Immigrant

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Denisio and Mwende / Guest Photographer / New Orleans / Our Closet

Photos by Phrozen Photographyunspecified-9
Post Soundtrack: Immigrant (Sade)

The Treme (St. Augustine Church): The community of Treme can be described as colorful, vibrant, creative, strong, & diverse. Formally known by the French as Faubourg Treme this community is named after Claude Treme the Frenchmen who sold the land to the city of New Orleans so they could build sub divisions and sale plots for housing behind the much crowded French Quarters.  Treme was special from the start. From its inception Treme residents attracted a diverse group of residents such as Africans, Europeans, Haitian Creoles and Free people of color. Treme is the oldest African American neighborhood in the nation. The homes in Treme are truly unique ranging in style, size and color. From the creative womb of Treme and the Free Women of Color who resided and owned property there the Treme neighborhood  created and influenced many art forms in music, fashion, literature,  food, arts, dance and many more. Where else would I bring these two creative forces to capture their essence? While in Treme among the homes & culture built by Africans we were our natural and beautiful selves. I believe their energy connected with the space and place to create Noirlinian magic…

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St. Augustine Church is simplistic and beautiful. It stands tall among the historic homes of Treme as a symbol of the importance of the spirit. The church was built in the 1840’s by free people of color and it is proudly the oldest African American catholic parish in the nation. The church membership at its origin composed of both black and white members.  The members who were free people of color in turn purchased pews for the enslaved Africans so they could have a place to worship in the house of worship. This church and her members has been one of the foundational blocks against discrimination and a safe space for women as it was the site of worship and work for the Sisters of the Holy Family a group of black women who established an order of nuns who legacy of service, care and education is still impacting the New Orleans community to this day.

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 Noirlinians took photos at the front door as the sun shined on us. I watched as the beautiful cloth & skin tones of the models, the white paint on the brick of the building, the marble at the base of the entrance and the old wooden  rustic door all came together to create a new diverse beauty and some awesome images.  Only in Treme Baby!! 

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I struggled in how I would capture them in the space of The Tomb of the Unknown Slave. This site serves as a memorial built by the St. Augustine Church dedicated to the memory of the unknown Africans who were taken into slavery and who died within slavery and was buried in a disrespectful fashion and manner.

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It is also serves as reminder that the land of Treme was a land that Africans were enslaved on. They lived, bleed, sweat, cried and died on the land that we were walking on. Noirlinians took their shoes off out of respect and took photos at the site. All of us models and photographer were from different places of Africa. They Noirlinians have a direct heritage and connection to Africa and I am a descendant from Africans who were enslaved who passed down their connection to their home land in song, dance and speech yet here we were all connected and one to the land of Treme.  Our collective remembrance of our ancestor’s stories and recognition of their pain & triumph is important and necessary. 

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DENISIO TRUITT

PANTS are from the Noirlinians collection…coming to an innanet near you! CARDIGAN is a vintage 1970’s Saks Fifth Avenue number i found in a random thrift store. SHOES were a gift from a clothing swap in DC back in the day.

HAIR was an attempt at stretching my little fro without heat. The shrinkage is real!!! HOOPS are an old reliable for me, I easily have like 10 pairs.

Denisio: While I’ve always felt like an unwanted houseguest in this country, I myself am not an immigrant. I posses a privilege that many of my friends and family members born outside of the US do not. I am an on-paper citizen, born in a small town in Colorado to a Black American father and a Liberian mother. That is not to say that immigration and the plight of those residents who are undocumented is not known to me. I have close family members who have had run-ins with immigration because this or that visa expired or this paperwork wasn’t submitted. I have had two close friends who came to this country as young children deported to countries they could barely remember. One was due to a clerical error and she was luckily able to return and finish school. The other eventually made her way to Germany where she now lives happily.

This post focuses primarily on the closest immigrant in my life, my mother. We’ve never really talked about her move to America when she was 20 years old. In fact, we don’t talk about about much of anything prior to my birth. African mothers have a knack for treating the past and questions about it as though in a box tucked away on the high shelf of a forgotten closet. Inconvenient. Too much of a hassle to access.

One of the few sharp, in focus memories my mother has of emigrating is the cold dry air outside the glass doors of JFK international airport. It was colder than any air conditioning she had experienced in Liberia. And impossibly dry, nothing like the thick soupy air of Liberia that is equal parts intoxicating and stifling. The moment the arctic blast hit her face it knocked her breath out and stung her cheeks. She quickly turned on her heels, heading back towards the terminal. She thought she had made a huge mistake.

