Immigration is almost always about the hustle. Whether you are a professor, a student, or a musician, you have to work hard to both pay rent and deal with a plethora of patronizing ignorance. And being an immigrant from Africa adds another layer of frustration. Everyone here knows about the misperceptions and negative imagery cast on Africa and Africans.
It is no different in this beast we call the Bay Area. Indeed, it is a strange place; diverse regions separated by bridges – both physical and psychological. There’s San Francisco and its epicenter of hipness; Oakland and its rich history of social movements; and Silicon Valley, with its quest to save the world one African at a time. They are all so close to one another, yet so far away – both connected and disconnected. And the region is transforming at breakneck speed.
Beneath it all is the huge amount of money flowing into “innovative” technological solutions to global problems. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple set the stage for the Gold Rush. Thousands of idealistic young people are now flocking here with dreams of striking it rich. Some make it, most don’t. Nonetheless, there’s been a natural attraction between the region’s so-called liberal dynamics and the influx of computer nerds. And they are linking up to save the world; tech devices with charity ideologies. I mean, hey, why not save children and, at the same time, make lots of money doing it?
Of course, the Bay Area is not just full of twenty-somethings wearing Toms shoes. The region is blessed with vibrant communities from around the world, including many from Africa. Artists, students, teachers, bankers, drivers, and entrepreneurs from all over Africa reside here. They organize festivals, open restaurants, host concerts, and do business.
For all the development folks fighting Nigerian corruption, alleviating Kenya’s water shortage, and hugging Ghana’s orphans (all on an iPhone app), this seems an invaluable resource – people in your neighborhood, trained in different fields, with in-depth experience growing up in the countries you operate in.
But no, there is hardly ever any thought to reach out, to collaborate, to ask, or to share ideas with Africans in the Bay Area. There is a huge disconnect between Americans working in Africa, and Africans working in America – though they are often in the same building.
Why? Africans based in the Bay Area aren’t considered “really” African. And the white development industry prefers “real” Africans. You know, the Maasai; the residents of Kibera. A Kenyan lawyer in Berkeley or a Senegalese filmmaker in Marin County just isn’t exciting. They’re not exotic. They’ve lost touch with their African roots. They’re too Westernized, obviously.
So they prefer to stay in their office and Skype with their partners on the ground. The African ground. To be fair, many of these Africans in the Bay Area live in Black American communities. And for us white people, that is just not a comfortable place to be.
The same can be said for academia. Stanford University is the hub for start-up culture. It’s ubiquitous. And as a student in African Studies, I was placed in a unique and awkward position. We were supposed to be the counter voice to the tech people. While they sought simple solutions to big problems, we were there to remind them of Africa’s complex historical and social context.
But I realized that we were not much better.
My friend, colleague and teacher Kwame Assenyoh (UC Berkeley) argues that the underlying premise of African Studies, for many who study it, is that there is a “pure” Africa to be highlighted. And to find the “real” Africa, we need to strip away any transgressions such as hip-hop or Western clothes. This, he argues, is essentially nonsense. Influence is very fluid and has historically transcended borders in all directions.
Indeed, a university professor will spend 20 years teaching Congolese history, but never know about the Congolese dance parties and film festivals in town. Students will fly to Dakar, learn Wolof, and write dissertations on Senghor, without ever hanging out in the huge Senegalese community down the street.
Therefore, in both the development and academic worlds of the Bay Area, local Africans are sidelined. But it makes sense. It’s hard to speak for somebody when they are standing right next to you. Nobody wants to admit that the student from Liberia working at the Best Buy in San Jose is more qualified to work in your NGO than you are. And it’s awkward when you have to explain to an Angolan chemistry student why you spent four years studying their country. You’ve crafted your comparative advantage, and you want to keep it. So you conveniently forget about them. They aren’t the African you prefer. They complicate things – and we all know how much Silicon Valley loves clean and simple solutions: bright, colourful apps and cozy websites.
It was with this background that I worked with my colleagues to create this simple, short video piece:
Did I make this piece to speak for the African immigrant in the Bay Area? No way. I at least try to not be overtly hypocritical. Do I think people sit around and lament: “Man…I hate that white people think I’m not African”? Not at all. They surely have better things to do. But I did want to show that the Bay Area is full of some pretty damn cool people, with pretty damn cool histories and futures. Rather than neglect, we should rather embrace the murky grey identities and convoluted positions we all find ourselves in. And the techies and academics better get their act together.
And of course, I wanted to address my own biases and insecurities.
But, indeed, as said in the final line of video, “thank you very much, [they] already have.” In other words: “Thank you white liberals for your concern, your papers, and your films. But we’ve got it taken care of.”
The video’s subjects:
Born in Ghana and raised in South Africa and New Jersey, Nana is currently a PhD student in Los Angeles, studying African intellectual history.
Born to Kenyan parents in a small farm town in California’s Central Valley, Brenda studied political science at Stanford University. In her summers she splits her time working at a canning factory and Forever 21. She recently spearheaded a campaign in Detroit that focuses on food security in the U.S.
Francisco Garcia Hristov
Francisco was born in Ethiopia and raised in Kenya and Namibia. His father is a Mexican diplomat, and his mother a Bulgarian pilot who flies tourists to game reserves around East Africa. Now in San Francisco, Francisco is pursuing his passions of skateboarding, rock n’ roll, and photography. His blog.
Nancy Oppongmea McClymonds
Born and raised in Ghana, Nancy studied performing arts at the University of Ghana. She toured the country with Abibigroma, a theatre-for-development company working in rural areas. She is now based in Oakland, and works with various Bay Area dance ensembles. Another video of her can be found here.