Immigration laws may frustrate African immigrants in the USA, but, says Ruben Diaz Jnr, the Bronx Borough president, African immigrants are “here to stay”. Africans in Newark, New Jersey, have even won a kind of victory, and made history, with the naming of a street there after Ghana. As Leslie Goffe reports from New York, the naming of “Ghanaian Way” has given pride to Ghanaians and other Africans in Newark, and given life to an area of the city that was known for death.
It’s not every day that a street in the United States is named in honour of an African country. In fact, before Victoria Street in Newark, a city in the state of New Jersey near New York, was re-named “Ghanaian Way” in June, it had never happened before.
“This is a great day for us,” says Edward Nsiah, one of a group of Ghanaians who convinced the city of Newark, which was one of the first big cities in the US to have a black mayor, to name one of its streets after his homeland. “This is an inspiration of what we can do as Ghanaians.”
Thrilled at the honour, and at their growing influence, hundreds of Ghanaians, among them several chiefs and queen mothers, attended the naming ceremony for Ghanaian Way in Newark, a city where thousands of Africans have settled over the past 25 years and where their growing numbers have made them much sought after by politicians.
To court the African vote, a US congressman, a state assemblywoman and several other politicians attended the naming ceremony. Among them was Ras Baraka, the Newark City councilman credited with convincing the city to re-name Victoria Street, the “Ghanaian Way”. It is a street that had been known for its derelict and abandoned buildings but which later became a bustling commercial zone, transformed by Ghanaian restaurants and grocery shops.
“They got ‘Little Chinatown’, ‘Little Italy.’ It’s time for us to celebrate our heritage,” Councilman Baraka, an African-American, told the gathering. “Ghanaian Way is an opportunity to do that.”
Ghanaian Way might not have happened at all, had Ghana not beaten the USA at the 2010 World Cup and jubilant Ghanaian expatriates, drinking beer at a shop in the old Victoria Street, not taken to the streets in celebration.
Threatened with arrest by the Newark police who thought they were rioting, the Ghanaians turned to their councilman, Ras Baraka, who rescued them, and later pressed Newark’s government to name a street in the city in recognition of the Ghanaian contribution to Newark’s economic, cultural and political life.
“From now to forever and eternity,” Baraka declared to the hundreds of Ghanaians who came out to see the new street name unveiled, “this street will be the street of the Ghanaian people in the South Ward of Newark, New Jersey, in the USA.”
A few miles away from Newark’s Ghanaian Way, in New York City, Africans here, too, have been flexing their political muscles and preparing to make history. Rev David Kayode, a Nigerian Baptist priest employed as a counselor by the New York City Department of Homeless Services, is hoping to become the first African-born person elected to public office in New York City.
Kayode, a Democrat, says he wants to be the “voice for the voiceless” in the 28th Council District, an area in Queens, New York, where a small, but growing African population has settled. “New York City is ready for an African on the City Council,” insists Rev Kayode. “I think it will happen that I will be the first.”
In 1997, Nigerian Emmanuel Onunwor became the first African-born person to be elected to public office in the US when he became the mayor of East Cleveland, Ohio. In 2010, Somalia-born Hussein Samatar became the first African elected to public office in Minnesota, a state where thousands of Somalians have settled, when he won a seat on the Minneapolis school board.
Though the number of Africans in the US has more than quadrupled over the past 20 years from around 400,000 in 1990 to almost 2 million today, thanks in part to an end to restrictive, racially-based US immigration quotas, the numbers of Africans in the New York area is still too small, and dispersed, for them to easily elect one of their own to public office without the support of other groups.
Nigerian Chika Onyeani, publisher of the African-Sun Times, a New York area paper for African expats, says Africans in the US are politically naïve and disorganised and could learn from older immigrant groups from Italy and Ireland, who voted along ethnic lines, and newer immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, who regularly elect their own to office.
“We do not have ethnic blocs like the Irish or the Italians that can win elections,” says Onyeani. “We don’t have a ‘Little Africa’.” The problem for Africans who have run for public office in New York in the past, says Onyeani, author of the new book, Why Blacks Can’t Run, is they “speak to Africans alone” and “do not have broad appeal.”
But Sierra Leonean Sidique Wai had broad appeal and broad support when he ran for the New York City Council’s 35th District seat in 2001. Well-liked inside and outside the African community, Wai, the president of the United African Congress, an advocacy group for African immigrants, had the support of New York’s Liberal and Independence parties and a host of other influential groups and individuals. But Wai’s bid for office was derailed by 9/11, which occurred as New Yorkers were preparing to go to the polls.
An African and a Muslim, Wai says anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic feeling meant he had no chance of being elected in New York at that time. “It destroyed my political career completely,” says Wai, who polled only 600 votes, a good 11,000 ballots behind the eventual winner.
A tireless figure, Wai can be found during many evenings and weekends giving lectures on citizenship at one of New York’s 47 African-run mosques.
Africans in New York City are now so politically well-organised, claims Wai, that in 2009 an alliance of African organisations, led by his advocacy group, the United African Congress, convinced Africans to vote as a bloc and help New York’s Mayor Bloomberg win a second term in office in a very close race.
“Every elected official in this country, now realises,” says Wai, “that there is a growing African community all over this country.” Evidence of this can be seen in the Bronx, in New York, the borough where most of the city’s 500,000 or so Africans live. Earlier this year, the Bronx’s borough president, Ruben Diaz Jnr, launched the Bronx African Advisory Council, the first of its kind in the US. It was created to ensure elected officials respond to the concerns of Africans in the Bronx, many of whom are new immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, finding their way.
But though many are newcomers, they appear to be adjusting well to life in the Bronx. In the Highbridge and Claremont sections of the borough, which some call “Little Africa”, African businesses can be found on most streets. Among them is Papaye Diner, a popular restaurant, and the African Movie Mall, which sells the latest Nollywood DVDs. There are, too, dozens of African travel agencies, real estate firms, and grocery shops in the Bronx.
“Africans have come to our borough and contributed [in the realms of] culture and spirituality,” Bronx Borough president Ruben Diaz Jnr told a New York newspaper recently. African immigrants, he said, are “here to stay.”