A Call to the Diaspora

Altaf Rahamatulla

Brooklyn, New York

Speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights in June 1964, Malcolm X launched the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). His life changed dramatically that year—he broke with the Nation of Islam that March and afterward visited several African countries and completed the hajj, the holy Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. His journey transformed and broadened his worldview. In his letters from abroad, he speaks of the immense generosity, community, and connectedness he experienced. Inspired by what he witnessed at a summit of the Organization of African Unity, a coalition of African nations that sought to bolster political and economic ties, protect sovereignty, and fight against neocolonialism, he aimed to unite Black people in America through a platform that called for restoration, education, economic security, and self-defense.

In in an impassioned speech, he linked progress for African Americans with Black people of the global diaspora and on the African continent. Presenting the aims of OAAU, he related: “conscious of the fact that freedom, equality, justice and dignity are central objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere, we will endeavor to build a bridge of understanding and create the basis for Afro American unity.”[1]

1964, much like today, was a time of upheaval, conflict, and transformation. That year saw courageous organizing through demonstrations demanding dignity and equality, sit-ins protesting discrimination, and voter engagement and political education during Freedom Summer. It also saw deep violence: wanton cruelty against Black people, murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi, and endemic police brutality, which spurred riots in major cities throughout the country. It was a period of legislative reform, as well; in July, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, prohibiting segregation in public places and employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or national origin.[2] Amidst this, Malcolm X’s spirited call to achieve Black power through diasporic alliances and internationalizing Black struggle was prescient—a powerful foundation to build from in the current moment.

Today, New York City is home to one of the largest African American and Black immigrant populations of any metropolitan area in the country. Over 20 percent of all Black immigrants in the U.S. live in New York alone.[3] Nationally, the Black immigrant population has increased over 400 percent since 1980, reaching 4.2 million in 2018.[4]

This significant demographic shift would have not been possible without Black movement struggles. Civil Rights activism laid the groundwork for the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which rescinded the racially discriminatory quota system the country had in place that favored immigrants from Western and Northern Europe. Before the law, the quota system had severely limited immigration for decades, and almost 70 percent of available visas had been reserved for just three countries: Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.[5] In the half-century since its enactment, over 60 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S., primarily from Latin America and Asia.[6] In her seminal opening to The New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones reflects, “because of black Americans, black and brown immigrants from across the globe are able to come to the United States and live in a country in which legal discrimination is no longer allowed.”[7]

My own roots are in the diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America. My family, descendants of enslaved African people and Indian indentured servants, came to New York City for the opportunity to grow and thrive. Our existence in this country, like other Black and Brown immigrant families, is born out of Black-led justice movements.

We are inextricably tied through common ancestry and vivid cultural bonds. From colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy to uprisings, revolt, and independence, our histories are bound as well. We further endure the unyielding realities of anti-Black racism and criminalization. A particularly macabre example can be found in the New York Police Department’s longstanding pattern of targeting Black immigrants.[8] The seemingly unending list of Black immigrants killed at the hands of law enforcement sears our memories: Amadou Diallo, Burkinabé Ousam Zongo, Ramarley Graham, and so many others. What’s more, between 2014 and 2017, Black and Latinx people accounted for an overwhelming majority of police stops in the city and were much more likely to have force used against them. Unsurprisingly, the precincts with the highest number of stops and use of force are in neighborhoods with high concentrations of African, Caribbean, and Latin American immigrants.[9] Black immigrants also disproportionately face detention and deportation. Nationally, while just 7 percent of undocumented people are Black, they comprise almost 20 percent of those facing deportation on criminal charges.[10]

Yet, we often see divides between Black immigrants, people of the diaspora, and African American communities. Much of these rifts can be linked to the pervasive ways colonialism and white supremacy have sought to dehumanize, exploit, and categorize us for centuries. They manifest in colorism, classism, self-hate, denial, and distorted perceptions of social hierarchy and superiority. They show up in damaging ideas of who is right, who is moral, and who is worthy. In a 1996 New Yorker essay, “Black Like Them,” Malcolm Gladwell writes about this dynamic: “This is racism's newest mutation—multicultural racism, where one ethnic group can be played off against another.”[11] Substantiating these divisions only perpetuates our oppression. I have unfortunately seen this up close in my own Guyanese and Caribbean community. There are some who arrive in this country and want to be perceived as separate from the “African American experience.” Their view of this experience is a perverted projection of inferiority and unworthiness propagated by white America to justify discrimination and subjugation.

Compounding this, our communities are often carved and boxed by entities that claim to be concerned with our uplift. Nonprofits and philanthropy, for example, can promulgate categorization and notions of which communities are deserving under the hollow guise of outcomes and theories of change.

What Malcolm X preached in 1964, and what other visionary Black leaders who have linked the local to the international have called for, is a potent formula for power and agency: a sense of shared identity and purpose, paired with leadership development and political education, anchored in civic engagement and movement-building, will lift our struggles for freedom. Alliance-building and solidarity fuel civic strength that can be forged into a political force.

In this moment of uprisings for racial justice, to envision Black power in New York City necessitates diasporic unity. Our history and cultures are tied, so too must our liberation and future.

[1] “(1964) Malcolm X’s Speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity,” BlackPast, Oct. 2007, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1964-malcolm-x-s-speech-founding-rally-organization-afro-american-unity/.

[2] Taylor, Alan, “1964: Civil Rights Battles,” The Atlantic, May 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/05/1964-civil-rights-battles/100744/.

[3] “Power of the Purse: The Contributions of Black Immigrants in the United States,” New American Economy, March 2020, https://research.newamericaneconomy.org/report/black-immigrants-2020/.

[4] Anderson, Monica and Lopez, Gustavo, “Key facts about black immigrants in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, Jan. 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/24/key-facts-about-black-immigrants-in-the-u-s/.

[5] Wolgin, Philip E., “The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 Turns 50,” Center for American Progress, Oct. 2015, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2015/10/16/123477/the-immigration-and-nationality-act-of-1965-turns-50/

[6] “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065,” Pew Research Center, Sept. 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2015/09/28/modern-immigration-wave-brings-59-million-to-u-s-driving-population-growth-and-change-through-2065/.

[7] Hannah-Jones, Nikole, “America Wasn’t A Democracy, Until Black Americans Made it One,” The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html.

[8] Ibrahim, Sharmira, “The NYPD’s Long History of Targeting Black Immigrants,” Documented, July 2020, https://documentedny.com/2020/07/01/the-nypds-long-history-of-targeting-black-immigrants/.

[9] “Stop-and-frisk in the de Blasio Era,” New York Civil Liberties Union, March 2019, https://www.nyclu.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/20190314_nyclu_stopfrisk_singles.pdf.

[10] Raff, Jeremy, “The ‘Double Punishment’ for Black Undocumented Immigrants,” The Atlantic, July 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/12/the-double-punishment-for-black-immigrants/549425/.

[11] Gladwell, Malcolm, “Black Like Them,” The New Yorker, Apr. 1996, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/04/29/black-like-them.

Through positions in philanthropy, advocacy, and government, Altaf has dedicated his career to advancing racial justice. His family has deep ties to New York City—his father’s side emigrated from Guyana to Washington Heights, and his mother’s family from Italy and Honduras to the Bronx.