By Leah Donnella
Titile Keskessa was 15 years old when she “almost got beat up” by a classmate for asking, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, who exactly this King guy was — and why he warranted a day off from school. It was 1987, and Keskessa had recently moved from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Memphis, Tenn. — the city where King was notoriously assassinated.
She laughs at the memory now. It’s almost too absurd to be satire: a Black kid threatening violence against another Black kid to defend the honor of the leader of the nonviolent organizing movement. But they were teenagers, and feelings were running hot.
At the time, the significance of the interaction was mostly lost on Keskessa. She was the new kid at school, in a new country, learning a new language. Homesick and culture-shocked, finding her way to her classes was challenge enough. Understanding the political and social importance of the leader of a movement she’d never heard of was altogether too much.
“So yeah, the first six months to a year was really, really rough for me,” she says.
Looking back, Keskessa thinks this was probably one of the first moments when she began to understand that there was a gap, wide as a canyon, between her experiences and those of her classmates. One that wasn’t about nationality, but something they all presumably shared: race.
As an Ethiopian, Keskessa is Black. She’s always been aware of that. But suddenly, she was Black in the United States — and specifically, in Memphis — a city steeped in all the richness of Black American culture and all the fraughtness of American anti-Black racism. What exactly would that mean as she navigated this new country? Keskessa, like so many other Black immigrants, had no idea. But she would spend the next 3 1/2 decades figuring it out. It was a journey that would involve moments of confusion, sadness and misunderstanding. But one that would also be punctuated with joy, humor, discovery and recognition.
I first met Keskessa in November, during a months-long reporting trip to Tennessee. I was there to learn more about the state’s burgeoning Black immigrant population. And while Keskessa’s stories and experiences were unique, they also felt deeply connected to the longer, broader story of the state’s — and the country’s — changing demographics.
Nashville has become a hub for immigrants from many parts of the world
At the beginning of the 1980s, only 3% of Black Americans in the U.S. were immigrants. Most were of Caribbean descent, and they were largely concentrated in New York City. But by 2019, there were more than 4.6 million Black Americans who were born in another country, and about 20% of Black Americans were either immigrants or the children of immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center. The fastest-growing demographic within the Black immigrant population comes from countries in Africa — in fact, the population of African immigrants in the U.S. has been “roughly doubling every decade since 1970,” according to another Pew report. And while New York remains a hub for immigrants of all backgrounds, regionally the largest proportion of Black immigrants — 42% — lives in the U.S. South.
The South is often considered the birthplace and heartland of Black American culture. It’s where, out of the necessity and brutality of slavery, Africans birthed a new identity. It’s the origin of myriad cultural touchstones, from soul food to signifying and from gospel to the Blues. The South has also been the center point of Black political organizing and political history; from abolition to Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement to today’s fights to protect voting rights.
So I wondered: How do immigrants and refugees experience life in this storied region? Do they feel like inheritors of the Black Southern tradition? Do they see reflections of their home cultures in this new place? How do Black American and Black immigrant cultures interact? Where — if anywhere — are the nexuses of culture and tension and solidarity and innovation?
These questions led me to Tennessee. Each year, NPR’s Above the Fray fellowship sends a reporter out to cover an underreported story with an international perspective. Tennessee is a state that has recently made national news for its political conservatism. It’s the place where critical race theory was first banned in grade schools, where one of the first trigger bans went into effect to criminalize abortions, where some have speculated that a new “Hollywood for conservatives” could take root.
Tennessee is also one of the Blackest states in the country; its Black immigrant population is the fastest growing in the South. Memphis is one of the largest majority-Black cities. And Nashville, though often talked about as a hub for bachelorette parties and country music, is an important hub for immigration from all over the world. Once dubbed “the New Ellis Island,” the capital city is home to the largest Kurdish population outside of the Middle East, and to diverse immigrant communities from East and Central Africa, Egypt, Central America and more.
During the six-month fellowship, I traveled the state, interviewing dozens of Black Tennessean immigrants and their kids, partners, friends, neighbors and colleagues. Many of our discussions explored how different communities define and relate to Blackness in their neighborhoods and towns.
I visited Knoxville and Clarksville, Murfreesboro and Gallatin. But I split most of my time between Nashville and Memphis.
