How George Floyd’s death united Africans and African-Americans

African immigrants have not always felt at home in African-American communities. Black Lives Matter protests may be changing that.

Courtesy of Hillary Taylor Seguya
Hillary Taylor Seguya, a Ugandan graduate student, holds a sign during a Black Lives Matter protest at Boston City Hall June 10, 2020.

Her body was found just days after George Floyd was laid to rest. Nineteen-year-old Oluwatoyin Salau had made a name for herself in Tallahassee, Florida, where she was active in the Black Lives Matter movement and became a prominent voice during protests following Mr. Floyd’s death.

Police have arrested Aaron Glee Jr., who according to court documents confessed to kidnapping and murdering both Ms. Salau and fellow activist Victoria Sims. But when Ms. Salau’s friends and family gathered in her memory on Saturday, they focused not on the tragedy of her death, but rather the faith and convictions that informed her life.

Those convictions brought her to the forefront of Tallahassee BLM protests, where she espoused an inclusive view of the movement.. “We are doing this for our brothers and our sisters who got shot,” she told fellow protesters mourning the killing of Tony McDade, a Black transgender man, in a video widely circulated on social media, “but we are doing this for every black person.” 

Her inclusive view of the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention, as has her Nigerian descent. Among many Black communities in the United States, there’s a sense that African-Americans whose forebears were enslaved in the U.S., tolerate new generations of African immigrants to the country. Differences in attitude or lifestyle, at times, has put a wedge in their relationships, leading to suspicion, accusations, and a general sense of incompatibility.

But from Minneapolis and Houston to Boston and New York, generations of African immigrants have begun to raise their voices in unison with their African-American neighbors.

For Herman Ainebyona, a Ugandan living in Massachusetts, the outrage that he feels when he sees a fellow man killed by police knows no nationality. He joined protests in Boston and Worcester because “loss of life of a human by the knee should be protested against as a basic principle of humanity," he says.

After six years living in the U.S., he understands why many African immigrants do not demonstrate, citing "immigration myths, responsibility burdens, and a way of life for Africans and most immigrants in the United States which make it almost impossible to take part."

For some African immigrants, the freedom to speak their mind still does not feel theirs to hold.

One woman from East Africa who was interviewed for this story had been made to feel so unwelcome here that she did not feel safe giving her name.

"I have been a victim of great injustice since arriving in the USA,” she says, “from being spat at and told to return to Africa while the train is in motion, to being subjected to the most heinous hate-motivated violence that police classified as an "anti-African" type of hate-crime against me.”

Hillary Taylor Seguya, a Ugandan graduate student studying international relations at Harvard University, says he joined peaceful protests because “I wanted to also send a strong message to the world that we are all born free and equal regardless of our skin color."

He described the demonstrations as "multi-racial and multi-generational" and embraces that diversity as a strength. "I saw many people from Africa participating in Black Lives Matter protests because they face racism too," says Mr. Seguya. "I never felt out of place during the protests because all of us came for a common cause determined to demand for an equal destiny and build a better future free from racism."

He does not view racism as an exclusively American problem. Uganda, he says, "has a bad history of racism dating back to 1972 when dictator Idi Amin Dada expelled Asians" from the country, issuing them a 90 days ultimatum to leave.

Violent police tactics have also been a point of concern in Uganda, adds Mr. Ainebyona. In fact, the death of Mr. Floyd resonated with residents of many African nations, who held their own solidarity marches.

Emamsy Mbossa Ngossoh, a native of the Republic of Congo who recently graduated from Columbia University in New York, says he has a hard time seeing the kind of change currently called for here finding many footholds on the African continent. 

“Unfortunately, African police have excelled in bad practices of beating and hurting helpless people including teenagers and elderly people,” he says. “Honestly, police reform will be hard to implement simply because it’s linked to the bad governance with corrupted leadership who only seek their interests."

In that sense, the Black Lives Matter movement, described by many observers as the most racially diverse protest movement in living memory, has transcended the trials of the African-American experience and the United States. Albert Usumanu, a Cameroonian born lawyer who has lived in the U.S. since 1985, hopes that the reach and unified purpose of the movement can be instructive for Africa – and African Americans.

"Our African-American brethren finally believe we all are in the same boat, seeing the reaction of Africans from Ghana [where a ceremony was organized in honor of Floyd] and across the continent as well as Africans right here in America,” he says. “We all feel a knee on our neck."

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