When Nonkululeko Shongwe was an infant, she watched her mother vote in South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Under the National Party’s rule of racial segregation, also known as Apartheid, Shongwe’s African mother was barred from voting until the end of the more than 40 year-long era in 1994.
Thirteen years later, when Shongwe was 14, she traveled through three international airports with her guitar and stepfather’s paintings in tow as she left her life in South Africa to live in Athens.
When she began attending Ohio University in 2013, she felt the need to establish kinship with both Africans and African-American students, she said. Yet, by her first semester, Shongwe had discovered a stringent rift separating the two cultures.
There is an unspoken divide between Africans and African-Americans, Tosin Akinola, a second-year Ph.D. student studying education and administration student studying education administration and development, said. The divide, which is noticeable in the way people from the two groups interact both in the classroom and around campus, can cause a tense apprehensiveness among students from the two similar, but continentally different backgrounds, Akinola, who is from Nigeria, said.
“Certain kinds of assumptions or notions have been dominant in ... the way African-Americans have been reported (by media),” Akinola said. “Africans see them as risky … but with Africa, (the portrayal is) disaster, disease (and) poverty.”
Shongwe grew up in her grandmother’s home in Piet Retief, where she watched a lot of American films with her two siblings. Before moving to Athens, her perception of America was largely based on what she saw in those movies, she said.
“I saw a glorified view of America that was portrayed in family-oriented movies,” Shongwe, a senior studying women's, gender and sexuality studies, said.
Michaela Bateman, a senior studying psychology, said her charter middle school in Reynoldsburg, taught her a lot about African-American history, but little about African history.
“Me, as an African-American woman, I had to learn about (African history) from my parents,” Bateman said. “I have to be aware of those things.”
Akil Houston, an associate professor of African-American cultural and media studies, said there is an historic divide between the two groups, formed in part by Western Europe’s colonization of African nations in the 20th century.
Although OU’s African Students’ Union and Black Student Union hosted a summit last fall discussing tensions between African and black students, Houston, the faculty advisor of the Black Student Union, said consistency with such events is key to bridging the gap between the two cultures.
“It can’t be a one time thing,” Houston said. “We can’t just go to eat the food and be done with it.”
Black Student Union is primarily focused on American political conflicts that affect African-Americans, especially the Black Lives Matter movement, whereas African Students’ Union’s body focuses on the history and culture of multiple African countries, Houston said.
Shongwe said she believes students with African ties should have a personal stake in problems concerning black American rights, and black American students should educate themselves on the diverse histories and concerns that affect Africans.
“If there is no dialogue, it’s difficult for me or for Africans to see where we fit into the (black American) struggle,” Akinola said.
However, he said a deeper understanding will only come with the two groups listening to one another.
“The two groups should work on resolving their ignorance,” Akinola said. “Where there is ignorance, there will always be mistakes and misunderstandings.”
Akinola compares the divide between Africans and African-Americans to the two sides of a coin.
“If I take a piece of metal, it is a root of African-Americans,” Akinola said. “If I melt that metal, it is a coin, and it has two sides. That is what Africans and African-Americans have become, two sides of the same coin that do not understand each other because they do not see each other.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Akil Houston's title. He is an associate professor of African-American cultural and media studies. Additionally, the article misstated Tosin Akinola's academic status. Akinola is a second-year Ph.D. student.This article has been updated to show the most accurate information.