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A rise in Black immigrant population changes understanding of Black America

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

A new Pew Research study finds that immigrants now account for about 1 in 10 Black persons in the United States. That 10% figure is up from 3% in 1980. And it's projected to increase more over the next 40 years.

BELINDA DENEEN WALLACE: My first reaction was pretty underwhelming because I have found that, well, this is a growing phenomenon. It's not a new phenomenon.

NADWORNY: Belinda Deneen Wallace is an English professor at the University of New Mexico. She specializes in Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Diaspora studies. We spoke to her about how the growing presence of foreign-born Black people might change our understanding of Black America.

WALLACE: There has always already been a Black diaspora component to American Blackness. I think the visibility has shifted the way in which we see non-traditionally hyphenated African-American blacks in this country, but the presence has definitely always been here.

NADWORNY: Are you seeing these demographic changes beginning to be reflected in public spaces, like representation in film or in positions of power?

WALLACE: Absolutely. I think our vice president is probably the most prominent representation of that.

NADWORNY: Vice President Kamala Harris, who is from Afro-Indo-Caribbean Heritage, right?

WALLACE: Absolutely. And also in pop culture, we definitely see it in film. I think Nollywood out of Nigeria has definitely made its way across the pond. We also see it with something like Issa Rae, who is African American and Senegalese, and her show "Insecure" had a diasporic feel to it. So yes, I would say it is becoming more visible to those of us here in the states.

NADWORNY: We're in Black History Month now, and as someone who knows a lot about the African diaspora, how would you like to see historical narratives change in the U.S. to reflect the growing population?

WALLACE: I think the first thing we need to do is embrace this as a part of our history, a part of not just Black history, but global Black history. So you can start as early as Marcus Garvey and his pan-African movement. We like to focus on the Black Star Line and the whole return to Africa aspect, but we ignore his diasporic approach to Black identity, belonging and culture. It was very global. We conveniently forget that Malcolm X's mother was Grenadian, right? He's of Caribbean origins.

But also what I appreciate is that the specificity doesn't get lost, right? So if we look at, like, soul food, no one is arguing that soul food isn't an African American southern tradition. It absolutely is. But we also understand that much of that cuisine is influenced and shaped by African culture that was transmitted here because of the transatlantic slave trade.

And so I think we're in a unique position to blur the lines without erasing, and that's really hard to do. And it's exciting that we're in a place now where we can have these kind of nuanced conversations.

NADWORNY: The data show that Black immigrants are more likely to have a college degree and are likely to earn more than Black people born in the U.S. What do you make of that distinction in the findings?

WALLACE: Well, I think we have to look at structural racism and the way in which it operates here in the United States. We also have to look at the history. We've been talking a bit about belonging. And for African Americans, there has been a sense of unbelonging here in the United States. Non-Black people are - in the United States are often more comfortable dealing with international Blacks because it doesn't carry the same historical weight. Some may call it baggage.

But I do worry that we take this information and we use it as a kind of divisive, shaming wrought (ph) - to say, oh, well, if Blacks from the Caribbean can have this level of success, clearly African Americans can, too, or if immigrants are succeeding in this particular way, clearly African Americans can, too, without looking at the specificity of our experiences here in the United States. So it's helpful, but it can be wielded in a way that I think can be dangerous.

NADWORNY: Belinda Deneen Wallace from the University of New Mexico, thank you.

WALLACE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Jason Fuller