I wasn’t surprised that some of our leading “thought leaders” didn’t know that Nigerians are among the most highly educated immigrants. I wasn’t. I visited Nigeria in 1999 and met a number of intellectuals, scholars, and writers. Upon my return, I published two anthologies that included 41 Nigerian writers, selected and edited by Nigerian writer Toyin Adewale-Gabriel. Yet during a discussion of President Trump’s describing African countries as “shitholes,” ignoring the fact that some African countries have a higher GDP than the United States, his critics demonstrated that they’d succumbed to the same stereotypes as Trump. One CNN reporter even referred to Africa as a country.
The late Cyprian Ekwensi, one of Nigeria’s leading writers, told me that he got most of his news about the African continent from the BBC. Indeed, unlike on American media, one can find African artists, intellectuals and politicians and business people appearing on that network.
If Donald Trump and his fans consider African countries as “shitholes” that’s how they’re shown in the American media and schools, which is why some of the fiercest racial brawls occur on high school and college campuses. Trump voters, who are delighted by their leader’s dig at Haiti and African countries, might be surprised to learn that Chinese universities offer courses in African and African American culture. I visited one where over sixty professors have been assigned to the study of African American literature. China and the United States are competing for African minds. The dozens of Chinese scholars whom I met on two trips to China are familiar with African-American and Haitian writers whose books have never been reviewed by the American media.
I’ve also visited Haiti. I published a book by the late Dr. Louis P. Mars, the distinguished Haitian psychiatrist. The book, The Crisis of Possession in VooDoo, was translated from the French by the late film-maker, Kathleen Collins.
During a visit to his Pétion-Ville home in 1978, he showed me a picture of his ancestor, who was dressed in the style of the Napoleonic era soldier, and informed me that he had fought alongside American troops at the battle of Savannah in 1779. Dr. Mars was Haiti’s ambassador to Washington during the administration of John F. Kennedy. His country has a grand tradition in literature and art. The works of Haitian painters hang in leading museums in the United States and Europe. Haitian music has international admirers. One of them was Manno Charlemagne who died last December. He was called “the Bob Marley of Haiti.”
Despite its poverty, partially because European countries will never forgive Haiti for the humiliation of France during the revolt of 1804, Haitians have a proud history. Thomas Jefferson and other slave owners were afraid that the revolt would give their own African captives ideas.
Some of the commentators sought to balance the president’s portrayal of immigrants from “shithole countries” by going to the other extreme. That of going overboard as they lumped together all immigrants as virtuous. I heard such talk during a conference in France and told the audience that for some Black Americans immigration means the arrival of more racists to add to the ones who are already here. Such boosters ignore immigrants who behave badly toward traditional Black Americans. The Daily Beast and The Los Angeles Times reported the behavior of a Latino gang called Big Hazard toward Black project dwellers:
Two years after seven do-or-die loyals of one of L.A.’s original Latino gangs allegedly tossed Molotov cocktails into their neighbors’ homes to “get the n—-ers out of the neighborhood.”
The law finally caught up with them. On Thursday, the feds unsealed what is being called one of ‘largest civil rights indictments in local history,’ alleging that the gang members ruthlessly waged a race-fueled campaign against innocent African American families—all with young children—to get them off their prized turf.
And when I hear commentators hail immigrants as hard working and among those groups with low crime rates, I figure that they are signifying on traditional Blacks, that is, criticizing Blacks without mentioning their name. These commentators, who attended schools where studying the War of the Roses was more important than studying American history, are unaware that no ethnic group has contributed to American prosperity as much as Black Americans. Profits made from slavery were higher than those of all other industries, banks, railroads, combined. After the Emancipation, which Blacks won as a result of a general strike, they were encouraged to place all of their money in a Freedman’s Savings Bank. It was called, “The Black man’s cow, but the white man’s milk,” because most of the mortgage loans went to Whites. When the bank failed, the government reneged on its promise to guarantee the deposits made by Blacks. That has been the pattern since then. Through redlining, the deposits of Blacks have been used to finance the equity of others, and though the media regularly depict Blacks as takers, most of the entitlements go to Trump voters.
MSNBC talk show host Joy Reid reports that her immigrant parents from British Guyana and the Democratic Republic of Congo speak disparagingly of American Blacks, as many African and Caribbean immigrants do, and the late author Harold Cruse and others view Caribbean immigrants as honorary Whites, some of whom share the attitudes of Whites toward Black Americans. Some of the immigrants from Mexico have been exposed to racist depictions of Blacks in the Mexican media of the sort that even the American media abandoned in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Mexican government recognized Africa as Mexico’s “third root.”
Frank Chin, one of the pioneers of Asian-American Literature, was blunt when he said that Chinese Americans are used as the model minority to embarrass Blacks. But today’s model minority can be tomorrow’s scapegoat.
A 19th century California newspaper admonished Japanese immigrants to work hard. Like Blacks.
Such is the ignorance and even fear of Africa that when I told Americans that I was going to visit Nigeria, they said I’d get a disease from which I would never recover, or I’d be murdered even before I left the airport. I had a great time.
Finally, it’s possible for a country regarded as a shit hole to become one that earns international respect. Donald Trump’s mother was from Scotland.
Copyright© 2018 by Ishmael Reed.