Little Ghana in New York

Alex Adouboffour and his client.

Alex Adouboffour and his client.

By Adjoa Hackman

It is 4 o’clock in the evening during a casual Saturday afternoon in the Bronx. The soccer game is playing on the television at Papaye Restaurant while patrons dine on fufu and light soup, palaver sauce and white rice, and jollof rice. The restaurant is filled with the smell of many Ghanaian dishes and everyone is speaking in their native dialect – Ewe, Ga, Twi, Fante amongst many others. One block down, Afrobeats is blasting at the Big Six Unisex barbershop and kente cloth covers the seats and counters. Ghanaians always know how to make themselves feel at home.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, as of June 2014 New York City has a population of over 35,000 Ghanaian immigrants and second-generation children who come to the United States to further their education and to find employment. It is the largest population of Ghanaian immigrants in the US. Many of these immigrants, such as Osei Bonsu – the manager of Papaye Restaurant, have started their own businesses in the Bronx. Their customers are like family and the owners of these businesses take care of one another.

The Africanizaton of the black community in New York has certainly changed black culture in the Bronx. There is no longer solely American black culture in the Bronx– there is now Ghanaian, Gambian, and Senegalese culture intermixed with it.

“I think it is very good that we are bringing Ghanaian culture to the Bronx,” says Nana Acheampong-Tieku, the regional chief of the Ashanti people in New York. “It is more or less about teaching black Americans about brotherhood and family. It’s about bringing family values into their system.”

Many Ghanaians immigrated to the United States during the 1980’s and 1990’s because of economic and political instability in Ghana. Also, many Ghanaians believe that moving to America will bring them more money that can be sent to family members back home. There is an impression in the Ghanaian community that if someone moves to America, they can become rich. This focus on wealth creation has re-ignited tensions common between new immigrants and struggling communities already here. In this case, it is resentment between black Americans and Africans that surfaces if you spend an afternoon in what has become known as Little Ghana in the Bronx.

“Some African-Americans are mad at Africans being here because they have taken their jobs,” says the owner of the Big Six Unisex Barbershop who is known as Tahiru Dread. Tahiru opened his shop soon after arriving to New York from Ghana about eight years ago. “Africans will do it [work] – for even a dollar. Any number is better than zero. They think we are collecting their jobs.”

Additionally, the cultural differences between the two groups have caused some social tension. When asked why some Africans distance themselves from African-Americans, the primary response was fixed at the distinction between the two groups colonial history. Essentially, that is what separates Black Americans and Africans.

Many of the Ghanaian immigrants in the Bronx have ancestors who were not slaves during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Therefore, they have no personal connection to the history of abuse and discrimination like African-Americans and are not directly familiar with America’s racially violent history. So, many Africans feel that they must explain why they have different cultural and social beliefs. After interacting with Black Americans over time, Ghanaians are able to understand that those who know very little about Ghanaian culture will not recognize why they behave differently. For example, it is common for a Ghanaian to call a family member or a friend fat if they have gained weight. In addition, it is very disrespectful to shake someone’s hand with your left hand in Ghanaian culture.

“There are certain things that you can say to an African that’s okay but if you say the same thing to African-Americans it’s not okay,” says Tahiru. It is important to observe American culture for a while in order to avoid unconsciously offending someone. “So I have to learn to adjust to learn what to say and what not to say to them. You have to serve the years to understand certain things. If you don’t serve the years, you’re not going to know.”

Nevertheless, there are some people in both groups who choose not to interact with each other because they are culturally ignorant. Some Ghanaians decide to not interact with African-Americans because they would rather simply work and go home. Many Africans are able to blend into American habits and befriend American friends, however, there are some who choose to distance themselves because they believe interacting with African-Americans will cause problems.

“Pure Ghanaians [we] came here to work. Ghanaian Americans are serious here but if we look at the Black Americans they don’t like to work,” says Bonsu. “You see the police arresting them every day and night. At night they arrest a lot of them and I don’t think they will come and arrest us while we are doing our business.” Restricting their social activity to work makes Ghanaians feel like they are safe from any problems with the police.

However, this does not hinder Africans and African-Americans from living in the same neighborhood and interacting with each other. In the 29 years that Acheampong has been in New York, he has noticed that the cultural disconnect has lessened over time. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality has been a unifying force amongst black Americans and Ghanaians “We, Ghanaians don’t understand why they didn’t charge the police officers,” says Acheampong.

The two groups actively support each other during times of racial tension. “Yes, I’m 100 percent part of it because I’m from Ghana – grew up in Ghana but history says they brought some of us here. So some of us can be part of it,” says Tahiru. Additionally, both groups can certainly agree that cultural differences are not a factor when it comes to racism and that being black in New York City can be dangerous. Alex Aduboffour, a barber at the Big Six barbershop, states that, “things can be settled differently than taking people’s lives.”

Many Ghanaians feel because of their sense of brotherhood  it is their duty to non-violently fight injustice in their neighborhood because an injustice towards a Black American is also an injustice towards an African. “To me, as a human, as a person,” Tahiru says, – “you should get up and support that movement. You have to speak up because you don’t know who is next.”

Despite an improvement in the relationship between Black Americans and Africans, in order to truly bring together the two communities, Bonsu recommends amore formal approach.  “I feel like the blacks and Ghanaians should form a union or association so that we can come together in the Bronx,” says Bonsu. “I think this will help Ghanaians understand Black Americans more.”

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