Between Africa and America: Recalibrating Black Americans' Relationship to the Diaspora

tags: foreign policy, racism, international relations, African history, Pan-Africanism

Nemata Blyden is professor of history at George Washington University; she tweets @BlydenNemata. Jeannette Eileen Jones is associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln; she tweets @drjeannette1970.

In a January 2018 meeting, President Trump asked a bipartisan group of senators why the United States needed “all these people from shithole countries here?” According to credible sources, he referred specifically to immigrants from Haiti and African countries, contrasting them to those from European countries that he deemed more desirable. In the wake of those comments, it seemed Americans suddenly became aware of an African immigrant population. In 2020, there are more than 2 million Sub-Saharan African immigrants in the United States, joining the millions of African descendants long resident in the nation. Today’s Black population (about 13 percent of the overall population) reflects centuries-long engagement with Africa on the part of the United States.

In the last 400 years, Africa has played an integral role in American life and history. Americans, Black and white, have developed various contradictory ideas about the continent. It is both a backward place and a source of identity, a place to keep at a distance and a place to embrace as an ancestral homeland. In recent years, the large African immigrant population in the United States has helped to shape ideas about the continent, recalibrating Black American identities, and engaging with the state in various ways. 

Trump’s disparaging words were uttered in the context of ongoing debates about US immigration policies, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS)—both affecting African immigrants. The Black Alliance for Just Immigration estimates that only 12,000 DACA recipients are Black, although 1.2 million Black migrants are eligible. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security terminated TPS for Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, all West African countries ravaged by the Ebola virus. Today, TPS only covers three African countries: Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. And African immigrants increasingly find themselves the target of immigration officials and anti-immigrant sentiment. 

How do we put the administration’s decision to curtail TPS immigration and fight DACA in the historical context of US–Africa relations? First, we must understand that Black people in the United States have maintained their own relationships with Africa—dating back to the 17th century—despite official US policy regarding the continent. Second, since the early 19th century, white Americans, and a significant number of Black Americans, positioned Africa as a continent in need of “uplift,” “redemption,” or “saving.” This image has persisted for centuries, and Trump’s designation of African countries as “shitholes” extends the US tradition of white supremacist, anti-black racism that scorns Africa as the source of African Americans’ blackness, and often shame.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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