes of many African Americans, and trips to Africa by black Americans are becoming increasingly common.

Neighborhood Party

On Sunday, scores of Africans joined by some African Americans celebrated the first anniversary of the designation of one Los Angeles neighborhood -- a busy hub of businesses on a strip of Fairfax Avenue between Pico and Olympic boulevards -- as "Little Ethiopia."

As restaurants, shops and stalls sold traditional Ethiopian food, hawked T-shirts with the country's insignia and promoted trips to Africa, organizers said the celebration was designed to embrace black people from the diaspora as well as promote local businesses.

"We are trying to reach out to all African nations and to African Americans, anyone of African descent," said Anteneh Demelash, 24, a college student and one of the organizers.

Demelash, who emigrated from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, nine years ago, said young people were key to bridging the cultural divide between Africans and black Americans.

Lily Michael, 33, another event organizer and an Ethiopian immigrant whose husband is African American, agreed.

"My thing has not been to concentrate on ethnicity and nationality, but to concentrate on humanity," she said. "We are more similar than different."

Edith Gursel, an African American and a regular visitor to Little Ethiopia, dropped by the festivities on her way to a local Buddhist center.

"I always come here for lunch, once a week," said Gursel, 61, an artist and Valley resident. "These are my roots. I feel very comfortable here. It centers me. And I'd rather spend my money here, with my people."

And yet, even as black Americans such as Gursel embrace their African heritage, other American-born blacks are separated from African immigrants by a chasm widened by cultural differences and mutual misconceptions.

Many Africans believe that black Americans either romanticize the continent or snub Africans as unsophisticated.

Some African Americans, for their part, argue that many African immigrants do not make enough effort to integrate into black America and fail to appreciate how profoundly the legacy of slavery and the civil rights struggle has affected U.S.-born blacks.

"It goes back to misconceptions and, in large part, media images," said Ethiopian-born Azeb Tadesse, senior assistant director of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at UCLA. "The way Africa is portrayed in the media and the way African Americans are portrayed feed into the stereotypes."

A clash of culture, language and class also plays a role, said Marcia Thomas, director of US for Africa, a grant-making foundation based in Los Angeles.

When immigrants from other parts of the world arrive in America, they can integrate into existing communities that share the same cultural perspective and typically speak the same language, she noted. Not so for Africans, who speak scores of different vernaculars and have distinct tribal affiliations, none of which American-born blacks can automatically identify with.

"Just because you look alike, you don't necessarily have the cultural context and understanding that relates to living in this country," said Thomas, 51.

Like many other immigrants, Africans typically come to the United States in search of education and jobs. Others are fleeing political instability or persecution in their home countries. Many are too caught up in the fight for everyday survival and for resources to support families back home to care about making an effort to get involved with black Americans.

Black Americans who visit Africa "are trying to get back home and connect with something," said James Burks, director of African Marketplace Inc., which serves as a showcase for black enterprise and creativity. "It is the land, it is the spirit, it is the ancestors, it is family, and the idea of being able to identify with Africa."

By contrast, he said, for African immigrants, "The majority that I've engaged are here to strengthen their own outlook for economic purposes. I don't think I have ever met an African who has told me that they are here to connect with African Americans."

Many Africans "have one foot here and one foot back home," said Muadi Mukenge, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo who works as program officer for Africa at the Pacific Institute for Women's Health, which is based in Koreatown. "There is less of a priority to organize with African Americans. People are concentrating on helping their families back home."

On arriving in the United States, many African immigrants have their first encounters with American racial prejudice. They face discrimination in housing and, like other immigrants, are not eligible for many of the social services for which U.S. citizens qualify.

Africans "come here and work two jobs, we don't get welfare," said Olawale Jimoh, vice president of the United African Federation. "We try hard to make ends meet." Jimoh, 49, moved from Nigeria 12 years ago and owns a security company and an agency that employs temporary health-care workers.

Being categorized by race stuns some Africans, who come from predominantly black societies where ethnic affiliations and class override color.

Many are humbled by what sociologists describe as a "downward assimilation." Like members of other immigrant groups, many Africans come to the United States as university graduates and professionals but find they must take jobs as cleaners, janitors or taxi drivers.

"All of a sudden, you find yourself down, down, down," said Yaw Adutwum, 39, a teacher at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles who is a member of Ghana's Ashanti ethnic group, which comprises the country's royal elite. "It's a shocking experience."

Many Stereotypes

Mutual ignorance and stereotypes with which many Africans and African Americans regard each other can make the initial encounter worse.

"To them, you come from a place where people don't wear clothes, where you play with a monkey," said Adutwum, remembering encounters from his early years as a substitute teacher in Los Angeles' Crenshaw district.

At the same time, he said, many African immigrants, even before they leave home, have adopted stereotypes of black Americans as being good only at sports and music -- and crime.

"You generally were not thinking that African Americans were the professional type," he said, recalling some of the media images he was exposed to in his home country.

From the images they see on television in Africa, "Africans get a homogenous version of what our life is like," said Thomas, who has traveled widely on the continent as part of her work for US for Africa. "If I were to believe what I see on TV, I would believe that all black people do is stand on street corners, drive by and kill each other."

In an attempt to bridge the gap between the communities, several Southland residents and local groups are arranging social gatherings and trips to Africa and forging organizational and business partnerships. Those activities will become even more important as the number of African immigrants to Southern California continues to swell, the organizers said.

Members of Southern California's African business community are also making greater efforts to collaborate with black Americans. African hair salons, boutiques, restaurants and churches have sprung up throughout Southern California, with a high concentration in areas such as Crenshaw.

"Things are progressing slowly, but they are moving forward," said LaSandra Stratton of the Africa-U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We have much to learn from each other."

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