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Coming to Black America

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May Akabogu-Collins is a professor of economics at Cal State University San Marcos.

My sister, agnes, was visiting from Harvard law school, and we were strolling the streets of Koreatown that summer of 1989. I was a doctoral student of economics at USC. Bored, we entered a video store and were excited to find “Coming to America.”

“What do we need to rent a movie?” Agnes asked the cashier.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 7, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Professorship -- The author biography with last Sunday’s magazine essay on confronting racial prejudices incorrectly identified writer May Akabogu-Collins as a professor of economics at Cal State San Marcos. She is not currently on the school’s faculty; she formerly held an adjunct professorship there.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Professorship -- The author biography with the Feb. 1 Los Angeles Times Magazine essay on confronting racial prejudices incorrectly identified writer May Akabogu-Collins as a professor of economics at Cal State San Marcos. She is not currently on the school’s faculty, but formerly held an adjunct professorship there.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 22, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 8 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
The essay “Coming to Black America” (Feb. 1) incorrectly identified writer May Akabogu-Collins as a professor of economics at Cal State University San Marcos. She is not currently on the school’s faculty. She formerly held an adjunct professorship there.

“Just a minute. I go ask,” she replied, and she disappeared to the back. Just then, another clerk approached and said something in a thick accent. It sounded like: “Sorry, only Koreans.”

Agnes and I wondered if we had misheard. Then the owner appeared, not looking thrilled to see us. “Credit card and driver license,” she announced. Agnes heaved a sigh of relief and pulled out her wallet. After scrutinizing her American Express card and license for what seemed like a minute, the owner declared: “One hundred dollars cash deposit and you leave license here.”

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By this time Agnes and I had the scent: Only Koreans.

Growing up in Africa, my impression of the black American was of a lazy, uneducated, ghetto-dwelling, dependent, disruptive and accomplished criminal. Upon arriving in America in 1980, I was surprised to find black American students on a college campus. Racial preferences, I thought, and distanced myself from them. But now, at least according to the Korean video clerk, I was one of them.

I’m not exactly sure where or how I got this stereotype of black Americans, though I’m certain the movies had something to do with it. As did my parents. When I left Nigeria for grad school, my dad told me: If you look for racism in America, you’ll find it. But prove to them that you are a tribal African, not one of those addle-brained former slaves. And do steer away from them; they’re nothing but trouble.

When my mother came to visit, she made us cross the road upon spotting a black man approaching. With her it wasn’t just prejudice against black Americans. A real estate magnate in Nigeria, she would rent only to expatriates--Caucasians and non-black foreigners. “The black man has no respect for property,” she claimed. And it didn’t matter if he was the college or bank president.

In grad school, I collaborated in my own discrimination. A Korean classmate was equally surprised to find me--a black doctoral student. She had grown up in Korea to believe that black people were “lazy and dumb . . . only dance and crime.” I concurred but with a slight modification: “only black Americans, not black Africans.” I had assumed that to get respect in America, I needed to distinguish myself from those blacks.

Of course, some African Americans resent the self-righteous attitude of some black Africans. Once, upon learning that I was a professor, one acquaintance responded with a touch of envy: “You Africans come here and grab the affirmative action jobs designed specifically for us. You people think you’re better blacks.”

Although we were raised in Africa to revere expatriates, my sister and I were never made to believe that we were their intellectual inferiors. We attended the same schools as their children, excelling academically as well as athletically. There was no animosity or tension. So while I kept my distance from black campus groups in America, I had no self-consciousness among a predominantly white or Asian population.

But the Korean video store was a turning point. As a target of old-fashioned explicit racism, for the first time I felt the rage and frustration of the black American. And, as I watched Koreatown go up in flames during the L.A. riots of 1992, I understood the motivation.

After grad school, I found myself the only black professor at a small college in Pennsylvania, where I was seen as a representative of a group rather than as an individual. I felt tacit pressure. Although I would rather have slept in on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I felt obligated to attend campus events. Black History Month became my Armageddon. I was a walking laboratory--a field trip for African Studies students, something akin to an ornament. I resented that burden.

I had spent 15 years in America trying to prove I was a better black. By the time of the O.J. Simpson verdict, I was no longer proud of all that time and energy.

It was October 3, 1995. The all-white faculty had convened at the department lounge outside my office to watch the televised verdict: Not guilty, both counts! Almost simultaneously, I could hear my colleagues: A travesty! Dumb jurors! Whaaaat! I shed a few tears, said a little prayer for the repose of Nicole’s soul and stepped into the lounge on my way to class. Silence greeted me. I had fully intended to join in the condemnation of the verdict and to share with my colleagues how Nicole’s murder had convinced me to finally end my violent marriage. But then I read the expression on the pink faces: You’re black, therefore . . . I quickly continued on to my classroom, where, once again, I confronted an all-white student body. What did I think of the verdict? They wanted to know. I sensed the hostility, canceled class and left campus for the day--and decided to move back to California.

When I arrived in America, the dynamics of black-white politics were unfamiliar. In a monetary theory course that first semester, I received the highest score on the midterm exam. The professor announced, as he handed back my exam: “You surprised me; I kept slowing down for you, thinking you were lost.” A compliment, I thought. Not so, said a classmate. The professor had presumed you were dumb because you are black, she explained. I wasn’t persuaded. But many years later, I began to understand how that was a plausible interpretation.

My dad had said, “If you look for racism . . . . “ I hadn’t been looking for it that first semester, so I may have missed it. Fifteen years later, I still wasn’t looking for it when I stepped into the faculty lounge after the Simpson verdict. Yet, there it was.

Nevertheless, it would take me more years, and hours of watching “Oprah,” to comprehend the black experience in America. As Oprah interviewed proud and successful black American women--Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Condoleezza Rice--who wore their blackness like empresses, I began to feel racial pride. As I watched Oprah pay tribute on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and saw Coretta Scott King with her erect posture that commanded respect, I began to understand what a big deal the civil rights movement was. Then I could appreciate the need for a Black Student Union on college campuses and the significance of Black History Month.

Today, I’m a lot more secure in my blackness and much more comfortable among black Americans. I prefer to be described as a Negro woman, although I see myself, in the words of Alice Walker, as “a womanist.” Still, being black now feels more like a birthright than a burden.


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