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CULTURE CLASH : African Americans and African immigrants seek a path to common ground, but misconceptions, stereotypes clutter the way.

July 10, 1994|ERIN J. AUBRY

Growing up in Senegal in the 1960s, Ousmane Drame envisioned America as a hip, socially enlightened land of plenty where black people enjoyed the wealth and social prominence of pop stars such as Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye.

Drame, 42, and his friends dreamed of the day they would cross the Atlantic and meet up with their American counterparts, who would no doubt greet them with black power salutes, discuss the philosophies of their mutual hero, Malcolm X, sport the same Afro hairstyles they had adopted and embrace them as brothers.

But when Drame finally came to Los Angeles in 1979 to pursue an education in flight instruction, he was rudely awakened. Not only was he not wholly embraced by black Americans, he was frequently stung by remarks about his French accent and inane questions about whether he carried a spear or if the town he grew up in had plumbing.

"Americans are brought up with a great ignorance of Africa," said Drame, who lives with his sister in the Mid-City area. "The things some black people say about it--even educated, professional people--upset me at one time. But not any more. I'm used to it."

Drame's experiences are shared by many African immigrants in Los Angeles' black community. Despite the popularity of African hairstyles, dress, art and music on the streets and in the shops of Crenshaw and South-Central, Africans and black Americans remain divided by vastly different cultures, history and persistent misconceptions about each other.

Though a growing number of groups are working to bridge the gap, Africans say most Americans either romanticize Africa as a monolithic motherland or--more commonly--think of it as an interesting but faraway place too physically and culturally remote to relate to their lives.

"How could it be otherwise?" said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and lecturer on the socioeconomic conditions of blacks in America. "Other than the basic trappings--the kente cloth, kufi hats and hairstyles--we're American. In spite of the mystical thing a lot of black people have about Africa, there really is no connection."

Drame, though he says he enjoys good relationships with his American neighbors and acquaintances, agrees. "Many blacks here don't want to admit it, but they are much more American than they are African," he said.

"They try and take (African culture) on, but it doesn't work," he says. "I see a lot of things that are different, not African at all. Here, there is too much pressure to achieve money--the American Dream. . . . People are too concerned about selling themselves, about image."

Drame and other immigrants say that at the root of the misperceptions is geographical and historical ignorance. Too many Americans think of Africa as one country, rather than the world's largest continent containing 52 nations and thousands of ethnic groups and languages. Even West Africa, the region where most black Americans can trace their roots, boasts more than 20 countries and a vast array of peoples, languages and customs.

Despite their symbolic importance to black Americans, Africans are a relatively small percentage of the total immigrant population countywide. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, 28,850 Africans from all nations live in Los Angeles County; by contrast, the number of immigrants from Mexico is 1.2 million. Among the immigrants from Africa, Egyptians make up the largest group at 10,271, followed by 3,363 South Africans, 2,900 Nigerians and 2,890 Ethiopians.

Africans are scattered all over the region, from South-Central to suburbs as far-flung as Riverside. And though an African business community is thriving in the predominantly black Crenshaw district, few African merchants are members of the local Chamber of Commerce.

"They're sometimes reluctant to join because of language differences," said Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce President Ted Fortier. "And it may be cultural. Whatever the case, they don't speak up."

Still, a quick tour of Crenshaw and nearby Leimert Park reveals a strong African presence, from hair salons to record shops to boutiques offering custom-made sandals and African garb. The highest concentration is on a short stretch of Degnan Boulevard in Leimert, where galleries, studios and shops offer the widest selection of African-themed goods in town.

Yet this visual feast, says Crenshaw merchant Elizabeth Yiaba, is for the most part just that--on the surface.

"There are some black people here who are curious to find out what Africa is all about, but I've found many more differences than parallels," said the 30-year-old Sierra Leone native, who owns an African goods boutique called Yaba's Collection. "What some people may think is that skin color is enough to bind us together. But it isn't."

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