Caribbean American Heritage Month and Juneteenth may seem like disparate June holidays. However, they both illustrate how Blacks in America have made strides by maintaining a common set of values and by collectively pursuing educational success and economic empowerment.
The American Dream is not a fantasy, it is the fruit of those, like my parents, willing to carve out a better life for themselves and their children despite the obstacles.
I hold this belief as a Caribbean immigrant and spouse of an African immigrant, not just based upon my research into the impact of public policy and civil society on Blacks in America. But my family’s story aligns with what the research shows about our resilient fellow Americans.
I arrived in the United States in 1985, just prior to my third birthday. My family packed up and left a comfortable island lifestyle to start over in a poor, crime-riddled Boston neighborhood at the height of the crack epidemic. We had just a few suitcases of clothes and big dreams.
The challenges of assimilating to a new life in a foreign country, with few networks to depend on and speaking with an accent uncommon even among most immigrants, were jarring for my parents.
Opportunities were available, but like anything of worth, they demanded hard work, patience and humility. It took years of working menial and entry-level jobs for my parents to once again become homeowners. They moved us away from the threat of street violence just as my older brother approached an age that could make him a gang recruit or target.
At the same, my parents invested time and energy into delivering us the best education that public schools could provide. Alumni gifts also made our high school and collegiate education possible. The framed diplomas from half a dozen Ivy League and top-notch schools hanging on our home walls reflect the payoff of these investments.
My parents never believed in government handouts, but were deeply committed to charitable giving through the church and by participating in lending circles. These social networks pooled their money each week and at the end of the month, one person ended up with the cash to do whatever they needed. Lending circles commonly serve as philanthropy, venture capital and banking for immigrant communities.
Many of the over 4.5 million Black immigrants currently living in the U.S. likely see their experiences reflected in my family’s story. The rapid growth of Black immigrants has been tremendous over the past 50 years. Pew Research finds that they comprise 1 in 10 Black people in America today.
Coming largely from the Caribbean and Africa, Black immigrants seek higher education, better economic opportunities and better futures for their children.
Black Americans, whose ancestry dates back hundreds of years in this country, have had a vastly different migration experience. They have overcome human subjugation, heinous brutality, legal and social discrimination and mistreatment.
Yet their resilience is astounding. Black Americans have come together to build and rebuild their communities for over a century.
The Tulsa Massacre is an example of perseverance in the face of brutal racism as well as empowerment and resilience. The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma served as a prosperous urban center in the 1920s boasting 200 Black-owned businesses.
Through grit, hard work and determination, entrepreneurs carved out a bustling, enviable center of commerce.
But a racist white mob sought to destroy it. They killed dozens — perhaps hundreds — of people and burned down over 1,200 homes and buildings. The residents were undeterred.
They used their assets to secure short-term mortgages from financial institutions, wealthier Black people, and community lending pools. Within two decades, they rebuilt Greenwood with over 200 businesses in operation once again.
Grit, hard work, perseverance and personal agency are universal values that have served Black immigrants and non-immigrants well individually. But, philanthropy and mutual aid have supported and uplifted entire communities.
The spirit to overcome any obstacle is the common factor in the success stories of native and foreign-born Blacks in America — from Oprah and Condoleezza Rice to Colin Powell and Sydney Poitier — so is their commitment to giving. This should inspire us all.