How the Africans Became Black

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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.

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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.

Much as Irish immigrants benefited from the white racial umbrella, black immigrants are benefiting from a black racial umbrella.

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.

THE IRISH

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.

We were the only African family in our small Texan town and as far as the residents were concerned, we were black.

"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.

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Wayétu Moore

Wayétu Moore is a freelance writer and founder of One Moore Book, a boutique publisher of multicultural children's books.

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