By: Edwin Adjei
When I first saw the title of this recent article by the American National Public Radio (NPR), I assumed the “New Yorker” who was being featured was white, although I know not all New Yorkers are white. Why would I think so? It’s normally white people who are presented as philanthropists by the media when they help other supposedly less privileged people. But as I read the article, I realized the individual being featured, Wilkins, was in fact an African American. Then I began to wonder if this article could have had a different heading: “African Returns Home to Help Kids in Ghana” or “African Returns to Her Roots to Help the Less Privileged” or “African Helping Next Generation of Africans”? Why would the title of the article put emphasis on Wilkin’s New York roots and paint her as a privileged American helping Africans rather than putting some emphasis on her Africanness, or in this case, African Americanness as the article later portrays in an offhanded manner.
I believe Wilkins is portrayed as an American because she is doing what Americans are expected to do — helping the poor and less fortunate in less developed countries. Repeating a familiar humanitarian trope, she came to Africa to help because “though she didn’t know much about the continent, [she knew], it needed help.” As the article notes, Wilkins initially volunteered at a homeless shelter in Manhattan. I wonder, what if Wilkins had dedicated her life to helping those American homeless people? Would that have made the news? And if it did, would the article have been titled “New Yorker to the Rescue of the Homeless in Manhattan”? I am just wondering why Wilkins decided to help Africa rather than continuing to help those in need in her own hometown? Wilkins is admirably helping a lot of children, but what is the difference if these children are in the US or in Ghana?
Another series of questions I had as reading the article was with regards to questions of identity. As I have previously discussed on this Blog, there are many continuing debates with real, material impacts about what it means to be African, American, or both. In a previous CIHA Blog post, I asked: “How are children born to African migrants in the USA supposed to identify themselves? Are they Africans, Americans or both? Who decides?”
In this particular case, does Wilkins consider herself a New Yorker, American, Black American or African? The article does not answer that. People have reasons for what they do and identity is often a big part of that. Does her decision to relocate to Ghana have anything to do with her identity as a person of African roots, as it did for others who were part of the first swearing in of Africans of the diaspora as Ghanaian citizens? Was the portrayal of Africa as a poor, needy continent, a problematic representation, part of her attraction to Africa? Only she would be able to answer these.
As the article also notes, Wilkins received support for her NGO from a mix of donors: mining firms, religious organizations and petroleum corporations. Would these same organizations fund similar efforts by a Ghanaian or African? There are several Ghanaian and African philanthropic organizations with similar goals as B.A.S.I.C.S. who also need funding. Why are such Ghanaian organizations not receiving similar diverse sources of funding? The article also fails to mention existing efforts by local Ghanaian organizations such as New Horizon Special School and Youth Alive Ghana who have been working on these topics long before Wilkins arrived in Accra. This point seems to echo a critique written by Christine Mungai from Kenya about a kind of ahistoric description of a particular place. Describing African lands by white colonial settlers (and the contemporary journalist who Mungai critiqued) as a terra nullius, an empty, unclaimed vastness waiting for someone to put it to good use (which is of course not true), allowed them to make claims about “saving” it and “protecting it” for environmental purposes. However, it erases the existing work that is already being done on the land, and in this case in Ghana, the work already being done towards improving young people’s education.
Finally, when the article writes that Ghanaians say they don’t see Wilkins as an American but as family, I wonder if the history behind relationships between Africans and African Americans are not being told all over again. Is Wilkins American or African, African-American or American-African? The debate over identity has been raging for ages. According to this article, Ghanaians think she is family. Is it her actions that make her family, her skin or her blood? As I have written in another CIHA Blog post, this debate on who an African is continues to rage on and will likely continue for a while. Is African-ness defined by language, skin color, food and culture, ancestral heritage or roots, behavior and mannerisms or philosophy?
Featured image source: Amy Yee for NPR