By Mana Abdi
“I firmly believe that we all have the right to have a sense of belonging.”— Mana Abdi
My name is Mana, and this year for the first time I am struggling with Black History Month. I came to this country at the young age of 11 years old in 2007, and I am 26 years old now. When the math is done, that makes 15 years that I have been in this country. In all these years, I have welcomed Black History Month with elation, and never with hesitation. But for the first time, I find myself thinking about my positionality in the conversation for and about major events such as Black History Month, which was specifically designed for African Americans.
My identities have always been very clear to me. I am an Immigrant Black Muslim Woman of Somali ethnicity. Or at least in this country I am coded as such. And in this country the majority of us Africans operate under these codes. Being coded Black meant my Black experience began as soon as I landed foot in this country. The first experience I remember is from elementary school. I was naive at the time to think kids were ruthlessly bullying me because I was the new kid, and this was just the price I was paying for being the new kid. I had seen my fair share of bullies before coming to this country, and I figured they all looked the same, no matter which continent they were on, so in that moment I didn’t think much of the bullying.. Now looking back several years later, it’s apparent those kids were testing out on me all the hate they were absorbing toward someone with identities such as mine.
And it also turns out it wasn’t just the kids of this country who felt this way, but the adults, too. For the past 15 years, my experience has been influenced by books, music, movies and shows that I felt articulated my experience well. Being ripped from everything and everyone you have ever known does something to a young person – especially someone who is naturally introverted. I turned to authors such as Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and everyone else in between to guide and help me make sense of my new world. These artists played a crucial role in creating the person I am today. The African American experience felt so similar to my own that it never dawned on me to question my positionality in it all. Until now.
This is not an attempt to compare or contrast, but rather to ask, where does one go from here? Is being coded Black enough? One thing is certain: the people of this country will never dig far enough to inquire about background, therefore my experiences will be saturated by my most visible identity. I love being Black and it’s unlikely that I would even be here today if it weren’t for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which forced congress to pass the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, abolishing the race-based immigration quota. I guess at the end of it all I am asking – is there space in Black History Month for us Black immigrants who have only known life in this country?
Mana Abdi is ethnically Somali but was born in Kenya and came to the United States when she was eleven. She says that floating in between identities– never feeling fully “American” or “Somali” – has led her to seek out and support others who may feel different or “othered” in their communities. “I firmly believe that we all have the right to have a sense of belonging.”