Little Africa

Like all elders, my mom likes to make her childhood – “back when movies cost a quarter” – sound dramatically old-fashioned. She grew up “on a farm,” and she and her brothers and sisters had to walk “for miles” through “a jungle” to get to and from school. They called their jungle, probably an unweeded vacant lot, Little Africa. For years my dad listened to stories about Little Africa. At every telling my mom thought she was talking about overgrown plants, but my dad thought he was hearing about a neighborhood of black Americans.

I used to laugh at my dad’s perspective, wondering how he ever imagined a black community in Kentucky in what my mom would call, with only a little exaggeration, “the country.” But at least he had the logic of analogy on his side: if Little Italy is full of Italians rather than grape vines and olive trees then why wouldn’t Little Africa be full of black people?

Now, it’s hard to say which stereotype is funnier. We do think of Africa as deepest, darkest jungle, even though a third of the continent is desert, and much of the rest is savannah. On the other hand, we continue to call black Americans African even though most have had nothing to do with Africa for centuries. A black American is as plain old American as a white one. There’s no need to qualify.

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