Black Panther And The Debt We Owe Black Americans

By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory

Customers swarmed Exotique, a boutique store in downtown Durham, North Carolina, last week. Exotique, owned by my friend Lola and her husband, sells beautiful African textiles, dresses, jewelry, art and other products from the continent. Lola’s husband is a senior anesthesiologist at the Duke University School of Medicine who travels all over Africa on medical missions, also bringing back gorgeous products for their store. Lola and her husband are alums of the University of Ibadan where she trained as a physical therapist, and he, as a doctor, in the great University of Ibadan College of Medicine. Exotique is a labour of love for the couple, their effort to establish an African presence in Durham. There is no better place to do commerce than downtown Durham, which is currently undergoing a renaissance with property value going up exponentially. The customers, all African-Americans, were in Exotique on this day to buy African outfits to celebrate the opening of Black Panther, an Afro-futuristic super-hero film based on the Marvel comics. They wanted to pay homage to Africa. With a black production team and a mostly black cast, a first in the movie industry here, this excellent film has now generated $700 million worldwide, and is projected to hit the elusive stratospheric billion-dollar mark soon, leaving competitors in the dust.

The Black Panther film is set in a fictitious African Kingdom called Wakanda. It is a wealthy, independent, and self-sufficient kingdom, where beautiful dark-skinned female warriors fiercely defend the kingdom, and the princess is a geek who creates the most awesome technology to power the kingdom, using their natural resource, Vibranium, not found anywhere else in the world. In this movie, African-Americans imagine Africa as a place of prosperity, a continent that could thrive through technological ingenuity, using its natural resources. They imagine Africa as a continent that engages the rest of the world on its own terms, and not a place to be plundered for its human and natural resources to develop other people’s lands. The young African-American director, Ryan Coogler, and the costume designer, Ruth Carter, Hollywood veterans, said they traveled around the continent and found inspiration in so many cultures in making this intelligent and awe-inspiring movie.

While African-Americans have this global vision of black life, many African immigrants in their thinking and assumptions, show a surprisingly lack of “wokeness”, a lack of social and political consciousness, about the relationship between Africans and African-Americans, and their collective position on the global stage. They do not seem to be aware of the huge debt we owe to African-Americans for our very presence in the United States, and for the environment they helped create for us to thrive and prosper. According to the U.S. Census, African immigrants are the most educated immigrant group in the United States.

Nigerians, especially, hold more advanced degrees than white Americans and, at four percent, hold more Ph.Ds in comparison to the one percent in the general U.S. population. None of this is surprising, giving the huge investment of Nigeria in education during the oil boom era. Nigeria expanded educational opportunities for many generations of Nigerians, with free education for people who studied at home and abroad. Even before the oil boom, the passion for education was so high in many parts of the country that people were willing to go to the ends of the earth to seek opportunities, the Golden Fleece, they called it in those days. Secondly, people who migrate are self-selected. Immigrants, according to research studies, are found to be some of the most driven people in the societies that they live in; and are hardly the norm. American immigration policy deliberated targeted the most skilled and educated in our societies. Also, the continent is so far to the United States that it takes considerable efforts and financial resources to emigrate, which many poor and uneducated people can simply not afford. Comparing these selected immigrants to the general African-American population is fraudulent. As clichés go, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

In spite of this very high level of education, many Nigerian immigrants are uninformed about the history of their host country, why things are the way they are, the epic battle fought by African-Americans, whose ancestors were brought to the U.S. as enslaved people, and whose unpaid labour and skills, for centuries created the wealth that powered the industrialisation of this great country. Without this free African labour of ten generations, we won’t have the prosperous and powerful America we have today. After slavery was abolished, African-Americans in the milieu of Jim Crow laws (like Apartheid South Africa) came under extreme oppression, discrimination and physical violence by white people who established a racial caste that intended to see black America live in poverty and servitude in perpetuity. But these mighty people pushed back and fought for their rights and humanity. All legal and extra-legal structures were put in place to ensure that the humanity of black Americans was thoroughly subjugated: they could not own property, they could not vote, they could not live wherever they liked, there was violence perpetrated on their communities by racist police officers and some white citizens. In short, all rights and privileges given to white America were denied them, and they had no recourse to the Courts to seek redress. Until the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the eloquent leader of the Movement, but it was the work of thousands of African-Americans; men, women, and children who put their lives and livelihoods on the line, and who organised and challenge the inhumane system. Many paid dearly with their lives, but the freedom and opportunities gained after this struggle is what we (including other non-white immigrant groups) enjoy today. Their struggle led to the 1965 immigration policy, which opened the doors to Africans, Asians, and Middle-Easterners, to emigrate and contribute to the growth of the United States. Before this, the immigration policy only favoured European immigrants.

