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Culture Clash Between Africans And African-Americans?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. Arsalan Iftikhar is senior editor of The Islamic Monthly and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. Tope Folarin is a writer. He is the writer of the short story "Miracle," which is on the shortlist for this year's Caine Prize, a major literary prize for African writers. They are all here with us in Washington, D.C. With us from London is a Farai Sevenzo. He is a Zimbabwean journalist and filmmaker based in London. Take it away, Jimi.
JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.
TOBE FOLARIN: Doing well.
FARAI SEVENZO: Very good, very good up here in London. How are you?
FOLARIN: Nice to be here.
IZRAEL: Making it work, brother. So this is our very special Africa barbershop, inspired by the president's weeklong visit of the continent. What's been up, Michel?
MARTIN: Well, why don't we let the president tell us. He's a - there's a clip from his news conference in Senegal yesterday. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
BARACK OBAMA: The reason I came to Africa is because Africa's rising, and it is in the United States' interests, not simply in Africa's interests, that the United States don't miss the opportunity to deepen and broaden the partnerships and potential here.
MARTIN: So Senegal, then South Africa, then winds up the trip in Tanzania before returning to the U.S. next week. Jimi?
IZRAEL: Wow, I really like the fact that he's trying to open up a rich conversation. I get shades of Bill Clinton from his rhetoric. I appreciate that. And thank you for that update, Michel.
MARTIN: I don't get those shades.
IZRAEL: I do. I do. I mean, for me, President Clinton really, I felt like he was trying to establish a relationship with Africa that maybe his predecessors had not. So that's what I'm getting at.
MARTIN: OK, OK.
IZRAEL: But any event, thank you. Farai Sevenzo, when the president says Africa is rising, who is he talking to out there? And is he right?
SEVENZO: Well, I think he's a little bit late to the party, to be honest with you, if I must be honest. Africa's been rising for a while, in my humble opinion. And I think you're right about President Clinton. President Clinton, when he went down to Africa, he recognized 700 million people.
These are buyers, not beggars. They are potential markets that will satisfy any market. And China has taken advantage of that fact. And in a way, yeah, he is right. He's going to Africa. And for Africans, Obama is African. I mean, let's not beat about the bush there.
SEVENZO: There were so many expectations over him in 2008, and, at the moment, we're waiting to see what, you know, why doesn't he come home and use his great influence of identity into procuring much more markets for the United States, just as China has been doing for the Chinese.
IZRAEL: My dude, Tope?
IZRAEL: You call yourself a Nigerian-American. Back when the president was elected, there was a feeling that this was a big win for Africans. Do you still feel that way now, even though it's only his second trip there as president?
FOLARIN: Yeah, I think it's still a symbolic victory for, you know, Africans and African-Americans. I think that the fact that his, you know, father's from Africa is something that inspires a great many people. And I think the central set piece of his time in Africa will be him sort of stepping through the door of no return. I think that, for any number of reasons, that's the kind of image that people will think about when they think about this trip to Africa.
And that speaks to the idea that I think a lot of people are obsessed with - the narrative of Obama as a black American president. And he trades on that. He kind of knows that people are obsessed with this, you know, his status as a black American president. And I think because of that, maybe he's not as a focused on policy issues as he should be. I mean, someone before mentioned that, you know, his predecessors Bush and Clinton both did - they had substantial, kind of, policy initiatives in Africa, whether we're talking about PEPFAR with Bush or we're talking about AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act with Clinton. And Obama doesn't have a signature African policy yet.
And that's somewhat troubling. But we get the images, and we get happy, you know. We can't help ourselves. We see, you know, Obama speaking to, you know, a throng of Africans, we get incredibly excited. So I think he's sort of playing on that.
IZRAEL: Tope comes in the barbershop and gives the president one right to the chin. My dude, welcome to the barbershop. Arsalan, A-Train, the president left Kenya off his itinerary, and he's taking some heat from Kenyans for it. What do you think? Should he have made the trip to his father's homeland or no?
IFTIKHAR: I think that, you know, we have to look at his trip to Africa more holistically. You know, this is his second trip to Africa, but it's the first one that's solely dedicated to Africa, in that it's not, you know, part of, you know, another trip somewhere else around the world. What's interesting for me is the fact that, you know, the major theme of much of his trip is going to be increased investment in trade with Africa, and particularly in East Africa.
