/ 21 July 2017

Family conversations to divide and conquer

The #BlackLivesMatter movement
The #BlackLivesMatter movement

This time last year I met up with one of my United States-residing maternal cousins in Harare.

“So when are you coming to visit us in Indianapolis?” she asked my then 11-year-old.

“I’ll have to see you either here, in Nairobi, or Johannesburg, Auntie Vee. I have no plans of coming to the US,” he replied.

My cousin, who grew up in not-so-comfortable circumstances, sees the US as a Mecca of sorts for its opportunities and asked: “And why not?”

“Because I am a young, black boy and in the US they kill us,” he answered solemnly.

This would have been a perfect opportunity for my cousin to give my son a lesson on race relations in the US. Instead, I was taken aback when she told him that the Americans shot in the past few years had somehow deserved it for failing to stick to the letter of the law. They were, according to her, either criminals or people who should not have been where they were when they got shot.

Fortunately, it did not take much work to undo this silly narrative.

Tragically, in the past three weeks while I was in the US, a repeat of my cousin’s opinion was one I would hear being echoed by many diasporan Africans who went there as adults seeking better employment opportunities. That and the “these black Americans are lazy and hostile and white Americans are easier to deal with” narrative.

In all these conversations, I found I would have to get into debates in which I had to use very concrete examples of why this was a warped way of thinking.

There is nothing African that distinguishes one from supremacists, because, ultimately, to use the cliché, we “all look alike”. As the history of black killings and incarcerations in the US has shown, Africans are as likely as any other black person to be killed or arrested on petty charges.

As far back as the 1960s South African poet and political activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, also known as “Bra Willie”, observed this while staying in New York. It is probably what led him to pen the iconic words: “When the moment hatches in time’s womb there will be no art talk; the only poem you will hear will be the spear point pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain …”

These words would inspire David Nelson, one of the fathers of American hip-hop, to dub his group The Last Poets.

If Africans in the diaspora are so ahistorical as to prefer being the better black people and ignore when black Americans are at the receiving end of supremacist action, they run the risk of being alone when similar racist acts are meted out on them. We do better to be in solidarity with each other whenever acts of injustice occur. And this goes, too, for black Americans in Africa. Keeping quiet about Afrophobic attacks in Africa while expecting solidarity when incarcerated for travelling on a “world passport’” is ridiculous.

The same cousin also stated just how lazy black Americans were. To prove this, she gave an anecdote of how the black Americans in the company where she is supervisor were unwilling to work even an extra hour overtime, whereas the Mexicans and Africans were not. I countered by informing her that, as a supervisor, she was breaking labour laws by expecting employees to work longer for no extra pay. She was also guilty of fuelling hostility in the workplace because her reports would probably reflect negatively on black American employees, increasing the possibility of them not being promoted.

It was sad. It was heartbreaking. It was familiar.

I reminded my cousin how, growing up in a more functional Zimbabwe in the last two decades of the 20th century, there were certain jobs that Mozambicans and Malawians would take up because the locals did not believe the money was worth it. This is still true in many African countries I have visited or stayed in. Ethiopians in Djibouti will do the work that the citizens of Djibouti will not take up in their own country. Ditto Somalis in Kenya; Congolese in Zambia; and any number of other Africans in South Africa.

Concluding that locals are lazy is thus failure to understand the idea of home and what its citizens expect of it. Home is a place where people want to be comfortable. Indeed, many economic immigrants work hard so that they can make their future comfortable in the place they consider home, even if they may eventually not return, preferring the comforts of their new home.

Some black Americans, perhaps as a form of defence, have countered this by internalising stereotypes of Africa as a village where all of us are one-dimensional and speak like Eddie Murphy’s African characters from the 1990s or, more recently, like Rashid in Netflix’s Dear White People. This is when they are not romanticising about an Africa where we were all kings and queens. And they all want to go to Africa one day — but just not this year or the next.

In much the same way, perhaps, some black South Africans speak of the rest of the continent as though they are not part of it, romanticising despots in neighbouring states yet being petrified of crossing the border to experience those countries for themselves. In the US, as in South Africa, supremacy continues to win as black people leave room for divisions.

Perhaps more of us should work on getting to know other black people who do not come from our “home”. It would help us to shed our prejudices and show us our commonalities. We would then stop celebrating when Massa Baas tells us we are “very articulate and hardworking, unlike these others”, while abusing the labour laws to make us work more for less. Or be relieved when Massa Baas tells us: “Be grateful, you could be from the basket case of a nation that these people are from”, while they fill planes to make money from those basket-case nations.