In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book “Americanah,” a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, comes to America and starts a blog about being a black person from another country. In one of her posts she writes, “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So, what if you weren’t black in your country? You’re in America now.”
As Adichie describes, black immigrants invariably arrive at their “moments of initiation” into the American blackness belief system.
So, when I met the director of the African Advocacy Network (AAN), at a small group workshop on the 2020 Census, I was keen to hear how he traversed the racial terrain with his foreign identity. Adoubou Traore is a tall man with piercing eyes and a passion for his work advocating for Africans in America.
Traore explained that as a black immigrant from the Ivory Coast, he is often forced to question existing notions of blackness in America. For one, he’s never sure what box to tick when he’s asked about his ethnicity on forms. The forms typically include a choice of black/African American or other races/ethnicities. But he’s neither. “There’s not one single box for Africans. How do you count us, who are not natives?” Traore asked, adding that forms usually provide distinctions among countries in Asia.
Traore came to America in 2000 on a Fulbright scholarship to “learn new English teaching techniques to take back home,” he said. He had grown up in the Ivory Coast, and developed a long-lasting love for the English language, graduating with a degree in English literature and linguistics and then getting his teacher’s credentials to teach English as a foreign language. Traore taught in a high school for many years before coming to San Francisco.
While at San Francisco State University, Traore began volunteering, confronting issues of African immigrants that no one else was addressing. “I’m most blessed to have my immigrant experience,” Traore said, adding how “concern for the community,” motivated him to volunteer, but it also helped him thread together a connection to people and cultures from other countries in Africa, whom he would not have gotten to know otherwise.
AAN, which shares office space with St. Anthony’s Church on Valencia street, provides immigration, legal and case management services to African and Afro Caribbean immigrants in The City, delivering its programs in ten languages from the African continent.
To the question: “what is it like to be a black immigrant in America?” Traore began by explaining how the black and black immigrant identities are layered one on top of the other. For black immigrants, the discrimination and fear that is usually part of the black experience is often internalized separately from the hostility and mistrust of the immigrant experience.
Blackness denies you certain privileges, and exposes you to uncomfortable situations. Cabs often don’t stop for black people, even in San Francisco, Traore said . He and his co-worker, who is white, tested this out, and it would later become a game for the two of them. Once, after a meeting that the two of them attended together, Traore tried to flag a cab and found to his consternation that they all sped by without stopping. But when he stepped back, his coworker was able to hail a cab easily. When the cab door opened, Traore rushed in, saying, “Sorry, man, you got to take me, too.”
Being refused simple services and then having to apologize for the imposition of our presence, “that’s part of being black,” Traore said. Black immigrants experience what “black people in America have been undergoing for centuries and at the same time you face all the other issues that other immigrants face,” he observed.
There are 4.2 million black immigrants in the United States, and about 600,000 are undocumented, according to Think Immigration, and yet this group is often left out of the larger immigration discussion.
In the year after Trump took office, between 2016 and 2017, while ICE reported that overall removals dropped, there was a spike (almost doubling) in the numbers of Africans deported back to their home countries.
The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) noted that “more than one out of every five noncitizens facing deportation on criminal grounds” is black and that black immigrants are “far more likely than any other population to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned in the U.S.
criminal enforcement system — the system upon which immigration enforcement increasingly relies.”
In order to deal with the problems of the African community, Traore argued that there needs to be a clear understanding of what the migration process entails. People belonging to different countries, cultures and religions from Africa must find a way to coalesce into one voice in America.
Traore believes he has found his identity by staying true to his cultural roots, and by enabling other African immigrants to navigate the expectations of the adopted country.
“Everything. Language, dress, gods, dance, habits, decoration, song—all of it cooked together in the color of my skin.” Who other than Toni Morrison can viscerally, in a few punctuated words, capture the essence of what Traore and millions like him are adopting and adapting to every day?
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan