A Diverse and Divided Black Community; As Foreign-Born Population Grows, Nationality Trumps Skin Color
Nearly two decades have passed since Odehyee Abena Owiredua arrived here from Ghana, yet she can’t truly say she has lived the black American experience.
She once rented an apartment in Harlem, but “I didn’t feel comfortable around African Americans,” she said. And though friends believe she resembles the strikingly attractive hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill, she said, “I have not dated an African American, because very, very few approach me.”
“I love black people, but there is a negative relationship between immigrants and African Americans,” said Abena Owiredua, 34. “They look down at me, not at me. I feel inferior around them. It’s the ignorant questions I get. ‘Do you guys live in houses over there?’ When I get those kinds of questions from black Americans, I feel very hurt.”
As she talked on the dimly lit mezzanine of the Times Square hotel where she works, Abena Owiredua described a little-known reality: America’s black community, which now includes more West Indian and African immigrants than ever, is no longer the monolithic group that many politicians, civil rights advocates and demographers say it is.
A new African American community is being forged, sociologists and anthropologists say, in which culture and nationality are becoming more important than skin color. It is as diverse — and as divided — as the Latino community or the Asian American community, each made up of migrants from numerous nations.
In Miami, the West Indian population — now 48 percent of the black community — is expected to surpass the native-born African American population within eight years, according to Census Bureau projections. In New York City, nearly one-third of the black population is foreign-born, according to an analysis by demographer William H. Frey. And an analysis of census figures by the Boston Globe showed that one-third of the black population in Massachusetts is foreign-born.
The foreign-born black populations of Washington and Maryland are steadily growing, according to Frey’s analysis of 1970 Census data and the 2001 Current Population Survey.
In Washington, nearly 8 percent of the black population is foreign-born, up from 1 percent in 1970. In Maryland, more than 5 percent of black adults are foreign-born, compared with one-half percent three decades ago. Virginia’s black immigrant population remains small, up to only 2 percent from one-half percent in 1970.
“This is an important story for demographers and policymakers who are used to lumping together the black population,” said Frey, a white University of Michigan demographer. “The foreign-born African Americans and native-born African Americans are becoming as different from each other as foreign-born and native-born whites, in terms of culture, social status, aspirations and how they think of themselves.”
In New York, the brown-complexioned man or woman on the street could easily be Haitian, Jamaican, Senegalese or Nigerian. In Boston, they may be Cape Verdean. In Washington, they might be Ethiopian, Eritrean or Somali.
Yves Colon, a Haitian immigrant who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Miami, said black students at his high school thought “I was just another brother until I opened my mouth.” Donnette Dunbar of Harlem said black Americans seem surprised when she returns their greetings with an accent flavored by Jamaican patois.
“Black is very diversified,” said Flore Zephir, a Haitian who is an associate professor of Romance languages at the University of Missouri. “White people don’t see it because they lump everyone together and don’t take into account nationality and culture. Haitians resent being lumped together with other groups. This doesn’t mean they don’t know they’re black. They consider the classification that you’re either black or you’re white very nefarious.”
And therein lies the root of the conflict.
That black-white classification is uniquely American, a fact of history that has persisted since it was laid down by Virginia slaveholders in the 1700s. Black Americans, no matter how dark or light complexioned, were united in their suffering.
By the 1950s, historians say, black unity led to the formation of the modern civil rights movement and created a powerful Democratic voting bloc to fight white oppression. In the ’60s, black unity became “Black Power” and “Black Is Beautiful.” Black people acknowledged each other as “brothers,” developed elaborate handshakes ending in hugs and spoke slang to communicate dissenting thoughts past the ears of white people.
But the fact of black unity in everyday life, and the history that led to it, was lost on many of the black foreigners who started arriving in droves after the 1965 Immigration Act — which African Americans were instrumental in getting passed.
Unlike black people in the United States, West Indians and Africans grew up among black majorities that were ruled by black governments. “Black Is Beautiful” was a given, as was black pride, because there was no white-imposed segregation after their liberation from slavery and colonialism.
