This month natives and visitors alike danced their way through the streets of Brooklyn in celebration of the annual West Indian Carnival. Scores of Caribbean immigrants proudly waved the flags of their native Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, and many others. It’s a kaleidoscope of the Black diaspora and just one story of who we are in this country.
Of the New York’s 3 million foreign-born residents, non-Hispanic Caribbeans account for 19% of the population, with Jamaica (169,200), Guyana (139,900), Haiti (94,200), and Trinidad and Tobago (87,600) most significantly represented.
On a national scale, the Black immigrant population has more than quadrupled since 1980, from 800,000 to 3.8 million in 2013. An overwhelming half of them are from the Caribbean alone. The largest source is from Jamaica with approximately 18% of the national total, followed closely by Haiti with 15% of that population. The most recent growth of the Black immigrant population has been fueled by African countries, which account for 36% of the total of foreign-born Blacks. In all, 8.9% of U.S. residents who identify as Black are foreign born.
Which means that although we check off “Black” in the Census box, our cultural experiences can be as varied as our skin tones. Not surprisingly, there are inherent cultural differences that exist as a result of unique traditions passed down from generation to generation. For example, who can explain the emotional connection Caribbean people have to rice? Or, what exactly is the appeal of black-eyed peas (the food, not the group) for Black Americans? The superficial differences that can be celebrated (or made fun of) are fine.
Where we start getting into trouble is when our differences are used as a weapon to divide. Why should Black Americans care for Black Caribbean Americans? Or for Black Latino Americans to care about Black Americans? Why should the struggles of one Black group matter to all Black groups? Because a house divided against itself can never stand.
Yet the division exists.
As a Black immigrant (made in Haiti and bred in Brooklyn), over the years I’ve heard this distinction made about me: She’s not Black. She’s Haitian. Most recently it was said in jest by a white man paying me a “compliment.” Before you puff your ‘fro and boost your fist in protest of his racist and patriarchal attempt to divide, let me say that I’ve heard this from other races. The loudest and most persistent voice in promoting this sense of “otherness” has been my own people – both native and foreign.
In my family, Black Americans and Black Caribbeans were fragmented. As children we were constantly reminded that although we were being raised in America, we had a duty to act with Haitian class. We weren’t to behave like the “ill-mannered and ignorant Black Americans.” “Pitit Ayisyen pa fè bagay sa yo,” they would say. Meaning, “Haitian children don’t do these things.” “These things” referred to everything from misbehaving in school, to doing drugs, and to becoming unwed teenage mothers (a Haitian family’s worst nightmare for a daughter). Although I straddled two cultures, it was indisputably clear which one my family held in higher esteem. And I’m not alone. Other culturally-blended Black Americans (for example, Guyanese-American, Nigerian-Americans, Ghanaian-Americans) that I know share similar life experiences. We were thought early on to behave as “model Blacks” or risk bringing shame to our family names and countries of origin.
But just as foreign-born Blacks can reject native Blacks so too can the pendulum swing the other direction. Black Americans with roots as deep as the first boatful of slaves brought to these shores also perpetuate this division. Perhaps as resentment of the “better than you” attitude of immigrants or for being labeled the “problem Blacks.” Whatever the reasons, the result is the same. A line clearly drawn in the sand to delineate “us versus them.” Oftentimes statements that lead with “but you’re not from here” serve as a rebuke for why foreign Blackness isn’t as authentic as their own.
With the number of foreign-born Blacks in the U.S. projected to double – to 16.5% – by 2060, the time is ripe for us to examine our own definitions of Blackness and to bravely open the door to honest conversations. What accounts for the intra-racial push-pull? Why have we internalized this racial hatred? Honesty can hurt. And nothing hurts more than being rejected by family. But there is an opportunity to find healing in the truthful discussions that leave us raw. With healing comes the ability to better understand one another and to start restoring broken connections.
As we seek to better understand one another, one way to do so is to address the concerns that directly impact our lives. There are commonalities such as unsafe policing and educational inequality, but there are also unique worries such as immigration. A topic that has traditionally been missing from the Black Lives Matter dialog.
Which is understandable if we look at the face of immigration in America. Carl Lipscombe of Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) writes: “The face of the immigrant is often a Latino face.” He continues, “Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are largely ‘invisible-lized’ in the public’s consciousness.”
Perhaps the lack of awareness and inclusion are tied to the feeling of security that comes with permanent residency and U.S citizenship. According to the Pew Research Center, “When compared with U.S. immigrants overall, foreign-born blacks are less likely to be in the U.S. illegally and more likely to be U.S. citizens.”
While immigration policies are less likely to affect the majority of foreign-born Blacks (and very unlikely to affect native Blacks), what happens to one should matter to all. According to forthcoming report by the BAJI and New York University Law School’s Immigrants Rights Clinic, Black immigrants make up 10.6 percent of all immigrants in deportation proceedings between 2003 and 2015. In the 2014 fiscal year, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency deported 1,203 African immigrants. That is 1,203 Black families stripped of mothers, fathers, siblings, or other loved ones.
Additionally, as reported to Think Progressive, some lawyers say that Black immigrants have the odds stacked against them in the immigration court system. The BAJI report that Black detainees face deportation for minor offenses from possession of a small amount of marijuana to petty larceny. Because Black immigrants tend to live in lower-income areas that are generally heavily policed, they – like Black Americans – are often disproportionately impacted by policies such as ‘Broken Windows’ or ‘Stop and Frisk.’
The presidential debates and eventual election is a way to start erasing that line in the sand by collectively lifting our voices (native and foreign born) in demand of change. We can focus on shedding light on the plight of the approximately 575,000 unauthorized Black immigrants living and working in this country. The growth in the changing face of blackness in America means that our friends, neighbors, and colleagues could very well be included in this statistic.
To laud the beauty of our blackness means embracing perspectives, victories, and challenges that are both shared and unique. For the betterment of our people we need to strive to be whole.