Photo cred: Mike Segar/Reuters

On the heels of CNN’s latest installment of Black in America, many are engaging in conversations about what it really means to be black in the U.S.

While the show focused on colorism and how biracial individuals choose to identify themselves, Wayétu Moore, a Liberian-American writer, recently explored how immigrants from Africa became black Americans.

Moore began her essay exploring how Irish immigrants assimilated into American culture and became white, despite not being viewed as white when they first migrated to the U.S.

Moore writes:

In order to stand out from blacks economically, Irish immigrants had to monopolize their low-wage jobs and keep free Northern blacks from joining unions during the labor movement. And in order to disassociate socially, they had to consent to active participation in the oppression of the black race, embracing whiteness and the system that disenfranchised and justified an ungovernable hatred toward African-Americans. 

Ignatiev includes an 1843 letter from Daniel O’Connell: “Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice, saying, come out of such land, you Irishmen; or, if you remain, and dare countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer.”

The color of their skin saved them, but has also nearly obliterated a once vibrant cultural identity so that today I know no Irishmen. I have friends of Irish descent, former coworkers who mentioned the occasional Irish grandfather or associates who gesture toward familiarity of the lost heritage over empty pints on St. Patrick’s Day — but the Irishmen are now white, and the Irishmen are now gone.

Moore details her experience of moving from Liberia in 1990 when she was five-years-old and successfully assimilating into African-American culture. Not because she consciously wanted to, but because that is how everyone else saw her–as black.

She explains:

Like a small percentage of Liberians, my recent ancestors were descendants of American slaves. A reverend by the name of June Moore immigrated to Liberia with his wife Adeline Moore in 1871. After settling in Arthington, Liberia, Wallace Moore, one of June’s and Adeline’s three sons, had a son named David Moore, who had a son named Herbert Moore, who had a son named Augustus Moore Sr. — my father. 

But growing up in America as a black or white person encourages the abandonment of such history and the adoption of “black” or “white” American culture as one’s own. Despite my Liberian heritage, my interactions outside of my house during my developmental years took place as though I were, culturally, an African-American — not an African. From first grade through high school, I received an American public-school education in which all mentions of people who looked like me were African-American. I took ownership of the culture because otherwise, I did not exist.

While other immigrants to the U.S. are always somehow seen as “foreign,” Moore writes that African and other black immigrants can “pass” into African-American culture, like Irishmen into white culture.

But despite being seen as African-American by the wider world, Moore acknowledges that she, like many other black immigrants, experienced bullying by the same community they were most associated with. The name-calling, the stereotypes, and the images most often associated with Africa (disease, poverty, war) were often hurled at her, but for Moore and many black immigrants, “The easiest avenue for assimilation into American culture, for young black immigrants, is the assimilation into African-American culture.”

So she did.

Although she’s assimilated into black American life, Moore recognizes that many of her compatriots have a more difficult time and would benefit from making their voices heard in the immigration debates. But with African immigrants comprising just three-percent of the total immigrant population, many — with their diverse languages and needs — have a tough time advocating for their cause, especially considering so much of the resources (and support) is geared toward Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Still, Moore argues that black immigrants from the diaspora have meaningful contributions to make to the immigration debate, if only America recognized it.

  • http://twitter.com/FrenchieGlobal Frenchie (@FrenchieGlobal)

    Interesting POV. That article would be substantially different if written by a non-English speaking black immigrant from a country without close ties to the U.S. like Liberia. i can’t help but think the author’s Liberian background helped her more easily embrace AA culture than other immigrant groups. for ex: that very same article may look different if I wrote it as a Haitian immigrant from Miami, a place with historical tensions between AA’s and black immigrants.

  • Kacey

    This is interesting and hits home for me. My entire family is from the West Indies and, while we consider ourselves “black” (as in, of black African descent), those who live in the U.S. vehemently deny being labelled as African Americans.

    I’ve struggled with this and even argue with a cousin of mine about it. On documents that specifically say “African American” (and not “Black or African American”, or just “Black”) my cousin chooses “Other” and will write “Black” or “Black Caribbean” or some such thing. I’ve always opposed it because I think it doesn’t get her anywhere by doing that, and especially since we grew up here and are, largely, assimilated into the culture. But, on the other hand, I do believe there are significant cultural differences and I understand her need to not abandon that (for lack of better words). She also married another West Indian and now that they have children she feels even stronger about maintaining this identity.

    I don’t think my cousin is trying to disavow association with black Americans, but I know other black immigrants who do not identify as “African Americans” just for that reason. I know 2nd and 3rd generation black immigrants who, though being born and raised here, still do not identify as African Americans.

    Some recent immigrants are prejudiced against African Americans, either from the images they saw of them when they were “back home” or because of the way they were treated by them when they got here. The author of the referenced piece mentioned the fact that black immigrants are often bullied, teased or otherwise mistreated by our American counterparts and I can attest to that being true.

    But, personally, I choose not to self-segregate as I don’t think it changes the way I’m treated by non-black who don’t know the difference or don’t care. To a racist we’re all just n*ggers anyway…I guess.

  • RJ

    I really would love it if all people who come here to the United States would hold on to their culture – it makes life so much more interesting when people are able to share their unique perspective with others.

    Now I wish American Black culture would free itself from the clutches of white america and white wannabes. lol

  • IslandgirlDesi

    Good ariticle and interesting POV as it has me thinking back to a time when I questioned who I was. I’m from St. Croix, US V.I and was told growing up I was West Indian and if anyone ask, that is the answer I should give. My father is from Dominica and my mom is from Grenada, both grew up speaking french and english. My parents were often described as dougla or coolie but when we immigrated to the US, we were considered black. Growing up I would ask my parents what I was and they would always tell me I was West Indian, “a correlation of many races”. My father is indian & chinese while my mother is mixed with indian. There are so many shades and variation within my family we joke who took after the asian side and who didn’t. As I got older I didn’t really think anything about it or what others categorized me as until I went to college. I was exposed to many cultures, many races and I saw in others what I saw in myself and my family. I began to question who I really was in terms of my race, it was a great divide with some of my friends. I had one group of friends tell me I was this while others say no, you are in america, so you are african american. IMO, I think the reason for the issues we have in “labeling” ourselves is becauses of the oppression from so long ago. So much of our history has been eluded from us, so much of who we are has been degraded through negative images. All I know is for me, I’m a black women whose ancestors/ancestory spans the globe. My origins consist of many races all of which I correlate into being black. I choose to identify with those I feel most similar to me, much of what the other has stated in the article.

  • SAMURAI36

    Pardon me for saying so, but this POV is more or less BS.

    For one thing, if you live in a big city like NY or Boston, then you know fully well that Irish people exist. Also, what’s this nonsense that Irish people basically played into anti-Black racism by circumstance? Irish people are some of the most racist white people I’ve ever encountered. Furthermore, Irish culture is thoroughly engrained as a part of white culture. It’s not separate in the least.

    Regarding Africans, once again, I don’t know where the author migrated to in America, but when you live in the big cities (NY, DC, etc) then the African presence is quite prevalent.

    You can’t live in these rinky-dunk towns in Boonyville, USA, and expect to have a diversified POV.

    Thus, these articles mean absolutely nothing to me.

  • Barbara2

    It’s very interesting to read that perspective from a Liberian. I had always thought of the Blacks who migrated from America to Liberia as being one of us. Some Black Americans migrated (escaped slavery) and went to Canada as well. I still think of them as being a part of the Black American family, since they were a part of Amerian slavery.

  • Tonton Michel

    A very good read but I disagree with the use of race here, the Irish are just as white ass the original colonists they were just from a different ethnic group same as black immigrants. The only way you avoid assimilation into a dominant group is by being part of a large close group your self. Enclaves like Little Haiti or a Chinatown helps keep culture and identity strong. Most black immigrants don’t have that number and thus have no voice. I remember reading that New York has a large population from Ghana that they elected their own Chief for just New York. I doubt they have identity issues.

  • Anon

    I can definitely relate to this since my parent is from, born in, West-Central Africa. They told me that they didn’t identify as black until they came to the U.S.; however, when I was in high school they began to back away from identifying as such and even ridiculed me for doing so, even though my other parent is African-American.

    My African side of the family also has some of this repatriated (back to Africa) ancestry, they call it Krio. The Krio intermarried with other repatriated peoples of west-central coast Africa such as the Americo-Liberians mentioned in the article, as well as with other indigenous families. Some of these Creole/Krios (those with bloodlines from the Americas, and/or black Europeans) lost those non-African identities and became more indigenous in identity and name sake, as did my recent Krio ancestor. However there were many things about my ancestor that screamed ‘American’.

    I am American, but I was born abroad, then immigrated here with my parents (well, returning home with my American parent). We faced some of the same stigmas from outsiders and those in my American parent’s family – all the booty scratcher mess. When I was a kid, I fought both white and black kids over those things directed at me. If it wasn’t the ignorant comments, it was the treatment of kids expecting me to let them boss me around as if I was lesser than them. To be let in a group, I had to allow them to treat me like trash and talk down about where ‘my parent’ was from. Although I was born in Europe, but I still faced the same prejudice since I was their child.

  • Cara Lee

    My mom made it a point when I was growing up to encourage me to identify as “African-American.” Unfortunately, I learned very quickly when arrived for freshmen orientation at a premier HBCU that Africans/Jamaicans/Haitians and other groups belonging to the African diaspora have NO interest in being associated with Black Americans. As a matter of fact, they made it a point to not only let me know that we were not the same, I had no right to affix “African” to my Americanism. None were more outspoken about this than my African classmates.

    My African and West Indian classmates would constantly point to the fact that descendants of African and West Indian immigrants traditionally perform better academically and amass wealth more quickly than their Black American counterparts as proof of their superiority. To them Black American students were lazy, entitled, nuisances. This argument, of course, glosses over the fact that without the struggle for civil equality that many Black Americans fought and died for there’d be no opportunities for other immigrant groups here in the United States.

    I have no desire to force assimilation on anyone. I’m more than proud to be the descendant of Slaves. “Black” as it occurs in America is a hybrid of the many ethnic groups that have shaped american history. It is uniquely American as I have no foreign land that I would ever call home (like those of you from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Haita, and St. Croix). Feel free to check whatever damn box makes you happy.

  • omfg

    it’s pretty rich – people at an hbcu not wanting to be associated with black americans?

    well get out of our schools. do they not know the history of these places?

    please, by all means, these people should disassociate and, btw, also refrain from marking “black” on college applications and any other self-identifiers where being “black” might be an “advantage.”

    having said that, i have no problem with people wanting to maintain their culture. but, spitting on the people who have built the bridge that is helping you get where you want to be is not cool at all.

    i think your brethren need a better history lesson. those hbcus are not doing their job of educating these morons.

  • http://www.gallimaufry.ws T.

    There was a time in America when Irish people were considered to be not really white, and where people would put up signs saying, “No Irish allowed.” They haven’t always been “thoroughly engrained as a part of white culture”, particularly in the USA (and even in England Irish people were often seen as inferior to Anglo-Saxons and the English). So the article is about how they did become integrated into that culture and what parts of their Irish identity/culture they had to suppress in order to achieve that integration. And the parallel is with what parts of their identity/culture/traditions African immigrants have to suppress in order to better integrate with African-American culture. It seems quite clear to me.

  • http://gravatar.com/naijagrl naijagrl

    I’m Nigerian, and while I understand the sentiment of not associating as an African American, simply because I do not have that history. I feel like I do not have a right to say I’m African American, simply because I do not have that history of enslaved ancestors.

    However, I do not understand those immigrant students who feel the need to tell you that you are not African. That is stupid and uneducated, but please do not make that assumption about all Africans. And I apologize on the behalf of knowledgeable and smart Africans

    I think that both groups make assumptions about each other: African immigrants and African Americans make assumptions about each other alike. But assumptions on both sides are hurtful.

    As for “omfg” a useful discussion does not begin or is not helped by calling people morons…I hope that both sides actually gain perspective through experience and interaction that is the backbone of the American Immigrant experience. That interaction is better than accusations and assumptions. I can only apologize for the bad experiences you might have had.

