How the Africans Became Black
A Liberian-American reflects on the experiences of Africans who have moved to the United States, a growing community that accounts for 3 percent of the U.S.'s foreign-born population.
Yama Sumo a former refugee from civil war in Liberia, sits by her sidewalk vegetable stand outside a housing project in the Park Hill section of Staten Island in New York City on September 20, 2007. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
After leaving my nine-to-five job, I was led to a New York Immigration Coalition job posting. While waiting in the coalition's lobby for an interview, a copy of a popular TIME Magazine cover caught my eye. "WE ARE AMERICANS," the cover read. The photo on the cover featured faces of various brown and yellow immigrants, eager and hopeful, representing both the spirit of America's revolutionary history and its inevitable future. I was remembering my own family's immigration when I stopped to wonder: Where are the Africans?
U.S. immigration debates are overwhelmingly centered on immigrants from Latin America. Proportionately, Mexicans and central Americans far outnumber other immigrant groups in the United States. According to a Migration Policy Institute study, since 1970, "a period during which the overall U.S. immigration population increased four-fold, the Mexican and central American population increased by a factor of 20." In a subsequent study on black immigration, the same organization reported that black African immigrants account for 3 percent of the total U.S. foreign-born population.
Like their Latin American counterparts, African immigrants keep a low profile in an effort to avoid humiliation, deportation, and loss of work. Many of them, whether accidentally or otherwise, wind up blending in with African-American culture. But however closely they may identify with black America, they, too, are immigrants.
I recently read a book titled How The Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev. Ignatiev traces this nation's white solidarity to the arrival of Irish settlers in New York in 1840, the country's subsequent disassociation from its African-American working class -- and ultimately, from the African-American race.
According to Ignatiev, Irish Catholics, then known as the blacks of Europe, came to America as a disenfranchised, oppressed race under the English Penal Laws. The greatest voice for Catholic emancipation at the time, Daniel O'Connell, urged the new immigrants to continue the struggle for equality in America by showing support for abolitionists. Instead, the Irish realized that discrimination against them by white elites was linked at least in part to their working, sleeping and living closely alongside blacks of similar economic and social status.
In order to stand out from blacks economically, Irish immigrants had to monopolize their low-wage jobs and keep free Northern blacks from joining unions during the labor movement. And in order to disassociate socially, they had to consent to active participation in the oppression of the black race, embracing whiteness and the system that disenfranchised and justified an ungovernable hatred toward African-Americans.
Ignatiev includes an 1843 letter from Daniel O'Connell: "Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice, saying, come out of such land, you Irishmen; or, if you remain, and dare countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer."
The color of their skin saved them, but has also nearly obliterated a once vibrant cultural identity so that today I know no Irishmen. I have friends of Irish descent, former coworkers who mentioned the occasional Irish grandfather or associates who gesture toward familiarity of the lost heritage over empty pints on St. Patrick's Day -- but the Irishmen are now white, and the Irishmen are now gone.
Race in America is often thought of as a two-toned, immutable palette. No matter how early their ancestors arrived, Americans of Asian descent, Americans from Spanish-speaking countries, and Americans from the Middle East will always be considered foreign, it sometimes seems. For black immigrants who arrive as neither African-American nor white, affiliating with the African-American identity is often easier. Being considered African-American in this country is still better in most instances than being considered an immigrant.
Much as Irish immigrants benefited from the white racial umbrella, black immigrants are benefiting from a black racial umbrella. They cleave to African-American culture and identity groups and remain silent or unheard in the larger immigration dialogue. In the context of the immigration debate, while many of the prominent faces of those in need are often brown, it's worth remembering that the term "immigrant" captures black Africans, too. At the same time, black immigrants and their children are also helping to redefine what it means to be black in this country.
ON BEING BLACK
When I was stopped in Arizona at a checkpoint during a midnight drive from Los Angeles to Houston, I was not asked if I was born in this country or if I was of legal status. The officer glanced at my license and simply asked me where I was going.
"Home," I answered. "Back to Houston."
I sounded like him and looked like about 14 percent of this country -- so the officer let me pass. Someone like Natalie Portman -- a white woman, but born in Jerusalem and an immigrant to the United States -- might have had the same experience.
If Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-winning journalist whose (brown) picture on the cover of TIME hung on the wall of the New York Immigration Coalition, were stopped that night, he may have been interrogated with questions, squeezed for identification, for proof that he deserved to be here. How just is that?
My family left Liberia in 1990 amid the country's first civil war. We were among tens of thousands that successfully escaped to America. Five-years-old at the time, a green and frightened young immigrant, I moved with my growing family to three different states before settling in Houston in 1994. By then, my accent was gone. I pronounced the r's at the ends of my words, I knew the radio music my elementary peers sang along to and I could quote the latest episodes of "TGIF." By 2000, my only reference to Liberia, other than my parents, annual family reunions and a war scar underneath my right foot, was my name. I said it and people asked if I was African. If I did not say it, they could not know. We were the only African family in our small Texan town and as far as the residents were concerned -- we were black. It was not until I moved to New York for college that my answer of "Spring, Texas" when people asked me where I was from was unacceptable. "No," they would say, "where are you from from?" Oh. Liberia.
