Boulevards of Broken Dreams

Originally published in the Q1 2006 issue of The Promota Africa Magazine, a quarterly Pan-African publication based in London. I was a Features Writer and Consulting Editor. Submitted to deviantArt with scans of original article. Very relevant in light of recent events in the UK and Norway.

Every year hundreds of Africans leave their mother countries in search of what is thought to be a better way of life, more opportunity or even political asylum for any number of reasons. On the surface it would seem a good thing and necessary – in spite of the sometimes overly idealistic notions of the grass being so much greener on the other side.

There is a myth lovingly and often patronizingly perpetuated by the West regardless of the media outlet chosen: its towns and cities are portrayed as veritable ‘melting pots’ overflowing and resolute with multi-culturalism. All newcomers are said to be welcome; indeed a number of countries fiercely insist that theirs is a nation of immigrants and that any number of opportunities are there for those willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard. To a degree that is true. However, some would argue that is easier said than done – particularly if one does not have the luxury of immigrating with sizeable funds to either establish a business which will employ workers from the adopted country or as an economic migrant with skills not already in abundance.

To the politically correct in some Western nations, nothing warms the cockles of their hearts more than perpetuating the illusion of a veritable utopia through the media and any number of government entities.

This fantasy was shattered in America in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the world faced the impoverished reality that was inner-city African-American New Orleans. Many found it hard to believe that the world’s wealthiest nation and the birthplace of the original American art form of Jazz could be a hotbed of poverty that is not dissimilar from the Third World with its ‘shotgun shacks’ with roofing little better than tin. It was the predominately poor Black population that was trapped in the Louisiana Superdome as disorganised chaos descended into unspeakable horror. The first to escape under armed escort was reported to have been a group of Europeans who were unlucky enough to be in the wrong place in the wrong time.

The French have always been fiercely proud that all within their borders are French first and anything else does not matter as a matter of legal fact. You cannot be Afro-French. You can only be French and proud to be so. For unwelcome African immigrants banished to unsavoury suburbs in urban areas and with economic and educational opportunities for them not in abundance, nothing could be further from the truth as recent events have shown. Even the wealthiest Black woman in the world, Billionaire American Talk-Show Host Oprah Winfrey, found herself turned away from a leading designer’s atelier in Paris after supposedly being mistaken for being an ordinary North African. However a New York Daily News report, while not specifically using the term racism, did indicate through an anonymous source that Winfrey was recognised and still denied entry by management despite customers visibly browsing in the shop casually only a minute or two past its closing time. The suggestion was made that had it been Barbara Streisand or Celine Dion (i.e. White) – accommodation would have been made. The implications are very clear even without the slanderous remarks against North Africans.

Britain found itself yet again on the verge of riots as tensions broke out between its citizens of African and Asian origin in a well-known Midlands city. Regardless of the reason – many felt something was very wrong with ethnic minorities fighting each other rather than joining forces to rail against The Establishment.

It is one thing for the disenfranchised to acknowledge their difficulties amongst themselves. It is another to give voice to them and ‘by any means necessary’ as the late Malcolm X exhorted. Producer/Musician Kanye West controversially informed the world through live American television during the international fundraising effort for the victims of Hurricane Katrina that ‘George Bush does not like Black people’.  He did this after detailing the hypocrisy of political, military and journalists in contrasting the experiences between the poorest of both White and the overwhelmingly Black communities forced to fend for themselves after Hurricane Katrina. There was a clear distinction in the media as to what the same actions meant: Whites were trying to feed their families and Blacks were said to be looting just for the sake of it. And Kanye West was not afraid to say it to the horror of The Establishment and Middle (i.e. White) America. The East Coast got the message live and in living colour – the West Coast, 3 hours behind, was served a sanitized broadcast in which West’s comments were edited out. West is said to have lost several major endorsement deals as a result of his actions.

The average person struggling to make ends meet on state handouts or a minimum-wage job should not loose sleep over the millions that West is said to have lost given the sizeable bank account he already has and will continue to add to handsomely. However, the implication is clear: not only are we not supposed to expose the myth of the melting pot; we will be sanctioned if we do.