And that's why I think that he chose Tanzania as the principle site of his speech there. And as one of my colleagues mentioned, I think he's, you know, taking from the playbook of the Chinese, who have already invested significantly in many parts of Africa already. I agree that I think America and President Obama, to a certain degree, are a little late to the game, but it's - it again is better late than never, in terms of trying to get more investment and more trade in Africa, and particularly in East Africa.
MARTIN: I do have to point out, look, that the president of Kenya was just indicted by the International Criminal Court, which is a very controversial decision. There were a lot of people in the U.S. administration who did not agree...
MARTIN: ...With that decision. But nevertheless, that was the decision of the international body and there was just a feeling that, you know, a photo op with the president, who's making human rights such a centerpiece of his trip to the continent, that that just would not be a good look.
And on the policy stuff, I'll say that, while it is true that he hasn't had a big, signature initiative with his name on it, a lot of people give him credit for really, actually working the policies that were laid out by previous presidents and actually following through, adding to, and actually improving the administration of some of these, you know, institutionalizing these things.
IZRAEL: No, I agree with that. Yeah.
MARTIN: And a lot of people think that - you know what I mean? What's that saying, you know, there's no end to how much you can get done, if you don't care who gets the credit?
MARTIN: So there are people who feel that that's the principle, you know, at work here. But I'm just offering another perspective.
IZRAEL: And I appreciate it. I appreciate it. You know, I appreciate the president's visit 'cause it also gets that romantic notion a lot of African-Americans have about going back to Africa. And in his case, it has more resonance than for many of us, 'cause my people are basically all in St. Louis. But anyway, let's move on. You know, the president's not the only one visiting Africa at this time. William Leonard Roberts II, also known as Ricky Rose...
UNIDENTIFIED PANELIST: You did it.
IZRAEL: ...Also known as rapper Rick Ross, tweeted this week that he just landed in quote the beautiful quote country of Africa. And Albany State, his alma mater, I'm sure they're cringing. It was meant to promote his buddy's Wale's new album "The Gifted."
MARTIN: You know, yes it was. And unfortunately, now the uproar is all about - what Jimi just indicated - his education levels. And people are kind of wondering, well, why he hasn't figured out...
IZRAEL: Stand up, Albany.
MARTIN: ...That this is the second largest continent in the world. But, but, I don't know.
IZRAEL: I don't know, you know.
MARTIN: It's kind of...
MARTIN: I don't know what to say about this except that Wale is his boy and he should know better.
FOLARIN: I think he does know better.
IZRAEL: D.C.'s Wale. Can we let Tope in here? Go ahead, man.
FOLARIN: No, I think he does know better. He's been to Nigeria a couple times. And, you know, I don't think he's - I'm not claiming that he's a geographer or he's, you know, sort of a...
IZRAEL: Clearly not.
IZRAEL: He has some identity issues, as well.
FOLARIN: Absolutely, but I'm sensitive to the fact that he's been to Africa a number of times, and I think he might've just made a Twitter mistake. We all make them all the time.
IZRAEL: Speak for yourself. I don't make Twitter mistakes.
MARTIN: I'm sorry, aren't you the guy who says black men should stay off Twitter?
IZRAEL: That's what I just said. I am not on the Twitter.
FOLARIN: Why should black men stay off Twitter, by the way?
IZRAEL: Man, that's a whole other barbershop, my dude. That's a whole other barbershop. Farai.
MARTIN: Fraught with peril.
MARTIN: Fraught with peril.
IZRAEL: Farai, go ahead, man.
SEVENZO: No, no I'm thinking that it's a common mistake that people make, you know, and they're not doing it because they're ignorant of the fact that they are not in one country. They're doing it because it's been a sort of media thing that's just only just turned around. Most people, if you talk to footballers or sports stars, if they land in South Africa, they will invariably tweet or blog, I was in Africa last week. And it's a sort of a - sort of a cultural laziness that's been creeping out of the game.
But, you know, it's - I can understand why he did that tweet, but it's totally unforgivable. We have such a diverse continent, so many different countries, so many different cultures, so many different songs. I - for a musician...
IZRAEL: I love that he understands why, totally unforgivable, though. I love that.
MARTIN: So he's off your Christmas card list, I take it.
SEVENZO: No, no, no, no, no. He can have a Christmas card, but he should just wisen up.
