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Black immigrants to the U.S. are growing in numbers, but they don't feel understood


Most of this country's Black population has a particular history. Centuries ago, their ancestors came here as captives as part of the slave trade. Some of this country's Black population has a different story. About 1 in 10 Black people are immigrants to the United States. That's several million people. NPR's Leah Donnella heard some of their stories in Tennessee.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Many immigrants have had to play the role of cultural ambassador. For Tennessee's Black immigrant population, sometimes that means starting with the very basics.

MARANJELY ZAPATA: One person one day did - he was like, are you from Mexico? I was like, no, I'm from Honduras. And he was like, there's Black people in Honduras?

LAYLA AHMED: I like to ask people what they know about Somalis. And, unfortunately, what most people know about Somalis is, like, pirates - that's the No. 1 thing - hunger and war.

NIYOKWIZIGIGWA ATHUMANI: When I was younger and I just came to America, I just told people I was African, born and raised there, and I got bullied for it.

DONNELLA: That was Maranjely Zapata in Knoxville, Layla Ahmed in Nashville and Niyokwizigigwa Athumani in Memphis. When interacting with people outside their communities, they all described experiences ranging from ignorance to hostility, and that's had consequences. Athumani is 17, and he's originally from Rwanda, but he says...

ATHUMANI: I don't really know what my cultural identity - yeah, I know I'm African and everything, but I want to be more.

DONNELLA: Claude Gatebuke is also from Rwanda, but he's had an extra couple decades in the U.S. Like the others, he's faced a lot of ignorance about his identity, and he's thought a lot about why that is. Gatebuke grew up in Kigali and moved to Nashville in 1995 when he was turning 16. This was still a few years before Tennessee's immigrant population would really start increasing. At his new school, a lot of his friends had no idea where he was from.

CLAUDE GATEBUKE: I mean, they knew I was from another country, but they didn't know what country I was from.

DONNELLA: And Gatebuke wasn't exactly rushing to set things straight.

GATEBUKE: 'Cause I was hiding from my story.

DONNELLA: Gatebuke says when war overtook his country, he'd had to grow up fast. The streets of Kigali erupted in chaos.

GATEBUKE: You know, Rwanda's a really beautiful country, but, at that time, the sky was covered with a big, dark mushroom, and the stench of dust, smoke, burning structures and decomposing human flesh made you want to throw up. I mean, I want to throw up now.

DONNELLA: Like more than a million others, Gatebuke and his family were forced to flee the country. That journey was its own trauma. There were many close calls with death. But finally, Gatebuke's family was able to relocate to Nashville, where his father had been living as a student. Shortly after the move, Gatebuke tried to share part of his story with a teacher. It didn't go well.

GATEBUKE: I'm sure my English was really bad, but, you know, his response was, I've never heard this before. And he just said, no, this can't be true.

DONNELLA: Back then, Gatebuke didn't understand why he was being shut down. Today, though, he has some ideas. He says, at the time, in its immediate aftermath, the genocide wasn't as widely publicized as it would be in years to come. But also...

GATEBUKE: Looking back, a part of it, for me, is white supremacy.

DONNELLA: The longer he's lived in the U.S., the more Gatebuke says he's seen parallel stories play out in a distinctly American context. Black people try to talk about a trauma they've experienced only to be told that they must be mistaken or exaggerating.

GATEBUKE: For many years, we talked about things like police brutality, racial profiling.

DONNELLA: Gatebuke says he himself has been misidentified by police. As a high schooler, he was once thrown to the ground.

GATEBUKE: America didn't believe it until phone cameras came along, and then America acted like, oh, this is bad.

LEAROTHA WILLIAMS: And Black people, we've been telling folks about this for a long time.

DONNELLA: That's Learotha Williams. He's a public historian at Tennessee State University.

WILLIAMS: Dr. King spoke about it. Huey and the Panthers spoke about it.

DONNELLA: He says even though Black people have been speaking out about the violence they've experienced for generations...

WILLIAMS: Folks find a way to try to convince you that you ain't seeing what you're seeing, right?

DONNELLA: Despite that, Williams says that for hundreds of years, Black people have been migrating to Nashville and trying to make their voices heard there. It happened during the Civil War, the Great Migration, the civil rights movement, and...

WILLIAMS: Those people that come here, they don't come here empty-handed, right? They bring their culture. They're bringing their notions of liberty and how they define freedom.

DONNELLA: Immigrants now make up more than 12% of the city's population, but Black immigrants have been referred to as invisible because they're so rarely centered in national conversations around immigration policy. Still, many Black immigrants all over Tennessee are pushing for their cultures, histories and identities to be recognized, like Athumani, who wants to be a better community member...

ATHUMANI: I want to be, like, somebody that can reach out to, like, all these other people and be, like, a guide.

DONNELLA: ...Zapata, who wants to be a better parent...

ZAPATA: You know, just show them what is their culture like and how to embrace it.

DONNELLA: ....Or Layla Ahmed, who now works at the nonprofit Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition. Part of her work is educating people about political issues that affect immigrants. But she's also mastered the soft sell.

AHMED: Like, a lot of people have never tried Somali food. And there's a bunch of great restaurants in Nashville.

DONNELLA: As for Claude Gatebuke, he once thought everyone wanted him to stay silent, but he later realized that there were people who were eager to hear and believe him and that talking about his past might even help some people. After all, hearing other people's stories of trauma and resistance was a huge inspiration to him. So today he leads 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 share their stories. He does all this because, like Learotha Williams, he believes it's critical to be a part of commemorating and legitimizing Black stories of survival and healing from all over the world.

GATEBUKE: The very first thing that brings about change is awareness.

DONNELLA: Leah Donnella, NPR News, Nashville. 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.