Our Forgotten Allies: African Americans

It was a chilly Massachusetts morning in the fall. Grandpa and I were checking out of the extended-stay hotel and the manager Darryl Robinson came to help us carry our belongings to the car. He was an older black gentleman; tall, with hands that had seen some hard manual labor.

“I am familiar with the apartment complex you are moving to. It is in a safe neighborhood. You will like it there. And Harvard is a very good university,” said Mr Robinson. “But where's all your furniture?”

“That's all we have,” I explained with a smile. “We'll survive.”

“But what will you be sleeping on? You have no beds.”

“Oh, I have a couple of sleeping bags in the car.”

“Well,” said Mr. Robinson, “the first thing Harvard students do is make a trip down to Ikea and buy all the furniture they need. But I guess you need to be rich for that.” He paused a bit and then added, “But what about your grandfather? He is a Native American Elder who worked hard all his life. You can't make your grandfather sleep on the floor!”

I smiled and shrugged, thanked Mr Robinson, gave him our new contact information and drove down to the new apartment with a few precious belongings in our car. The next evening a truck pulled up in front of our apartment hauling a trailer behind it. It was Mr. Robinson. He had two beds, two mattresses, pillows, comforters, a dining table, a study table, chairs, lamps, a toaster, blender, pots, pans—everything two Indians could possibly need in their small Cambridge apartment.

“Our hotel always has a surplus of such items,” lied Mr. Robinson. “All these are yours now. You can have them for free.”

We had a similar experience in Ohio this week. My friends and I walked into a Little Caesars pizza restaurant and asked for three hot-and-ready pizzas. The black woman who gave us the pizzas said, “There's no charge.” Then she saw the quizzical expression on our faces and explained, “You all are Native Americans, aren't you? I can tell from your long hair and what it says on your T-shirts. Indians are my favorite people. All pizzas are on the house.”

Whether we were in Massachusetts or Ohio or Texas or Maryland or elsewhere, black Americans have always gone out of their way to be extra nice and helpful to us. Intrigued, we used student subject pools and ran experiments to assess if African Americans were really generous toward Indians or if our experiences were an anomaly. We used games called dictator games and trust games from the field of experimental economics. The simplest possible description of the dictator game is that you give a person a token sum of money, like $10, and ask them if they would like to split this money with another person. If white people give more money to whites than they give to minority individuals, then you have a measure of prejudice right there. The trust game is a little more complicated than the dictator game. While details of our experiments are well beyond the scope of this essay, our findings show that, of all racial groups, black Americans are indeed the most gracious toward and most trusting of Indians. In fact, our experiments found that black experimental participants were more generous toward Indians than Indians were toward other Indians.

Most Indians know that the average German is far more knowledgeable about us than the average white American. We also know that Germans are considerably more interested in our culture than are white Americans. The Germans even enthusiastically learn our Native languages. We consider the Germans our allies. But we often forget that blacks have always been our strongest allies. Historically, black slaves allied with Indians. They fought wars with us and gave their lives for us. They protected Indian women, children and elders. They lived with us in our communities. But somewhere along the line, we forgot how allied we had always been with black Americans. Maybe this is a consequence of the divide-and-conquer policies of the colonizers. Maybe it is the brainwashing in our boarding schools. Maybe this is the result of negative impressions about blacks that we are constantly bombarded with by the American media. Maybe we are giving in to a colonized mentality and learning to hate our closest allies.

Whatever the reason, our leaders and our people seem to have forgotten that black Americans have always been our closest friends. Somewhere along the line, we too started being mean to blacks, like the rest of America. We started enslaving them, we kicked them out of our tribes, we kicked them out of our pow wows. And we started ignoring them, like the rest of America. But despite all that, black Americans still love us. They still value us. The Germans who love us live far away in Europe. Black Americans are the Germans who love us in our own backyard. Blacks also form a significant portion of the US population—12.6 percent—and that population will grow every year. Black-owned companies also offer potential economic opportunities to Native-owned businesses. At a time when most of America has started losing patience with us, Indians are still very special to most black Americans. So why are we not doing anything about the affinity blacks have for Indians? Maybe we should recognize these facts and forge new bonds with our old friends once again. Maybe it is time to renew our alliances with black America once again.

Dr. Amy Moore is a professor, currently on sabbatical, who is passionate about saving as many Native American languages as possible. Mike Taylor is a student in the Harvard University ALB program.



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Our Forgotten Allies: African Americans

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