Prior to arriving in New York in the 80’s my mother had never been to the United States. She met my father when he was a young handsome soldier touring West Africa with army buddies, herself a beauty queen fresh out of high school. They fell hard and married only after a few months of knowing each other much to the chagrin of my grandfather. My father got a job with the UN and they decided to stay in Liberia, renting a place just a few blocks from the house she grew up in.

It’s important in telling the story of my mother’s immigration to switch gears for a bit and tell you a little bit about the history of Liberia, which in itself is an immigration story. It is a story that many Liberians try to avoid in polite conversation. And rightfully so, it is a past that I find myself uncomfortable discussing. It is a story that spurned 14 years of war, nearly 1 million deaths, and left an entire generation lost. Liberia was in fact a project of the American Colonization Society. In trying to find a way for freed black Americans in the 19th century to own land and thrive, they devised a plan to send colonies of Black Americans to “uninhabited” territories in West Africa for the purpose of cultivating the land and creating towns. Between 1822 and 1862 over 15,000 black freed men and women and 3,198 Afro-Carribeans immigrated to what is now Monrovia. In 1847 The Republic of Liberia was founded and Joseph Roberts became the first president on January 3, 1848.

Of course, the problem with “uninhabited” land is that they are rarely uninhabited. Prior to The Mayflower of Liberia (yes, it was actually called that) arriving to the coast there were 14 known tribes living in what is now Liberia. My mother and her family are from one of those tribes, the Kru. Our people were indigenous to the land long before buildings and churches were erected, most likely arriving around the 12th century. We practiced our own religions, ate our traditional food and lived relatively undisturbed safe for the conflicts and wars between tribes.

The American blacks who were just beginning to survey the land soon discovered that the love of liberty which brought them there (the official motto on Liberia’s coat of arms)  had also brought these 14 tribes speaking over 30 different languages hundreds of years before. I suspect many of the tribes were not fond of these new immigrants, men and women who looked liked them but dressed, talked, and ate like white men. I also suspect that many of the American and Caribbean Blacks had their own reservations about these indigenous tribes, tribes whom they probably believed sold their ancestors to white men bound for the West Indies and the Colonies (a major oversimplification of what really occurred during the Atlantic Slave Trade). Many of the indigenous people did not accept nor ascribe to these knew laws, these new and strange Gods, this divvying up of lands that they were once free to farm and inhabit.

So the new black colonists came to a rather surprising but sobering decision, one that proves the insidious nature of imperialism and white supremacy. They saw these inhabitants of the land they believed was their manifest destiny, they saw these people, my mother’s people, as savages. Relegated these many tribes and languages and customs to a singular derogatory term. “Bush” people.  “Country” people. They classified themselves as Americo-Liberias, or “Congo People” as the native Liberians would later call them to emphasize their otherness. They created a caste system, with mulattoes and mixed race blacks at the top and natives at the bottom. The Americo-Liberians determined that it was their duty to attempt to “civilize” the indigenous people. When that proved to be impossible, they fought them. Made them domestic servants known as houseboys and housegirls. They took their children as wards, apprentices, and  household companions for their own children in the hopes of “civilizing” the younger generations and erasing their tribal ways. The men took newly minted women as “country wives” in addition to their own wives. The Americo-Liberians became eerily similar the very people they escaped from in the Americas.

As the colony progressed over decades the oppression of Liberia’s original inhabitants become more nuanced. The Americo-Liberians intermarried with the natives and the differences became increasingly more difficult to distinguish. Yet for some the tension between native and foreigner never fully dissipated. Like the muted, incessant beating of a heart beneath tissue and bone it remained well entrenched through Liberia’s golden age when my father first saw my beautiful native mother. It was not uncommon for Americans and specifically black Americans to find themselves in Liberia back then. In the 60’s and 70’s Liberia was affectionately known as “Little America” and was the premiere country in Africa for Americans to vacation. Back then the coast was dotted with luxury beach resorts, nightclubs and fine restaurants.

