An African dance group performs a cultural dance at the D.C. Africa Festival. (Courtesy Photo)
Mei Turay emigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone as a young boy with his family more than 30 years ago and settled into the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood with ease. His cultural identification quickly took on that of many native Africans who moved to D.C. in the 1970s – Black American popular culture when among friends, and a strict adherence to Sierra Leonian values at home.
“There were certain stereotypes of Africans that I wanted to separate myself from growing up – especially since most often they were negative things like starving kids on television, civil unrest, and later, HIV infections,” said Turay, who did not readily admit he was African until the release of Eddie Murphy’s 1988 film “Coming to America”. “I learned to hide my accent as much as possible and do the things my friend did so they wouldn’t associate me with those images.”
Turay said that with cultural events like the annual D.C. Africa Festival (held Sept.27 at the Ronald Reagan Building), Black Americans are afforded a glimpse into the history, language, art, food, and rituals of their ancestral homes. Barring such cultural exchanges, Turay said he believes Black Americans would continue to view African nations as backwards, primitive, impoverished, and desolate.
South African student Mariah Chetty concurred with Turay, saying cultural festivals have an immense effect on Black Americans who claim their African ancestry without a complete understanding of it. What Blacks do not know, Chetty said, can be harmful to their self-identity. “For Africans living in America, the cultural exchange is almost always one where we are learning from Americans, rather than Americans learning from us,” said Chetty. “Every Black person should make a sojourn to the Motherland at least once in their lifetime because popular culture is not always popular and in the same way Black Americans would not want the world to think of them using representatives from reality housewives shows, South Africa is not all poverty, disease, and Mandela memorials.”
Chetty points to the vibrant Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood, which the Nigerian government said earned an estimated $3.3 billion with 1,844 movies produced in 2013 alone. There are also successful businesswomen like South Africa’s Toy Majola, who customizes one-of-a-kind stilettoes through her ToyGal Shoes, for Black women globally.
“I applaud cities and states that spotlight the diversity of Diasporic African cultures, especially in places with high concentrations of Black Americans. Every one of the 54 countries and nearly 3,000 languages should be acknowledged because it proves we are many, but one,” Chetty said. “We are all one family, and Black Americans are a branch on that family tree. We just have to get a point where we all recognize that it is the same tree.”