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.
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.
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.