The bliss that my mother and father had  in  the Little America era of Liberia was short lived. In 1980, a native Liberian Army Sergeant from the Khran Tribe by the name of Samuel Doe led a coup d’etat to overthrow the Liberian Government, murdering well loved Americo-Liberian president William Tubman and many of his elected officials. The country began to unravel in chaos. No longer feeling safe, especially with my father being a Black American (and thus resembling a lot of Americo-Liberians) they left for the United States.

I often imagine what my mother’s first impressions of America must have been as she claims to not remember much from that very first day other than the coldness of the air. So instead I try to picture the young woman I see in photos, tall and impossibly beautiful, being picked up from the airport by my father’s baby sister. I imagine my mother sitting quietly behind my father half listening to two siblings chatting away while watching the cityscape roll past, all stone and slate and tall enough to block the sky. She finds the old stately buildings similar to the architecture of downtown Monrovia but without the tropical foliage and parks full of palms. When they got out of the car my mother must have found the streets to be dirty. Not like the dried clay that kicks up everywhere you drive in Liberia but rather trash, unknown murky puddles, and that stale piss mixed with garbage smell.
After visiting family in New York and North Carolina, my mother and father settled in Denver, Colorado. They lived in a tiny apartment in a complex which coincidentally housed two other Liberian families. My mother would later meet and know this rather large and close-knit community of West African immigrants who moved to Colorado because of the low cost of living and education. I imagine that it began with just one lone family who made the trek to the mile high state and phoned friends in family back in Liberia to spread the word.

In addition to her new Liberian family my mother befriended another immigrant, a Filipino woman named Herminia. While my father was stationed in Korea this woman cared for my pregnant mother as though she were her daughter. She taught her how to make lumpia rolls and fried rice, something my mom would treasure for years. They ate barbecue and talked about their homelands and what they missed the most. There is a single photo of the two of them and the only surviving evidence that my mother was ever pregnant with me. In it my mother looks about 7 or 8 months along, a raglan sleeve shirt stretched taught over her round belly. To me, she always seemed to look sad in the picture. Herminia is in the shadowy background, a small brown older woman with long wavy black hair, smiling brightly. There are gifts and streamers everywhere presumably a shower for my mother.

Some 16 years after emigrating to the US, after a difficult separation from my father, moving to Maryland and having to become caretaker to her ailing mother, my mom swore to a judge that she would uphold the constitution and officially became a documented American citizen. I was in middle school at the time and she in college. She was the first of her siblings to receive citizenship aside from her older sister who received diplomatic immunity from her job. They threw her a small party and I believe there was cake and jokes about my mother being “a real American” in pretend American accents. In the process of writing this post, I asked her if becoming a citizen was important to her or significant and she said no. It didn’t make her feel any different about America or special or even more American. The only reason she went through with it was because she didn’t want Bob Dole to win in the ’96 Presidential election. She believed Clinton would do right by people who looked like her and would continue to do so in a second term. The process was easier for her as she was still married to my father. She simply took a test and paid a fee, while this process would later prove to be more difficult for members of my family without American born children or spouses.

Whatever my mother’s first impressions of America were there is one sentiment in which she is unwavering. There was never a point in her life here where she didn’t want to return to Liberia. She loved my father’s family, their sweet Black southern ways and she loved my father and even when that ended she loved parts of her life here. But there was something about America, something beneath it all that felt foreign and hostile, not home. When I asked her if she found it weird that I’ve always felt the same way about America even growing up here she said “no, because you’re not American, you’re Liberian.” I agreed. I consider myself Liberian even though I’m only half but at times it feels disingenuous because I’m not really from Liberia, which I expressed. She doubled down. “No, you’re Liberian. You were raised in a Liberian household. You come from a strong lineage of Kru people. You’re either Liberian or you’re not and you are definitely Liberian.” No ifs, ands, or halfs about it. I love my mom.

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MWENDE KATWIWA

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SHIRT: Made by Denisio for DOPEciety PANTS: From the upcoming Noirlinians store!

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CAPE THING: I can’t remember where this came from, but I had it altered recently with kitenge print..be on the lookout for it in another shoot 😀

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BRACELETS: All from Kenya. My cousin Collins made the beaded ones with me name(s) on it

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TATTOO: Was done by Ceaux Young and reads “Is it Kind? Is it True? Is it Necessary?” .. and if what you want to say doesn’t pass through those three gates of speech, then don’t say it!

