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 fromdifferent 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.