The demographic shift in the African American community as a result of large numbers of recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean challenges us to re-think and re-define the African American story. There are those who argue that to be a “real” African American you have to have an ancestral link to American slavery. The authentic African American narrative, according to this point-of-view, is grounded in the experience of being an involuntary racial minority.
In contrast to this, most racial and ethnic groups in the United States have a voluntary minority narrative; they came here voluntarily, albeit under distressed circumstances, so that their frame-of-reference is that America provided relief from the economic, social or political problems in their land of origin.
While the traditional African American story has had an important place in the overall American narrative — challenging, as it did, how deep the commitment was in the United States to democratic principles, the stories of late 19th century and early 20th century immigrants have also had their places in the larger American story. The stories of voluntary immigrants helped to construct the image of the United States as a land of opportunity and improbable accomplishments.
This, in part, helps to explain skepticism with which the African American community initially viewed Barack Obama when he was running for president. The narrative that Obama wove into his speeches was an unfamiliar one for most African Americans; where black Americans were accustomed to a narrative that challenged whites to take down barriers that stood in the way of their full participation in American institutions, Obama spoke optimistically of how almost anything seemed possible in this country.
With the rise of populations of recent immigrants who now compose what might be called the “African American community,” black Americans are increasingly creating voluntary minority narratives of their own and increasingly have their own immigrant stories to tell. These stories are full of optimism. The frame-of-reference is shifting from a normative focus on racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws, which pointed out the irony of “American democracy,” to the poverty, exploitation, corruption, and oppression in other parts of the world, which has made the United States a refuge for the dispossessed.
Siraji Hassan is a member of the Pittsburgh Student Conservation Association (SCA) and has graduated from its Leadership in the Environment Advancement Program (LEAP). His story is an example of some of the newer narratives emerging out of African American communities today. It is very important to hear these new African American stories. Stories such as Siraji’s are now becoming part of the larger American story. This is Siraji’s story:
“Being an American means a lot to me because my people, the Somali-Bantu, have experienced many hardships. I once lived in a refugee camp, called Kakuma, and now I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I didn’t go to school in Kakuma, Now I attend Allderdice High School. I didn’t have a job in Kakuma, Now I work at the Student Conservation Association (SCA). It was hard for my family to make a living and we struggled for food. Now that my dad and I have jobs, we can support my family. Many of my friends here have gotten their citizenship and very soon, my parents will be taking their test. When I become a citizen, I will be able to get my U.S. passport and have the opportunity to return to Kenya. However, this time it will be different.
I left Kenya a refugee and I am returning as a Somali-American. And I am very proud of that. I will be able to see family members that I was sadly forced to leave behind.
One night in Somalia, I remember all the parents were sitting together. One man came to us and we all had to leave the country. He told us that there was going to be a big war, and that we had to leave as soon as possible. He said there were going to be bombs and shooting and we were going to be in danger.
When the bombs started exploding, my mother took me on her back, grabbed my brother and my sister, and left our house. My other brother was still there, but my mother returned to get him later. When she found him, our house had been destroyed. My mom grabbed all of us, and started running to safety. We later found other Somali Bantu families that were doing the same thing: Somali-Bantu walking, fleeing for their safety. Many people died walking. People starved, died of thirst, or were eaten by animals.
For three days, we all walked through the jungles and the deserts. By the last night, many people had died. We took as many people as we could along the way. When we started running out of water, we were forced to drink urine for us to survive. That last day, we finally saw a car driving through the desert, which was there to help the Somalis get across the border. They couldn’t drive us, but they told us to keep walking, and that we were close to Kakuma. On the third day, we reached the refugee camp and my mother started crying. The next several days we spent in the hospital. We were given ration cards for food and were given a house that we would live in for the next eight years. Finally, we received notice for an interview to come to the United States and my mother told me the story I just told.
This is why I am proud to be an American. Many of the Somali-Bantu know this story well, and experienced many of the same things my family and I did. But I can proudly say that I am here, and will soon call myself an American.”
(Reprinted from SCA 06/13/12)
C. Matthew Hawkins