Like a small percentage of Liberians, my recent ancestors were descendants of American slaves. A reverend by the name of June Moore immigrated to Liberia with his wife Adeline Moore in 1871. After settling in Arthington, Liberia, Wallace Moore, one of June's and Adeline's three sons, had a son named David Moore, who had a son named Herbert Moore, who had a son named Augustus Moore Sr. -- my father.
But growing up in America as a black or white person encourages the abandonment of such history and the adoption of "black" or "white" American culture as one's own. Despite my Liberian heritage, my interactions outside of my house during my developmental years took place as though I were, culturally, an African-American -- not an African. From first grade through high school, I received an American public-school education in which all mentions of people who looked like me were African-American. I took ownership of the culture because otherwise, I did not exist.
When I was 11 years old, I was called a nigger at a neighborhood corner store by a shopkeeper who thought my friends and I were stealing from him when six or so of us entered his store after track practice. The word was foreign to me, as was his motivation in using it. My friends and I cried as we were chased out of the store, but even then I knew their tears came from a different, more familiar place.
In the same way we respond to someone with white skin -- whether that person is a white European or a white Hispanic -- so America responds to people with black skin, no matter if they have been here for 20 years or 200 years. Being black in America is accompanied by a stupefying consciousness, a sudden, life-long awareness of your skin, your nose, your hair -- all those things that, ironically, we are taught do not matter at all.
Still, developing an awareness of all that being black in this country may entail does not automatically mean that young black immigrants are accepted by their peers. The young immigrant is usually subject to other kinds of bullying. National Geographic programming, comedians, international news all showcase Africans as savage, disease-ridden, ignorant, and poor. As a young student in this country, an African student, there are few greater burdens than psychologically balancing the public's perception of Africa against what the immigrant knows to be true.
Social pressures cause a grave, hopeless desire to blend in with peers, even if the price is total rejection of the foods, music and languages of that child's home country. The easiest avenue for assimilation into American culture, for young black immigrants, is the assimilation into African-American culture. African immigrants are not the only group to do this -- Carribeans and black Hispanics may do this as well, all to ease the burdens of cultural ostracism.
These young people eventually learn to socially navigate both African-American and their home culture. This passing of black immigrants and first-generation black Americans as members of African-American culture results in a cross-cultural black identity, where the individual is equally invested in both African-American interests and the empowerment of their (or their parent's) home country and the many issues that affect its native sons.
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My father is a proud man. All of my uncles are proud men. They wear Liberia and her stories on their shoulders and made consistent attempts growing up to engage us in her music and history. Still, my father was as careful as he was proud. My siblings and I were reminded to always obey the law, never get in trouble, to fear punishment and respect authority. The immigration struggles that face many Hispanics in this country -- fear of prison, fear of deportation or separation from family -- are more intensified among Africans, because many of us, my family included, left countries in conflict or at war. Drawing attention to your immigrant status means raising the possibility of having to return to a country whose economy and infrastructure may barely function.
Ours is also a numbers game. As 3 percent of a foreign-born population, African influence in the immigration movement is low. Language barriers keep some black immigrants from becoming activists. It's not just about English; at one information session in the Bronx, instructions and information on legal clinic appointments were given only in Spanish, even though 10 percent of the attendants were black immigrants who mostly spoke French. The Francophones had to consult with one another to figure out what the session leader was saying.
Some black immigrants are vocal and have received help from a few quarters. To people of countries beset by armed conflict, natural disaster, or other circumstances that would make going home unsafe, the United States grants what's called Temporary Protected Status (TPS). TPS gives certain foreign nationals a special opportunity to live in America, to work, to pay taxes, and to own homes and businesses. Haitians benefited from this after the 2010 earthquake, and Liberians were also beneficiaries.
But in 2007, an estimated 4,000 Liberians were told that their special status would expire on September 30 at midnight. On September 12, however, President Bush signed a bill that gave the Liberians permission to stay another 18 months and continue working. That reprieve has since been granted 4 times; yet every year these Liberians -- some with children who are American citizens, homeowners, and taxpayers -- face the threat of deportation.
Liberian nationals, with the help of The Universal Human Rights International Group and community associations led and managed by fellow Liberian immigrants, continue to lobby Congress for permanent residency. Michael Capuano, a Democratic U.S. congressman from Massachusetts, is a co-sponsor of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Protection Act. If passed, the bipartisan bill will allow Liberians with TPS to apply for permanent residency, something they are not currently allowed to do.
You may have passed a Liberian covered by TPS today. You may have thought that he was just black.
What the Irish were to white identity in the 19th century, so are African immigrants to African-American identity today. Black immigrants have a meaningful contribution to make to the immigration debate; for Jose Antonio Vargas and the other brown faces on that TIME cover, the black immigrant voice may be all the push reformists need.