Three weeks ago at the town hall meeting for the "Africans in America" national conference on African refugees, local black leaders spoke movingly about the sometimes powerful, sometimes hair-slim ties that bind black Africans to their American brothers and sisters.
Among the listeners was Makoi Manuer, a tall Sudanese immigrant from Grand Rapids, Mich. Puzzled by the hostility he has encountered from some African Americans, Manuer told me about a U.S. acquaintance who, like most black Americans, is a descendant of slaves. Confronting Manuer as a black African, the man said, "You guys sold us. . . .
"Why would you come here?"
The Crystal City town hall meeting was different, Manuer said. Over and over, black Americans spoke of their desire for stronger social, financial and spiritual bonds with native Africans, giving him his "first day in the United States when I [felt] connected to my African American brothers, who I've loved for 500 years," Manuer said.
Finally, he'd found black Americans "looking for oneness," he said.
Oneness is an ambitious goal for people who look similar but whose lives are markedly different. Americans live in a world both intimate and unconnected, in which we can empathize with London residents minutes after yesterday's bombings occurred, but have almost no understanding of everyday life in Africa, the planet's second-largest continent.
Could the Group of 8 summit concluding today in Scotland make a difference? A key topic for leaders of the world's richest nations has been African poverty -- an ancient problem that is suddenly so trendy that an international concert was devoted to it.
Before the summit, President Bush pledged $1.2 billion in U.S. aid to Africa, much of it aimed at fighting malaria, a preventable disease that annually kills more than 1 million Africans. "Americans believe that human rights and the worth of human lives," Bush said, "are not determined by race or nationality, or determined by distance. . . .
"Every life matters."
Every life, it seems, matters more to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who devoted the summit to transforming Africa. Blair had traveled from capital to capital, asking donor nations to commit to spending 0.7 percent of their gross national products on development assistance, eventually winning an agreement to cancel $40 billion in debt owed by poor nations.
Last month, critics pounded Bush for declining to meet Blair's 0.7 challenge and for cynically suggesting that such an amount would be squandered. Corruption is a real problem, but over the decades, supervised Western programs have saved millions of African lives by successfully battling such diseases as smallpox, river blindness and leprosy and increasing child immunizations. New programs could be similarly monitored.
Bush responded with a pledge to double aid to Africa by 2010 -- which sounds great except that relatively little of that commitment represents new money, according to Susan E. Rice, who was an assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Clinton administration.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed column, Rice explained that Bush can meet that goal simply by keeping earlier promises to fully fund existing programs. The president also claimed to have "tripled" aid to Africa over the past four years, when according to Rice, total U.S. assistance to Africa has increased by just 56 percent -- and more than half of that increase is emergency food aid, not poverty-reducing assistance.
Americans have a pressing, if little-recognized, motive for eliminating poverty: Hunger, disease and joblessness provide the ideal breeding conditions for terrorism. As Rice pointed out, "When half of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day, the United States cannot achieve lasting security."
I'm not surprised by the president's lukewarm commitment to reducing African poverty -- which is, ironically, more generous than President Clinton's. I'm sure Bush would have been more forthcoming if we, his constituents, demanded a more aggressive response to Africans' dire needs.
If Americans were more urgently concerned about Africa, Bush would be, too.
Especially fascinating is black Americans' relative silence. Many who refer to Africa as the "motherland" barely shrugged when Bush denied Mom a decent slice of the foreign-aid pie.
Americans of every shade feel disconnected from Africa for several reasons, says TransAfrica President Bill Fletcher, including racism, "unspoken guilt" about slavery and "the old media-promoted 'dark continent' mentality that views Africa as a place of misery, of turmoil, of people who can't get their act together."
Black Americans' feelings for Africa are even more complex, veering between genuine regard, idealized admiration and shame fed by negative cinematic images, such as of corruption in Nigeria and Zimbabwe and genocide in Rwanda.
But African Americans' biggest concern-killer may be everyday life. Many "feel so overwhelmed by their everyday experiences here that thinking about Africa's problems seems like just too much," Fletcher says. "We're thinking about crime, about just getting a job."
So where's the oneness? Forget oneness. Cameroon native Susan Fon, 28, of Hyattsville says she's intrigued by black Americans' differentness -- by their forthrightness, by how some youngsters sass their elders, something "you never see in Cameroon" and by "how very fortunate African American kids are. They can go to school if they want, get scholarships and financial aid. . . . In much of Africa, you have to pay for everything after nursery school."
But Fon, too, yearns for oneness with black Americans. "We have our own way," she says. "I want to understand theirs."
Sudanese immigrant Manuer, who said that his love for black Americans transcends the centuries since slavery separated his ancestors from theirs, told his accuser, "I didn't sell you," then suggested, "We need to come together."
We surely do. Bush was right: Every life does matter. Only cynics would suggest that Americans' disconnect from Africa -- and the destitution that it exacerbates -- is a black problem. It's a human problem.
A oneness problem.