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Black immigrants are growing in numbers, but in the U.S. many often feel invisible

Hadley Park has a long history in North Nashville, Tenn. It was a plantation, tanks were staged there during the Vietnam War, and it is now home to the annual African Street Festival.
Joseph Ross for NPR
Hadley Park has a long history in North Nashville, Tenn. It was a plantation, tanks were staged there during the Vietnam War, and it is now home to the annual African Street Festival.

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."

Learotha Williams is a public historian at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
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Joseph Ross for NPR
Learotha Williams is a public historian at Tennessee State University in Nashville.

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.

Nowadays, people don't like to point that out all the time, says Williams. When you visit some of those former plantations, the presence of enslaved people "has been all but erased, to the point where they don't even define them as being 'slaves' anymore. They call them servants."

Williams describes this dynamic as a sort of "collective amnesia." He understands there are people who may not want to dwell on the most painful parts of Nashville's history. But skipping over that history is unhealthy, he says, "because the past gives you some identity. It connects you to a group, or to an event that can give you some idea about where you are currently, or how you get down and why you get down the way you get down."

A community remembrance project marker notes lynchings and other acts of terror that were inflicted upon Black people in Nashville after the end of the Civil War.
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
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Joseph Ross for NPR
A community remembrance project marker notes lynchings and other acts of terror that were inflicted upon Black people in Nashville after the end of the Civil War.

Williams has spent his career taking note of histories that are at risk of being buried — in Florida, where he's from; in Georgia, where he's worked; and now in Tennessee, his home for many years. Like with those plantation houses. If you look closely at the bricks they're built from, you'll see indentations that look suspiciously like fingerprints. "Because that's what they are," Williams says. "Fingerprints of the guys that made the bricks and laid them." Reminders, almost imperceptible, that Black people were there — they lived, they toiled, they created and they survived.

In the generations since, Black people have continued to come to Nashville in waves. They came in search of freedom during the Civil War, when troops erected a Union stronghold at Fort Negley. Then again during the Great Migration, when folks from Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi sought work a bit farther north. And during the Civil Rights Movement, when young people saw the city as a battleground in the fight for integration.

Fort Negley was a Union stronghold in Nashville during the Civil War. It is now a city park and historical center.
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
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Joseph Ross for NPR
Fort Negley was a Union stronghold in Nashville during the Civil War. It is now a city park and historical center.

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 was born in the U.S. and grew up in Nashville, while her parents emigrated from Somalia. She is now a political organizer and recent college graduate.
/ Karla MacIntyre
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Karla MacIntyre
Layla Ahmed was born in the U.S. and grew up in Nashville, while her parents emigrated from Somalia. She is now a political organizer and recent college graduate.

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."

"I was hiding from my story"

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 was 16 when he started school in the U.S. Back then, he says, many of his friends had no idea he was Rwandan. "I mean, they knew I was from another country," he says, "but they didn't know which country I was from."

And he wasn't exactly rushing to correct the record. Gatebuke and his family had just been forced to flee the violence overtaking their home. So if his new friends weren't asking questions about his past, he says, "I was OK with that. Because I was hiding from my story."

Originally from Rwanda, Claude Gatebuke came to Nashville 30 years ago, before the largest wave of African immigrants.
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
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Joseph Ross for NPR
Originally from Rwanda, Claude Gatebuke came to Nashville 30 years ago, before the largest wave of African immigrants.

Gatebuke had grown up a pretty carefree kid. Then, the war started. He remembers the night in April of 1994, when his mom got a call telling her that the president's plane had been shot down. "And my response was, oh my God, I hope the president didn't die, because if he died, we're not going to be able to finish [my] soccer tournament."

Soon, Kigali erupted in chaos. Gatebuke says panic swept through the city — and with it, violence. "Rwanda is a beautiful country — blue skies and everything. But during that time, the sky was covered with a big dark mushroom. And the stench, the mix of smoke, and decomposing human flesh made you want to throw up. I mean, I want to throw up now, thinking about it."