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MwendeThere’s a particular, limiting way we talk about (contemporary) immigration in the United States. In this telling, migrant narratives are only housed in the parched throats of those who came to this country undocumented from Mexico, Latin America or South America poor and in search of “The American” Dream, only to often be marginalized to low wage, dehumanizing work. The other most common telling of immigrants to the US involves those who have already achieved their dreams (or had them gift wrapped at birth) and attained some high privilege or social class in their home nations (government officials, wealthy in a way I do not how to describe,  notable elders etc) coming to or being invited to the United States to chose opportunities that their wealth provides them, regardless of where they come from.

America, we’re told is a “Nation of Immigrants”. A place welcoming to any and all people who want to better themselves and become “Great” like America itself.

Mainstream America will have you believe tha the reality of immigration is somewhere in between – that anyone, regardless of social status, can come to the United States and achieve “The American Dream”, without an interrogation of what that phrase actually means, and which immigrants have access to this dream, let alone enough rest in between odd jobs. In reality, the lived experiences of immigrants in this nation are both within and outside, but rarely aligned with the binary that this nation sets up. While I have known immigrants who fit into the above binary (I swear there was a point in my life where I started to get salty at my family because half the Africans I knew were descendants of chiefs and taking vacations to Dubai. This was last year lol), most never quite do and more often than you’d think, the opposite is true.

I’ve known the immigrant who was wealthy/well educated/well respected/well paid in their home country who now can’t find work in their field and are working in fast food or driving taxis (Low key 3478927429494 of my aunties in the US are nurses). I’ve known the immigrant who was begging on their streets in their home nation until they came to the US and became successful.

But mostly, I’ve known and lived the life of the immigrant in the in between.

The constant retelling of the single stories of immigration in the US erase the not-so-distant history of white immigrants and overshadows the lived realities of countless immigrants whose lives don’t fit so neatly into the immigrant dichotomy this nation presents. It conveniently houses immigration, especially the kind deemed social unacceptable* in walls made of Black and brown skin and then calls their foundations faulty. 

I also not-so-low-key hate it when people refer to the United States as a nation of immigrants as if:

1. Native Americans, ie, those who are indigenous to this land no longer exist
2. A majority of Black people in the United States are the descendants of people who were enslaved and stolen from their land and forcibly brought to the United States (despite what Ben Carson may think…)

I think, a more accurate description of America would be “a nation of conquerors” or “a nation of explorers who apparently didn’t know the fundamentals of exploring (shoutout to Christopher Columbus)” or”a nation that has mastered the art of global nationalist propaganda” or “a nation that manifested its destiny and became “great” thorough exploitation, enslavement and displacement” or “a nation of the descendants who exploited, enslaved and displaced yet have no memory of it and can’t seem to see how that impacts them today” or “a nation that got me fucked up” but I digress.

This isn’t about America’s immigration story, its about my immigration story to and in America.

Growing up in the United States with an accent and the name ‘Mwende Kalondu Katwiwa’, my otherness was immediately present to Americans of all sorts, regardless of skin color. I was constantly reminded that though I was in this country, I was not of it, and that this somehow made me less than (because why else would we have left to come to the US if it wasn’t better than where we came from?). I expected this othering from white folks who I could clearly see were not like me, but as a child, I honestly didn’t understand the differences between me and the Black people I saw in this country. I just thought they were other Africans who had been in America longer (and if you really think about it … I wasn’t wrong).

Because I could literally see myself reflected in people around me, it felt strange to be considered foreign (I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to immigrate to a nation where Blackness is not so visible in the country’s culture).  Most Black folks in the U.S. that I came across during childhood were not into exploring and identifying with their African roots, and made efforts to distance themselves from all things African due to the shame and stigma attached to the ‘single story’ of Africa. In addition, even though everyone knew I wasn’t from the US, no one was calling me an “immigrant”, they were calling me ‘African’ (never Kenyan…), making me one of those things that Black Americans tended to distance themselves from unless I was being made fun of.

For most of my childhood, I was more concerned with the identities of Blackness in an American context and Africanness than what it meant to be an immigrant. The most consistent messaging I got about being African was that I was dirty, dumb, poor, diseased, lucky to have been saved and brought to this country, etc. And it wasn’t just from the kids; adults and older youth would also regularly make ignorant, disgusting, derogatory and discriminatory comments about my heritage, sometimes without even knowing. I used to regularly have to field questions about whether I rode lions or zebras to school, whether they even had schools where I came from, whether the reason I was so good at sports was because Africans were born with an extra bone in their ankles, whether I or my parents had AIDS, whether I ate raw meat, whether I wore clothes back home or if someone had donated them to me when I arrived and a whole myriad of other things.

