Shawn Williams in Dallas Morning News: A lesson from black immigrants

Here’s the DMN Points article that’s available online now, or in the early Sunday paper. Thanks to Nicole Stockdale for the real estate.

Who would have ever thought that America’s chief executive and top cop would be African-Americans, at the same time no less? And that their administration would be endorsed by one of the most beloved black military figures in U.S. history?

Yes Barack Obama, Eric Holder and Colin Powell are at the pinnacle of African-American achievement. But as I’ve reflected on these three men for the last few weeks, I keep coming back to one undeniable similarity: These three men are all the sons of immigrants.

We all know that Barack Obama’s father was born in Kenya and traveled to this country to pursue his education. But fewer people are aware that Colin Powell’s parents came to this country from the island of Jamaica or that Eric Holder’s father was born in Barbados.

While each of them have very different backgrounds and compelling stories that brought them to this point in history, it is worth exploring what their immigrant heritage and outstanding accomplishments mean for African-Americans who descended from slaves.

Whether from Mozambique or Mexico, Iran or Italy, those who choose to cast their lot on a move to America do so in hopes of providing a better life for themselves and their families. Yet what’s seen as the Land of Opportunity for some is viewed as a perpetual nightmare by others.

In the African-American community, we often give too much power to fear and hate mongers and not enough credit those who rally to defeat them. We overrate prejudicial institutions and their racist defenders and undervalue the strength that lies within us to overcome life’s obstacles.

Our mothers, fathers and grandparents are reluctant to give us firsthand accounts of their experiences in the Jim Crow South. That’s because the focus tends to be on the indignities they suffered rather than the fortitude they showed in prevailing over government-sanctioned discrimination.

I remember asking my late grandmother which of her ancestors was held in slavery or whether she knew how her family got to America. Her answer was always the same: “None of my people was slaves or from Africa. My people come here from Tennessee.” Even as a fourth-grader, I realized this could not be true.

It turns out that her maternal grandfather, Jack Woodard, was held in slavery in Tennessee until he was 15 and the Civil War ended. My great-great grandfather could not read or write, and yet he managed to relocate his family to Fannin County, Texas, where he purchased a 16-acre farm. He achieved much more than his background or circumstances would have dictated.

That is the same type of story of hard work and success you hear every day from immigrant families – but is all but forgotten in the annals of African-American history.

African immigrants are traveling to the U.S. in the same vein as my ancestors and unlocking the secrets to the American Dream.

Africans attain higher education levels than any other immigrant group in the U.S., including that of Asians. Nearly two-thirds of black students at Ivy League schools are African immigrants, rather than African-Americans who trace their roots back to slavery, according to The New York Times.

These numbers don’t just apply to first-generation immigrants, but second- and third-generation, as well.

Black immigrants – whether from the continent of Africa or the islands of the Caribbean – come to this country facing most of the same challenges and barriers that confront multi-generational black Americans; they have just done a better job of rising above them.

As African-Americans, we have to take the shackles off our children’s imaginations. We have to stop telling them what America won’t let them grow to be and instead encourage them to go out make their dreams come true.

African-Americans, Caribbeans and Africans share more similarities than differences. Obama himself once said that “some of the patterns of struggle and degradation that blacks here in the United States experienced aren’t that different from the colonial experience in the Caribbean or the African continent.”

African-Americans should celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, recognizing that although America is a country that still harbors racist tendencies, it is also a place where blacks can overcome those impediments to achieve high levels of success. We can simultaneously fight injustice and teach our children of the incredible opportunities this country has to offer.

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