Black Americans quiet on Darfur crisis
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A few days ago, Anna Thorpe sat in a packed University of Pittsburgh auditorium and caught a glimpse of hell on earth.Karel Prinsloo, Associated Press
A refugee -- one of more than 2.5 million to flee the political violence of Sudan's Darfur region -- weeps after reaching Bahai on the Chad border in July 2004.
Click photo for larger image.
The photos of charred bodies, some of the sickening number of victims of the savage destruction of the Darfur region in Sudan, were another reminder of the cause she joined two years ago to increase awareness of the bloody conflict. She's among thousands who do such work, but in many ways, Mrs. Thorpe, 39, of Observatory Hill, stands alone.
In Pittsburgh, she's one of a handful of black Americans who speak out about the genocide and, across the nation, she is among a small chorus of black Americans who organize rallies, urge people to sign petitions or plan education sessions.
Black faces are few and far between at sessions like the one at Pitt given by Brian Steidle, a former Marine and onetime peacekeeper in Sudan who witnessed violence and now shows his photographs and urges action on the issue.
A multitude of factors limit black American access to the growing crisis in Sudan, where the death toll is estimated to be as high as 400,000 and more than 2.5 million people are in refugee camps following the destruction of their villages.
For centuries, conflict has embroiled the Sudan. It has escalated in recent years with clashes over customs, languages, oil, land and politics. Rape, slaughter, starvation and displacement are rife. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Colin Powell called it genocide.
Among the barriers, say scholars and social activists, are a lack of news media attention, black leaders' focus on surviving critical domestic problems, the black community's lack of focus on international issues and the perception that the Darfur campaign is largely the province of the Jewish community.
"Engagement of African Americans has been slow," said the Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, a Boston pediatrician who first visited the Sudan in 2001 and then came home to urge other black Americans to help.
Today, Dr. White-Hammond, 55, spends her days and nights in Washington, D.C., working to bring more black Americans and immigrant Africans to care about the Sudan. She is national chairwoman of A Million Voices for Darfur, a campaign to collect 1 million postcards and give them to President Bush by April 30, just in time for the national "Stop Genocide in Darfur" rally.
"Blacks are engageable, but it is work," she said of her efforts, which include going to church conferences, holding brown bag luncheons and seeking radio ads.
The black community has coalesced over Africa in the past.
Twenty-five years ago, small pockets of civil rights leaders and black celebrities railed against South African apartheid. Their battle evolved into an international protest and dismantled that nation's system of legal discrimination.
"The black community understood that conflict because it was a black-white situation and South African discrimination was against black people," said Peter Okema, a Uganda native who organizes Darfur protests for the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield.
In Darfur, the lines aren't so easily drawn in the more tangled conflict that pits African Muslim against Arab Muslim.
Mrs. Thorpe was spurred to action in October 2004 when she was so shaken by a CBS report on the killing in Darfur that she immediately began to work on the issue. Since then, she has been the only black American participant and leader with the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, a small organization founded nearly two years ago.
Mrs. Thorpe educated herself, poring over Web sites and going to lectures, but for the average person, black or white, understanding Darfur is difficult. There is no steady drumbeat of news coverage and only recently have megastars Russell Simmons and Don Cheadle drawn attention to the issue.
Mrs. Thorpe prayed for a popular and influential national spokesperson.
"For a long time," she said, "I've been banging my head on the wall. Who is the one?"
There are other matters that slow black American involvement in Darfur.
For example, it is unfolding at a time when "black Americans have lost momentum with Africa overall," said Marie Clark Brill, a program and mobilization planner with Africa Action, a 50-year-old group that pushes for positive activism for Africa. Unlike the anti-apartheid fervor, which was spawned in an era when black Americans, still inspired by "Roots," were reaching out to build solidarity with Africa.
"Now," said Ms. Clark Brill, "we see a disconnect with the continent because of HIV and other issues."
And, it does not help that pervasive domestic struggles, such as violence, crime and discrimination, continue to push global issues out of sight for many in the black community.
"If more black Americans were aware, I know they would care," said Mrs. Thorpe. But, because of some levels of violence, "I've heard people say we have a genocide over here. But [compared to strife in Africa,] this is cake. We have this mentality that we're always oppressed."
Mr. Okema said he would not call it "neglect," but said Darfur involvement gets pushed to the side because black leaders are "preoccupied with trying to put these things right in this country."
Over the past two years, in Pittsburgh, as in cities around the United States, Jewish involvement in saving Darfur grew very quickly. Once the crisis was labeled a genocide, that only escalated, said David Rosenberg, who heads the local Darfur coalition.
Now, said Dr. White-Hammond, the "challenge is to unpack the perception" that Darfur is a Jewish issue and diversify the struggle.
Some African Americans are alienated from the struggle as they see young white students, who champion international issues and travel the globe but don't go to Homewood, said Mr. Rosenberg.
The students with the coalition work mostly in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside, he said. "They go to what they know, which is why we need to branch out."
In Washington, D.C., said Dr. White-Hammond, "I know more blacks tend to come out when they think blacks are the presenting organization."
She said she believes being involved in the Sudan is a "unique opportunity for black Americans to convene today to help in a manner in which our ancestors could not hundreds of years ago."
"I just think that if 5 percent of us organize and make this a front-burner issue that God will allow this to serve as a tipping point."
First Published April 10, 2006 12:00 am