Uncommon Ground: Across the Country, Africans and African-Americans Still Struggle to Come Together

By Williams, Sherri | Ebony, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Uncommon Ground: Across the Country, Africans and African-Americans Still Struggle to Come Together


Williams, Sherri, Ebony


Mohamed Adam came to the United States 12 years ago fleeing ethnic and tribal clashes in his native Somalia that turned the East African country into a civil war zone.

He never imagined when he arrived in America that cultural conflict would put him in the center of another battle.

The Masjid Ibn Taymiya mosque in Columbus, Ohio, where Adam is the director and 1,400 Somali immigrants worship, has been repeatedly vandalized and congregants harassed. Vandals spray-painted "Go back to Africa" outside the mosque last November.

The hateful incidents displayed disdain for Adam's congregation. But the sting went even deeper because the acts were committed by African-American youth in the mostly Black neighborhood where the mosque is located.

"When we came here we thought this was a peaceful land," says Adam, 35, who spent four years in a refugee camp before coming to Columbus. "We already had enough trouble at home. We are trying to heal."

In fact, healing among African immigrants and African-Americans is the goal in Columbus and other cities across the nation where descendants of Africa have experienced tension and violence while struggling to live among their American cousins.

Indeed, while Africans and African-Americans share skin color and ties to the continent, cultural differences have caused division. And conflict and cohesion between the two groups have emerged across the country as African immigration has increased nationally to 1.3 million Africans living here, according to the U.S. Census.

In Seattle, relations between African-Americans and East Africans were strained after a 2006 shooting outside an Ethiopian restaurant left an African immigrant dead. Now, a new coalition of representatives from both groups are working to mend the rift.

In New York City, where Ethiopians are the spiritual base of his Harlem congregation, the Rex,. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, is helping cement a connection with Ethiopia through a pilgrimage to the East African nation and partnerships with Ethiopian leaders.

In Columbus, home to the nation's second-largest Somali population with about 45,000 Somalis, growing pains have erupted into fights over the past decade as the face of Black neighborhoods has changed to include more Africans, shifting languages and traditions. According to a city official, at least 100,000 African immigrants from across the continent now live in Columbus, a city that has now become an African mecca in the Midwest.

Acts of aggression against Africans committed by African-Americans--including paintball attacks on congregants at the mosque--have caught the attention of authorities, says Columbus Police Commander Jeffrey Blackwell.

"It's degrading," says Blackwell, an African-American who grew up in the area where many Somalis live. "I equate that to the fire hoses in Mississippi ... What we have [here] borderlines on hate crimes, Black-on-Black hate crimes."

After misunderstandings between African and African-American neighbors at Columbus' Three Rivers Apartments blew up into brawls last fall, an African-American family was evicted.

The sudden influx of African immigration has contributed to the tension, says Elwood Rayford, 67, an African-American neighborhood activist in Columbus.

"No one told us they were coming, what they were about or why there were here," says Rayford, a 40-year resident of the area where many Somalis live. "And no one told them the truth about us. They have heard we are all criminals, drug dealers and prostitutes."

In fat, stereotypes of Africans and African-Americans color how they relate to one another, says John A. Powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.

"A lot of the negative things about African-Americans get portrayed in the media [and] get portrayed to Africans," he says. …

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