IZRAEL: A-train. Are we all Rick Ross to some degree? I mean, do we all make these mistakes?
IFTIKHAR: No, we don't. And I think what it speaks to, for me, is the fact that so many people around the world view Africa as a monolith, right? You know, it's how we view different kinds of paradigms that are considered quote-unquote the other. You know, and so, you know, to me it's less about him making the mistake of calling Africa a country.
But to me, the underlying subtext was the fact that, again, Africa's a monolithic entity that, you know, the North African (unintelligible) is the same as South Africa, is the same as Central, you know, the Central African Republic. You know, it speaks to this monolithic narrative that sadly has pervaded some of our own communities of color as well, here in America.
MARTIN: Maybe he had a brain freeze, though. Maybe he had a brain freeze.
IFTIKHAR: It could be.
MARTIN: I'm just saying, maybe he had a brain freeze.
IZRAEL: Yeah, with all those diamonds, all that ice around his neck, he might've had a brain freeze. Yeah.
MARTIN: I'm just telling you, though, though, doing live radio, I can't tell you, like, how many times, like, I've like, mixed up cities that I perfectly know perfectly well...
UNIDENTIFIED PANELIST: Sure.
MARTIN: ...You know.
IZRAEL: I mean, I just think that's fair.
MARTIN: Called people the wrong name who I've known for years.
IZRAEL: He's a rapper, not a educator. Yeah.
MARTIN: I'm just offering a different perspective here.
MARTIN: Which is my job. If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael. Arsalan Iftikhar, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. Journalist Farai Sevenzo and author Tope Folarin. Back to you, Jimi. I just have to mention once again, shortlisted for the Caine Prize. Did you mention that? I just have to mention that Tope was shortlisted for the Caine Prize.
FOLARIN: Very kind of you.
IFTIKHAR: Pop your collar.
IZRAEL: Yeah, pop that collar.
MARTIN: Pop your collar.
FOLARIN: I'm popping it.
IZRAEL: My dude. All right, thank you for that, Michel. So we've been hearing a lot about immigration in Washington these days, but did you know that there was more than a million-and-a-half African-born immigrants here in the US. That's according to a 2010 U.S. Census data report. Now that number is nearly double what it was in 2000. So we wanted to talk a bit about the relationship between Africans and African-Americans. Tope.
IZRAEL: Let me pitch this question to you. You were - you grew up in Utah.
FOLARIN: I did.
IZRAEL: Oh, my dude. Born to Nigerian parents. You know, growing up, did you see a clash between Africans and African-Americans?
FOLARIN: I didn't experience it until I moved to Texas. I moved to Texas when I was about 14. But when I grew up, I was the one black person that I knew, so people looked to me for cultural cues. I was the cool guy. I was the black guy. So by virtue of my skin color, I was cool. Until I moved to Texas, and then, you know, I was really desperate to impress my - I knew I was going to meet some other black people - I was desperate to impress them. I wore some really tight jeans, a Michael Jackson shirt 'cause I thought Michael Jackson was still hot, this was mid-'90s. And I was laughed out of the school. It was the most embarrassing moment of my entire life.
And I spent like two or three years listening to every hip-hop album that had ever been released in sort of in an attempt to become black, as it were. So it was a really difficult transition, and I'd say that there certainly is a kind of conflict between sort of African immigrants and African-Americans. It doesn't, it's not a conflict that is especially sort of contentious, but it is something that does exist, I think.
MARTIN: But what do you think is the tension point is? I mean, I'll just tell you from the standpoint, the African-American standpoint, I think that a lot of African-Americans feel that the first-generation Africans look down on them, right?
FOLARIN: Yeah, I think that's...
MARTIN: Because they feel like they didn't, you know, you didn't experience slavery and that, you know, that - have absorbed some of the negative stereotypes...
MARTIN: ...That Europeans and others have absorbed about African-Americans that don't have the work ethic, lazy, and stuff. But then they feel that - I think that that's very real.
FOLARIN: Absolutely. I think there're two sides to this story. I think one side, as I remember vividly, my parents saying often, you know, like, don't be like them. You know, don't be like those black people 'cause they're squandering their opportunity. And that's something that I grew up with, and I think that's highly unfortunate. On the other side, though, all of my friends thought that Africa was like, you know, "Coming to America," the Eddie Murphy movie. And they would constantly ask me questions about, you know, that, like it was real.
