This year, New York City celebrates the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural movement that helped shape the intellectual, artistic, and social life of Black people. Before the coronavirus pandemic that shut down the city, cultural events and musical tributes had been held and were planned in Harlem, the neighborhood that characterized and gave the era its name.
The Harlem Renaissance transformed Black identity and self-conception, not just in the United States, but throughout Black spaces, globally. The depth of this reach was not only a result of the movement’s impact, but also a testament to new patterns of Black migration.
Millions of African Americans formed the Great Migration, escaping the racial terror and plantations of the Jim Crow South in search of new opportunities in the urban North. Simultaneously, a small but significant wave of Black immigrants began coming to the U.S. from the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas, later to be joined by immigrants from the African continent.
The arrival of Black immigrants was driven in large part by many of the same forces that brought other waves of immigrants to this country—pursuing education, safety, economic opportunity, fleeing the impact of U.S. policy, or following the path of family members who came before them. And all these groups would live alongside each other in established Black northern communities and, perhaps, for the first time, the African diaspora encountered itself in a new way.
“The Harlem Renaissance kind of represents that moment in which you have these varying groups of people coming together, working out their differences and trying to work out the meaning of their relationship to the United States and to the British empire and so forth…” says Dr. Michael Gomez, New York University’s Silver Professor of History and Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies. He’s also founder of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora. And, he adds, “out of that moment comes this cultural efflorescence where people, Black people, are beginning to see themselves very differently.”
Whether drawn by force, choice, or necessity, Black immigrants have strong, rich roots in this country. And their expanding numbers over the past two decades add to its growing diversity overall and that of the Black population in particular. The African American experience in this country becomes the experience of all Black people—including the current uprising after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
Patrice Lawrence, a Jamaican American who is interim co-director of UndocuBlack Network, an advocacy group of current and formerly undocumented Black people, says: “It’s not possible to talk about immigration in this country without acknowledging Black immigrants …”
Immigrants such as Garfield Brown, who was 40 when he moved to New York City from Jamaica nearly 20 years ago. Leaving his job as a banker to pursue new opportunities in the States, he went on to establish his own construction company. Brown’s sister, who had immigrated earlier, encouraged him to start a new life with his family in New York, where, over the years, all of their siblings had relocated.
“Having been a professional in my country and having worked in my country for a long time, doing well, I wanted a different footing somewhere else, something in the first world that I could also do well …” he says. “I became a small-business owner, and that has propelled me greatly into the American experience.”
Brown believes it takes a certain kind of person to leave their home country to try to make a new life somewhere else. They are motivated differently, he believes, because in coming here they risk much and often feel a need to ensure the sacrifices are worth it. Success is imperative because failure could mean returning home empty-handed.
The “American” experience
If Black identity in the United States, in general, experienced a rebirth in the Harlem Renaissance, Black immigrant identity can trace, at least in part, some of its modern origins to the period. Initially, many black immigrants, who today number about 4.2 million across the U.S, resettled in New York and mostly northern states—not exactly a beacon of racial harmony, but a perceived respite from the Jim Crow South in a post-World War I U.S.
This pattern didn’t change until the civil rights movement and the passing of The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended the de facto discrimination in immigration policy on non-Northwestern Europeans. The law allowed for more people from different parts of the world, including Afro-Caribbean and Black Latinx people who already had closer ties to the United States because of their proximity, but also, for the first time, a significant number of immigrants from the African continent.
A 2010 article in Smithsonian magazine on the changing definition of what it means to be African American shows that during the 1990s, some 900,000 Black immigrants came to the U.S. from the Caribbean. An added 400,000 came from Africa and still others came from Europe and the Pacific rim. “By the beginning of the 21st century, more people had come from Africa to live in the United States than during the centuries of the slave trade,” the article says. “At that point, nearly one in ten Black Americans was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.”
All these new Black immigrants and those coming after would help shape our understanding of the community today—how their stories fit into the larger immigration narrative, their experiences of Black life, and the unique challenges the community faces today.
For Nana Gyamfi, the U.S. immigration narrative emphasizes the Mayflower stories of White immigrants while excluding Black immigrants, framing their experience only within the African-American context.
“As Black immigrants coming to the country… integration into the United States means that you’re integrated into that racial, political context,” Gyamfi says. “And so you integrate into becoming basically, African American, Black American. And all of the anti-Blackness, the discrimination, the bigotry… all of the things that Black folks who are multigenerational in the United States experience, now become transferred over to you.”