These experiences hurt me. They confused me. Eventually, they made me ashamed of myself and my heritage, especially when these comments came from other Black folks. I truly could not, for the life of me, understand why the people who most looked like me in this country wanted the least to do with me. When I first arrived in the US, I was struck by how interested and intrigued (read: fetishizing) by Africanness that white folks were, and how distanced from it Black folks seemed to want to be. One of my first memories in this country is of being in the airport and a white woman coming up to me and asking me where I was from and touching my face. I don’t think I responded to her, but I remember the way she made me feel, it was a way I would feel throughout my life at different times when the white gaze fixed itself on my Africanness.

When I first arrived, I used to shyly yet proudly tell people I was Kenyan. After a while though, I stopped telling people where I was from. I was always a quiet, moody kid, but when the bullying began because of the way I spoke, the things I didn’t have context for (like Santa) and the funny way I dressed, I folded further into myself. I had always loved reading and writing, and found myself comforted by books and the how I was able to access language in a way I was unable to when I spoke. Books and writing allowed me to learn to love language(s), without the pain I had grown accustomed to.

For most of my childhood, I don’t think I had a clear conception of immigrant identity and the impact it was having and was to have in my life. Part of it was because I grew up around so many other immigrants that non-Americaness was a norm for me outside of school. My first best friend in this country was a Mexican boy named Raul, and my parent’s social circles, as well as the apartment complexes and graduate housing we lived in were almost exclusively made up of immigrants or first generation people. My own friend groups also started to mirror this pattern unintentionally. Maybe we were all drawn to each other because we found comfort in the shared otherness of our home lives, the parts of our lives others made fun of us or for or didn’t have the context to understand. Whereas other kids would poke fun, I was known among my friend group for being from the strict African family that had that good food. While other kids would make jungle references when I ate my mangoes like apples, my friends would comment on how the juicy mango reminded them of stories of their home islands they’d heard. Thinking back, my circle of friends in high school that I am still in touch with today consisted on a French Haitian girl, a Hungarian girl, a Jamaican boy, Dominican twins, a few Puerto Ricans and a few Black American youth who were othered in other ways, most notably their queerness. 

The older I became, the less I had to deal with my immigrant identity because of my choice to assimilate into American culture for the sake of social acceptance. We were not in the age of identity politics that we are in now, and I lost parts of myself in this transition that I am still trying to gain back. I deliberately lost my accent. I stopped wearing Kenyan clothing outside of the house and social functions. I had long since changed my name to the nickname “K.K.” to the point where people didn’t realize it was a nickname. So unless you were coming over to my strict African house to eat good food, most people didn’t really have a sense of my Africaness or immigrantness, including myself.

I will forever be thankful that my parents, despite the protests of my siblings and I, refused to allow us to assimilate fully. I am thankful for how immigrants form community and hold onto their culture in this nation despite its efforts to erase and assimilate everyone who crosses its border. It was in those Kenyan/African immigrant communities and the parties that were regularly thrown that I began to see my parents differently. I saw them more alive, more social, more connected to the selves they had been their whole lives when their bodies moved to Kenyan rhythms, when their tongues curled around Samosas and goat meat filled their bellies, when the men shouted over each other from the porch about which politician was less corrupt while the women laughed in the kitchen knowing they all were useless anyway. 

Despite all my efforts at assimilation, I eventually had to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be fully American no matter how hard I tried. Despite losing the accent and name, I was still and would always be Kenyan, and not just by virtue of my birth. It was during those African gatherings my parents took us to that I too realized parts of myself that I thought were unique were really just the Kenyan parts of me that I didn’t know I still carried beneath my skin. No matter how hard I tried, the way I carried myself, thought, and sometimes spoke betrayed all that I tried to hide when I folded my accent beneath my tongue and hid the syllables of my name behind a mere two letters. Even without an accent, after speaking with me, people still wound up asking me where I was from. I couldn’t understand why, so after a while, I stopped trying to. Instead, I started to question why they had so many questions about my identity and started to ask myself questions about it as well through my writing:

(‘Black Like Me’ written at the end of middle school)

