Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Immigrants to America Posted by Picasa

Immigrants to America

Local Pittsburghers and perhaps readers of this blog know that within a month's time two African immigrants living in Pittsburgh were murdered recently. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday ran an article on the front page, African immigrants face bias from blacks: Tension climbs highest in poor communities. I have mixed reactions to the piece. On the one hand, it's quite important that the paper considers the story of African immigrants living here newsworthy. On the other hand, coverage of prejudiced views are enormously difficult because we crazy human beings manage to hold tight to bias and at the same time think we're free of prejudice.

The picture was taken for Africana Magazine last autumn. In the middle is Paul Russesbagina whose experiences are depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda with some members of the University of Pittsburgh's African Student Organization on either side of him. I'm not entirely sure why I picked the photo, but perhaps thinking something like: "Can you spot the Africans here?"

Stereotypes are so often wrong, it's a wonder why people imagine we need them at all. They've got some utility and all of us use stereotypes in our construction of the world in one way or another. Surely not just for Africans in America, but for other immigrant groups as well, the collection of American stereotypes must seem plenty strange.

When I was young I was living in a house in a former coal company housing community. I was trying to remodel the space, but was harassed, robbed and the property repeatedly vandalized. In the newspaper story, an African immigrant here tells of similar harassment and in addition his children are bullied and mocked. He blames "mostly black youths." In my case it was a decidedly multi-racial group. But for both of us these things happened in a "poor" neighborhood.

I was talking with an African friend living here. He mentioned The Urban League. We were talking loosely, but he said something like: "The Urban League types come in an tell us what to do and then drive on home to Sewickly (an wealthy suburb). They don't have a clue about the situations we face in these neighborhoods." I suspect even if they do drive home to nice homes in expensive areas, many of the people he's talking about do have a clue, indeed probably first-hand experience. Nevertheless, people in this community aren't connecting so well. Here's a long snippet from the Post-Gazette article:
The solution to help everyone get along is using common ground to build bridges, said Yinka Aganga-Williams, an immigrant Nigerian who works with local groups to ease immigrant transitions into Allegheny County.

What black Americans need to understand, said Ms. Copeland-Carson, is that their culture, from spirituals to food to healing practices, is an amalgam of African traditions. It can be revitalizing to re-link these cultures with immigrant Africans.

Likewise, black Americans who have survived in this country can help immigrants sustain identities in schools and help build political coalitions.

The glass is not half-empty when it comes to relations between the two groups, said Ms. Aganga-Williams, who warned that media stereotyping paints a picture that all black Americans are harassing Africans.

"I don't think they are being targeted. [David Agar] went to a bar, and there happened to be a bad guy there. I don't think Mitete's killer set out to kill an African immigrant that night.
I'm not black but am very interested in building bridges between communities. The idea of linking African cultures to African American culture can be "revitalizing" seems very important to me. I cannot imagine my identity as an American without black people in America. It's not to minimize distinctive differences to think that better understanding of Africans experiences and history will result in better understandings of how we share history.

In this week's The Nation there's a wonderful excerpt from a new book, Life Out of Context by Walter Mosely. They title the excerpt A New Black Power and there's so much to agree with.

Mosely thinks that a way to reinvigorate our politics here is to move towards a more parlimentary system through voting blocs. Mostly he's concerned with the creation of a Black Voting Bloc, but envisions there will be many others. Mosely writes:
"Didn't you see the millions dying in Africa while your leaders argued about the references and jokes in the movie Barbershop?" someone in a later year may ask. And how will we answer? If we don't lie we might say, "I knew what was happening, but I didn't know how to act. I felt powerless and helpless and so I did nothing."
I do feel helpless, and I can't stand it. Mosely suggests that we must organize politically and the idea of voting blocs is sound. Again he's primarily interested in this piece about a Black Voting Bloc, writing:
Because if we do not lead we will be led. And if those who have learned to despise, distrust and diminish us are the leaders, then our path will lead even farther away from our homes. We will wake up like strangers in our own beds. We, and our children, will be walking in uncomfortable shoes to poor jobs. We will be jeered on every corner, and every mirror we come across will distort our image.
The reasoning is easily applied in favor of other voting blocs and bridges between multiple voting blocs are easy to envision.

The whole article is very much worth reading, but I'll end with just one more snippet:
In a world where poetry is a contest at best and a competition at worst, where the importance of a painting is gauged by the price it can be sold for--we are to be counted among the lost. And so when I say that we need leaders and that those leaders must come from our youth, it is no idle statement. We need our young people because without their dreams to guide us we will have only cable TV and grain alcohol for succor.
I will be eternally grateful that by a fluke I met a young man living in a semi-rural place in Uganda. Through knowing him I've become interested in learning more about Africa in general. In the process have learned more about the story of my own heritage. My friend Nathan strongly holds Enlightenment ideals: "individual freedom, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom" (Arthur Schlesinger via Samuel Huntington).

"We need our young people" here and abroad. Our best hope as people isn't in building walls, rather to build bridges.

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