You would think African immigrants, more than any other group, would appreciate this important historical fact and be grateful to black Americans, but instead I see a lot we-are-better-than-them chest-thumping, willfully ignoring the monumental achievements of black Americans in medicine, law, the academia, literature, science, technology, arts, and sports. Their musical and linguistic culture is emulated all over the world. Their organising and political strategies are borrowed by other groups to agitate for rights and opportunities. The Women’s Movement in the United States, which opened the doors of opportunity for American women who are now leaders in every sphere, replicated the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement, invented by black people. Latin American immigrants, fighting for their rights, are also using the template from the Civil Rights Movement. Black Americans continue to bring glory to the United States in international sports competition. Even at the height of violent oppression in the United States in the 1930s, when a lesser people would have been completely paralysed, Jesse Owens, a black American, became the fastest man on earth in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, effectively destroying Hitler’s Nazi Aryan superiority ideology. The disciplined body of Jesse Owens did the work, but it was his clear vision and that of his community that showed a people who are unbowed by the injustices heaped on them. Hitler, humiliated by the fact staring him in the face, refused to shake Owens’ hand, as was due the fastest runner in the Olympics. Black America continues to produce excellent and brave people like this, unsung achievers and heroes, whose accomplishments are ignored or outright stolen to make others wealthy.

We owe African-American gratitude and respect for their courage, persistence, and ingenuity. We can show this by stopping to call them derogatory names, and by acknowledging the hard work they did to make our emigration to the United States possible. Maybe we can repay this by creating a livable and prosperous Nigeria, a place of refuge and pride for them and us.

Many African immigrants succumb to the American ideology of casting black Americans as the “other”, a very unthinking and sad situation. Nigerian immigrants, especially, call them “akata”, a slur that is just as ugly as the “N” word, assuming the worst of characteristics about them. There is no doubt that some African-American communities are distressed and crime-ridden because of centuries of segregation and deprivation. But that is not the whole story of African-American life. I learnt, as a doctoral student in public policy, that for centuries every policy regarding all areas of life in the United States was crafted to exclude black Americans. If the competition was fair, even after slavery, African-Americans would be just as prosperous as white Americans today. We arrive in the United States to see the media representations of Africa as a place of corruption, wars, disease, famine and all human disasters. We chaff at these images, knowing that they are not true, and do not represent all of our realities. Those fleeing wars and disasters are miniscule in comparison to the general African immigrant population, but these are the images shown to the world routinely about our continent, either on television, film, or in print. We could process this as a form of media bias but we could not see that the same is being done to African-Americans; that the images we see constantly of the criminal element among them hardly represent most of black America. It is a construction.

There are a number of reasons why many African immigrants resort to this sort of thinking. On arriving in the United States, we experience the shock of being racialised. We suddenly encounter the oddity of our skin colour being the most salient factor in our identity. Our blackness which has been non-existent before emigrating becomes the only thing that matters to others, and blackness has been constructed in the most negative and destructive ways in the United States for centuries. To dissociate ourselves from the discrimination and maltreatment suffered by African-Americans, we join the band-wagon to badmouth and think less of them. It is short-sighted and self-defeating. In the global world constructed by Western imperialism for the last five hundred years, we have all been tribalised. What is Racism but Tribalism, with skin colour as the defining factor? The fact is that black people wherever we are in the world are joined at the hips. Even though it’s not of our own making, we have become a Tribe, the Black Tribe.

We owe African-American gratitude and respect for their courage, persistence, and ingenuity. We can show this by stop calling them derogatory names, and by acknowledging the hard work they did to make our emigration to the United States possible. Maybe we can repay this by creating a livable and prosperous Nigeria, a place of refuge and pride for them and us. Black Panther shows the depth, courage, artistry and sophistication of the African-Americans behind this movie. It shows the admirable wokeness of a people who could see large visions of black global life, who see Africa as a place of worth, beauty, power, and wisdom, and that a meaningful dialogue has to start between the descendants of Africa living in the Diaspora and those on the continent. We should be grateful to them for imagining Africa as a place of technological creativity and growth. Many young black people all over the world are watching this movie and this would define for them what Africa is and can be, the same way those racist and demeaning Tarzan films, which had Africans swinging from trees, formed the idea of Africa for many generations of African-Americans and other Americans in the last century. It is why many ignorant Americans ask you that irritating question of whether you live on trees in Africa. It is important that we, wherever we live as black people, stay woke. Many great things can happen when we all stay woke and work together.

Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *