By Amanda J. Muhammad
Before coming to America, I never gave much thought to my race. However, the longer I am in the country the more I reflect on my race and my place in America.
Recently, I came to an understanding of Black History Month as a recognition not just of race, but also of black culture and American history. Therefore, when posed with the question of what Black History Month means to an immigrant, I thought it best to incorporate the voices of other black settlers from throughout the Caribbean and African to add value to this discussion.A brief awareness that arose from the inquiry in general is conveyed in this response: “I’m not clear what you’re looking for; what black history, my history or America’s?”
The answer is telling of the perspectives of black history from black outsiders. For many black immigrants, black history has two boundaries, the before and after arrival to America.
Another friend pondered the idea and asked, “Is it the black history of the black race from all parts of the world, but celebrated only in the United States?”
For many immigrants, black history, personal history and American history requires understanding that in America, blackness is both a race and an identity. For immigrants, their individual racial identity is less of a focus, and the cultures where we originate are dominant.
An African friend said, “As an immigrant who immigrated to the United States after the age of 21, I do not really feel the impact of the celebration of black history. I grew up in a country where my blackness is first and all. There is no ‘competing’ race or an issue of racism. As such, there was never a reason to feel subjugated because of my blackness; thus, no reason for a black history month.”
His statement reminded me that I never knew I was black before coming to America or that there might be something wrong with me as this “black” person. The need to reinforce that I mattered was not a concern until I encountered the overt and hidden impact of racism. However, the longer I am here, the more black history has come to mean to me.
Another awareness that resulted from this inquiry is that black history is an immigrant’s history, just as much as it is American history.
Another friend stated, “Since its inception, Haitian history has been a major part of black history. As a Haitian-American black woman … it is always with pride that I share the contributions of Haitians to the history of this country. The works of black civil rights activists allowed people like me to come, live and be a part of black history in the U.S. Ours is a symbiotic relationship that merits celebration more often than one month a year.”
Nonetheless, many black immigrants feel left out of Black History Month celebrations.
One remarked, “The core truth behind the celebration is based on the lives and labor of African-Americans whose voices deserve to be heard more than ever in a highly racialized country.”
In line with this thinking, an associate posed this question: “How can black diversity be included in the celebration of Black History Month?” This question is an indication that many immigrants, who arrived after the Jim Crow era, feel left out of black American culture.
This creates a divide that requires mending if we are to accomplish the fullness of Black History Month.
However, the consensus of many black immigrants is this: We respect the celebration of black history and appreciate the initiators of Black History Month, but inasmuch as all black history and equity are invoked, it falls short.
– Amanda J. Muhammad is an Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Textiles, Apparel and Merchandising at Indiana State University.