And so they were, you know, they would ask about, you know, how I dressed. I grew up, I've only been to Africa a couple times. I went there - I was there when I was younger and I studied in South Africa. But there was this sort of persistent sense that Africa was, you know, kind of backward place that hadn't developed anything.
FOLARIN: And so, I think it was coming from both sides.
IZRAEL: Would people always ask you, do you play pin the tail on the monkey?
MARTIN: Oh, stop.
IZRAEL: Shout out to Eriq La Salle. But, yo. I mean, when I came up...
IZRAEL: ...We had Africans at Shaker Heights High School...
FOLARIN: OK, OK.
IZRAEL: ...And we were horribly ignorant...
FOLARIN: Yeah. Yeah.
IZRAEL: ...About Africa...
IZRAEL: ...About Africans...
IZRAEL: I went to my homeboys house...
IZRAEL: ...And he got reprimanded by his dad because his dad didn't want him to catch, as you mentioned, that...
IZRAEL: ...Black American laziness...
FOLARIN: Absolutely, yeah.
IZRAEL: ...Like it was contagious.
IZRAEL: But I mean, to be fair, I walked in smelling like old Miller Lite.
FOLARIN: In the interest of full disclosure.
IZRAEL: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But I get a piece of what you're saying...
IZRAEL: ...With that. You know...
IZRAEL: ...That his dad certainly wasn't on that. A-Train, is this like a black thing?
IFTIKHAR: No, I think that, you know, again it gets back to monolithic narratives, right. Too many people who are not of color here in the United States, you know, they might view an African and an African-American through the same prism. And, you know, brown people like myself have had to face that also. You know, for my entire life, you know, whenever we were checking off, you know, what ethnic categories we were, the closest thing that there was there was Asian-American. But that didn't really encapsulate who we were.
And even to this day, you know, there's not a box for Middle Eastern or South - that sort of brownness, if you will. For such a long time, race relations and race politic, identity politics in America was white and black, and it didn't really matter where you were from, whether you were indigenous to this country or you had just, you know, come from Zamunda like Prince Akeem did.
MARTIN: We're almost out of - we're almost out of time. Obviously, this is a rich conversation. We'll probably be talking about this again. But we're almost out of time. But before we go, we really cannot leave our program today without talking about what's on the minds of many people around the world, and that is that Nelson Mandela has been in critical condition in the hospital.
The president of the United States is in South Africa today, and he's, of course, urging, you know, prayers and good thoughts for the president and his family. A lot of people are thinking about his life and legacy. So, Farai, I'm just going to go to you, who's a person who grew up in what was known as Rhodesia during apartheid, and I just wanted to ask what you think Nelson Mandela means to the country - to your country and to the world?
SEVENZO: Well, I mean, to Africans who were regularly, I mean, just put it into context - my grandmother died last year. She was 110. And she grew up her entire life under the yoke of apartheid. And there were very few individuals in that Southern African block who resisted to the extent of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. He was, you know, you got to bear in mind that he went into prison at the age most of - I'm guessing most of your guests are - at 46, and he came out in his seventies.
So he's, you know, this is a sacrifice that is tangible and obvious to everybody who knows about that horrific system of apartheid. And at the same time, as I say, you know, if my grandmother died at 110, he's only 95. That's (unintelligible), but at the same time, that is pretty old. It is - I just wish, with all my heart and all my being and all my soul, that his end would be as dignified as his life has been, because as we may mourn the passing of this man. And as lucky as the lions who roam away from their cubs and their wives and their lioness and die in peace alone. But this man has just been completely, cameras in his face, every moment, and I just wish he could have a dignified end. So like, we want him to stay alive, but what can we do about nature? You know, he's - it's time for him to go. It's time for him to go. Let him go in peace.
MARTIN: I think that's a very good way to end today. Thank you for that. That was Farai Sevenzo. He's a journalist and filmmaker. We caught up with him in London. Here in Washington, D.C., Tope Folarin, author of the short story, "Miracle," on the shortlist for this year's Caine Prize. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic, also adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. And Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor of The Islamic Monthly and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com, is with us from Washington, D.C. for the last time, but not the last time in the barbershop. He's moving to Chicago, and we will catch up with him there. Gentlemen, thank you all so much.
IZRAEL: Yup, yup.
MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. We'll be in Aspen, Colorado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.