Black Immigrants in the United States

Essays on the Politics of Race, Language, and Voice

by Ayanna Cooper (Volume editor) Awad Ibrahim (Volume editor)
©2020 Textbook XXVI, 194 Pages


In the United States, ‘immigrant’ is a complicated category. It is used interchangeably with ‘refugee’ and it is, most of the time, linked to South America, especially Latina/os. Black Immigrants in the United States is arguing that immigrants are not refugees and, whether coming from the Caribbean, Latin America or Africa, Black immigrants are oft-silenced in immigration studies and unsystematically researched. Being one of the first books on the topic in the United States, Black Immigrants in the United States is a crack, a verse in the syntax which links Blackness and immigration; a required reading for anyone who is interested in immigration generally and Black immigration in particular. For example, did you know that 12-13% of the statistically defined as African Americans are ‘Black immigrants’ (both immigrants and refugees) (Ogunipe, 2011)? Out of this 12-13%, did you know the first and second-generation constitute 41% of Black first-year students in Ivy League? Black Immigrants in the United States is an attempt to answer these questions and paint a picture for this population, where they come from, what languages and histories they bring with them to the United States, and discusses their challenges as well as their triumphs. With this book, as children of migration ourselves, we are turning researching and writing about Black immigrants into acts of love and reading about them into an expression of jouissance.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword (Awad Ibrahim, Co-editor)
  • Introduction (Ayanna Cooper, Co-editor)
  • “Voyager” (Enzo Silon Surin)
  • 1 On Being Black but Not American: Bringing Politics Back to the Study of Race (Pedro A. Noguera)
  • 2 The Continuing African Journey to America: Continuity and Change: Struggles, Overcoming, and Celebrating (Ayanna R. Armstrong)
  • 3 Black Voices from the Global Village (Amy E. Pelissero, Mary Lou McCloskey and Teni-Ola Ogunjobi)
  • 4 “No one wanted to play with me”: Somali-American Students’ Memories of Racism in Elementary School (Nimo Abdi and Bic Ngo)
  • 5 Fostering Senegalese Immigrant Students’ Language and Literacy Learning Experiences and Academic Achievement (S. Joel Warrican) (Alex Kumi-Yeboah, Patriann Smith, Melissa L. Alleyne)
  • “The South Bronx Breaks Its Own Heart” (Enzo Silon Surin)
  • 6 The Case of a Somali Teenage Girl with Limited Formal Schooling: Seeing Assets and Poking Holes in Deficit Discourse (Martha Bigelow)
  • 7 Taking Control of the Narrative: Empowering Black Immigrants through an African-Centered Approach (Babatunji Ifarinu)
  • 8 #BlackImmigrantsMatter: Preparing Teachers to Center Black Immigrant Youths’ Intersectional Identities through Activism and Education (Kisha Bryan)
  • 9 Documenting Blackness: Representations of the Haitian Community at the U.S.-Mexico Border (Ebony Bailey)
  • 10 Trapped on the Island: The Politics of Race and Belonging in Jazirat al-Maghrib (Isabella Alexander-Nathani)
  • 11 Organizations that Support Black Immigrants in the United States (Ayanna Cooper)
  • Afterword: We Still Can’t Breathe! Teaching in a Time of Trauma, Pandemic and Riots (Awad Ibrahim and Ayanna Cooper)
  • Contributors
  • Index

←xii | xiii→


A special thank you to my husband Ronnie Cooper, and our children Ronnie and Breanna Cooper. Thank you for being so supportive of my writing projects by asking questions and listening to the details as they unfolded. Thank you for making any and all small milestones worthy of celebration.

To my co-author, Dr. Awed Ibrahim, thank you for your contributions to the field of TESOL and beyond. I especially appreciate your guidance, for sharing the stories of Black immigrants in Canada, and for crossing the border to help me share their stories here in the United States.

I would like to thank Dr. Anthony Van Der Meer a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Thanks to Attorney Leila Yassin who first suggested I consider a career in education. Dr. Libya Gil for highlighting the K–12 population of Black English learners while serving the U.S. Department of Education Assistant Deputy Secretary, and Director for the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). Thanks to Mary Romney and Mawakana Onifade for their support and ongoing encouragement. Thanks to Laura Gardner and Gabrielle Jackson for their time and contributions to this publication.

-Dr. Ayanna Cooper

I would like to thank first and foremost continental African youth with whom I have been working and whose lives I have been tracking for the last two decades. They struggle but they triumph as well. I would like to thank my sister Aziza for her love. Osailat, you have been an inspiration. Let us all keep the hope! Our best is here, but our absolute best is yet to come.

-Dr. Away Ibrahim

Drs. Cooper and Ibrahim would like to thank the contributors to this publication. We are extremely grateful for your time and dedication to this project. ←xiii | xiv→Thank you for sharing your vision. The authors are listed here in alphabetical order: Nimo Abdi, Melissa L. Alleyne, Ayanna R. Armstrong, Ebony Bailey, Martha Bigelow, Kisha C. Bryan, Babatunji Ifarinu, Mary Lou McCloskey, Isabella Alexander-Nathani, Bic Ngo, Pedro Noguera, Teni-Ola Ogunjobi, Amy E. Pelissero, Patriann Smith, Enzo Silon Surin, S. Joel Warrican and Alex Kumi-Yeboah.

