Tyrone Beason, Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2023
Winsome Pendergrass watches as her fellow Black New Yorkers take selfies in front of Brooklyn’s Central Library. Rap lyrics penned by hometown hero Jay-Z cover the Art Deco facade to promote an artistic exhibit dedicated to the hip hop mogul.
But Pendergrass feels more drawn to the weekend farmers market she frequents across the street, where tables loaded with fresh produce transport her back to her homeland 2,500 miles south in Jamaica.
She picks up a yam, also a staple in Black American kitchens, and expounds on its use in African cooking. She holds a bright-green okra spear and explains how her older Jamaican relatives, like countless Black elders in the U.S., were unfazed by the nutrient-rich vegetable’s slimy texture.
She marvels at the way enslaved Africans — her ancestors and the forebears of most Black Americans — sustained themselves by transforming the worst cuts of meat into flavorful meals.
Black people — be they in Jamaica or the U.S. — carry inside them this capacity for perseverance over adversity and scarcity, she says.
And yet, it feels to her as though some Black Americans look down on Black newcomers and resent them for taking opportunities they fought long and hard to get.
“You know, the people who tell me to go back to my country the most is Black people — not white people,” Pendergrass says with a sigh.
Her experience reflects a widespread reality among Black immigrants whose ranks have swelled from just over 2 million in 2000 to nearly 5 million today, or about one-tenth of the nation’s Black population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These newcomers, who’ve settled mostly in East Coast cities such as New York, Newark, Washington and Miami, are expected to double in number by 2060.
Pendergrass, 64, who migrated to the U.S. two decades ago and became a naturalized citizen in 2011, is a part of that surge. She participated in a nationwide survey of immigrants conducted by The Times in partnership with KFF, formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation, that provides unprecedented insight into the 1 in 6 American adults who were born in other countries.
Those from Africa or the Caribbean experience a double burden of discrimination in the U.S., both as immigrants and as Black residents in a country with a long history of racism, according to the first-of-its-kind survey.
Black immigrants, for example, are more likely to report experiencing workplace discrimination and unfair treatment by the police.
And while a third of immigrants overall say they’ve been told to “go back where they came from,” that figure jumps to nearly half for Black immigrants.
Pendergrass says those words are especially aggravating when they’re spoken by citizens from her own race.
“There’s this great divide: ‘Oh, you’re from the islands,’” Pendergrass says.
During two separate focus groups this summer with immigrants from the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa, several said they too have been dismayed to find that Black Americans treat them more harshly. As a result, they avoid associating with that community.
Pendergrass takes special offense to the hostile attitude, because when she’s not working as a private nursing assistant for seniors, she often demonstrates and lobbies public officials for affordable housing and tenants’ rights in largely low-income Black and brown neighborhoods.
“I’m fighting for all Black people,” she says.
She flashes back to an incident that happened on a crowded city bus when President Trump was in office.
A Black man refused to make space for her when she tried to sit, and the two exchanged words.
A Black woman who was listening chimed in.
“I guess she picked up on my accent,” Pendergrass says. “The next thing that she said was, ‘I can’t wait till Trump runs them back home. Let them go back to their country.’”
“I said, ‘Are you addressing me?’ and she says, ‘Yes … Trump’s going to run you out.’”
“I said to her: ‘You better pray I’m here to defend you when Trump tries to run you to the land of no return.’”
How can someone who can also trace her ancestry back to the twin horrors of slavery and white supremacy see Pendergrass as an adversary?
“I’m not here to take anything away from an African American — I love my African American brothers and sisters,” she says.
The mandate for the descendants of enslaved Africans to show common cause with each other has been sown into the Jamaican psyche, Pendergrass says.
Even so, some in Jamaica believe Black Americans have lost touch with this shared heritage as they’ve fought to achieve racial progress.
“They disown they people, but what a day when I and I people come together — start to hold each other,” reggae legend Burning Spear sings in “Greetings,” his 1982 musical plea to Black America. “What a feedback the wicked get.”
Walking past stately apartment blocks near the library, Pendergrass points out that a Jamaican — activist Marcus Garvey — helped foster Pan-Africanism and Black pride in the early 20th century among migrants in Harlem who had escaped the racial violence of the South.
“We know the whole story of slavery that everybody is trying to deny,” Pendergrass says, nodding to the political rift in the U.S. over the teaching of Black history. “This [country’s foundation] is built on their backs, and the backs of their parents and the parents before them and the parents before them.
“It happened to us here in this country and in the Caribbean and other parts of the world,” she says.
“This should make us come together.”
Pendergrass first visited America in 1999 through a U.S. government program for Jamaican agricultural and hospitality workers.
A trained pastry chef, she was given a job cooking on the 5 a.m. shift and unloading supplies at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Petoskey, Mich., earning $4.75 an hour. Pendergrass said yes when she was asked to work for the restaurant chain again the following year.
The work was grueling. And Pendergrass recalls white residents hurling the N-word and throwing beer bottles at her and her Jamaican co-workers as they walked home.
But nothing could dim her enthusiasm to someday build a new life in a land that seemed to overflow with possibilities. She eventually got married and settled in New York.
The U.S., with its rugged individualism and hard-edged capitalism, outwardly bore little resemblance to her homeland of dreadlocked Rastafarian visionaries and righteous reggae singers.
Jamaica may be a vacation paradise, but if you happen to be from there, it’s hard to get ahead, she says. Poverty, crime, lagging healthcare services, the indifference of powerful nations that extract natural resources while doing little for everyday people — many factors have spurred her compatriots to flee the island.