Black like Me
Black/Like/Me/Like/The bruises left on the back of African Americans during Civil Rights Movemet or black like my grandmothers scabs after picking coffee all day?/But If Im black, then why is my skin brown? Why are the only black parts the scars and bruises left behind from a society that reduces me to nothing more than ugly marks it has made to my skin/Am I really even black?/Last I check black wasn’t in the color edition of the skin toned crayola crayons so I guess im only black when im around western morons cuz you see I wasn’t black until I joined this society/I was just/A Kenyan/Until I came here/Now im black and brown and every shade in between while still retaining the Kenyan jungle mystery/Unless/I go back home to Kenya/Where I become the American dream/And all this confusion rally just makes me want to scream/Because if im a black Kenyan to Americans and American to Kenyans then at the end of the day all I want to be is/Black like me

It was when I got to high school that I began to think about myself not just as an African, but as an immigrant. I became cognizant of certain things I did not have access to such a voting and risks that I faced that my peers didn’t such as deportation. I remember in high school a boy from Cape Verde got deported for my school and how scared I was that if I ever got into trouble, I would be as well (I didn’t quite realize the complexities of immigration back then).

My poetry as well started to reflect my own exploration of my immigrant identity, and specifically, the sense of loss and longing that I felt being in this country away from everything I knew was a birthright of mine but felt I couldn’t claim…

Guka
Grandfather is dead/Relatives scorn my sadness/Shouldn’t my tears count?/Because every night when I counted down to the days I would see him/I felt liberated like a whole new being/Like a poet who had finally understood what her words were meaning

And/Every night when I would sail the oceans to my grandfathers side I clichéd by letting go of whatever was inside and I went back to the days when I was his child and even though that only lasted 5 years the while I felt that we would be forever/So forget that I wasn’t at his now foreign home when his life slowly slipped away/Surrounded by those who had seen his grow old with age/And forget that I was not there when he grasped his last breath of fresh air

Because/I was his darling/Because/When I visited him in my dream at night I felt his love and I knew he understood and that what we had was just right/And/When they buried a wheezing dying old man/We laughed at the distorted image that that they thought was my granddad/Because in a way/He was never really alive to me and therefore can never really be dead you see/He still rocks my cradle and tears at my heart with his eyes and laugh/And I thank god that what we had was enough, knowing my grandfather will never die as long as I keep his memories alive/

At some point, I began to be resentful towards my parents for bringing me to this country. I blamed them for me not knowing my family, my culture and my language (despite the efforts they had made to hold onto them that my siblings and I had rejected growing up).

Honestly, alot of this was because I never took the time to think about my parents immigration experiences. I never took the time to think about the struggles they had to go through economically, socially and politically that they kept from me as a child. I never took the time to think about the dreams they were chasing and all they had to leave behind ultimately to make a different life for me and my siblings. This past summer when I was at my grandmother’s place, I found the first letter that my dad had written to her after arriving in the United States. I feel so disconnected from my family in Kenya and I regularly text and video call with them these day, I can’t even imagine how my parents felt moving across the world, leaving their parents and families in the village and trusting that they would stay connected. When I left my parents house, I started to hear more from them about their experiences when they were mine and my siblings ages (which is around when they came to the United States) and realized just how uninformed I had been about the experience of African immigration outside of my childhood lens.

My parents didn’t have the luxury childhood afforded me of not having to deal with the legal, social and other ramifications of immigration. They were already fully formed in their identity so in many ways, assimilation was completely out of their reach. The more I heard from them about their experiences and the more I realized I identified with them in my adulthood, the more I became aware of how their entire lives, and in return, mine, had actually been shaped by our positioning as immigrants.

I became an American citizen in April of 2012. I was in college at the time and had been going through the stressful, expensive process of naturalization for months. I was missing classes, missing shifts at work and paying $40 one way for cab rides to Metairie for seemingly pointless meetings, some that would last as short as five minutes. After a few months, when it finally came time to take the test, I sat across from an agent who asked me three questions that could have come from a 6th grade social studies exam, was told to declare my allegiance to this country (and disown my allegiance to any others) and my willingness to take up arms to defend it, and then was granted citizenship. I was taken into a larger room with everyone else who was receiving their citizenship where we were given a small American flag to wave while a pre-recorded video message from President Obama welcomed us as Americans and we sang ‘God Bless the USA’.