In Nashville, I sat down with the first Muslim to be elected in the state of Tennessee, and the first Nigerian to be elected to any U.S. office — a woman who was responsible for renaming one of Nashville’s main thoroughfares after the civil rights icon John Lewis. I spoke to a young Somali American organizer who said the main thing most Americans know about Somalia is “pirates.” There was the former child soldier who now leads one of the longest-running refugee resettlement organizations in the city. A second-generation Oromo American whose friends sent her down a Netflix rabbit hole to brush up on Black American culture. (The seminal coming-of-age film Boyz in the Hood featured prominently.) An African American couple who participated in the 1960 Nashville lunch counter sit-ins and devoted their post-retirement life to helping found a Nuer-language Presbyterian church.
In Memphis, there was the 17-year-old who stopped identifying as African because he knew he would get bullied for it. The two young friends — one Rwandan and one Somali — who discovered that they completely disagree about whether it’s important to talk about racism. The couple — one Tanzanian, one from Burundi — who met at a refugee camp in Kenya and were trying to understand why in a country as rich as the United States, so much homelessness still exists. The African American woman who started working with African immigrants as a way to understand her own identity better. The Ethiopian American DJ who said that Memphis is the best place in the world to be a Black person. The African American who left the city because, she said, it’s one of the worst.
Over the course of these hundred or so conversations, a number of throughlines emerged. There was the feeling of being both invisible and hypervisible. There was the realization that being Black in a majority non-Black country feels very different than being Black in a majority Black country — and that being Black in the United States was unique even within that subcategory. There was the acknowledgment that the lives of Black immigrants and Black non-immigrants are intertwined, no matter how differently people sometimes see themselves.
“We are the most loving, kindhearted people”
A final throughline (and my personal favorite): Black immigrants love being Black.
One thing that comes up time and again in the course of talking about Black identity is that the experience of American Blackness is indelibly tied to the exposure to racism. In other words, people often learn what it is to be Black when they are the victims of American anti-Blackness. But this is only a single part of the learning experience, and often not the first lesson. People also learn what it means to be Black in the U.S. through their experiences of solidarity, culture, community and resilience.
When I asked folks what they loved about being Black, their posture relaxed, their faces lit up. Many people wondered where to begin.
“I think of communities across history, and all of the stuff that we’ve been through. And yet there’s so much joy, there’s so much hope to exist, so much creativity …,” says Judith Clerjeune, an immigrant of Haitian descent who is the campaigns and advocacy director at the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition. “We continue to imagine a future for the most marginalized of us. We continue to choose hope, even in the face of all of the disappointment, which is so, so powerful.”
Vanessa Ajeh’s thoughts turned to the creative arts and culinary prowess of her community. “We created amazing music, like Blues and jazz, all that came out of the oppression,” says Ajeh, who is Nigerian American. “And we have amazing food — seasoned, delicious food. [But] I think my favorite thing is just anytime I’m with Black people, I just feel like I can be myself.”
And there is communal recognition, a sense of shared experience that binds, even among strangers. Claude Gatebuke, a Rwandan activist, explains it this way: “For me, personally, it’s the ability to be from anywhere and to blend in in all kinds of places. … The ability to go around the world and be one of the people.” Other Black folks, he says, “might not even speak to you. You might not even speak the same language. But they recognize you. They nod … it’s like, ‘I see you.'”
Maranjely Zapata, a hairdresser, mother and aspiring author from Honduras, says: “Black people, we are the most loving, kindhearted people that you will ever meet in your life.”
Even learning about the history of slavery — and the resilience of enslaved people — has proven inspiring to her. “I don’t think I can be more traumatized — I’ve been traumatized my whole life,” she says. “So I’ve been doing my own research, and the more I dig into, the more I want to know and the more I want to experience.”
As for Keskessa? Actually, that’s Queen Titile Keskessa now — she changed her name in 2015, in part to honor what she sees as her new identity as a Black, Ethiopian, American woman.
In 2022, she joined the Memphis mayor’s office as the city’s first multicultural affairs officer, a job that appreciates the questions about race, identity and community she’s been pursuing for decades. In that role, she seeks to celebrate Memphis’ diversity in all of its forms. Because, after all, Memphis is the place where she learned to celebrate herself, and all of the different identities that she embodies.
“Being a Black woman is being free for me,” she says. “It gives me … freedom to be exactly who I am. Who I was created to be.”