This February, I challenge every immigrant in the country to attend or engage in at least one Black History Month activity each week. If you’re a person who would do this anyway, make a special effort to take another immigrant with you who would be less inclined without your invitation, pushing or cajoling.
There are so many reasons that immigrants need to know a lot about black history.
The relationship between black Americans and immigrants of every stripe has historically been touchy, and our alliances have been built against the best efforts of slave holders, corporations and politicians to maintain racial hierarchies that served white supremacy right up to, well, today. European immigrants in New York City rioted when they were drafted to fight for the Union in the Civil War, and Vijay Prashad has written eloquently in “The Karma of Brown Folk” about the ways in which South Asian immigrants have tried (fruitlessly) to identify with white folks, whom we were taught to see as the “real” Americans long before we ever arrived on these shores.
Second, today’s immigrants, with large numbers coming from Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Latin America, would not be here at all if it weren’t for the moral pressure of the Civil Rights Movement forcing changes in 1960s immigration policies.
Finally, in my own experience building multiracial organizations for 25 years, it is all too easy for black Americans to fall off the grid. People see other faces of color, and find it convenient not to notice that black people aren’t among them. While the modern racial justice discussion needs to reach beyond black and white, neither is it okay to just leave out the black.
For those of you who are readers, consider participating in the Facebook virtual book discussion of “The Warmth of Other Suns” that our Drop the I-Word campaign has launched. The virtual book club will meet over the next five weeks, in partnership with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” was the best piece of non-fiction I read last year. Journalist Isabel Wilkerson follows three black Southerners on their journeys West and North, giving us a picture of the enormous internal migration that black folks engaged over half a century. Black Americans are not immigrants—their entry into the United States was forced by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But the story of the Great Migration is about the descendants of enslaved people taking their destinies into their own hands. It didn’t solve all their problems, to be sure, but it did open up a space in American politics and culture that didn’t exist before the migration.
These migrants escaped Jim Crow—the segregation that ruled Southern life as whites reacted to Emancipation with new rules enabling the ongoing theft of black labor, the violence that controlled black communities and the institutional arrangements that made it impossible for black people to get their feet under them. Wilkerson places the Great Migration in the context of the pilgrims escaping religious persecution, the Irish escaping hunger, the Jews escaping Nazism and the Chinese escaping the implications of being landless. “What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were,” she writes. “They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”
Starting this week, people who care about dropping the i-word, of all colors and all ages will reading this book and discuss it online. The discussion will take place every Wednesday from 2 p.m. EST on the comment section of the Drop the I-Word Facebook page, which you can access by liking the page itself. If you’re not on Facebook, creating a profile is very easy. Ask the nearest 10-year-old to show you how.
And if this isn’t the way you want to celebrate Black History Month, there will be no dearth of resources to help you find a way that suits. Whatever that way, the important thing is that immigrants engage. We can only move forward on immigrant rights and racial justice with a clear and deep knowledge of how black communities have sustained themselves over a long time, against the greatest odds.