Gyamfi describes herself as an ABG, an American-born Ghanaian. Her father immigrated to the U.S in 1966, a year after passage of the immigration act, to pursue his graduate education in engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
An attorney and organizer for 25 years, she also serves as executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the largest Black-led immigration rights organization in the country. Its goal, she says, is not just to educate, organize, and advocate on behalf of Black immigrants, but to “unite Black immigrants and African Americans under the umbrella of racial justice … racial, political, and economic justice.”
Some Black immigrants arrive in the U.S. having bought into its immigration narrative as a beacon of hope for the huddled masses, she says. Many are woefully unaware not just of its insidious racial politics and economic and social difficulties but the hard and important work by African Americans to gain some of the rights and benefits Black immigrants enjoy.
“I think it’s no different than African Americans escaping racial terror from the South going North to Chicago and New York, or coming West to Los Angeles, [thinking] it was going to give them the same joyful future that it was giving their White counterparts, and [finding] out differently,” Gyamfi says.
Education as a gateway
Elizabeth Okwirry Mitchell’s father, like Gyamfi’s, also came to the U.S. to pursue an education, part of a wave of budding young scholars from Kenya who arrived in the 1960s to prepare to lead a newly independent nation.
Mitchell was born in Kenya at the behest of a grandfather who insisted his first grandchild be born in the African country. She returned to the U.S and left several more times before returning permanently in the 1980s as a 20-year-old.
Though she returned then as a visitor, somewhat reluctantly and missing the comforts of home, Mitchell said her American godmother, a college professor, encouraged her to stay and enroll in college, switching her visa status from visitor to student.
While she ended up postponing college to start a family, education remained a deeply ingrained part of her experience. It’s a familiar path for many African immigrants—even today. The result is an educated population that often exemplifies the African immigrant experience. Pew Research, for example, shows that 59% of Nigerian immigrants hold bachelor’s or advanced degrees—double that of the U.S. population overall. Less known are the legal hurdles African and all Black immigrants encounter, regardless of their immigration path.
Impact of immigration laws
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, U.S immigration laws shifted drastically, and perhaps, with contrasting motivations. In the wake of the Refugee Act of 1980, as crises flared up across the world, the U.S. increased the number of refugees it would take in, leading to vibrant Somali communities in places such as Columbus, Ohio, and the Twin Cities of Minnesota. At the same time, new laws established precedents that began to criminalize immigrants. The most notorious was the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded the reasons for which immigrants, including those with permanent legal status, could be deported.
In the country’s imagination, Black immigrants are seldom envisioned among the surging waves of those moving from Central American to the southern U.S. border in 2018 and 2019. Or among the estimated 11 million or so undocumented immigrants who live in the shadows of this country—including “dreamers,” who have emerged as the new face of that group.
People such as Emmanuel Olawale Ajomale, known by his artist moniker, Mannywellz, who as a 9-year-old in 2003 came to the U.S. on a visitor’s visa from Nigeria with his mother and a sister. Having taken a similar immigration path, his father was already living and working in Maryland, without legal documents, as a musician in a church and then in real estate.
As a teenager, Ajomale saw his father deported, a possibility that he knew he was subject to from the time he understood that overstaying his visitor’s visa as he, his mother, and sister had done, also made them vulnerable to removal.
He applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals shortly after the Obama administration passed the Act in 2012, protecting him from possible deportation and allowing him to legally work in the U.S. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration can’t immediately end DACA as the administration had planned, a temporary but important win for immigration advocates.
Now, Ajomale uses his music not only to share his strong Christian faith, but to shine a light on issues like immigration, as in “American Dream,” one of his most-streamed songs in which he chronicles his family’s undocumented experience.
“Even when you received that [DACA], a lot of us still lived in shadows …” he says. “I just came to the realization that my story is really powerful, and my life could be a testament or testimony to encourage and push people.”
The work of advocating for people such as Ajomale and other Black immigrants rendered virtually invisible in the nation’s immigration narrative falls to a growing number of Black immigrant-led groups. For example, the Black Immigration Engagement Initiative, a working group of the New York Immigration Coalition, worked alongside a number of organizations to advocate for the New York State Dream Act. Passed in 2019, the measure provides undocumented students access to state-administered grants and scholarships. The group also pushed for passage of Green Light New York, the campaign that allows New Yorkers to obtain drivers licenses, regardless of their immigration status.
Similarly, the UndocuBlack Network fights against the erasure of people whose stories are seldom told in the media, lobbying for long-term legal status for vulnerable Black communities, Lawrence says. Working alongside other organizations in 2019, for example, it helped secure permanent status for Liberian immigrants who qualified for Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure, a program that grants them work permits and temporary reprieve from deportation.
