Wake up, Black folks! A bridge is being built, and it’s going straight to Africa. The great thing is you don’t even have to leave Colorado to go.
For too long, African immigrants and Black Americans have been living in separate worlds. We pass each other by and nod in polite respect, but the barrier has stayed in place. Black American functions displaying our best and brightest rarely have a single African-born individual in attendance or being honored, and vice versa. Little did we know, African buying power has been growing and thriving right beneath our noses. From the Ethiopian restaurants, to Freedom Cab, to your corner liquor store, a few 7-Elevens, to the African Bar and Grill restaurant chain, and now, the prestigious Afrikmall project, African clout is large and growing. African immigrants in Colorado have been practicing the type of group economics and cultural wealth circulation that we thought Black people had long abandoned.
There has long been a stigma between Black Americans and African immigrants that has kept us apart. African Americans have often claimed that Africans look down on them, implying a sense of false superiority over Black Americans. This is supposedly based on a perceived laziness and apathy some descendants of slaves carry in their attitudes and speech. Some Africans actually believe the image of Black Americans shown to the world, the “gangsta” or “thug” motif. Black Americans have complained Africans stereotype them, follow them around in stores and openly tell them “We are not brothers.”
Africans have complained that Black Americans are more Americanized than African. Black Americans have made fun of Africans based on Tarzan caricatures and AIDS propaganda. Africans have been insulted by our ignorance that not all Africans live in huts or are starving with flies in their eyes. Hard working African immigrants carry a great deal of cultural pride, and often wonder what went wrong with Black Americans. How can they have lived in American for so long and still have so little?
Sadly, America has a way of reminding us that Black is Black, no matter what side of the Atlantic you’re from. The killing of Senegalese immigrant Omar Dia in 1997 at the hands of a white supremacist right here in Denver made it all too clear that America sees us as one people, even if we don’t. I have a number of Ethiopian, Sudanese and Nigerian friends who have all experienced old-fashion racial profiling at the hands of law enforcement. The infamous New York Police Department murder of Guinean Amadou Diallo, and the police sodomizing of Haitian Abner Louima proved that the powers that be make no distinctions of cultural or national origins when dishing out pain to African people.
Let’s face it. Had it not been for the civil rights struggles of the older Black American generation, Africans would have gotten called the “N” word as soon as they stepped off the plane, likely. Eritreans would be riding on the back of the bus and Ghanaians would be looked down upon as just another ‘Negro.’ However, had it not been for Africans winning liberation and preserving our history, Black Americans could not have the home-coming experiences we’ve had when returning to the motherland. Africans are the people who Black Americans inherited strength, rhythm, beauty, and identity from. It’s time we supported each other.
While African immigrants are economically savvy, they do not yet have the same political voice and clout that African Americans do. Denver boasts a roster of African-American political leaders that defies our numbers. From local senators to the mayor himself, Blacks in Denver have asserted themselves valiantly in the political arena. There is one up-and-coming African political contender who is noteworthy in this city. Naquetta Ricks is running for the position of University of Colorado Regent, and is from Liberia. She was a most valuable resource in writing this article. Her vast network included some of the African-owned businesses I interviewed for this article.
The first was Afrikmall, the single most ambitious development in Denver Black business in the 21st century thus far. Afrikmall will be located on the corner of Colfax and Galena in Aurora, and boasts a whopping 56, 281 square-foot infrastructure. There will be lounges, children’s play areas, grocery stores, restaurants, kiosks, beauty supplies, ice-cream shops, cell phone stores, barbershops and an event center. Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Sudan, Ivory Coast, the Congo, Senegal and Nigeria will be represented commercially in the mall. Naquetta put me in contact with Dr. Cobina Lartson, the CEO of Afrikmall, and I went on a tour of the space with Emmanuel Eliason, the chief business development officer. Both men are from Ghana. I was truly amazed at the ambition and size of the project. It is a vision that African Americans in this city should get behind. Imagine being able to support Black business for all your needs in one fell swoop. It will be a success if we make it one.
But why stop there? Ethiopian food is a staple in this city, and the Africana Café serves some of the best in town. I talked to the owner, Azeb Leul, a woman who looks entirely too young to have been running a business for the last 12 years. The establishment is on the corner of Colfax and Fairfax in Denver, and is quite large. It can hold up to 250 people at full capacity, and specializes in Ethiopian coffee blends. Most of her clients are either Ethiopian or white American. Azeb says that very few Black Americans frequent her establishment. Suddenly, Africana Café looks great for a date night.
Naquetta also pointed me to Rosma Designs off of Colfax and Chambers. It is run by Rosemary Oyugi, a native of Kenya. Rosma specializes in women’s clothes, and also sells sculptures and artwork hand crafted in Kenya. Rosemary sat me down and spoke to me. She said that since moving here 12 years ago, she has prospered, but mostly off of Anglo-American business. She works part time as a translator for refugees who are learning to adapt to the American system, as her native language is Swahili. Most people don’t know that Denver and Nairobi are sister cities, and do student exchanges as a part of the Sister Cities Project.
If you want Authentic Nigerian product, there is the Lagos Market in Aurora on 6th and Chambers in the Kasbah parking lot. They have a myriad of items directly from Africa for cooking and seasonings. They say most of their Black American clientele come in for hair weave, but get a taste of the African ambiance in the process.
This has been just a small sampling of what the African community has in store right here in this city. We as a people need to learn that we are only as divided as we allow ourselves to be. Get out of your comfort zone. Get to know these amazing people. If the Korean-American community works directly with Korean immigrants, Mexican Americans with those directly from Mexico and so forth, it would be wise to make connections across the African diaspora. We probably need each other more than we know.
Imagine African economic savvy combined with Black American political clout. Would our politicians have to answer to the corporate forces anymore if we had a business district of our own to speak for us? It is an idea worth building upon and investigating. If you’re going to play this American game, play to win. Group power beats individualism in capitalism, so don’t be fooled. Africa has come to Colorado, and it is here to stay. Open your arms as wide as the Atlantic, and let’s build some bridges.