A mass movement roils the nation. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has cut short too many lives, George Floyd’s broad-daylight murder under the knees of the police was the spark that lit the movement, though the injustices that inspire it stretch back more than 400 years. In cities and towns across America and around the globe, hundreds of thousands of people from all backgrounds are coming together in the youth-led movement to demand the end of anti-Black racism and systemic inequality.

These protests are the newest chapters in the long Black freedom struggle, epitomized by the dearly departed John Lewis, the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and characterized by Black activism, self-determination and resiliency. Lewis reminds us that we are one family, one house. To honor his memory and carry forth his legacy, we must begin anew. We must get our house in order at last.

As the great African American author James Baldwin proclaims: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

We, too, love this country and this moment requires an uncomfortable critique of the realities that have facilitated endemic disregard for indigenous African Americans in favor of waves of immigrants of all races, no matter how harshly history has treated each influx. Our country’s partial answers to her recent crimes against immigrants must not excuse amnesia of her twin original sins of genocide and slavery, which affect how people live their lives today.

Black lives matter. Marchers chant these words in unison. Companies proclaim them in public relations campaigns. Public officials bullhorn them at demonstrations and utter them in interviews. They are printed on T-shirts, stenciled on homemade placards and painted in large gold letters on main thoroughfares around the nation, including the road leading to the White House, public art that Lewis was able to see before he died.

Black lives matter. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors coined the phrase. Like all humans, they embody multiple identities, but they collaborate across difference. Tometi is the second-generation Nigerian-American founder of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration; her parents were undocumented. Cullors is a queer Black artist and founder of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence. Garza is the queer daughter of a Jewish father and a Black mother. The system might simplify their identities, reducing them to one Black immigrant and two African Americans.

Their collaboration reveals a truth about Black liberation: For all of us to be free, we must find solidarity across the chasms that those in power exploit. Divide and conquer, a doctrine old as dirt, has pitted Black people who immigrated to the U.S. from the African continent against indigenous African Americans who have survived genocide and the atrocities of chattel slavery in this country.

But we must begin anew. America owes indigenous African Americans a great debt, for the economic wealth of this nation was built with Black bodies and the degradation of Black lives. Payment of this debt means not only reconciling that our bodies were once a form of currency in this country, a product bought and sold, but also tackling the aftershocks of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, lynching and still more. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of this as the “promissory note” that remains in default, an oft-forgotten and overlooked passage of his speech at the March on Washington.

In spite of this, indigenous African Americans have watched as wave after wave of immigrants arrived on these shores and surpassed them on the social, political and economic ladder. Black immigrants arrive on the shores of the United States fleeing failing states, warfare and economic devastation. Many of these ills are the fruits of Western perfidy, as historian Walter Rodney, economist William Easterly and others remind us. Belgium enslaved the Congo with the help of American newspapers, and the U.S. snuffed the nascent democratic movement there when the CIA helped assassinate Patrice Lumumba in 1960.

More stories like this define the West’s relationship to Africa, the primary source for immigrants to Maine. And yet, the racist soup that stews in America is uniquely devastating to those who have simmered in it longer – the descendants of Africans enslaved in the Americas. Those whose countries American imperialism wrecked have still had the buffer of native languages and cultures, some distance from the lethal toxin of endemic American white supremacy.

This reality has resulted in disparities in income and health between them, putting the average African migrant above the indigenous African American in metrics that matter to quality of life. Data show that the household income for Black immigrants is lower than that of Americans overall but higher than the income of indigenous African Americans, evidencing a system that has left native sons and daughters behind.

But as The New York Times makes painfully clear in a recent article, we must do more to protect the lives of Black people. And we must act in solidarity across differences within the many rooms of our house.

Paradoxically, one way to do this is to distinguish between “Black immigrant” and “African American or indigenous Black American” in our health care policy. This distinction matters for epidemiological reasons. There are significant health differences between indigenous African Americans, African immigrants and Afro-Caribbeans. The task force convened to End Hunger in Maine by 2030 disaggregates food insecurity data in this way.