←xiv | xv→


Awad Ibrahim, Co-editor

University of Ottawa, Canada

What happens when Blackness meets the syntax of immigration? Let us not anticipate a simple answer to such a complex question, but we must try an answer. As the chapters in Black Immigrants in the United States: Essays on the Politics of Race, Language, and Voice show, when Blackness meets the syntax of immigration, the two categories desilence an oft-silenced voice and discourse and create a cartography where the book Black Immigrants is possible. Like Offred, in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), who gave birth out of frustration, we too conceive this book out of frustration. As people who live (or lived) in the East Coast of the United States (where a substantial number of Black immigrants live) and work, among others, in the field of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), our classes are filled with ESL learners who are Black immigrants, primarily continental Africans, and we know, talk to and have an ongoing conversation with Black immigrants. However, outside class, their voices and stories are not heard, neither in the academy nor in the popular media discourse. Our hope in Black Immigrants is to open a crack – moving between the autobiographical and the biographical – so that the word and the world of Black immigrants can be connected.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah is the closest we got to addressing what can be called “The Black Immigrant Question.” Using episodic style, the novel introduces two terms which are used interchangeably: “Black immigrants” and “non-American Blacks.” In its totality, the novel is a tour de force deciphering the ever-complex identity, cultural, linguistic and psychic process of “becoming American” for a Black ←xv | xvi→immigrant. Becoming American for a Black immigrant, the novel explains, is becoming Black American. “In America,” Adichie (2014) writes, “you are black, baby” (p. 273). In her letter to Black immigrants or non-American Blacks, 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. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I have no idea what that was. (Adichie, 2014, p. 273)

Clearly, when the Black body encounters the syntax of (im)migration and displacement, a “complicated conversation” (Ng-a-Fook, Ibrahim, & Reis, 2016; Pinar, 2007) seems to come into existence. Here, Blackness becomes a second language and Adichie is its translator. Following in the footsteps of Adichie, we certainly set Black Immigrants as a fuller translation of this complicated conversation, which includes how and what it means to “speak Blackness.” To speak Blackness, for non-American Blacks, is becoming aware of its syntax, which includes the smallest acts, which in Americanah include the head nod, using the word “strong” every time one speaks about a Black woman, tipping generously, brushing off the accusation that one got into an Ivy League college because of Affirmative Action when one is the top of his/her class, etc. To speak Blackness, moreover, is to say you have little to no knowledge of what it means to be Black in United States; after all, as I have argued elsewhere, there are no Blacks in contexts where Blackness is the majority. There are no Blacks in Africa; for example, there we are Fulani, Dinka, Ivorian or Malawian. In other words, Blackness is not your defining characteristic, however, once in the United States, these descriptors become secondary to your Blackness. You thus enter the process of becoming Black (Ibrahim, 2014).

On the other hand, as this book is about Trumpistan (Rushdie, 2018), students of migration studies must be tearing their hair out as they listen to Donald Trump talking about “immigrants.” First because of his mistaken use of the term “immigrant.” Immigrants are not refugees, the latter term is what Trump is referring to most of the time (see Ibrahim, 2020). Refugees are those who are fleeing violence, wars and the brutality of famished lives; those who have been knocking “on other people’s doors since the beginning of time” (Bauman, 2016, p. 1). Immigrants, on the other hand, have no fear for their lives, tend to be highly educated, with a stable income, and migrate from their homeland to their new “home” voluntarily (Kymlicka, 2010). Yet, for the purpose of this book, we will hold on to the term “immigrant” for its ←xvi | xvii→recognizability (and to subvert it from within instead of doing away with it). Second, Trump links “immigrants” with South and Latin Americans. This link obscures the population under investigation in this book, Black immigrants – from the continent and the Caribbean – as well as Black Latin Americans. Pedro Noguera’s chapter is set purposefully as the opening chapter for this book to make this point; that is, to talk about Black immigrant experience on the one hand and to complicate both the categories of Blackness and South/Latin America on the other. South and Latin America do include Blackness. Third and finally, one may argue that Trumpistan is the perfect exhibit of what Zygmunt Bauman (2016) calls “migration panic.” This migration panic lays bare the West despite its Enlightenment and Kantian cosmopolitanism. Built around the notion that a large number of “foreign” people are threatening the very fabric of society, the danger of the migration panic is that it exploits fears and anxiety, especially among those who already lost so much, namely the poor.

There is a need, therefore, for further research to fully grasp how Black immigrants deal with this migration panic. What is happening now to Black immigrants, especially with Trump’s policy on deportation? Little is known about this and with Black Immigrants, we hope to open up the discussion. Besides the second editor’s work (e.g., Ibrahim, 2014, 2020), who himself was a refugee from the Sudan, we know only a handful of researchers who are attempting to paint the picture of Black immigrants in North America. In doing so, these researchers are showing challenges and struggles as much as they are showing hope, joy and triumph. After all, we have Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American refugee who has arrived in the United States at the age of 12, in the U.S. House of Representative. She, among so many others, is bearing witness to our human possibility and interdependence. Our humanity, if it is to survive along other species, has to build not walls but mutual respect, cooperation and solidarity. Only then can Black immigrants capture their full subjectivity and create a better, more rich and hopeful future, which we should all help bring into existence.


Adichie, C. (2014). Americanah. Toronto: Vintage.


XXVI, 194
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXVI, 194 pp., 10 b/w ill., 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Ayanna Cooper (Volume editor) Awad Ibrahim (Volume editor)

Ayanna Cooper is an author, advocate, keynote speaker, and owner of ACooper Consulting. Her projects involve providing technical assistance to state departments of education, school districts, and organizations with the goal of protecting the civil rights and improving outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Awad Ibrahim is an award-winning author and a professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa, Canada. He is a Curriculum Theorist with special interest in cultural studies, applied linguistics, Hip-Hop, youth and Black popular culture, philosophy and sociology of education, social justice, diasporic and continental African identities, and ethnography.


Title: Black Immigrants in the United States
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