Celebrating black Americans in Yamanashi

by Angela Jeffs

American diplomat Ayanna Hobbs is a dynamo of energy and enthusiasm. She’s just finished her weekly Japanese class, and thinks it the most amazing coincidence that her wonderful teacher happens to be from Yamanashi, the prefecture that lies so close to her heart.

“My connection with Japan began with Yamanashi. Now all these years later, it’s time to return the kindness once again,” she explains. “That’s why I am organizing an event on Feb. 9 at the International Center in Kofu, to help celebrate African-American History Month.”

Her Nigerian Christian name means “beautiful flower.” “Actually,” she explains, laughing, “my parents were both eager to name me. So I ended up with not only Ayanna but Bajita (gift from God), which was my father’s idea, and Doretha (an angel), which was my mother’s choice, after her sister’s name. So Ayanna Bajita Doretha — created and arranged in alphabetical order.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Hobbs came to Yamanashi for one year as an exchange student. She had wanted to study French (“so that I could go live in France for the rest of my life”) but was told that in those days, Japanese would better assist her in becoming an international lawyer.

“In college, my chemistry partner was a Japanese student. She was always saying, ‘Ayanna, study Japanese, come to Japan, I think you’ll really like it!’ So I took a class and just loved it.”

In the early 1990s, the opportunity to come here for a year presented itself. Hobbs took the test, went through the interview process, and won the scholarship. “The college called me real early to tell me the news. I thought it was just my mom calling, and could hardly believe my ears. Two weeks later I was on the plane to Kofu, Yamanashi.”

She stayed in the international center in Kofu, which has a passport office on the first floor, and Western-style accommodation for exchange students and trainees on the second and third floors. “It was fabulous. I had central heating, carpeting, a great kitchen, just like home.”

Attending language classes at the city’s university, she spent her year soaking in the full Japanese cultural experience. At the same time, she wondered how she could introduce something of her own culture to local Japanese, and also find a way to say thank you to the City Office for making her visit possible.

“I decided to organize an African-American history symposium. I didn’t really think too much about the response, but rather just wanted to do it. I wanted to share with the Japanese a little of the history and culture of my people.”

At the event, staged in the center in 1994 and attended by African-American history specialist professor Reginald Kearney (who lived and taught in Japan for near on 20 years), Hobbs showed a video in English and Japanese of the famed documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” which chronicles the founding and development of the civil rights movement in the U.S.

There was a dramatic reading by Hobbs of selected poems by Maya Angelou. Songs by a gospel choir from an American military base. Also a question-and-answer session that lasted over an hour.

Hobbs was elated by the interest. Not simply by the number of people who had turned up — over 100 — but the diversity. Among the young and middle-aged were also older Japanese who showed her photographs of double-culture grandchildren.

“Many thanked me, saying the events as a whole helped them to understand better and fill in the gaps. It was all so fruitful.”

The period that followed Hobbs returning to the States proved equally so, entering the diplomatic service and earning a master’s in Japanese literature. Now she is back, working at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and deepening her authoritative voice on the work of contemporary Japanese authors with an African-American connection.

“Amy Yamada, who wrote ‘Bedroom Eyes’ in the late 1980s, was married to an African-American, for example. Ryu Murakami, of ‘Coin Locker Babies’ and ‘Almost Transparent Blue,’ has been much affected by American culture, and is a passionate promoter of Cuban music.”

Hobbs interviewed and also analyzed the writings of both authors for her master’s thesis, which documented African-American representation in Japanese literature.

Hobbs also admires the work of Tomoji Abe, who wrote through the 1930s into the ’50s.

“Abe was mesmerized by the African-American actor Stepin Fetchit, the ‘step-in-and-fetch-it’ stage name of comedian and film actor Lincoln Perry, who died in 1965 aged 83. Fetchit also wrote for one of America’s most respected black newspapers, the Chicago Defender. Abe thought he was amazing.”

Hobbs believes she has come full circle in more ways than one. Because this month she not only repeats her event in Yamanashi, but also has a story by Abe about Fetchit published in translation in an anthology by University of Hawaii, “Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913-1938.”

“I’m so excited,” she smiles. “This February is just so great for me.”

Next Sunday’s program in Yamanashi is limited seating only. Hobbs was invited back by the center to organize a commemorative affair.

Running for two and half hours from 1:30 p.m., the program will offer what she describes as “a taste of African-American history, culture and people — in part because I’m flying in family to showcase gospel singing, poetry recitations and soul food.”

She personally will deliver a speech in Japanese about the splendor of Japan through African-American eyes.

Her mom, Eunice, will be the chef — and will also conduct a soul food cooking class in Tokyo on Feb. 24.

One of Tokyo’s most famous gospel singers, Alex Easley, will perform. As will Hobbs’ cousin Tashanda Frederick, also a gospel singer, who is flying in from Los Angeles.

“In addition, my 16-year-old sister, Sheree Taylor, will make a brief presentation about the purpose and founding of African-American History Month.”

Above all else, Hobbs wants to say thank you. She has already completed two years of her current assignment at the embassy, and has “enjoyed every minute of it!”

Ten years from now, she hopes to have established her own global language school. “I’ve already set things in motion back home.”

She also aspires to be U.S. ambassador to Japan. And who knows? With all this diplomacy under her belt, and an African-American with his heart and soul set on the road to the White House, there seems a good chance.

For information on the event, call Yamanashi International Association at (055) 228-5419 or go to the Web site www.yia.or.jp. To learn more about the anthology, go to www.uhpress.hawaii.edu/cart/ shopcore/?db_name=uhpress, then search under heading “new books.” For details of the cooking class, call (03) 3224-6787.