Black Americans in Cairo 1974: Royalty
Updated: Aug 3
In those tumultuous times, people divided by politics or their struggles for independence were united in their admiration of black Americans, who represented royalty among freedom fighters. (Photo by Andy Serrano)
On wide boulevards, donkey-drawn carts squeezed behind new Mercedes-Benzes, their respective dung and exhaust coloring the desert air. Motorists drove with their hands on the horn creating a cacophony, while the sidewalks teemed with people from Egypt, Africa and the Middle East moving with purpose.
Cairo vibrated with life when I lived there in 1974 and 1975 attending the American University in Cairo. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had died in 1970, had promoted Pan-Arabism and Egypt as an African nation. His beliefs were reflected in the many Arab and African students who studied in Cairo.
The cosmopolitanism of the 1,000-year-old city was not lost on me.
My colleagues represented that corner of the world, Europe and other Muslim countries. My Tae Kwon Do instructor, Abdul Awi, hailed from South Korea. My friends, came from, among other places, Eritrea, which had been fighting 15 years for independence from Ethiopia and won it 17 years later; north and south Sudan, two years after the first civil war and 37 years before the independence of South Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, which was leading an oil boycott against the Western countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria.
We came from different tribes, ethnic groups and countries, but we all spoke the same language of sovereignty and revolution, which was happening all around us. Five months before I arrived in Cairo, the unpopularity of the Portuguese colonial war in some of its African territories had led to the Carnation Revolution and the collapse of a 50-year-old dictatorship.
In those tumultuous times, people divided by politics or their struggles for independence were united in their admiration of black Americans. My friend, Deborah, from the University of Chicago, a graduate student in Arab studies, and I, a Religion major from Williams College, represented royalty among freedom fighters. We were seen as leaders in the fight for human rights. So, Deborah and I took the opportunity to celebrate our solidarity.
We threw a party in the Mohandissen neighborhood, where we lived in an apartment building near a circus, which played loud orchestral music. But the night of our party, we danced to a tape of black American music that drowned out our neighbor and uplifted our two-bedroom apartment. Political hostility between north and south, and east and west evaporated as everyone moved to the beat of well-known hits.
One guest, Sam, danced alone in a frenzy to Marvin Gaye and James Brown, aloof to everyone else in his own world. As the night wore on and he became more inebriated, he oscillated between wildness and sadness, to moroseness and numbness. Sam was a black South African. At that time, the Black Consciousness Movement, influenced by the Black Power movement in the United States, was promoting black pride and African tradition to help dissipate the feelings of inadequacy instilled in black people by institutionalized racial segregation that dated back to 1948.
I understood Sam’s pain. I had seen it. I had felt it.
To survive emotionally and physically, Sam bottled up his reactions to a racist system and incidents. At the party, he released them.
African Americans do the same thing. We bottle up our rage and hurt, and we release it as a community after cataclysmic events. The 1992 rebellion in Los Angeles, for example, was a reaction to the acquittal of the Los Angeles Police Department officers who brutally beat up Rodney King, a black man. In an explosive six days, the anger was palpable, and it was loud.
However, since the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a Minneapolis police officer compounded by our disproportionate sickness and death from COVID-19, our reactions are different. I am hearing anger, but I am also hearing public sobbing for the first time. I have seen black folks cry out their stoppered emotions on televised news segments and in videos.
Reggie Watts, the bandleader on The Late Late Night Show with James Corden broke down when Corden asked him how he was doing on the seventh day of protests after the May 25 police killing.
He began by saying that he was “grateful my parents fought so hard to make my life feel normal and to have me grow up feeling I’m a human being rather than a demographic.” He said his mother was a fierce fighter who would get in people’s faces when they called him the n-word.
Watts began to unpack his beginnings – a father who returned from Vietnam unable to get a job because he was black and was forced to re-enlist; his parents’ marriage unrecognized because interracial marriages were outlawed, and his cousin, the acclaimed author Alice Walker, expressing her feelings about racism in The Color Purple.
He said that he had “a history in the black community in the Midwest that I don’t access a lot because there’s a lot of pain and emotion there”. Then, he convulsed with tears.
In a televised CNN interview on May 28, the third day of protests, the black actress, Taraji P. Henson, repeatedly dabbed the tears from her eyes as she talked about her campaign to offer African Americans free therapy during the COVID-19 crisis.
”There’s so much going on right now. My brain,” she said tearfully. She placed her head down into one of her hands. An actor in Hidden Figures, she lifted up her head and continued: “I apologize. It’s just like it won’t let up, you know. It’s like I’m trying to stop a bleeding wound, and it just keeps bleeding.
“But I’m raising money for those who feel like they can’t talk to anyone, who feel like they’re suffocating right now.”
Henson said that 1,500 people have accessed therapy from 500 “culturally competent” therapists since 2018 when she founded The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, named for her father who suffered mental health challenges after returning from Vietnam.
“We have to save ourselves. These issues keep coming up. Racism, police brutality, slavery, and we still haven’t dealt with this trauma (of slavery.) We’re supposed to get up and smile and go to work with this weight on us. It’s too much. At some point, as a human, you’re going to crack, and you need someone to talk to. My hope is that we will eradicate the stigma of mental health in the black community.
“We’ve been taught to pray, to be strong. Don’t tell me to be strong. It takes my trauma and makes it small. The fact that we’re not looked at as human is disturbing. I’m human, and I have a right to fear. I have the right to be scared.
“People misconstrue the meaning of strength. You’re so much stronger in your vulnerability. It’s OK to feel. You’re human,” she cried again.
Sam’s South Africa began to dismantle apartheid in 1990. Thirty years ago.
What has happened in the United States?
We might as well be back in 1974.
Only after a heartfelt apology for slavery from the national government can Americans begin to heal our trauma. Only after economic reparations to descendants of slaves can black Americans begin to narrow the huge wealth gap. Only then, can we, African Americans, be seen as human.