It almost goes without saying that black people of all persuasions also share a bond, said Jemima Pierre, a Haitian American and doctoral candidate in the African diaspora program at the University of Texas in Austin. She mentioned Jamaican Marcus Garvey, who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and its Black Star shipping line during the Harlem Renaissance for return trips to Africa.
Randall Robinson in 1977 founded TransAfrica, an organization dedicated to black causes and bringing together people of African origin. In Ghana, the Pan African Congress concerns itself with African American affairs every time it meets.
In pop culture, two of the most popular black hip-hop artists are a Haitian, Lauryn Hill, and a Jamaican, Trevor Smith, also known as Busta Rhymes.
While researching a book on Haitians, Flore Zephir found that those who grew up in the United States were less critical of African Americans than their elders.
“They tend to want to identify with African Americans,” she said. “They do not have an accent, so they know they can pass as African American. They change the pronunciations of their names. Michel becomes Michael, Pierre becomes Peter, Mathieu becomes Matthew.”
Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor of the Haitian Times in New York, said he grew to see America differently than his mother, who was slightly suspicious of African Americans.
“You see white Americans point to foreign-born blacks as role models,” he said. “But there’s a hypocrisy in their selection of this role-model immigrant. Haitians are being shot down by police just like African Americans.”
The New York chapter of the NAACP joined Haitian and African organizations in protesting New York police treatment of Haitian Abner Louima, who was sodomized with a nightstick in 1997, and Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea who was shot dead by detectives on the front stoop of his Bronx apartment building two years later.
But lately, the issues that divide the black community in New York have attracted almost as much attention as the incidents that bring them together.
Last year’s Democratic primary between Una Clarke, a Jamaican American, and Rep. Major R. Owens, a black American, ranked as one of the nastiest fights ever over a congressional seat in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
During a forum, Clarke, a former City Council member, declared, “I’m not a black American. I identify as a black person, but you cannot take my identity and call me something else.” She also said Owens was almost dismissive when it came to immigration issues West Indians care about.
Owens won the race by garnering votes from black and white Americans. In the process, he labeled Clarke, his former prote[acute]ge[acute], a liar. He also compared her campaign for West Indian votes to Nazism.
“Whether it’s [Joerg] Haider in Austria or Adolf Hitler,” Owens said, “when you appeal to ethnic loyalties as a way to ascend to power, it is the worst possible way to come to power.” Owens is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, made up of black politicians who campaign hard on black issues to get black votes.
In North Miami, Josaphat “Joe” Celestin, a Haitian American, became the city’s first black mayor after an election in May. It was an extraordinary achievement for Haitians, who were long denied immigration status by the United States even as white Cubans were welcomed into South Florida. But along with cheers, Celestin was greeted by a barrage of telephone threats and racial epithets — from black Americans.
“It’s shocking, the amount of animosity and suspicion,” said Marvin Dunn, chairman of the psychology department at Florida International University in Miami. Dunn studied the divide between African Americans and West Indians when Haitian and black American students brawled in Miami public schools in the 1980s.
“Whether you talk to Haitians, Bahamians, Jamaicans or Africans about African Americans, you hear the same things,” Dunn said. ” ‘They are violent, they don’t respect their elders, they have no sense of family, they don’t want to work, they depend on welfare.’ ”
Black Americans are no more tolerant of immigrants, Dunn said. “When you talk to African Americans about the immigrants, you hear, ‘They’re here to take our jobs. They’ll work for nothing. They’re cliquish. They smell. They eat dogs. They think they’re better than us,’ ” he said. “There’s no moral high ground here.”
Sometimes, even love doesn’t lead to an answer, Dunn said: “There’s much more intermarriage and dating between black groups than blacks and whites, but not all that much. I wouldn’t overstate the point.
“A Haitian wants his daughter to marry a Haitian. A Bahamian wants their daughter to marry a Bahamian. The reverse is also true. African American mothers tell their sons that Haitian girls are not clean.”
