I have seen this question pop up constantly on my feed for the past year or so and always, I passed it over, but this last time, I feel I got to answer or it will keep popping up on my feed
I came to Canada for studies about a few years ago. Prior to that I lived in Nigeria, then Ghana for school and work, then Liberia, Kenya and Angola, also for work, then back again to Ghana before moving to Canada.
The African American wasn’t in my consciousness much during my time in Africa. And those African Americans I tended to think of were the celebrities. Ordinary African Americans, sadly, were not much in my thoughts. But all was about to change. Oh, by the way, I was also familiar with many African American icons: I thought MLK should have been pope. Back home, I knew about the civil rights movements and the black American struggles. And I was impressed, that is, theoritically, with the stories I read about it. In reality, however, I hardly thought about the ordinary African American and what their lives are like. In fact, I thought, like many Africans, that I had an idea of what that life must be, thanks to Western (American) media, which is quite prominent in many african countries. Even when I was hearing stories like Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman guy’s verdict, still it didn’t click for me how the ordinary African American must be faring in the US. But like I said, all was about to change.
I arrived for studies in Vancouver, few years ago. During the first month of my studies, I took a sky train one day to Lougheed Mall in Burnaby, to shop at a Wallmart outlet there.
Whilst exiting the train station at Lougheed, I saw a small crowd gathered nearby, police cars parked with lights strobing. Three tall, well built police men were leaning against one of the cars, relaxed and talking quietly among themselves. Behind them, I could see inside the police car where a young destressed-looking girl of about five years or so, sat and staring vacantly. I figured she’d been crying before I arrived. Seeing her, my eye involuntarily moved back to the cops but then fell on a figure seated on the floor in front of the cops, her hands looking like they were tied behind her (I later saw she was cuffed).
I didn’t register all this at first. I was in a hurry because I had lecture that afternoon and wanted to finish shopping in time to get back to campus. So I am hurrying along, conscious of the scene I am describing but not paying much attention. Suddenly I thought I heard someone say “black lives matter”. I wasn’t sure I heard it right at first so didn’t pay attention and kept walking away. Then I heard it again, “Hei black lives matter, I am talking to you”. I quickly stopped, still unsure whether it was me being addressed. I turned to the voice, which was the woman I’d vaguely noticed seated and cuffed in front of the cops. I saw she was of First Nations descent, about 25 give or take, one arm tattooed from shoulder to wrist and missing some front teeths, she shouted, looking straight at me, “they won’t let me be with my daughter”. (meaning the little girl in the police car) “I even tried to call my sister to come take her home but they won’t give me my phone call*. Take out your phone”, she commanded, looking straight and defiantly at me, “take a video and post it to youtube, show the whole world what they are doing to me”.
At first I was confused, then suddenly it clicked. She thought I was African American. Wait a minute, she thought I was African American and could easily understand her situation and advocate on her behalf. I thought about shouting back at her and telling her I am originally from Nigeria, but then stopped myself, thinking how stupid it would sound.
I looked at the cops again and saw they weren’t smiling any more. They were all quiet and looking at me as if seeing if I would do what the woman asked and video the scene. I saw some among the gathered crowd also had their phones out and were taking shots of the scene. But they were mostly high school students, and chinese. I looked back at the woman on the floor, lamely raised my arm and waved my fist in sort of socialist salut, and said, barely audible, “more power to you, sister”. (I had heard the phrase in a Black American movie I watched back in Ghana and it sort of stuck in my mind). At first I wasn’t sure she heard me. But I heard her respond, “thank you brother”. I quickly turned to look at the cops. They were relaxed again, one of them chuckled dismisively. And they started talking among themselves again. I hurried away.
As I went, many thoughts went through my mind. I had never actually thought much about black Americans and protests against injustice. Yet here was a woman in distress, not even in America, who saw me, mistook me for an American and thought I would understand her plight and fight for/with her. Thats when it clicked for me: the African American is a symbol of justice. He’s the fore runner in the fight for equality and justice. As I thought of these, I also realized I was a fraud. A usurper.
Hence since that incident, I have strived to see the African American in this light. I can say confidently that I have made enormous progress on that front.
So what do I, an African native, think of African Americans. I think they are one of the first people who will stand with you to fight injustice if they thought you were being dealt a bad hand by the powers that be. And I think many non African natives also think this.
*in Canada, I understand that all arrestees are entitled to a phone call. But mostly this is granted at the discretion of the police, and it can take up to 48 hours or so before it becomes illegal for police to withhold phone call rights of arrestees. so I don’t think the police were actually in the wrong, at least legally, for supposedly not granting her phone call request.
Edit. This answer is in no way whatsoever a condemnation of the RCMP, the canadian police. I understand they have a reputation for being very professional and fair, except for a few bad apples, mostly in Toronto. This incident happened in Burnaby, British Columbia.
The woman may indeed have been a criminal. Or not. I do not know. And that isn’t the point of my answer. What I am trying to say in my answer is that she saw me, an African, thought instead I was an African American, someone who understood injustice, wasn’t afraid to stand up against it, and could thus empathize with and advocate or fight for her. When in reality I wasn’t that person. Whether or not she did what the cops had arrested her for or whether she deserved the treatment she was getting from them, isn’t the point of this answer.