Mukoma Wa Ngugi was only 19 years old and had just moved to the United States from Kenya when he faced a tense confrontation with a fellow African American student. Even though he was born in the U.S., he was raised in Kenya. Ngugi didn’t come back to the U.S. until it was time for him to attend Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he found himself on the brink of an unforeseen altercation.
One night, Ngugi decided to go to a keg party. It was there that an African American university student asked him if Africans live in trees. Subsequently, Ngugi and that student nearly started throwing punches at one another.
Had it not been for an African American upperclassman who stopped them and helped them understand and discuss their misunderstandings, that night surely would have ended much worse. Even though Ngugi doesn’t remember the name of the student that intervened, 29 years later, that moment still remains vivid in his memory.
Ngugi is now an associate professor of English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He will also be leading a discussion titled “Blackness, Africans and African Americans: Complex Solidarities and Beauty” at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Sept. 11, in the Nebraska Union Auditorium at 7:00 p.m. He will be discussing how the relationship between Africans and African Americans is not as simple or straightforward as it would seem.
“If you go to any campus, you will find there is a tension between African and African American students,” Ngugi said. “On one hand, the person looks like you, you expect to be in solidarity, especially with the history of racism and slavery, but at the same time, there is tension.”
Ngugi explains that, oftentimes, the tension stems from the lens in which each race views one another. According to Ngugi, Africans, more often than not, only see and know African Americans as what they see on television, which leads to misleading stereotypes. The same lens is applied to African Americans when they see Africans. They only see them through the stereotypes shown in the media.
“So, I meet an African American,” Ngugi said, “and, even though we are both black, we are looking at each other through the eyes of racism.”
According to Ngugi, it is important for campuses to have this discussion about race and look at both the tension and the solidarities because it opens up opportunities for understanding one another and resolving the tensions. During the discussion at UNL, Ngugi hopes to touch on both the positive and the negative contentions in the relationship between Africans and African Americans. In order to dig into these points, Ngugi will talk about both the historical and present examples of solidarity and tension.
Alice Kang, an associate professor of political science and ethnic studies at UNL, is eager to have Ngugi visit. According to Kang, it is a rare opportunity for the department of ethnic studies to intertwine African studies and African American studies.
“People should expect to leave with Mukoma’s deep and brilliant analysis of racism in the United States,” Kang said. “He has a very global perspective of racism that I think people in the U.S. need to hear.”
Much of Ngugi’s perspective of racism stems from his experiences as someone born in the U.S. but raised in Kenya. After returning to the U.S. at the age of 19, Ngugi faced a lot of questions about who he was — African or African American. These types of questions have inspired many of his works, including one of his books titled “Logotherapy,” which was published by the University of Nebraska Press. “Logotherapy” is a book of African poetry that touches on topics ranging from love and war to language and immigration. His other works can be found on his website.
“I am interested in the divisions, the issues [and] the tensions, especially as you have more Africans immigrating to the U.S.,” Ngugi said. “But, at the same time, I want to explore the history of itself, the history of solidarity.”