In the early 1960s, there were about 80,00 African immigrants and their children in the United States. Today, that number has grown to five million, and over 10 percent of all black people here were born in a foreign country.
In his lecture, African Immigrants and Refugees in the United States, Geoffrey Canada Professor of Africana Studies and History Olufemi Vaughan, himself an immigrant from Nigeria, explored what countries African immigrants have come from and why, as well as the role they have played in the larger American story. The lecture is one of a series of talks called “Why African-American [Blank] Matters in America,” happening on campus as part of Black History Month.
Vaughan began his lecture with an overview of the context within Africa that precipitated the massive wave of immigration from the continent beginning in the 1980s. African emigration has its “roots in a late colonial encounter,” he said, and the “imposition of the idea of the nation-state which was “arbitrary and artificial by and large.” Most African countries were consumed by crisis very quickly, caused by and precipitating excessive corruption and inequality. “This crisis intensified with neo-liberal policies sanctioned by Bretton Woods agencies in the years after the Cold War,” said Vaughan.
However, Vaughan argued, we “need to move away from simply overgeneralizing and oversimplifying” this story because “not all African countries were the same.”
He further elaborated on this point, distinguishing the different conditions that produced immigrants from some states and refugees from others. This crisis of the post-colonial state looked different in every case, but he noted, “in African countries South of the Sahara it was particularly severe.” In these counties “the state disintegrated, collapsed or nearly disintegrated.”
For example, in Somalia in the early 1990s, “as the crisis deepened and the state essentially atrophied, many people had to find a way out.” Many of these refugees found a home in Maine. When states like Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia or Rwanda disintegrated, “something tragic inevitably happened,” noted Vaughan. However, these refugees “know how to survive because they have been through all kinds of trauma.”
The second narrative of immigrant that Vaughan highlighted was that of Africans who have come from states that did not crumble or collapse entirely, such as Nigeria. In these cases, “the people that can leave tend to do so,” meaning these immigrants tended to be more educated and have more resources. As a consequence they have “more social capital and resources and can navigate the immigration system.” Indeed, by the early 1970s Nigeria was the country that had the third largest number of foreign students studying in the United States.
In the latter part of his talk, Vaughan addressed the vibrant communities African immigrants, refugees, and their descendants have created across the United States. “New African Americans have become a really enriching force…we don’t hear their stories enough,” said Vaughan. “So many amazing incredible things are happening, and the media simply isn’t telling us,” he added.
Vaughan also reflected on the contributions the children of African immigrants and refugees have made on institutions of higher education, Bowdoin included.
Given the short amount of time available to talk about the rich and diverse experiences of millions of individuals and hundreds of communities across the United States, it was impossible for Vaughan to fully encapsulate every African immigrant’s experience. However, he emphasized, “the African American story is never simple. It’s always complicated, and it always will be. And it’s better if we see it that way.”
In the first talk in the “Why African-American [Blank] Matters in America,” Professor of History Patrick Rael spoke about reducing obstacles to voting and why that’s important to protect minority rights. The next lecture, “Why do African-American Women Matter in America?”, will be delivered by Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Judith Casselberry on Feb. 16.