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Black immigrants reflect on navigating their identities in the American South

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Soul food to signifying, civil rights to the blues - the American South is often considered the cornerstone of Black American culture. But what does it mean to be a Black Southerner without this history? Today, 10% of Black Americans are immigrants, and the greatest number of them live in the South. That's according to the Pew Research Center. Leah Donnella is NPR's Above the Fray Fellow. She spent months in Tennessee, which has the fastest growing percentage of Black immigrants in the region. She asked some of them to share how they understand their racial identities.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Duretti Amhad has never been confused about her race.

DURETTI AMHAD: I knew I was Black - like, always.

DONNELLA: Growing up, though, there were aspects of Black American culture that she had to get caught up on.

AMHAD: This one girl I used to be friends with - I remember she asked us, like, oh, like, you've never been to a cookout? Like, that's, like, a Black - like, you've never been to - and, like, me and, like, two of my other Ethiopian friends were like, no, like, I'm sorry. Like, I've never been.

DONNELLA: Today, Duretti is a public health student at Vanderbilt University. It's one of the South's most elite and storied institutions. Duretti lives in the dorms downtown, among restaurants and honky-tonks and lots of Nashville traffic.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

DONNELLA: Her friend group here is made up of people from a bunch of different backgrounds from around the country and around the world. But in most of her classes...

AMHAD: I never really go in with the expectation of seeing another - well, maybe, like, a Black person, but, like, for it to be, like, a Black, Muslim woman, it's like, wow.

DONNELLA: That's a big difference from the spaces she was used to being in as a kid, even though she grew up nearby, in suburban Nashville and La Vergne. Duretti's parents are Oromo, one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Ethiopia. They both came to Tennessee a couple of years before Duretti was born and formed close relationships to other Oromo families.

AMHAD: Just because of the fact that they all had a shared experience. I definitely grew up with my best friends, which were literally just, like, my parents' friends and their kids. And I would just go to, like - I would call them my aunts and uncles, even though, like, there's no blood relation, but we're just all from Oromia.

DONNELLA: Within that tight community, though, there was a wide spectrum of ideas about race and identity. Duretti said her dad's self-perception lines up pretty evenly with her own.

AMHAD: He's like, yeah, I'm Black, obviously.

DONNELLA: But her mom...

AMHAD: She was telling me she's had experiences where people are like, oh, like, I didn't think you were Black. Or, like, you don't look Black or whatever. So I think she's more eager to say, like, oh, I'm Oromo, or, like, I'm Ethiopian, rather than say, like, oh, I'm a Black woman.

DONNELLA: For others outside her family, those distinctions could be even more pronounced.

AMHAD: In some East African households, people I know and things like that, race can be talked about negatively, even if it's just, like, little comments. Like, oh, like, the Black Americans, they do this. Like, why do they act like that?

DONNELLA: When something contentious happened in pop culture or the news, Duretti said she was sometimes surprised to hear people like parents or friends take stances that she just didn't relate to.

AMHAD: I would notice that they would take the side of non-Black people. And, like, it was always so weird to me because it's like, do you not realize you are also Black?

ZULFAT SUARA: I have immigrants that are here that don't understand the plight of African Americans.

DONNELLA: That's Zulfat Suara.

SUARA: They're immigrants that felt like, you should come to this country, it's a land of opportunities. You just have to work hard. Then, boom, you realize the American dream. Yes, but no.

DONNELLA: Suara is an elected official on Nashville's metro council at-large, the first Muslim woman to be an elected official in Tennessee and the first Nigerian to be elected to any U.S. office. Today, a lot of what she advocates for is connected to issues of educational equity. She was first inspired to run when she saw how underfunded and underresourced her child's school was. But when she came to the U.S. in the early '90s, she wasn't used to thinking about the ways that race might play into those inequities.

SUARA: The word racism - I didn't know what that was about because everyone was Black.

DONNELLA: But the longer Suara lived in the U.S., the more she learned about African American history. After all, she was living in Tennessee. There are parks all over Nashville that used to be plantations. And just blocks from her office downtown is the site where college students participated in the 1960s lunch counter sit-ins.

SUARA: One of the bill that I passed in my time on council was renaming Fifth Avenue after John Lewis. So for me, learning about stories of people like that, teenagers, students, definitely will affect you.

DONNELLA: Being steeped in that history, Suara started to understand anti-Blackness as a structural issue.

SUARA: And until we realize that, we're missing it. Look. Doesn't matter whether from you're Haiti or Nigeria or anything. You're still Black. And you're still part of that system. And we also have to fight together to change that system.

DONNELLA: Christina Greer is a political scientist at Fordham University and the author of the book "Black Ethnics." She says that Black immigrants are often affected by the same social and economic issues that affect other Black folks.

CHRISTINA GREER: Whether it's hiring, whether it's residential segregation. They have this mandatory Black prefix. They don't just get to become Americans like everybody else.

DONNELLA: And while being in the U.S. can mean having to face discrimination, a lot of immigrants are coming here without other options, so they have to make things work.

GREER: May not be ideal, but we play the cards we have.

DONNELLA: But the way people think to play those cards can vary quite a lot. Some people try to form strong, tightknit communities with other Black people. It's following the linked-fate principle.

GREER: In a racial space, we are Black people. We care about each other as Black people. We do have a diasporic consciousness, by and large, as a group.

DONNELLA: Others see the circumstances that Black Americans are dealing with, and their reaction is to do what they can to avoid being put in the same category.

GREER: The process of assimilation for other immigrant groups has been, you know, change your name. And here, we're seeing people keep their name or keep their accent so that they're not seen as Black Americans. They are seen as immigrants who are Black but not Black Americans.

DONNELLA: Of course, there are people who say that getting to choose your own identity - that's never really been an option.

ALLIANCE UWASE: If I was to get in trouble with, like, police, they would identify me as an African American woman.

DONNELLA: That's Alliance Uwase. She's a student, a veteran and a part-time singer living in Memphis. In her free time, she's often helping out at after-school programs at Refugee Empowerment Center, a local support organization. In her experience, how someone self-identifies is only one variable in a very complex equation. She spent her early childhood in Rwanda, but she's ethnically Congolese. Her mother fled war in Congo before she was born.

UWASE: When I came to the U.S., I would tell people that I'm from Rwanda because that's where I was born. I only speak Kinyarwanda. I don't speak Swahili. And my mom would be like, no. You're Congolese. You're from Congo. When I tell people that I'm from Congo, they're like, no, you're not.

DONNELLA: But then, in groups of Black Americans, Alliance says...

UWASE: They'll identify me as an African. So in this America, I don't really think that I have, like, a place where I belong.

DONNELLA: Clearly, Alliance has big questions about her identity, but what's hard for her is not deciding whether she's Black. That's a given. What's hard is figuring out where, in that very diverse identity, she belongs. And she wants that search for belonging not to be driven by fear.

UWASE: A lot of times when we think about race, we all think about, you know, racism, that we forget the beautiful things about race because race also, like, comes in with culture and tradition.

DONNELLA: Things like music. Alliance is often asked to perform at weddings, which means she sings a lot of traditional songs from home. But when I asked her to sing a song on mic, the one she chose was from a different cultural tradition.

UWASE: (Singing) There's a hero...

DONNELLA: After all, she contains multitudes.

UWASE: (Singing) You don't have to be afraid of what you are.

DONNELLA: Leah Donnella, NPR News.

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RASCOE: And Leah will have more stories in the coming weeks about the struggles and triumphs of being a Black immigrant in the American South.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.