It was a surreal, unspectacular experience for me. I think if I had become a citizen as a child, I would have celebrated the occasion and my induction into the ever elusive ‘Americanness’ that I so craved. But by the time I received it, I wasn’t buying into the myth of ‘the American Dream’ and was highly critical of the very notion of citizenship, of borders and of the legality of human beings in general. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the tangible benefits of American citizenship (especially in terms of international travel) and if Kenya hadn’t rewritten their constitution to allow for dual citizenship, I probably would not have become a citizen.

In the same room as me were people receiving their citizenship from all cultures and walks of life. Judging from their reactions to the ceremony, I would wager that most of them didn’t just want citizenship for the benefits, they also wanted to become Americans. I heard it in the sincerity that lubricated their throats when when they sang to the flag, in the way they clutched their handsized American flag like a newly printed ID.

Few of them were Black like me.

Though things have shifted in recent years, Black immigrants in the United States still find ourselves in the in between of the in between. We are on the periphery of conversations about Blackness and those about immigration. And this holds true in multiple areas of life, even in organizing spaces. In my experience, the Movement for Black Lives still struggles to address the different intersections of Blackness within the United States while the “Not 1 More” movement is centered on the experiences of Latinx immigrants.

As a Black immigrant, I think alot about the intersection of the propaganda/anti-immigrant hysteria that almost all immigrants face and the criminalization and anti-Blackness that Black folks face regardless of how they came to the US. I think about how Black immigrants sit at this crossroads sinking in invisible quicksand, eventually suffocating in silence. Though there are wonderful organizations like the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the Black Immigration Network (BIN) doing powerful work across the country to center the experiences of Black immigrants in the United States, there is little space for the intentional exploration of the experiences of Black immigrants. 

I remember sometime in the last year or so I was at a convening for the Black Youth Project 100. During the gathering, I was all up in my Black immigrant feelings and shared a poem during a showcase. I named that feeling of having my immigrant side closed off in movement spaces and asked for folks who felt similarly to link up during lunch. There ended up being about 20 people who came, and the conversation was so loaded and lengthy that we couldn’t contain it in the time we had set aside. The overwhelming sentiment that came from that talk though was that as organizers and activists, when we fight for our liberation, for Black liberation, we aren’t just fighting for ourselves. We are fighting for our siblings, our parents, our grandparents and other in our lives. For some of us though, those relationship are not confined by the borders of the United States, so therefore neither can our analysis, our actions or our definitions of Blackness. We can’t as Black people within the United States position ourselves to gain power and acceptance within a system that contributes to the exploitation and killing of Black folks globally and call that Black liberation.

One of my biggest frustrations as an immigrant to this country used to be how so many other immigrants seem depoliticized, especially documented immigrants (because seriously…what does it mean for someone to be an ‘illegal’ immigrant? F.O.H. with that, most of these countries yall tryna keep people out of were illegally taken so…..). But these days I am trying to move forward with more understanding, especially when I think about how many immigrants lives and immigration experiences have been shaped by American propaganda within and outside of the nations borders.

From the ongoing myths of meritocracy and the American Dream, to the single story of what America/Americans are like (read: white, upper middle class America), Americaness, as its explained to the world, is something to be desired. They don’t tell you about the (police) killings, about the poverty, homelessness, lack of clean water and safe housing in certain neighborhoods. They don’t tell you that the America they show you, isn’t for you to live in, its for you to clean up after or serve in another way.

They don’t tell you. They didn’t tell me.

Even though I can tangibly trace benefits in my life as a result of growing up in the United States, I move through this world with the understanding that America is not as shiny up close as it appeared from across the ocean. I move through it with the understanding that the United States would not be all it is today (a global power) if it hadn’t attracted or forcibly stolen and enslaved people from other nations.

At the end of the day, America is not really a nation of immigrants (that’s just whitewashed, revisionist history), but it honestly wouldn’t be much without us in it.

*ie: “undocumented” immigration, not illegal. No human being is illegal, especially on stolen land

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Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora 

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The Author

Noirlinians is an AfroFashion blog exploring the complex relationship between culture, clothing & identity in the diaspora. Featuring Liberian artist and designer Denisio Truitt of DOPEciety and poet and organizer Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, the idea for the blog emerged after a fast friendship developed between the two based on their African heritage and artistic interests.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for honoring the Treme story with Fashion appeal and historical integrity of atonement. And thank YOU for sharing your “Immigrant” stories. #RiteOn

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