Back to Africa

FIKRE M. WORKNEH

January 28, 1992|By FIKRE M. WORKNEH

For years, black Americans have been yearning for some sort of cultural and spiritual reunion with what they refer to as a ''motherland.'' Returning to Africa has been a never-ending passion and fascination as well as a dream that has never been fully realized.

In the past, there have been many public discussions and plans to organize a major and symbolic pilgrimage to Africa. Some individuals have taken trips to the promised land, Africa, and returned to share their adventure and experience with others. Others have settled for less and have attempted to adopt an African culture on the basis of stories told to them. Still others continue to doubt what has been written about Africa.

Past negative stereotypes and current television portrayals have failed to discourage interest and curiosity among black Americans toward their African heritage. Black Americans still hold the view that ''Africa was once the mother of all civilizations.'' Recent positive writings by black Americans, such as ''Roots'' by Alex Haley, have inspired pride in the search for African heritage. Now, black American intellectuals, leaders and college students are major forces in reviving the back-to-Africa movement.

At a recent gathering in Ivory Coast, West Africa, among some African heads of state and African-American leaders, the discussion centered on two major and fundamental points. There was a great deal of discussion about establishing cultural, political, educational and economic ties. And the conference addressed how to handle the mutual and lingering misunderstanding and suspicion created and fostered by past myths and negative stereotypes.

It is no secret that black American leadership has been a principal and major political voice on advocating and articulating the concerns and interests of Africa in this country. The worldwide condemnation, isolation and economic sanctions against South Africa is a case in point.

Black American public interest in cultural unity with Africa remains strong and vital. Black Americans cherish and appreciate the symbolic and real attitudinal changes of recent years. They have come to be known, recognized and referred to as ''African-Americans.'' A great many have adopted African names, e.g., Kweisi Mfume, the U.S. congressman, and Niara Sudarkasa, president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Wearing traditional African garb is further visible evidence of the good feelings of ethnic pride.

Many are making statements by converting to Islam, a religion that has deep roots in Africa. Other signs of change have been demonstrated and expressed by growing observance of African traditions, tribal and cultural events, such as Kwanzaa.

African-Americans keep their awareness alive about their African ancestry through African art. Plays, movies, music and dance have been produced with Afro-centric influence. Today, an average African-American has some African art or paintings in the home.

In spite of all these contacts and communications, the two cultures remain worlds apart. Africa is a multicultural society with no dominant culture or language. There are hundreds and thousands of dialects and subcultures. People who have been exposed to the Western culture and customs find this hard to grasp and assimilate.

The geographical distance from Africa creates another major barrier for African and American alliance. Africa is thousands of miles away and inaccessible in many areas. Travel there can cost in the thousands, a commitment of some years' savings.

In addition, there remains the persistent mutual suspicion between Africans and African-Americans. Generally Africans hold distorted ideas that a great many African-Americans are criminally inclined, are unmotivated to hard work and destine themselves to remain poor and dependent on government handout programs. Africans have been led to believe that African-Americans are culturally maladjusted and in turmoil.

On the other hand, African-Americans show a great deal of discomfort with the Africans' primitive way of life. They do not know how to take the bare-chested women with grass skirts nor the half-naked men with bows and arrows in front of mud huts. Images of mass starvation and the African way of life can be seen on television, much to the dismay of African-Americans here.

There should be greater contact and communication between the two communities. Cultural and student exchange programs are essential cornerstones for developing an integrated cultural cooperation. African-American college students in various fields of study could participate in work-study internship programs in Africa sponsored by African governments. A greater number of African students could attend black colleges and universities in the United States and these universities could establish special funds for scholarship programs.

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