“Ships coming from a distance carry everyone’s dreams ashore. For some they slip in with the eddies of the tides. For others, they crash against the rocks of poor fortune. Each brings their new song of freedom, coming to America.”
-Zora Neale Hurston
When I first visited New York in 1981, stumbling over the stacks of garbage on the corner of Fifth Avenue, I was amazed by the cloying coexistence of poverty and wealth. I later discovered that the city was going broke, that New Yorkers were betting on the city’s demise. Years later, when I flew into San Francisco, I was greeted by quite the opposite spectacle. My wife’s sister picked us up in her 500 SL Mercedes and ferried us through a kaleidoscope of dazzling billboards advertising everything from gambling in Reno to humanitarian aid in Darfur. I was deposited by my in-law at Lake Merritt, the pride of Oakland’s American-African bourgeoisie. I had to pinch myself to believe the opulence was real.
It was real. The American-African community of Oakland, California, is probably one of the richest Black communities in the world. The skyline houses that look down from the redwood hills of the East Bay are not the exclusive preserve of whites, as is often the case in many neo-colonial lands. The sun-drenched Mediterranean climate is host to one of the most diverse communities in America. Yet beyond the mortar and bricks of their homes, American-Africans own very little of the wealth of this fertile region.
On my arrival in Oakland, I learned that the city was scorned by the city on the other side of the bay. Oakland’s population used to be more than sixty percent American-African, but that number has now shrunk by almost half. The racial tag has stuck, and Oakland continues to be subjected to insinuations of second-class citizenship. This abuse only serves to highlight the cruel irony of history; Oakland was the celebrated start of the Trans-Continental railway, which was built to bring Easterners to the gold of the Sierra Mountains. The fame of the whoring town of ‘Frisco had spread too wide for the truth to be known—that San Francisco was just a stop-over on the way to far more rewarding adventures elsewhere.
It was not, however, until I began to work with Americans that I got to see the people behind their facades. Stripped of a reason to care, people often don’t. Settled people become addicted to their immediate gratifications and their interest in others becomes disturbingly absent. The “perfect lifestyle” of the American public persona is a veneer that fools nobody, least of all someone new to the country eager to dig beneath the surface. American lifestyles are so tied to credit and debit—and an obsession with crime—that to come to America is to feast on dreams of fabled opportunities and harsh, demoralizing realities.
My first encounter with real Americana came after I pounded the streets for a month looking for a position comparable to that of an engineer, which I’d been in London. I was told by an agency interviewer in no uncertain terms that as a black man I could not hope to get a position that would allow for vertical mobility.
American racism strikes foreigners with such bold frankness that, on first impression, it comes as a relief from the hypocrisy of the British class system. Yet the acceptance of conflicts among racial groups in America is so prevalent, and reveals an attitude of such bitterness, that it chokes every fiber of the nation’s structure with its mutual detachment. Nowhere in the world is disdain for one’s fellow citizens such a basic part of the typical psyche.
Most startlingly, it is an attitude of victimage. Trying to explain the thousand-year-old war between the Scottish and the English to an American-African is to be reduced to absurdity. American-Africans pride themselves on being history’s biggest victims, as if no other group—of any color—could possibly have suffered as much.
I was finally saved from the grip of this consuming racism by the guiding hand of patronage; in the land of the brave and the free it’s not what you know, but who. A cousin of my wife just happened to be on the local school board. He found me a job as a janitor at a junior college, where I eventually worked for four years.
In the course of my apprenticeship, I was exposed to American supervisors who took more than two years to summon the nerve to have a conversation with me beyond “What’s ‘appenin’?” It took me some time to realize that, as a black Englishman, I frustrated the majority of Americans I met because I didn’t fit neatly into any of their boxes.
The confusion I was causing reminded me of when I first filled out a visa form to come to the USA. I had to grapple with questions of my grandparents’ ancestry and religion, and whether I, or any of my distant relatives, had committed a crime for which we weren’t convicted. Finally, what was my race? I resisted this attempt to be made into a racist as long as I could, but I was impelled by the attitudes of American bureaucracy to view myself in this one-dimensional manner.
My accent set me apart, and my attitude really seemed to upset my supervisors. In social interactions, too, the accent drew attention. I found myself subject to a wide range of responses: people staring at me, mouths agape, people storming out of the room, muttering “who is that nigger,” women approaching me and asking me to “just say som’thang.” The former I lost no sleep over. The latter I learned to live with.
After these teething-times of acculturation, a process that everyone goes through in learning another culture, I was swept up by the vibrancy of American-African life in Oakland. The bubbly familiarity of American-Africans is an intoxicant to the newcomer, particularly when that newcomer has come from a European tradition that considers any display of emotions to be uncivilized. For a black man who had lived in isolation and cultural persecution in England, America represented a land flowing with milk and honey.
Seeing prosperous black people strolling the streets was enough to get my heart pumping with feelings of pride and self-worth. The daily acknowledgment of American-Africans for each other in the streets introduced me to a brotherhood I’d not known before. The encouraging expressions of warmth in the language instilled an emotional bond that resurrected my wounded soul. It seemed to me that the American-African world of the East Bay was just a kiss away from paradise, yet as a black individual who had also traveled and lived in Africa, I found my assimilation into American-African culture difficult.
Firstly, it seemed to me that America bound all people of color to its knee-jerk fight for survival, without necessarily knowing what was in the best interest of a given individual. This has left American-Africans blind to a global consciousness and other alternative solutions to individual liberation. Throughout the world, people of color understand that they are the victims of myriad discriminations. It is understood that those who do the discriminating (The Man, The Whites, Them, etc.) are themselves robbed of the one thing they seek to take from us—humanity. When American-Africans play their game of hate and bitterness, they deliver up to their oppressors that which they seek, and ensure their own slavery. Thus, when American-Africans use derogatory words to describe each other, they are not inventing a unique cultural language; rather they are propagating the language of slavery.
Nothing disgusts a cultural African more than to hear an American-African refer to himself and his kinsman as a “nigga.” This is no solution; it is a papering over of the pain of humiliation, a sublimated denial of the self as a deserving, feeling, human being. It is also not a solution when educated American-Africans mimic ghetto-speak to impress their friends with just how “street” they are. It seems to me that respect and love for oneself has to be the number one priority for any people. For a people that has been enslaved both physically and mentally, respect and love must be pursued as a religious commitment.
I found it difficult settling into the American-African world because I made the mistake of thinking America would be just like Britain (People speak English here, don’t they?). For a foreigner, America’s unique culture defies international social norms. While most countries are united by the sameness of their people, ideas, religion and character, America defines itself—and is defined by others—by its diversity. The Anglo-Saxons may still control the American corridors of power, but the pulse of the nation is in the explosive diversity of its streets. The innovative American culture that resonates around the world is not found in its politics, but in the vibrancy and freewheeling creativity of its people. Such is the magnet that pulls the brave and courageous from around the world to these shores where everything is possible. Nowhere else in the world is there such a belief that with hard work and luck, an average person can live a rewarding and materially successful life. On arrival ashore, the islander is suspended between the dream of freedom—a freedom that offers credit to everyone involved in the scheme of things—and the reality of slavery, a slavery that compels conformity to debt.
Ian C. Dawkins Moore has survived a British boarding school, the jock world of football hooliganism, hitch-hiking across the Sahara desert, Islamic redemption in West Africa, the two-tone culture of American racism and the Corporate Creoles of the Bay Area – and he can still see the funny side of life – enjoy!