Afro-Americans return to taste their heritage

Mark Huband finds a conflict of cultures in Abidjan

The Guardian, 21 April 1991

PEOPLE were laying bets on how long it would take before the guys and dolls of New York and Detroit forsook their sneakers, suits and, in one case, two-tone spats for the cool chic of African attire.

By the second day, the woman from Ghana selling luxuriant suits of vivid colours had tempted at least five delegates into a head-to-toe change of clothes.

A few others had bought colourful cloaks which they had slung haphazardly over their T-shirts arid jeans, a practice which raised the eyebrows of the west Africans who like to see things, particularly dressing, done properly or not at all.

An example to all was former Nigerian president and now hopeful candidate for the United Nations secretary-generalship, General Olusegun Obasanjo. He swept through in a gold cloak whose glare gave the Americans another chance to wear their sunglasses indoors.

Other delegates from across the Atlantic decided to stick with western chic, like the lady who, on the first day, wore a hat whose brim was the size of a medium-sized satellite dish. When, on the second day, she wore a different hat of similar proportions, delegates were left wondering to whom she had given the unfortunate task of carrying her luggage from New York.

The first African and Afro-American conference opened in Abidjan this week. Having decided what to wear, conference delegates gathered in the conference centre of Abidjan’s luxury Hotel Ivoire and heard something of the new world order as interpreted by one of America’s tallest bible-bashing preachers, the Reverend Leon Sullivan of Philadelphia.

Apparently unperturbed by the non-attendance of 23 of the 27 African heads of state billed in the programme, the Rev Sullivan told the four African presidents who did arrive: “For years there has been the hope that black people in America would be reconnected with our African homeland. At last that connection has become a reality.” To which the Afro-Americans in the audience chanted: “Amen, amen.”

“And we want the world to know that we shall never be separated again,” the Rev Sullivan continued, to cries of “never, never” from the audience. “Africa is not going away. Africa is here to stay,” he said.

Apparently unaware that the regimes represented in the room are remembered for some of the worst abuses of power and human rights so far committed, the Rev Sullivan praised the leadership of those present.

“We have come to Africa, the home of our heritage and the land of our history,” he said, building slowly towards his third crescendo when his glasses finally toppled from his nose. “Hold on, we are here, we are coming,” he raged, as if promising a cavalry charge over the nearby hills. “Hold on, hold on,” the audience yelled back, while the African presidents pondered what it was they had let themselves in for.

“Do you give cash advances on credit cards?” one of the New York-gone-ethnic delegates asked the hotel’s francophone cashier in Broadway English. “Non,” she replied. “Gaad, what kinda place is this?” the disgruntled delegate snorted.



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