To the United States Census Bureau, and to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there is only one category that captures all Black people: “Black or African American.” We do not know what proportion of the more than 25 percent of positive tests for COVID-19 are Black immigrants, and what proportion are indigenous Black American. Recent media coverage about racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates in Maine has highlighted few indigenous Black American voices. A recent Washington Post article reinforces this error by stating that “almost half the black people in Maine are immigrants,” quoting not a single indigenous African American voice while naming, quoting and even printing photos of several Black (and non-Black) immigrants.

The distinction also matters if we are to remedy historical injustices. African immigrants certainly suffer under institutional racism. They may suffer housing discrimination, racial profiling, redlining and other forms of exclusion and abuse. But African immigrants were not dispossessed in the myriad ways as those whose ancestors toiled on American plantations and were written into the U.S. Constitution as three-fifths of a person, a codified disgrace that continues to give power permission to treat Black people as less than human.

African immigrants have not suffered the generational deprivation and subjugation of indigenous African Americans. For African immigrants, America presents dangers, but it also offers refuge and new beginnings. For too many indigenous African Americans, despite considerable progress, America remains a place of genocide, where trauma and erasure are deeply rooted, where the lash of brutal chattel slavery echoes still.

Crucially, the ancestors of indigenous African Americans were forced here in a treacherous journey that killed legions. Women and men built the new nation’s fortunes on their backs. Indigenous African Americans have also given this nation some of its most significant cultural achievements and life-changing inventions and discoveries: the spiritual, the blues, rock ’n’ roll and jazz, a uniquely American musical invention. Don’t forget the traffic light, home security system, rotary-blade lawn mower, crop rotation and blood plasma.

Lest we forget, Maine reaped the economic fruits ripened in the slave trade. Antebellum shipbuilding thrived in Maine, and many ships built here carried human cargo. The only person in American history to be tried and executed for slave trading, Nathaniel Gordon, was a Mainer.

Indigenous African Americans have been in Maine longer than Maine has been a state. Maine’s first African American legislator, the Hon. Gerald E. Talbot, elected in 1972, belongs to a family with 11 generations of history in Maine. Still, indigenous African American communities in Maine have historically lacked the level of influence or political representation that a larger African American population has enjoyed in other states. They currently lack the social, economic or public health infrastructure of Maine’s Black immigrant community.

Through no fault of their own, and like other immigrants before them, African migrants have been used as pawns in the nation’s refusal to achieve racial justice. Black immigrants have been touted as a model minority, even as they climb ladders built by the indigenous African American freedom struggle.

Black immigrant representation remains crucial, but it does not fully address the aftermath of chattel slavery, which imposes unique generational burdens on indigenous African Americans. This reality must drive our collection of data and it must drive our policy interventions. African immigrant leaders, indigenous African American leaders, Native American leaders, Hispanic American leaders and other people of color in Maine stand in solidarity behind this principle of action.

The current pandemic further proves that our struggle is shared. More than one in four people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Maine are Black or African American, even though only one in 60 Mainers identifies as Black or African American. More than one in three Mainers who have tested positive is a person of color, even though only about one in 20 Mainers is non-white.

The federal government has been derelict in addressing this crisis. The United States has too long led the world in COVID-19 deaths and infections. Our surgeon general’s response to disproportionate Black death was to urge Black and other people of color to “avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs.” This is to say nothing of the dysfunction and abject failure of the White House, leaving state and local governments to find a way out of no way.

We continue to call on policymakers and the private sector to lead with love and inclusion, not fear and division, and embrace indigenous African American voices and experiences in their pandemic relief and recovery efforts, as well as in the long-term plans for the state’s health and well-being.

We join voices throughout the diaspora calling for structural change. As Audre Lorde told us, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And so we need new tools, such as those recommended by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.

After all that indigenous African Americans have sacrificed – willingly and otherwise – to make this country live up to its promise of liberty and justice for every human personality, it’s the least we can do. Let us honor the legacies of those who have gone before us and get our house in order, once and for all.


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