During the “Back to Africa” movement in the 1920s Marcus Garvey argued that African Americans could only attain social equality by moving back to Africa, and saw the continent as the only place in which self-emancipation could be attained. The idea of sending an oppressed group of people to find equality in a place where the individuals to whom the land belong face systematic oppression (by way of colonialism) doesn’t make much sense, and could only exist in the realm of idealism and romanticism.
Some African Americans have constructed for themselves a utopia image of Africa. The afrocentric rhetoric with which some discuss the continent often conceptualizes a glorified heritage. Such rhetoric romanticizes Africa, likening the continent to a sort of unblemished and innocent woman, “Mama Africa” as some often say.
As a result, many envision an “African” experience that, I believe, greatly differs from the reality they should expect. And so I ask, If African Americans were to move back to Africa today (and actually settle, not a six week study abroad adventure or a one week safari trip) how would these romanticized expectations compare to the reality that exists in most African countries? Would some be disappointed that the continent of “queens and kings” isn’t as regal as imagined?
When some African Americans envision going to Africa, they expect to have an exuberant and overwhelming feeling of belonging. The desire to reconnect with one’s ancestral past is only natural and cannot be disputed. However, expecting a heaven-like welcoming and effortless instatement into the country is quite a stretch. This idealism will be shaken once the individual comes to the solemn realization that belonging isn’t as instantaneous or as natural.
Furthermore, racial homogeneity is the norm throughout the continent, which leads many to expect a gargantuan level of umbuntu and kumbaya-ness amongst the brethren. In reality racial homogeneity holds little significance amidst ethnic diversity. Ethnic diversity is wonderful, however, the level at which it exists in most African countries makes the search for belonging much more difficult to resolve. I often wonder how African Americans would react to the fact that ethnic diversity is too often the root of many political conflicts, and that tribalism, more often than not, acts as a threat to progress in many African societies? So how does one begin to truly feel they belong in places where unity has sadly been snatched away by the conflict breeding hands of colonialism?
Many African Americans view Africa through a very traditionalist perspective, a place filled with men and women wearing dashikis and batik printed head wraps dancing in circles to the beat of drums. They expect to be immersed in the same cultural experiences their ancestors participated in. But what happens when the level of traditionalism and cultural expression found differs from what was envisioned? How does one begin to feel connected when Western culture dominates several aspects of life throughout the continent? Would African Americans be shocked to find Africans having a greater appetite for Western culture than their own? How would they react to those adopting foreign phonetics never having crossed national borders; when the colonial master’s tongue continues to be esteemed higher than their own?
Someone once told me, “It would be dope to live in a place where black people made all the political decisions, like it is in Africa”. This is an expectation those who romanticize Africa hold. Unfortunately, a black ruling class isn’t as idealistic as it may sound. I wonder how African Americans would react to black leaders who sign contracts selling the livelihood of their brethren to outsiders? What might they think of black governors and ministers who would much rather pocket millions than provide clean water and electricity to the masses?
Africans in the diaspora who return after several years hold similar expectations as African Americans. They too look forward to that feeling of belonging and connection. However, the reality that they will never be able to interact and relate to their land of origin in the same way quickly confronts them. These expats reluctantly realize that a resume button does not exist. In fact, they now possess a level of elitism that prevents them from ever reaching that state of “belonging” they once felt but now crave. African Americans will also be confronted with such complexities.
So I ask again, if African Americans returned to Africa and were exposed to these realities, would Africa still appear to be unblemished and ideal or would Africa be better experienced from afar?