Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Little Senegal in the Big Apple: Harlem's West African heart

Little Senegal in the Big Apple: Harlem's West African heart

Harlem, New York (CNN) -- At the heart of West Harlem, West Africa is buzzing.

Nestled inside one of the world's most diverse cities, over the years the thriving neighborhood of Harlem has become the hub of New York's African American community.

At the start of the 20th century, throngs of African Americans migrated from the southern United States into the big city, lured by the jobs and opportunities of urban life.

But in the last 30 years or so, another group of people decided to call Harlem home. Scores of immigrants from several francophone West African countries moved to the borough to start a new life. At the center of it all, a vibrant Senegalese community has created a new home away from home, adding their culture, fashion and tastes to Harlem's diverse mix.

Read: African flavor at the heart of Paris

Known as Little Senegal, or Le Petit Senegal, the strip of blocks around West 116th Street is packed with inviting restaurants and colorful shops, powerful reminders of life back in the homeland.

"We're the ones who built Harlem," says El Hadji Fey, vice president of the Senegalese Association of America. "When we got here, all the stores you see over here, it was absolutely nothing. We bought a lot of stores here, a lot of Senegalese businesses right here.

"We were scared in the beginning -- you know how Harlem was 20, 30 years ago. We're the ones who really made Harlem grow up. That's why a lot of people call here Little Senegal because we started making the community grow, we started making people grow."

Along this stretch of blocks, the taste of Senegal is everywhere -- from the tantalizing scents of fish and rice stews emanating from the traditional restaurants dotting the neighborhood, through to the lively Malcolm Shabazz Market, where stall vendors hawk their wares, to the numerous Senegalese-named clothes and haircare shops.

Read: Brazil's thriving African culture

At "Africa Kine," which was one of the first Senegalese restaurants to open in Harlem, some two decades ago, homesick customers find comfort in flavors conjuring up memories of home. Others come here looking for fellow countrymen who can make their new city feel less strange.

We're the ones who built Harlem.
El Hadji Fey, VP, Senegalese Association of America

Waitress Maritou Djigal says that "thiebou dienn," Senegal's national dish made of Jolof rice with fish, is the meal of choice in the Harlem eatery.

"Most of the time they [diners] say 'it reminds me of Senegal, it reminds me of my family,'" she explains.

Not far from Africa Kine, at the Red Rooster restaurant, chef Marcus Samuelson is busy checking orders. Samuelson, known for introducing African spices to Western dishes, is using the continent's culinary traditions to expose Africa to a wider audience.

"I look at Africa as a great source of information and inspiration," says Samuelson. "And that's how I come up with some of the great dishes here," he adds. "Harlem is a very special and unique community and it always reminds me of Africa and I feel the most at home here. I love it, it's a real community."

Read: African slave traditions live on in U.S.

Although called Little Senegal, landmarks with great historical significance for native Africans and African Americans stretch along the Harlem neighborhood.

Neal Shoemaker, the energetic president of the Harlem Heritage Tours and Cultural Center, says that some of the most famous African American activists calling for civil rights in the mid-1950s and 1960s were active in the area.

"As you walk through this area here, it's like taking a cultural bath," says Shoemaker, who's been leading tours through Little Senegal for over a decade

"Malcolm X's presence is everywhere in this area," he adds, as he walks through the neighborhood. "That corner right there, on 115th street where the housing project exists, where I was born and raised, is one of the corners where he'd minister to the people and he would offer what he felt was the diagnosis to many of the social problems of the area.

"So when you walk through this area here, you're walking in the steps of many great civil rights leaders."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Overlooked Story of Black Immigrants in the United States Deserves Attention

Race and Beyond: Overlooked Story of Black Immigrants in the United States Deserves Attention

Barwako Abayle

SOURCE: AP/ Toby Talbot

Barwako Abayle, an immigrant student from Burlington High School, listens during a meeting with lawmakers about racial inequality at her school on April 26, 2012 in Montpelier, Vermont.

By Sam Fulwood III | February 19, 2013

Note: This is the second of two columns on black Americans and immigration reform. Today, I examine the history and plight of black immigrants in the United States.

Thanks in large part to the prevalence of media narratives, the current discussion of immigration reform is often represented by a Latino face. This works well to impress a human story in portraying the need for the nation to reform our dysfunctional immigration system. But the emphasis on the Latino story as the immigrant story fails to capture the broader, more complex issue.

Many Americans are familiar with the stories about work-seeking immigrants who crossed our southern border and are compelled to live and toil in the shadows of opportunity. Often overlooked or ignored, however, are the estimated 3 million black immigrants whose daily plight in the United States is no less dramatic or demanding of public attention. While the vast majority of black immigrants are legal residents concentrated in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami, an estimated 400,000 of them lack documents that would allow them to live openly.

"It's been nerve-racking because it puts me at risk," Tolu Olubunmi told the world at a news conference in 2011, announcing her undocumented status and her willingness to work for comprehensive immigration reform. "But I think you have to focus on the individual to get away from the politics of an issue that's so divisive. Once you know that there are real people attached to the statistics, then you have to start working on real solutions."

(Full disclosure: Tolu, 32, was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and was brought to the United States by her mother when she was 14. Her activism is well known to me—she was one of the inaugural fellows of the Center for American Progress's Leadership Institute, a program I created to increase the number of public policy experts from communities of color. Her work to bring about a change in the nation's immigration policies continues in her new job as a senior policy analyst at the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C.)

As is the case with any immigrant to the United States, black immigrants find their way to this country in search of their own American Dream. Yet unlike many white immigrants, they discover heightened barriers in reaching their dream. The persistence of racism and anti-black bias in many forms of American life comes as a rude awakening to those who expect opportunity to be limited only by their willingness for hard work.

Although the nation has long had a significant black population, owing to its legacy of slavery and the importation of Africans as chattel property, the history of willful and voluntary black immigration is a relatively recent development.

According to figures in a recent Pew Social Trends report, immigration from the Caribbean—primarily Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Dominican Republic—ticked up after the Spanish-American War ended in 1898. But the real expansion occurred after passage of 1965 federal laws that enabled people from countries other than Europe to find their place in this country.

Immigration from Africa was rare until the late 20th century, as many came from Africa to study in the United States and decided to stay. The Pew report estimates, however, that about 21 percent of African immigrants are undocumented. Moreover, no single country dominates the flow from the many African nations. Nigeria, which produced the largest single group of black immigrants in 2009, only accounted for about one in five of all black African immigrants that year, Pew reported.

Immigrants from Africa were also among the fastest-growing groups within the U.S. foreign-born population from 2000 to 2009. If current trends continue, the Pew analysts predict that Africa will replace the Caribbean by 2020 as the major source of black immigration to the United States.

Helina Faris, a former intern with the Center for American Progress's Immigration team, recently noted:

Even with high levels of education, black immigrants tend to earn low wages compared to other similarly trained immigrant or native workers. In 2011 black immigrants had the highest unemployment rate—12.5 percent—of any foreign-born group in the United States. Proposed immigration reforms such as reductions in family-based admissions and elimination of the diversity visa lottery could affect the flow of black immigrants to the United States, cutting off all legal means of entry into the country.

That's unfortunate because immigration reform is needed to assist more than a single ethnic or population group. It's required for fairness to all who currently work—and wait—in the shadows of opportunity.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center's Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

See also: