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Black Americans can learn from black immigrants as casting for 'Harriet' sparks debate

This image released by Focus Features shows Zackary

This image released by Focus Features shows Zackary Momoh, left, and Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in a scene from "Harriet." Credit: AP/Glen Wilson

Are black British actors black enough to play black Americans?

That prickly question has buzzed through black conversations and Twitter feeds since at least the casting of David Oyelowo - the British son of Nigerian immigrants - to play the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 "Selma."

Now it’s back with the casting of black, British and Tony Award-winning actor Cynthia Erivo to play Harriet Tubman in "Harriet," Hollywood’s recently released movie about the abolitionist hero, under such protest hashtags as #NotMyHarriet. A Change.Org petition gathered more than a thousand signatures last year, demanding that the role go to an American actor, but the movie held a successful opening anyway.

How sad is this? I appreciate some other criticisms of the movie, such as the Hollywood style reediting of some history. But it is sad to see backlash against Erivo’s or Oyelowo’s nationalities when we should be able to let performances stand on their own merit, regardless of the nationality of the actor.

Of course, I, too, join the multitudes who mocked Cameron Crowe’s decision to cast Emma Stone as "Allison Ng." Stone is very talented, but not enough to pull off credibly playing a one-quarter Hawaiian and one-quarter Chinese woman in Crowe’s "Aloha." It might have been a contender if Hollywood gave an Academy Award for ethno-racial whitewashing.

But usually, who cares? When Sidney Poitier, a native of the Bahamas although born prematurely in a Miami hospital, became the first black actor to win the Oscar for best actor, for the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field," I don’t recall that anyone cared about his accent. In that historic year of civil rights advances, Poitier’s honors became an important symbol of Dr. King’s dream coming true.

Times have changed. More recently, social networks and gossip columns have boiled with critiques like Samuel L. Jackson’s poke at "Get Out," Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film about racism in liberal suburbs. It might have been better with "an American brother" instead of British actor Daniel Kaluuya in the starring role, said Jackson. He voiced similar sentiments about Oyelowo’s casting as King by award-winning black American director DuVernay.

But, with all due respect to Jackson, I tend to agree with John Boyega, the black British actor of "Star Wars" fame, who called Jackson’s comment a "stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for." Right on.
But the current chatter is inspired by more than theatrics. The debate over who’s black enough to be African American reopens a lot of old wounds, including ethnic rivalries and prejudices that long have divided many of us African Americans from others of African ancestry.

There’s even a new Twitter-fueled movement calling itself ADOS, for American Descendants of Slavery, which held a national conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in October.

Coming soon to a cap and T-shirt near you, I’m sure, ADOS emerged along with a national resurgence of interest in reparations for slavery sparked by a June 2014 essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic - and inflamed by appeals for black votes in the 2020 presidential race.

I have long maintained that reparations for us descendants of slavery would be a great idea if they only had a prayer of actually happening. Unfortunately, this effort is more than a century too late.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue answers to questions that could really help us to close the racial income gaps that the ADOS - and I - would like to close, such as, why do African and Caribbean immigrants succeed so well in this country academically and financially while too many native-born black Americans slip further behind?

African immigrants, for example, are more likely to have college degrees than blacks or whites who were born in the United States.

Contrary to stereotypes, black immigrants often arrive as a self-selected group of ambitious go-getters. Where many of us ADOS see institutional racism, they see opportunities.

In that sense, at least, they remind me of my own parents, who came up from the American South during the Great Migration. A railroad station was their Ellis Island. Looking past the Jim Crow segregation, they saw opportunity and took advantage of it.

Instead of viewing immigrant success with envy and wonder, we can learn a lot of useful lessons from their stories of success. The American Dream still works. Our challenge is to make it work for everybody.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist with The Chicago Tribune.