  • Kay

    There are many perspectives that immigrants of African descent both bring with them and collide with on American shores. Many of my friends are Haitian American, from various countries in Africa or from places like Belize and Costa Rica. For them, the culture shock was tremendous. They felt like fish out of water, but were assumed to be culturally the same as African-Americans. One of my friends, a Haitian American, was told by a White teacher, “You don’t celebrate Kwanzaa? But you’re Black?!” As if the traditions we have here would mean the same to her.

    Many of my friends speak languages like French and Spanish and were on the receiving end of cultural prejudice from many African-Americans here who either saw them as backwards (even though many hailed from elite schools abroad) or thought they were “stuck-up.” But their communities also dished out a load of stereotypical thinking about African-Americans too. Many of them were told to marry within their own communities because American Blacks were violent, stupid or too sexually available. I’ve been told my some of my friends’ families that I don’t seem “American,” and when I press them they would say, “You know….you’re just not like THEM.” *rolls eyes* Luckily, my friends are far more progressive than some older members of their families. I’m also surprised the crazy way White Americans treat African Americans vs. Foreign people of African descent wasn’t mentioned either.

    Many of my friends have encountered the “well, you’re not really AMERICAN Black, so you’re okay.” I’ve experienced this myself when a White colleague heard me speaking Spanish and was like “Are you from a different country? Where are your parents from?” When I let her know I was born and bred in the U.S. she quickly dismissed me and went about her business. I’ve been told by other people who had no idea I was American (my real name sounds a bit foreign) they tell me “Well, I don’t have a problem with the Blacks who come here. They’re hardworking. It’s these American Blacks that are a problem.” It usually gives me great pleasure to point out that I’m actually one of those “American Blacks.” Nevertheless, I would love to these dynamics explored.

  • Kay

    If you look at the Irish historically, like T. pointed out, they were not seen as White. Their Whiteness was a political process that began sometime around the early 20th century. There have been cases where Irish and Blacks have banded together to fight corrupt business owners, they often lived in the same areas of the city as both Blacks and the Irish were excluded from living in certain areas. Hell, there was even a ton of intermixing going on, which is why a large segment of the African American population have Irish surnames.

    Whiteness is actually a pretty recent invention. Before then, there was a sort of spectrum of White ethnic groups, with individuals from countries like Poland and Italy being at the far end of “questionable Whiteness,” and the Irish being excluded all together and being deemed the “swarthy race,” and the “Blacks of Europe.”

  • Cara Lee

    This —> “I feel like I do not have a right to say I’m African American, simply because I do not have that history of enslaved ancestors.” No, thank you.

    Bemused condescension aside, I think this article will likely encourage a much needed discourse.

  • Amy

    @Cara Lee I don’t think that naijagirl meant it in that way. Yes, Africans were colonized but at least, they weren’t snatched away from their families whereas the African slaves that were deported were surrounded by white people and faced segregation and racism all the time. They were stripped off their cultural identity. In that sense, it’s true, we don’t have the same history.

  • Amy

    It’s just like when white people tell me that I’m not like some African people. Yes, we’re all black but each group has prejudices. If I lived in the US, I wouldn’t identify as African American also because there are so many things about African American culture that I don’t know and like or not, we have different mentalities. I don’t know why some people can’t understand that. I have cousins who were born in the US but raised in West Africa. When they went back to the US, they had that culture shock. Kids were mean to them because they identified as Africans. Then what happened was that they pretended they could not understand our native language anymore. Now they only speak English and have assimilated well in AA culture. Well they are American citizens. I just hope they’re not ashamed of their roots.

  • Amy

    It’s just like when white people tell me that I’m not like some African people. Yes, we’re all black but each group has prejudices. I have cousins who were born in the US but raised in West Africa. When they went back to the US, they had that culture shock. Kids were mean to them because they identified as Africans. Then what happened was that they pretended they could not understand our native language anymore. Now they only speak English and have assimilated well in AA culture. Well they are American citizens, so it’s a good thing. I just hope they’re not ashamed of their roots.

  • Anthony

    I teach a lot about this sort of thing. It is important to know that white and black only make sense if two groups that see themselves as white and black are in contact with each other. No one talks about black on black crime in Nigeria and white skin privilege means nothing in Belarus or Ukraine.