Another area where Black immigrants exist in the shadows is in U.S. detention, where they make up a disproportionate number of those facing deportation on criminal grounds, according to 2014 ICE data analyzed by Black Immigration Engagement Initiative and New York University’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. The consequences of detention are particularly dire for Black transgender immigrants, who like other trans detainees, are often attacked, assigned to the wrong facility based on gender, or denied proper medication.
Roselyn Berry, an Afro-Latinx steering committee member of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, which advocates for Black queer and trans migrants, recalls the case of Udoka Nweke, a gay Nigerian who sought asylum on grounds that he faced potential violence at home because of his sexual identity. He was immediately detained upon arrival in the U.S in 2016 and subsequently held for 19 months.
“He was targeted and forced into detention, denied access to mental health services that he desperately needed because he had tried to commit suicide multiple times … while in ICE custody,” Berry says. BLMP launched a campaign to win his release—and won. “We were able to find him housing, get him access to a work permit, and just recently, he was actually granted asylum,” Berry says, through tears.
For some queer Black immigrants, choosing the United States over their home countries is a matter of safety and sheer survival—if at the cost of potentially facing a more racist country.
Gizelle, who asked to be identified only by her first name, is a queer Jamaican resident who lives in the Midwest and for whom home was out of the question. She originally came to the U.S. on a student visa, which she later parlayed into a green card after her maternal aunt filed a family-based green card petition for Gizelle’s mother.
The family-based immigration model is one that’s often used to reunite family members in the States—and one that is under threat by the current administration. Gizelle says she came within months of aging out of eligibility and facing the possibility of having to return to Jamaica.
“I got used to a certain freedom of expressing queerness … and that would not fly in Jamaica,” she says.
The “Africa ban”
While blame for the failing immigration system can be spread across all political parties and administrations, no presidency has done more to harm immigrants—especially Black immigrants—than the administration of Donald Trump. At the dawn of his presidency, Trump delivered on one of his campaign’s most contentious promises—to ban Muslim immigrants from the U.S.
Legal challenges went up and new executive orders were handed down and by the time the dust had settled, 13 countries were facing severe restrictions for immigrant or travel visas to the U.S. Many, but not all, had Muslim-majority populations and six of them were African, including the continent’s largest, Nigeria. The “Africa ban” had arrived.
Trump’s handling of the migrant situation on the southern border is also among the most noteworthy of his immigration policies. Significant among the mandates that led to children being separated from their parents and put into cages is one that requires people seeking asylum in the U.S. to “remain in Mexico” and await a chance to make a claim before an immigration judge. Rarely highlighted in this discourse is the increase in Black immigrants traveling this south-to-north route, from hundreds a decade ago to thousands in the past few years.
While some are from the Caribbean and Central America, notably Haiti and Honduras, many are also coming from African countries.
Gyamfi, of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, visited southern Mexico in the summer of 2019, and what she found there underscores the anti-Blackness that Black migrants face in Mexico: teachers refusing to teach Black children, medical professionals turning away sick Black migrants, and families unable to acquire housing.
Some migrants themselves hold unrealistic views of what lies ahead. Gyamfi describes the conversation she had with an Angolan activist against femicide who was forced to flee that country with her husband and seven children. The nine flew to Ecuador and then traveled by foot, by car, even by horseback, crossing jungles, stepping over dead bodies to finally reach Mexico.
“And when that woman looked at me in the face and said, ‘I can’t wait to get to America where my children can be safe.’… How do I explain to this woman that there’s a lot that you think is happening in the United States, or that you don’t know that’s happening, that is going to make your life complicated and difficult?”
So much of the Black immigrant experience in the U.S. is caught between the country’s immigrant narrative of hope, and the sometimes severe realities of living a Black experience, and surviving a tedious immigration system. The Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes that, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” The poem, which speaks to the refugee experience, seems also to be true of those with limited choices and capacity for a decent life, wherever they are coming from. Black immigrants, some searching for the American Dream, others simply escaping the nightmare of their homes, may have left the mouth of a shark but are not immune to the sharp edges of American society.
But just as 100 years ago when movement patterns reshaped Black life in a way that fashioned an era in the Harlem Renaissance, movement patterns around the world might do the same today. In spite of all their political challenges and obstacles, Black immigrants will likely do more than survive in this country—they will continue to contribute greatly to American life, says New York University’s Gomez.
“This is your future leadership,” he says, “and they are coming to the fore, and they are going to shape the politics and the sensibilities and the cultures of this place.”
Kovie Biakolo wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Kovie is a writer and multiculturalism scholar specializing in culture and identity.