Detroit native Sunni Khalid learned that things were not so different in Africa when he interned at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1982. While walking to work one day, he saw Zeinab Said, a striking Somali, from across the street and followed her to work.
He quickly learned that like most Somalis, Said is extraordinarily proud of her heritage. It took everything he had learned of African history at Howard and Johns Hopkins universities to convince her that he could understand her more than most foreigners.
But that was only the first barrier the couple had to overcome. Said’s relatives, especially her brother-in-law, frowned on the affair, calling Khalid the son of a slave.
“They wanted me to marry a Somali,” she said. Soon, Somali men she did not know were knocking on her door. “I didn’t want to marry someone simply because he was a Somali,” Said said. The brother-in-law forbade Said’s sister from attending the wedding.
When Khalid and Said moved to Washington in 1983, she was startled to see so many black people in her new home. But she quickly discovered that they were not nearly as knowledgeable about Africa as her husband.
Once, Said mentioned to an African American woman that she is a Somali and had lived in Africa. When the woman asked, “Do you speak the ooga-booga language?” Said was startled. “What’s that?” Said asked.
She speaks three languages — Somali, Swahili and English — and at the time knew nothing of Tarzan movies, where such insulting characterizations of African language can be heard.
Meanwhile, Khalid had his own problems at Howard University. Black women he knew looked past his wife’s chocolate-colored skin and focused on her narrow nose, straight hair and thin lips. “Sunni has gone and married a white black woman,” he recalled a friend saying. He lowered his head for shame while recounting the story at his Baltimore home.
His wife stiffened with indignation. “What is a European feature?” she demanded. “What is an African feature? It is an insult to a Somali for someone to ask if you are half-Indian, the way African Americans do. I am not an Indian. I am not white. Only in America. When I walk in London, no one would mistake me for a Nigerian. They look at me and say, ‘You are Somali.’ It’s education, education, education!”
But little is taught of Africa or African Americans in U.S. schools, said Pierre, the anthropologist — an almost exclusive emphasis on white American and European history is a legacy of second-class citizenship that African Americans endure.
After arriving in America, masses of impoverished West Indians and Africans see a land of plenty — and don’t understand why black natives haven’t flourished. The immigrants don’t realize that black Americans were enslaved the longest, and that after emancipation, they lived under legal segregation.
What most African Americans know of black immigrants comes from foreign news accounts and Hollywood, Pierre said. She was hard pressed to recall a major motion picture about Africa — “Out of Africa,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “I Dreamed of Africa,” “Congo” — that was not set in the jungle.
“Think about it,” she said. “If you’re being bombarded by these images of poor, destituted countries, you don’t want to be associated with that. Think about Tarzan in Africa. You don’t want to be associated with all those people who were depicted as savages. All you know of Africa is primitives, war, destitution, hunger.”
Last year, Will Smith, the black American actor, traveled to Mozambique for the first time during the filming of “Ali.” “Everything I knew about Africa was a solid 80 percent false,” he told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “I was embarrassed when I realized there were tall buildings and Mercedes and big cities and fine women.
“I was so miseducated,” Smith said. “It has the best and worst of everything. It’s like God visits everywhere else, but he lives in Africa.”
Ethiopian Lily Assegid said Africans also stubbornly hold on to stereotypes. But as in Smith’s case, she said, they can fade away with time.
“When our parents came to this country in the 1950s,” Assegid said, “many of them went to white schools, the better schools, and didn’t interact with African Americans. What they were learning about African Americans was very prejudiced.
“But they didn’t see themselves as what they were hearing African Americans get called,” Assegid said. “They said, ‘No, no, no, we’re Ethiopians. We’re Africans. We’re different.’ They would go back home and spread these stories.”
Now, living in Washington, Assegid doesn’t believe a word her parents and others said. “As far as I’m concerned, African Americans are as much a part of Africa as a newborn child right now,” she said. “They’re a part of the people. The only difference is the culture they were born into. I believe that for all black people.