I can confirm for Mr. West that George Bush does not like Native Americans either. No group is more disenfranchised in 21st Century America than its Native sons and daughters. Many Native Americans are still being forced through a peculiar systematic apartheid onto reservations with limited or no economic opportunity. We have to prove our bloodlines for a number of generations in order to be classed ‘officially’ as Native American for scant benefits due us and our tribe from government sources. Paper is power – and that power is inextricably linked to the almighty Dollar. Without the requisite paper trail that brings with it tribal recognition, even one’s own people may not acknowledge you.

Walk down the streets of ordinary neighbourhoods in the West and the schism between Black, White, Asian and Others is often laid bare. After each conflict that lays bare the illusion of a fully integrated society, some government officials or segments of the media seem to take delight in revealing that even when living side by side, the races of the melting pot may not integrate in a meaningful way. Britain’s chairman of its Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Philips, caused yet another controversy by insisting that a form of ‘passive apartheid’ exists in the British countryside. Philips said that the British countryside is seen as a ‘no-go area’ for ethnic minorities who ‘may have an exaggerated fear of hostility’. It was reported that ewer than one in a hundred people are from ethnic minorities in the countryside, compared with a national average of one in 12. However, even in biggest and supposedly most welcoming of all the declared urban melting pots, New York City, there are neighbourhoods where one is simply not ‘allowed’ to take up residence let alone walk in or take a taxi to depending on race. There have always been reports over the years of virulent racism especially amongst real estate agents – who have no compunction about steering ethnic minorities to poorer areas – that is of course unless you are Oprah Winfrey.

Taking the drastic step of leaving one’s home for that bright and shiny opportunity has risks to be certain regardless of circumstances. It is most unfortunate that sometimes the cost can be high as recent events have shown us. The grass can be greener depending on ones circumstances and for many it is after many years with their sleeves rolled up.

But times are changing yet again. Now even the most fortunate of economic migrants with valued skills may find it tough to achieve their melting pot dreams. Some EU countries are proposing that migrants have now only be allowed a limited stay in their chosen country without the right to settle after a specified period of time, often just a few years. America has tightened its Green Card programme and acquiring a Visa just to travel there for a holiday is more difficult than ever in the aftermath of 9/11.

For Africans and of others of colour determined to scale the often Olympian heights in going for the gold that is Western opportunity, the quest is getting that much harder.


5 thoughts on “Boulevards of Broken Dreams

  1. Pingback: Dear @Mulborough #ukriots #benefits | The Creative Crip

  2. This is quite shocking reading for me. What’s worse is that I shouldn’t be surprised because everything that you talk about here is visible and obvious, if only I stopped to think about it.

    • Many thanks for reading and considering what I had to say… unfortunately these are truths a lot of people don’t seem to want to hear at all… 😦

  3. Hi Lisa – a very moving and compelling critique. The myth of opportunity, hard work and reward. As so clearly shown re: Oprah Winfrey’s treatment. The colour of her skin, the first and ONLY thing snooty Parisien shop keepers judged her on. For white, working class, it’s a deeply ingrained sense of always being of a lower value, remorselessly driven home. Black, 3rd generation working class it’s that sense of lower value + racism.

    The wider collision between those migrating to a better life and the reality of discovering that you are, after all, just factory fodder or doomed to labour for little reward and by dint of the colour of your skin or your nationality (e.g. Irish) you are always going to be stigmatised. Many fail to see that at the heart of all ‘Western developed’ nations is the underclass necessary for the existence and sustenance of wealth and power. A parallel third world underclass revealed only in times of traumatic events – such as Hurricane Katrina. The failure to act and the complete abandonment of poor New Orleans Blacks & Whites was an experiment to see how far the Govt. could take it. Seems like they chose to deliberately sit back and do nothing, a mixture of disdain and hatred of the poor evident from Bush Jnr’s inaction. If it has taught us anything, we always thought they were heartless bastards, but we never saw quite how heartless they were prepared to be. They simply did not care and worse still, they relished that. And that’s when they brought in the Army.

    Against this backdrop, the cultural neo-liberal narrative is dominated by the myth that ‘anything is possible’. If you work hard enough, you can win through, you can ‘overcome anything’, so long as you don’t rock the boat or make any uncomfortable challenges and you buy into the myth, even as it disenfranchises, brutalises and humiliates untold numbers of your fellow citizens.

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