EACH NEW eruption of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in central Africa -- Rwanda, Burundi, now Zaire -- reminds African Americans of how little they know about the homeland of their ancestors.
While many Americans of European, Middle Eastern or Asian descent can identify through family history with modern ethnic conflicts that have occurred in places such as Bosnia, Iraq and Azerbaijan, most African Americans cannot similarly connect the dots.
The Africa part they know, but beyond that only some families have been able to determine their deepest ethnic roots. That is part of the despicable legacy of American slavery that no amount of affirmative action can repay.
The same mixture of greed and white supremacism that perpetuated slavery produced the 19th century colonization of Africa that has some bearing on the fighting between Hutu and vTC Tutsi today.
The European powers in 1885 divided natural resource-rich Africa without any thought to which ethnic group lived where.
After gaining their independence in the 1960s, many of the new African "nations" remained amalgams of traditionally rival ethnic groups that have yet to establish the common bonds necessary to build a sense of nationhood.
Notice I haven't used the word "tribes." Rarely does anyone call the Serb or Kurdish people a tribe. Too often that word has been used to denigrate a particular ethnic group as being less than the people who call them that.
In a Nov. 10 article, Sun foreign correspondents Michael Hill and Gilbert A. Lewthwaite provided a good summary of the current Hutu-Tutsi conflict that has in recent months spread to Zaire. Briefly:
Tutsi in Zaire
Ethnic Tutsi known as the Banyamulenge have lived in what is now Zaire for 200 years. They have thrived during modern times despite discrimination and attack by the Zairian government. The Zairians are mostly Bantu. Tensions increased in 1994 after thousands of Hutu refugees, including members of the Interhamwe militia, fled to Zaire to escape retribution for attempting genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda. The Hutu refugees joined the persecution of the Banyamulenge, but the Zairian Tutsi have successfully fought back, apparently with weapons from the Tutsi in Rwanda.
Would it make a difference in this country if more African Americans knew whether their roots were Hutu or Tutsi (unlikely since the slave trade focused on West Africa), or Hausa or Yoruba or Ibo or Fulani or Ewe or Mina or Kabye or Wolof or Serer or Diola or Mandingo or Balante or Manjaca or Bakongo or Ovimbundu or Kimbundu or Fon or Adja or Bariba or Bamileke or Bateke or Baule or Bete or Senufo or Malinke?
Would they stop attaching themselves to each other as simply "African" Americans? Or press the United States to diplomaticly support a specific ethnic group against another in Africa?
Or, considering that most by now have some European blood (a legacy of slavery as well as intermarriage since then), would they choose a different aspect of their ethnic heritage (if they could figure it out) to celebrate?
Most African Americans will never know the answer to those questions. Because most will never be able to trace their distinct ethnic origins in Africa.
A year and a half ago Washington Post reporter Keith B. Richburg created a stir when he wrote that his experiences covering the strife and famines of Africa had made him appreciate that his ancestors had been brought from that continent as slaves.
But not wanting to live in Africa doesn't mean a person wouldn't like to know exactly which part of that continent is home. Slavery took from African Americans what other Americans take for granted
Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 11/16/96