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Contributor: Ian C.D. Moore

Just imagine,? said Prince Akeem, ?a country so free you can throw glass into the streets - only in America!?
When I first went to New York I too, like Eddie Murphy?s character, was impressed by how such a wealthy city tolerated streets full of pot-holes and garbage. I later discovered that the city was going broke; and that New Yorkers were betting on the city?s demise. Years later when I flew into San Francisco, I was greeted by quite the opposite spectacle. My wife?s sister picked us up in her 350 SL Mercedes and ferried us through a kaleidoscope of dazzling billboards, advertising everything from gambling in sun-baked Reno, to giant size bottles of Irish-Cream. I was deposited, after a ride across the elegant Bay Bridge, in the comfortable environs of Oakland?s Afro-American bourgeoisie; I had to pinch myself to believe this opulence was real.
It was real. The Afro-American community of Oakland, California, is probably one of the richest black communities in the world. The skyline houses that look down from the evergreen hills of the East Bay are not the exclusive preserves of white people, as is often the case in many African and Caribbean lands. The sun-drenched Mediterranean climate is host to one of the most diverse communities in America. Yet beyond the mortar and bricks of their homes, Afro-Americans own very little of the wealth of this fertile region.
My first steps on settling in America, were similar to those taken by all immigrants: the learning of another cultural language; the unlearning of habits; the shock of another tradition. Although we spoke the same language, the words did not always have the same meaning, for Britain is a very different country from America, particularly the west of America.
In the fifties and sixties Black people in Oakland couldn?t get jobs. Period. This only changed in the seventies because of hyperinflation during the Vietnam war and the militancy the war generated. For it?s pains, Oakland developed an enduring Blues sound. Clubs and joints abounded, but a town with no jobs creates a vacuum into which is sucked the flotsam of a burgeoning society. Oakland was neglected by her sister city, San Francisco across the bay, and scorned by the fleeing white suburbanites. Oakland used to have a population of more than 60% Black. With the influx of Asians, this has shrunk to below 45%; yet the racist tag has stuck and Oakland continues to be subjected to innuendoes of second-class citizenship. This abuse only serves to highlight the cruel irony of history. Oakland was the celebrated start of the Trans- Continental railway. It was a much healthier place to live in than San Francisco in the diseased world of the 1840?s; and more significantly, it was nearer to the gold than San Francisco. But the fame of the whoring town of ?Frisco had spread too wide for its truth to be known - that San Francisco was just a stop-over on the way to far more interesting and rewarding adventures.
The miserly tenements of Brixton have their counterparts in areas of Oakland - neglect is universal. But it was not until I began to work with Americans that I got to see the people behind the veil of jingoistic posturing. The people are not interested in foreigners. After pounding the streets job-hunting for a month, looking for work as a draughtsman - which I?d been in London - I was told by an agency interviewer, in no uncertain terms, that ?as a black man I could not hope to get a position that would allow for vertical mobility. I could only hope for horizontal movement.? That was my choice! American racism makes few attempts to disguise itself. It permeates the country and the body politic. All sides tug, push and pull for a louder voice to express their disenchantment. I was finally saved from the grip of racism by the guiding hand of patronage. In America what matters is not what you know but who you know. A cousin of my wife just happened to be on the local school board and was a board member of the Commissioner of Police.
I worked as a janitor in a junior college for four years, but it took my Black supervisors nearly 2 years to summon the effort to have a conversation with me beyond, ?What?s ?appen??. Black Americans particularly and Americans generally have no consciousness of Black English people. Black is a term reserved for Americans exclusively. Everyone else is either African, Indian or South American. If you don?t fit into those categories then you?re not recognized. Most immigrants of course are happy to drop these labels to feed in the vast vat of Americana. This was not for me, yet. Although my English is an innocuous South-east England script which sounds ?college educated?, my fellow workers reacted as if I was some Oxbridge don. In social interactions too, my accent(or their accents reacting to my English English?) was the topic of conversation. So much so that I was subjected to wild reactions. At times people stared at me in open- mouthed disbelief. Some stormed out of rooms under a cloud of incomprehension. Women approached me and asked me to ?just say som?thang?. The former I fretted to myself about. The latter I learned to live with.
After a year of cleaning the classrooms I became eligible to register for some classes in engineering at the junior college; which caters for post- high schoolers through to senior citizens. The opportunity to return to college and study, is among the greatest benefits offered by the American education system. It is inexpensive ($30 a semester, although this is changing now) and its programs are geared to meet individual needs. To be successful within the educational system however, one must understand the system. Unlike British colleges which, as I remember, program specific classes to complement later classes, everything in America is subject to individual ?choice?. People chose classes because they need the units; or it fits in with their timetable; or it?s a nice time of the year to take a class in astrology! A planned program of education is considered restricting, anti-libertarian, and unconstitutional. So much so that at the national level the educational debate centers more on the moral dilemma of requiring people to learn, than it does on an effective and workable curriculum. For those who know what they want and know how to work the system, the junior college educational system provides a significant step up the ladder of economic freedom.
But to be really free in America you need money. Lots and lots of it. And it is here that I found the biggest dichotomy between image and substance. Everywhere I looked during those tentative steps in California, I was overwhelmed by the sheer excess of ?things?. My new family, whose home I had settled in, had 3 T.V?s., 2 cars, 2 VCR?s, microwave ovens, ice making machines, deep freezes, and more clothes than Saville Row puts out in a year. The janitors I worked with all drove cars worth $25,000 or more. I thought that all these goods where bought on H.P. or favorable overdraft deals with their bank managers. I was soon enlightened as to my error and introduced to the wonders of creative finance - or more precisely the ?Credit System.? Having been raised on the notion that ?neither a lender nor a borrower be?, I resisted the corrupting world of ?free credit? for nearly five years, in which time I paid all my bills promptly, was ignored by the world and remained penniless but proud. In the last two years while developing various business projects, I have created a debt of over $30,000 and credit companies are flocking to my door. It?s the Catch-22 scenario; you can only be free if you join the credit system, but to be successful in the credit system you must be in debt, which of course limits your freedom.
America generally, and California in particular, is a posers paradise. Everything is projected into the here and now. Image is everything, whether it?s a bandana?d, bearded Hell?s Angel on a Harley Davison bike; or a Wall Street waller, strutting the sidewalks in his ill-fitting Italian suit. Everyone flashes the conspiratorial smile of indulgent well-being. It is the sheer size and dimension of Americas ?things? that captures the eyes and hands of its people. Living in America is comfortable. Yet if one ever has time to stop to wonder what it?s all about, it is to fear what excessive behavioral habits will have to be given up, as the real world of finite resources encroaches on the dreams of this land.

Ian Moore runs a cable TV show, ?Culture Shock?.
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