Why Black History Month Is an Opportunity To Celebrate Black Immigrants Too

When it comes to Black History Month, many immigrants find themselves left out of the equation. We want to celebrate both American and Black history together with our own cultural traditions.

Grandmother kissing granddaughter hello as grandparent arrive to visit family
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When I was a child, I moved to New York City from a small town in Quebec, Canada. My mother was from Ghana, West Africa, and my father—who wasn't in the picture—was from England. While I spoke perfect English, I was painfully shy and had no idea how to navigate urban New York City life.

Within a few weeks of enrolling in a Queens, New York City public school, I was stumped when asked to draw the U.S. flag from memory. I didn't know how. Instead of showing me how to draw the American flag, the teacher dramatically paraded my Canadian flag drawing around the class sarcastically asking several of my classmates if they were looking at a U.S. flag.

The teacher ripped my drawing up in front of everyone. "Isn't your mother an African?" the white teacher yelled at me. She went on, "Wherever you're from, you're in America now. I don't want to see a different flag every day. Canadian, African. No. I just want to see American flags in my classroom." Canada is in North America, but that teacher didn't exactly care. It wasn't her point.

Many of the children in the class loudly snickered as I silently cried. Per my memory, on another day, when I was still having difficulty with the flag assignment, one of the African American students passed down her flag drawing to me so I could successfully complete my work. I was grateful for the learning lifeboat—and for the compassion. At some point after hearing the story, my mother bought a little U.S. flag for us to have at home. "You're going to be a U.S. citizen one day," my mother told me.

That was hardly the only time that I was 'othered,' but I know I'm not alone since many immigrants struggle to adjust.

"As a Black immigrant parent, there are a lot of challenges. Things will work out, but you just have to do the best you can.," says Rose Ivy Quarshie, a project manager for a New York real estate company and an immigrant from Ghana, West Africa. For Quarshie, the parent of two children, Black history naturally includes bridging the divide between different cultures. Quarshie notes she devotes significant time to community advocacy, and cultural and immigrant organizations.

Black History Month is an Opportunity to Celebrate Black People—Including Immigrants

Kim Tabari, Ph,D, staff member at USC Equity Research Institute and community activist with Black Lives Matter Long Beach, understands the Black immigrant experience first hand. Tabari came to the United States from Guyana as a teen. As a long-time resident of California, Tabari has extensive experience as a university educator and social justice advocate. Her professional and personal passions include social justice, education, research and advocacy.

"Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate Black people—no matter where you are from. I try to come from an intersectional lens," she says. As a parent of a teenage boy, Tabari says knowledge of Black history should celebrate African American icons like Malcom X while also including figures like Guyanese political activist and scholar Walter Rodney.

"I want to celebrate my culture as a Guyanese American and share the knowledge and traditions on to my son," she says.

Tabari also emphasizes "the notion that all Black people are monolithic is not true. We have to see people for who they are. We may come from contrasting cultures. People of the African diaspora are more similar than we are different."

As a parent raising two multiracial children in New York City, I want my children to feel comfortable in their own skin. For my older teenage son, I wish I could have done more to connect him to family cultural traditions. My oldest son doesn't seem to always understand or appreciate my immigrant identity, including my reverence for certain foods, particular holidays or family memories.

Understanding the Struggle

For Rose Ivy Quarshie's family, education is everything. Her two children had an 11-year-gap between them. While Quarshie's mother provided full-time child care for her older daughter when she was little, her mother had passed away shortly after her younger son was born.

By the time Quarshie's son reached his pre-teen years, she became very concerned about bad influences and a lack of appreciation for West African cultural values. Making a drastic decision, Quarshie decided to send her youngest to Ghana to attend an elite boarding school at age 12. As Quarshie recalls, her son complained bitterly about "ridiculous" rules like strictly regulated haircuts and uniforms and the like. But she does not regret the decision. "When my son returned to the United States to attend college, he was culturally and intellectually grounded and ready to learn," Quarshie says.

Food, Family, and Culture are All Intertwined

Maimah Karmo, founder and president of the Tigerlily Foundation, is originally from Liberia, West Africa. Karmo came to the United States as a teenager due to political instability in her home country.

"I wanted my daughter to respect her culture in America and to value where she is from," she says. "In Liberia, we eat cassava leaves. We eat fufu. We eat with our hands. We call it joint bowl. Family, food, and culture are all intertwined," she says.

Karmo, who raised her daughter as a single parent, was diagnosed with breast cancer when her daughter was very young. That's why it was especially important for Karmo to have relatives spend lots of time together with her daughter.

"I used to have African birthday parties for my daughter when she was younger. We would be loud, wear traditional clothing, play music and serve Liberian food. For the American guests we invited, they may have been confused about how birthday parties would go until whenever. We didn't have an end time. Some American parents were like that is different," Karmo says laughing.

When it comes to my family, as an immigrant parent, I feel like I'm a work in progress. Yes, I talk about Black history with my kids all the time. But as someone who has a foot in two worlds, I've definitely wished I could have raised my children in close proximity to family. But my children are very aware that their two immigrant parents want them to strive for the best and live their best American lives.

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