    Unfortunately racism is world wide because of the reach of the media and adoption of imperialist values by those who want to emulate Western “success.”

  • Zan

    I agree with this too: “I understand the sentiment of not associating as an African American, simply because I do not have that history.”

    As a Jamaican, if I migrated to (not grow up in) America, I’d want to take my culture, my patois, my food with me- the same way I see many other ethnic groups bring their culture to the melting pot that is America. (Adapting is not equal to adopting).

    The Black American experience is not my own. I don’t even know winter.

    So I get it when people feel like people are broad-brushed into one category simply by skin colour and not by ethnicity/culture. And though there are commonalities- the culture, the expressions, the language even, is different. And people kind of feel they have to hold on tighter than normal to those subtle differences.

  • Kam

    My parents are West Indian and I don’t identify as African American, but this isn’t because I hate African Americans it’s because I see African American as a culture more than a race, and it’s simply not my culture. The neighborhood I was raised in was primarily West Indian and Latino. I was not raised with African American culture and cannot identify with something that is not my culture. I don’t know what’s so hard to understand that I’m Black but of a different culture. Why is it so threatening that I’m different?

  • Kam

    “This argument, of course, glosses over the fact that without the struggle for civil equality that many Black Americans fought and died for there’d be no opportunities for other immigrant groups here in the United States.”

    Honestly Black people, wherever you are you all really need to learn that immigrants struggled right alongside Black Americans. I’m not even gonna give you all the links because this is something you need to research yourself. Furthermore learn about the global movements that happened within the African diaspora. I’m tired of seeing this lie perpetuated.

    I had more to write, but honestly I don’t even see the point of wasting my breath on this topic. It’s useless.

  • Love Sosa

    We are all Black/African. anything added after is your culture.

    I’ve never been to Africa, but I consider us all to be from the same race.

    Our cultures are different and that can’t be changed. African American cultures are different depending where you grow up in America.

  • Travis

    So that abandones their African culture, assimilated into this madness we can African-American culture and that’s a good thing?!?!?! Africans immigrant out perform African-Americans academically in most accounts and them taking up African-American culture is a good thing. How confused we are.

  • Adrienne McAllister

    Your comment that “immigrants struggled right alongside Black Americans” is an attempt to distort African American’s history of the civil rights struggle for equality.

    The civil rights movement began on American soil (the south) and was spearheaded by African Americans who became tired of being lynched, killed, disenfranchised at the hands of racist whites.

    It cannot be denied that immigrants strugged, particularly those who lived on American soil during this time of unrest, but you need to stop trying to undermine the role that African Americans played “in the global movements within the African diaspora” and how African Americans were at the forefront of this movement.

    The global movemnents throughout the African diaspora were fueled by the civil rights movement that African Americans were at the forefront of in the US. Blacks in African diaspora were encouraged to throw off the shackles of colonialisms and fight for their own independence because of what African Americans were struggling against. In actuality, African American’s struggles became the catalyst that ignited the struggle throughout the African diaspora.

    I’m tired of foreign Blacks who often boast of their economic and academic accomplishments in the US while making disparging remarks of African American supposed lack of accomplishment. You ignore the fact that within the African diaspora, even in your land of birth, there still remains extreme poverty, ignorance and extreme lack among the masses, and the nations are still under the control of colonialism.

    I’m curious,what disparaging adjective do you use to describe those who are unable to come to the US for a better life? Do you consider them lazy, unmotivated? In your haste to look down on AM you fail to grasp this reality when you come to the US and are able to prosper that you do so because of what was accomplished by AA.

    As a African American who grew up during the struggle for equality, having had uncles killed at the hands of whites, there is no amount of “links” you profess to have that will attempt to re-write history. You need to continue with your unbiased research.

    Why are you angry about this fact?

  • Wong Chia Chi

    I support black unity but that doesn’t mean monolith. Unfortunately these ethnic divisions are commonplace in all racial groups. There are ethnic divisions in Europe and in Asia.

    I just hope that we respect one another enough to appreciate these differences because in the US at least we have common interests and a menace that targets all of us equally regardless of our national/ethnic origin. That is what is important to remember.

    We can joke and debate but I’ll steal from the Hunger Games here ” Remember who the enemy is.”

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