Throwback Thursday: Coming to America Through the Eyes of an African

How many times have you met a person from Africa—student, coworker, or otherwise—and asked yourself, “What is that person going through in America? How is he or she handling the culture conflict between African and Western culture?”

Imagine you are from Sierra Leone, a country located on the west coast of Africa, with a population of about 4 million. For many years your country has held the distinction of being the “seat of learning” in Africa, having been the first country to build a Western-style university, Fourah Bay College, in 1827.

Your urban professional parents have instilled within you a strong sense of pride in your African heritage. You are keenly aware of Sierra Leone’s longstanding intellectual tradition. Your father, an accountant, and your mother, a nurse, have been able to provide a typical West African lifestyle for their family.

The opportunity to travel to the United States or Great Britain to study and gain experience in the international arena is highly coveted. Your parents have stressed that such an experience is a must for your academic and career advancement. Most of your friends choose to study in Great Britain. But not you. Ever since junior high you have developed a fascination with America. You were impressed when your class visited the American embassy, where literature was distributed emphasizing the attractive quality of life in the United States. In addition, the movie industry has portrayed America in its best light. Americans visiting African countries have described the U.S. as a country of abundance, and liberal thought—with the freedom that allows its people to enjoy full actualization of their ideals, plus the resources to achieve them! You decide that one day you will fulfill your goal of visiting the land of your dreams.

By now you may have determined that our scenario is based in fact, that it depicts the lifestyle and mindset of many Africans who have traveled to America for economic, educational, or political reasons. Dr. Cecil A. Blake, one such student from Africa, who is now a prominent professor at Howard University, a distinguished journalist, and an international media consultant, recently shared his thoughts on his initial visit to the “greatest nation on earth.”

Bright, young, energetic, Blake was nevertheless totally unprepared for the reception he received upon entering this country. He was shocked that many people thought of Africa as a country, not a continent. He had not expected to find Americans—both Black and White —so lacking in their knowledge about such a major segment of the world’s population.
One can imagine Blake’s reaction when most people, upon meeting him for the first time, asked him about wild animals and Tarzan movies. One woman even expressed great surprise that he was wearing clothing! Invariably, Americans would inquire as to whether or when he planned to go back to the “jungle.” Surely after a taste of the “good life ” in America, he would have no desire to return to Africa!

According to Blake, Americans today still have difficulty understanding why many Africans decide to return to their countries of birth. He adds that life in most African countries now reflects modern Western culture, and the Black man lives there with dignity, working for the social and economic advancement of the southern half of the continent.

Cecil Blake also found that when he came to America, he initially did not fit in among either White Americans or Black Americans. It seemed a paradox that Africa had shaped Black culture to such a large degree and yet he was not able to bridge the gulf between himself and Blacks in the West. There were mutual misconceptions. Blacks in America thought he had just stepped out of a hostile environment in which people struggle daily merely to survive. Blake and many Africans during that time thought that all Black Americans were either musicians or athletes— especially boxers!. Further complicating the attempt at understanding is the commonly held feeling that all Americans are materialistic!

Ironically, Black African culture and Black American culture remained virtually unknown to one another for many years. This, Blake asserts, is unfortunate, since the two cultures complement each other, the strengths of one offsetting the weaknesses of the other, and vice versa. The combination would be a powerful whole.

Dr. Blake expresses his view on what this cultural marriage could mean for Blacks: “The Black man in America is one of the greatest assets Mother Africa has. He is trained. He has lived in a technological society. American Blacks can contribute to the development and growth of Africa. With sincere actions in the business and professional world, an active exchange of personnel and skills could help the African Blacks progress. Being Black in America is the perfect example of survival for growth and maintenance of
human dignity.”

While in college Blake found himself isolated by the very persons whom he had expected to welcome him with open arms. Many Black students at Western Illinois University, where he initially enrolled, considered themselves superior to African students, he points out. In addition, they resented the fact that a large number of African students achieved higher scholastic averages and test scores, and were often treated more favorably by White students and teachers than were their Black American counterparts.

Blake assessed the situation quickly, realizing that he was in the real America, not the storybook land he had dreamed of. Being outspoken and courageous, he became active in the civil rights movement after transferring to Southern Illinois University, which ultimately drew African and Ameri- can Blacks together.

The university’s Black student union consisted of the Afri- can student union, the Caribbean student union, and the Afro-American student union. In an effort to increase awareness, Dr. Cecil Blake spent time giving instructional talks about Africa in social culture and attending programs conducted by civil rights leaders. He showed special interest in the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blake also closely followed Stokely Carmichael and his Black Power movement. Blake recognized that some activities involved mere symbolism and did not engender a real commitment on the part of the majority. Although this concerned him somewhat, he continued striving for change where he could.

It has been 22 years since Blake first came to America. Since that time he has traveled to 55 countries and has continued his activities directed toward strengthening Black society. He says that he has learned to appreciate the fact that, regardless of where you live or who you are, there are basic similarities among people—strengths and weaknesses that we all have in common.

Blake has also come to better appreciate his background as an African: “It took me 22 years to recognize the significance of African culture in terms of humanity in general. Rudiments of African culture still prevail in Black America, and this should be maintained.”

Blake sums up what it is to be African in the United States: “There are many benefits to living in America. Certainly there is discrimination, indignity, low morale, a desire for material well-being, and a disregard for the human dimension. But my work and desire is that these problems will eventually be overcome.”

The Black middle class is the key to building a strong worldwide Black society, Blake advises. Reestablished contacts with the poor and programs that will resuscitate economic activity in the Black communities are vital. The Black middle class must recognize that when it invests in Black business, in Black community ventures, it is investing in itself —in its own future! “When that day arrives,” Dr. Blake asserts with a confident smile, “then we will know that our efforts have not been in vain.”

Originally published in Message Magazine’s January/February 1991 Edition by C. Denise McKenzie

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