Posted on June 16, 2023

Black Immigrants Are Growing in Numbers, but in the U.S. Many Often Feel Invisible

Leah Donnella, NPR, June 4, 2023

How you describe Hadley Park might depend on where you stand.

If you enter from the southeast corner, you’ll see a sweeping, tree-lined expanse — verdant in the summer, golden in the fall. Look northwest, and there’s the campus of Tennessee State University — a century-old historically Black university. Turn around, and you’ll see I-40, one of the highways separating North Nashville (traditionally, Black Nashville) from the rest of the city. Look down, and you’ll see ground that used to grow crops, back when Hadley Park was a plantation. Ground that used to stage tanks, during the Vietnam War. Ground where now, every summer, bare feet dance and libations spill out during the annual African Street Festival.

“This space is representative of Black Nashville in a lot of ways,” says Learotha Williams, as he walks through the fields. Williams, a public historian at TSU, says the park has meant many different things to different communities. Recently, there have been discussions about what to call it, since the park was likely named for John Hadley, the man who once owned the land and the people who worked on it. So, Williams says, “It’s a space of contested memories. A space that is transformative in many ways and is still undergoing a transformation.”

As is Nashville more broadly. All around the city, there are grand old buildings that were once plantation houses, overlooking fields where Black people tended cattle, milled grain, grew tobacco.


More recently, a different cohort of Black folks have made Nashville, and other parts of Tennessee, their home — people who are emigrating. People from Somalia to Rwanda, Sudan to Ethiopia, Nigeria to Haiti have put down roots in Nashville. In total, 12% of the city is made up of immigrants, a large proportion of whom moved to the city after the year 2000.

But like previous generations of Black Tennesseans, Black immigrants sometimes have to fight to make their presence recognized.

Feeling invisible

Black immigrants all over the country have been referred to as “invisible immigrants.” Their numbers throughout the United States are growing significantly — today, 20% of all Black Americans are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. But they are rarely centered in national conversations around immigration policy. And even in smaller interactions, many Black immigrants talk about the ways that their cultures, identities and histories are sometimes rendered invisible — or worse.

Layla Ahmed is a political organizer and recent college graduate who grew up in Nashville; her family emigrated from Somalia. She says she enjoys asking people what they know about Somali culture but is disheartened, time and again, to hear people’s answers. Pirates, they usually say. “And maybe hunger. War. Terrorism.”

Duretti Ahmad is also from the Nashville area. She was born in the U.S., but her family is Ethiopian, and ethnically Oromo. She grew up connected to a sizable East African community, but as a student at Vanderbilt University, she said she’s sometimes made to feel like she’s alone. In most of her classes, she says, she rarely expects to see someone who shares her background: “Maybe [there will be] a Black person, but for it to be a Black Muslim woman? It’s like, wow, that’s a stretch.”

Maranjely Zapata lives in Knoxville, on the east side of Tennessee. She moved there from Honduras about eight years ago, when she was a teenager. Recently, she says, she had a conversation with someone who asked her where she was from. Her answer shocked him. “He was like, ‘There are Black people in Honduras?’ And my jaw just dropped. I was like, there are Black people everywhere. But some people really don’t know that.”

Interactions like that make Zapata want to talk about her identity even more — to educate people about Garifuna culture, and about Blackness more generally. But not everyone feels empowered to do that.

Niyokwizigigwa Athumani is a high school student living on the other side of the state, in Memphis. He was born in Rwanda and came to the U.S. as a young child. When he told other kids that he was African, he was bullied for it. “So I don’t really know what my cultural identity is,” he says. To try and fit in socially, he had to minimize that part of himself — to the point that he lost a part of himself: “I know I’m African and everything, but I want to be more.”


Claude Gatebuke is also from Rwanda, but he came to Nashville three decades ago. Like others, he’s had plenty of experiences with his identity being dismissed, ignored or minimized.


Gatebuke says that after almost three decades of experiencing life in the U.S. as a Black man, he finds himself better able to connect the dots between that moment and a broader social dynamic.

“For many years, [African Americans have] talked about things like police brutality, racial profiling, you know. All of those things that I experienced, that I lived through, and that are traumatic. And America didn’t believe it until phone cameras came along, and then America acted like, ‘Oh, this is bad. This just started.’ But the only thing that started was filming it.”


But many Black Tennesseans are finding ways to feel seen — if not by the broader society, then at least by each other. One of the most powerful tools for that has been storytelling.

Nkechinyelum Chioneso is an assistant professor of psychology at Florida A&M University. She says that when people with related histories share their experiences with each other, “it allows private pain to come out into the public domain. And when it’s in the public domain, you then develop the ability to have a more critical lens about what it is you’re experiencing. And you begin to see that it’s not just me — it’s not my deficiency.” That understanding, she says, is an opening to look at the broader external dynamics that have shaped a group’s experiences — and to begin to reshape them.

Chioneso, who has written about how storytelling can lead to community healing, argues that forming connections and resisting oppression are both critical elements of resisting racial trauma.

And they’re both methods that some Black immigrants in Tennessee have started leaning toward organically.

Like Layla Ahmed. As a college student, she decided to do a project on the trope of the Somali pirate. In doing that research, she learned more about her own culture and identity, and the forces that push certain communities into certain roles. She’s since used that knowledge to start telling a different story about Somali people. “I wouldn’t say I’m confrontational,” she says, “but I like talking with people and dismantling their beliefs that they already have.”

After graduating from college, Ahmed began working at the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition. There, she digs deep into the resistance part — her work is largely about organizing voters to resist discriminatory immigration policies.