Eventually, like more than a million others, Gatebuke and his family made the decision to flee from the genocide. That journey was its own trauma. At one checkpoint, Gatebuke says he was separated from his group and told to dig his own grave. By some miracle, Gatebuke made it through, eventually. The journey continued. Eventually, Gatebuke's family reached Congo. Then, Kenya. Later, they made it to Nashville, where Gatebuke's father was living as a student.

So there was good reason Claude wasn't bringing up his past every day in the high school cafeteria. But that decision to stay quiet was complicated. He wasn't just avoiding painful memories. He was also worried about the reaction he might get. He remembers once trying to share his story with a high school English teacher. It didn't go well. Gatebuke says the teacher's response was "'I've never heard this before — this isn't the official narrative.' He said, 'No, this can't be true.'"

At the time, Gatebuke didn't understand why he was being shut down. He thought it might be partly because his English was "really bad" back then. And partly because, back in 1996, information about the Rwandan genocide was not as widely available as it would be in years to come. But looking back, he says, he thinks his race was a factor. "Because I'm just not sure that somebody from Ukraine today would come and tell a story and somebody would say, 'This isn't what's happening.'"

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.

A Tennessee Historical Commission marker honors the site of Greenwood Park, which was established by Preston Taylor in 1905. The park was the first to serve Nashville's Black residents.
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
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Joseph Ross for NPR
A Tennessee Historical Commission marker honors the site of Greenwood Park, which was established by Preston Taylor in 1905. The park was the first to serve Nashville's Black residents.

"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."

The incident in high school was just one moment in a long, painful tradition, he says. "The dismissing of a story because the person just happens to be from a background that isn't associated with credibility? That is a thing in America."

Williams, the historian, echoed the sentiment. He said that Black people have been speaking out about violence they've experienced at the hands of police and the state, from Frederick Douglass to Fred Hampton to Freddie Gray. The violence, he says, "is not an aberration. It's a feature of our society. Just the same way that the denial that it has occurred is a feature."

So, Williams says, Black communities "have been residents of the city since its founding. But oftentimes it feels like we are some of its most unwelcomed residents. At times, some of its most despised residents."

And, he says, "In many ways, we're still kind of invisible."

Connecting through storytelling

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.

The Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition's mural says "Welcome Home."
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
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Joseph Ross for NPR
The Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition's mural says "Welcome Home."

Storytelling — and resistance — have also transformed Gatebuke's life. When he was in college in the late 1990s, Gatebuke says he was still mostly ignoring his feelings — "I was a lost, broken Black boy."

But one day, he stumbled upon a children's biography of Frederick Douglass. That story changed the way Gatebuke thought about his own. He says he was fascinated by Douglass' story, but it also made him ashamed. Someone with so little had used his words to fight against slavery. Meanwhile, Gatebuke felt like he was often just floating through life without engaging too deeply.

So he decided, slowly, to change that. By sharing his story more publicly — with some friends, then at local campus events — Gatebuke thought he might be able to help people better understand how war upends people's lives — children's lives. Talking was terrifying at first.

But the more he opened up, the more he met people who connected with what he was saying. Maybe they were from a different background, but they had stories, too.

Gatebuke runs the African Great Lakes Action Network and recently co-edited a book where he and more than a hundred other Rwandans shared their testimonies about the genocide in 1994.
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
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Joseph Ross for NPR
Gatebuke runs the African Great Lakes Action Network and recently co-edited a book where he and more than a hundred other Rwandans shared their testimonies about the genocide in 1994.

And that storytelling has ballooned into something even greater. Gatebuke now runs the African Great Lakes Action Network, an organization founded on the idea that sharing testimony is crucial in the fight for justice. And he recently co-edited a book called Survivors Uncensored, where he and more than a hundred other Rwandans shared their testimony. He hopes that even more people will share their stories.

"Their story doesn't have to be like mine," he says. "But there are many of us who have healed by sharing and by sharing our stories ... and the price of not doing it is so much heavier than the pain of actually getting it done. And why carry the burden?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.