- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

NEW YORK The poster on the wall at Louise's diner says, "Black is Black," but the people and the food here tell a more complicated story.
Louise's sits in the heart of a neighborhood called Little Senegal, in central Harlem. Most of the faces you see along Little Senegal's wide boulevards and on the stoops of its brownstone homes are black Africans and Americans both.
As in any heavily immigrant neighborhood, culture here is a fusion: African-run restaurants offer dishes spiced gently for black Americans; groceries sell yam flakes and hamburgers; videos are available in English, French and the Senegalese language Wolof.
But members of the two communities say they live largely disconnected lives, praying, shopping and socializing among their own, sometimes harboring harsh stereotypes of one another.
The separation is painful to many black Americans, who long for their lost historical roots. They rallied here in 1999 to protest the police killing of a West African immigrant, and they increasingly push for slavery reparations. They adopt Africa's hairstyles and adapt its music and wear T-shirts like one that calls the faraway continent "Home of the Original Black People."
"We're not as bonded as we should be," says Butch Williams, 51, a steelworker, over a plate of eggs and grits at Louise's. The connection to Africa is "one of the ongoing questions for black Americans," he says. "You look around and you say, 'What tribe am I from?' You can't help but wonder."
The disconnect has no such meaning to many African immigrants, who often come to this country to make money and then return home. They say they don't necessarily see life in America as black vs. white.
"You go on with your life and them with theirs," says Adam Fofana, who came here from the Ivory Coast eight years ago and runs a restaurant called Fatou down the street from Louise's.
Still, Fatou offers food that Mr. Fofana hopes will bring all blacks in Little Senegal together: West African and Caribbean fare and an all-American beer, Budweiser. So far, the clientele is strictly West African.
Talk about the intergroup dynamics has grown in the past decade with the dramatic swell of African immigrants to New York City neighborhoods, including Harlem. (The number of immigrants to New York from Ghana alone increased 220 percent from the mid- to late 1990s; from Nigeria, 380 percent. Figures for all nationalities are not available.)
A new French film called "Little Senegal" is about a Senegalese man who comes to Harlem and the profound rift he finds there. And in the next few months, museums in New York and Philadelphia will hold programs exploring the topic.
"Africans want to make money [in the United States] and go home. African-Americans want them to play their citizenship role and have solidarity as black people. They have two different agendas," said Manthia Diawara, a filmmaker from Mali who heads the Africana Studies Department at New York University and has written extensively about black culture.
The divide was highlighted for the world two years ago, when four white New York City police officers shot Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, 41 times. Black Americans took to the streets to protest what they saw as a racist attack, and were shocked to find their fervor largely unmatched by their African neighbors.
Yet Africans who immigrate here say they don't necessarily feel closer to black Americans than to anyone else. In fact, they often have their own set of negative stereotypes.
"My father told me not to be friends with black people in America," said Cheick Sissoko, 27, a dancer and drummer who came from Ivory Coast five years ago and now lives in lower Manhattan. "What we see on TV is so bad guns and everything. Then I come and I realize it's true."
Mr. Fofana, the restaurant owner, says black Americans think they are above the sort of gritty work immigrants must do to establish themselves in a new country.
For black Americans who ache from that lost connection, such sentiments can sting.
At Djoniba, the downtown Manhattan dance center where Mr. Sissoko works, dancers of all colors and backgrounds take classes ranging from the style of the Mandingo tribe, in West Africa, to Congolese, Haitian and hip-hop. The only actual Africans there are the teachers, but students wearing traditional African fabrics and others in Lycra bicycle unitards mingle alongside posters advertising vacations in Africa. "Come home!" one says.
Some of the black American dancers say they resent that the African teachers don't feel a special connection to them, don't recognize there is a reason they are doing African dance rather than kickboxing or Rollerblading.
"There's not a sense of cultural solidarity between African-Americans and Africans, and we are always looking for that connection," says Tracy Austin, 45, a corporate lawyer who lives in Harlem and has been involved with the Senegalese community here for many years. "I think a lot of African-Americans are responding to that lack of solidarity, that sense that there is a lack of race-consciousness among Africans, which we have very deeply."
According to John Arthur, a University of Minnesota sociologist and anthropologist and Ghana native who has researched African migration to the United States, part of the reason for the gap is that a key stretch of the bridge is missing. The slave trade is not a regular part of the curriculum in many schools in Africa, and Mr. Arthur believes that this is because Africans would prefer not to face their role in the industry.
As a result, he says, "they don't understand that they do have a connection."
While it is common for immigrants in general to insist they will return to their native country, it is more so among Africans, says Mr. Arthur, author of a book on the subject called "Invisible Sojourners."
Mabel Haddock, head of a Harlem-based group that promotes films about blacks, says black Americans' longing for Africa is like other romanticized feelings people have for places.
Many African films, she says, explore the longing of people for their hometowns after they migrate to large cities.
"I think some people have this rather exotic vision of what Africa is," says Miss Haddock, head of the National Black Programming Consortium, "that if you go there you'll find something better than here that's better for your spiritual self."
Waly Ndiaye, 49, a translator from Senegal who lives in Little Senegal, says he thinks black Americans who focus on their history in Africa and on slavery should think about the future.
"I think people need to forget and move on. No matter how hard it was, there are a lot of opportunities."
But in a reminder of the depth of the connection, Mr. Ndiaye adds that he and his African friends can tell what part of the continent black Americans were originally from by their look and their smell.
Mr. Ndiaye says he was brought to tears by "Little Senegal."
The film tells the story of Alloune, a widower who runs tours at Goree Island, once a slave export center off the coast of West Africa. Upon retirement, he travels to the United States in search of his ancestors who were brought here as slaves.
Among its characters: a fat, money-obsessed black American who refers to an African mechanic as "a big ape"; an African immigrant who whips his girlfriend, a pregnant black American teen-ager, and an African who says "we're too black" for black Americans. Depending on one's viewpoint, "Little Senegal" is jammed with simplistic caricatures or truths.
To some, the film's African characters are idealized wise, educated, family oriented and proud, while its black Americans are rootless, materialistic, crude about topics like sex and love and cold about topics like parenting and community.
Others say it was evenhanded and note that an African character loathed American blacks even while conceding he had taken no interest in getting to know them an insular attitude black Americans in Little Senegal say is dead-on.
What exactly prompted Mr. Ndiaye's tears shows the complexity of the issue. He was moved both by the notion of an African coming to America to find his roots that the two communities do share roots and by the fact that Alloune did not try to bring the Americans he met back to Africa, home to Africa.
For now, the relationship remains part history and part myth, distant and close.
While Mr. Fofana hangs drawings of slain American black nationalist leader Malcolm X on the walls of Fatou, a map of Africa is up at Louise's.
"Simply because our skins are black doesn't mean we have anything in common," said Mr. Williams, the steelworker eating breakfast. "But we do."

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