Mutual Entanglements

The complex, and at times strained, relations between African-Americans and African immigrants in the United States.

Image, unrelated to the film, by Julian Myles. Via Unsplash.

After fleeing political turbulence in his native Ivory Coast, and settling in Boston thirteen years ago with his American wife and young daughter, film-maker Zadi Zokou noticed a certain indifference towards his African background and experience by several African Americans he encountered. Zadi’s subsequent conversations and interviews with local community activists, academics, artists, and everyday people in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, as well as in Africa, revealed fascinating insights into the tensions between these communities. Even more importantly, they also uncovered a pervasive common concern to find and establish points of coherence and harmony, and revealed fascinating new perspectives on identity, culture, heritage, and history.

The result is BlacknBlack. The film is first and foremost a celebration of kinship between African Americans and African immigrants who share similar ethnic origins and cultural heritage. The film also poses poignant questions about tensions and misunderstandings that often plague the relationship between these two groups. BlacknBlack is about the historical context of knowing each other among these two communities, and about the ongoing process of mutual learning and self-reflection. The film makes a powerful point about the importance of considering the complex histories of African and American relationships that span several centuries and continents, coloring the interactions and mutual perceptions within the communities of African heritage.

The central theme of the film is the violent history of migration that shapes the African American experience—a legacy defined by broader global forces of slavery and colonialism. The historical slave trade across the Atlantic resulted in forced displacement of about 12 million Sub-Saharan Africans, while also shaping the geographical and ethnic distribution of many present-day African-American communities in North America. Many recent African immigrants to the United States are war or conflict refugees, or economic migrants from countries marginalized by decades of post-colonial legacies.

While slavery was historically common in some African empires and kingdoms, just as in the rest of the world, its meaning was different. African systems of slavery were often defined by local socio-cultural patterns of clientage and adoptive kinship rather than large-scale commercial enterprise. That part of the history also tends to be affected by stereotypes and misconceptions. The role of some Africans as complicit in the slave trade continues to remain a painful aspect of African American history. But unscrupulous chiefs selling their fellow Africans to slave traders is not the whole story. The history also includes acts of resistance, raids and attacks on European slave traders. These important stories are not well known yet.

To come to terms with the painful historical events, reconciliatory ceremonies have been taking place recently, acknowledging the effects of the lost labor and brainpower on African communities: There does not need to be an apology, but a discussion about our communal history. The film describes the emotional trips of present-day African Americans to the Cape Coast Castle of Ghana—a historical trading post used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The film makes clear the fact that the African American experience has been largely one of displacement, extreme mobility throughout history—often resulting in deterritorialization, and an erosion of social and cultural identity. That also reinforces mutual stereotypes. The Yoruba word akata originally refers to a “cat who does not live at home, a wild cat,” sometimes used to refer to African immigrants by the people on the continent. Those traveling to Kenya may be called by Swahili mzungu, meaning “wanderer,” a word also used for white expatriates. That identification of African Americans as foreigners and outsiders when visiting the continent can be unexpected and disheartening. On the other hand, the recent “Bronx culture clash” between West African immigrants and local black Americans in the South Bronx illustrated the difficulties that newcomers may face when settling into local communities in American cities. In the course of over two years, the predominantly conservative Muslim migrants suffered a series of violent attacks by African American youth in the neighborhood, resulting in several hate crime charges.

A mutual discussion of such experiences of alienation and perceived hostility can prove cathartic and constructive, as BlacknBlack suggests, revealing to participants hidden facets of their identity and self-perception. Even more importantly, it can encourage joint political and social action in today’s environments of segregation along poverty and racial lines.

The film-maker interviews several African Americans who have settled in African communities. An American woman who has lived in Ghana feels that this experience taught her more about her own identity as African American—as a unique identity in its own right, with its own language, its own culture and distinctive way of being. Both African and African American communities have evolved longitudinally, over time, and transnational contacts continue to shape both cultures. People interviewed in the film who have undergone the experience of living in both societies—in Africa as well as in America, either by birth or immigration—contemplate a deeper understanding of diversity and difference. That has also enabled them to appreciate more highly the value of mutual dialogue and common action, and address the legacies of colonialism that continue to shape the African experience.

The mutual entanglements are complex. African Americans sometimes feel that Africans as foreigners have not had to deal with the history of racism in this country, and it is therefore easier for them to relate to white Americans—their foreigner status highlighting a separate identity. They perceive African immigrants as reluctant to get involved in the African American politics and civil rights struggle, while taking advantage of benefits created through those struggles by people living in this country. At the same time, the movie recalls the history of solidarity and collaboration between people of African heritage on both sides of the Atlantic, through the Pan-Africanist Movement.

BlacknBlack is not just a virtual artistic project. It aims to engender new venues and live forums of discussion, and facilitate building bridges through self-reflection and mutual learning. The film is being screened on college campuses, and inspires emotional discussions at meetings of community groups and African diaspora organizations. In July 2018, it received the Henry Hampton Award for Documentary Excellence at the 2018 Roxbury International Film Festival. By encouraging people to share their experience, fears, prejudices, and expectations, BlacknBlack acts as a healing force towards reconciliation, and a better understanding of oneself and the other.

Through DNA testing, Zadi Zokou has found hundreds of African American relatives who are descendants of slaves. This experience will be the subject of his next documentary.

Further Reading