Celebrating Black History Month through the Lens of Migration 

A painting from the Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence. 

By Madhavi Narayanan

Each February, the United States celebrates the rich culture and history of Black Americans by marking Black History Month. Part of the history of Black African Americans is the story of Black migration and the treatment of Black immigrants in the United States. The connection between Black migration and Black culture runs deep.  

This Black History Month, I invite you to consider how we are writing today’s Black history in the way that the United States influences and responds to Black migration. One out of ten Black Americans are immigrants, and that fraction is expected to increase in upcoming years. Immigrants fleeing Africa and the Caribbean are flying to South or Central America and increasingly travelling the difficult journey north to the United States. 

The theme of this year’s Black History Month – African Americans and the Arts – highlights this connection. Various forms of art considered central to American culture such as rap, jazz, and tap dance were developed in resistance to the forced migration of Black people and their treatment as slaves or subordinate citizens. Art has been and continues to be a medium of resistance, expression, and celebration by Black Americans, particularly those directly impacted by migration. 

This Black History Month, explore the reflections and contributions of Black migrants and culture in the United States through art. Here are just a few notable examples of this important work: 

 The Passion of Claude McKay Selected Prose and Poetry by Claude McCay (1912-1948) | Poetry 

Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay in Sunny Ville, Jamaica in 1889, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a prominent literary movement of the 1920s. His work ranged from vernacular verse celebrating peasant life in Jamaica to poems that protested racial and economic inequities McKay has been recognized for his intense commitment to expressing the challenges faced by Black Americans and admired for devoting his art and life to social protest, and his audience continues to expand. 

The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) | Visual Art 

Following the example of the West African storyteller or griot, who spins tales of the past that have meaning for the present and the future, Lawrence tells a story that reminds us of our shared history and at the same time invites us to reflect on the universal theme of struggle in the world today: “To me, migration means movement. There was conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle came a kind of power and even beauty. ‘And the migrants kept coming’ is a refrain of triumph over adversity. If it rings true for you today, then it must still strike a chord in our American experience.  

Rie Y Llora by Celia Cruz (1925-2003)| Song 

Celia Cruz, a Cuban-born singer migrated to the United States following the Cuban Revolution of 1959 with her orchestra, La Sonora Matancera. As the first Black lead singer for the group, her mastery of Afro-Cuban music styles helped lead the already popular group to new heights. In the United States, Cruz launched a solo career and became an acclaimed salsa performer. Over the course of her career, she released 37 albums, won accolades for an acting debut in her sixties, and earned three Grammys and four Latin Grammys. 

“Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey” by Kathleen Battle (1948-) | Opera 

Legendary soprano Kathleen Battle’s powerful program of songs inspired by the Underground Railroad, the secret network that helped bring 19th-century slaves to freedom honored the experiences of early Black migrants in the United States. The five-time Grammy winner and opera star shared classic spirituals and traditional pieces. 

The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence by Step Afrika! (1994)| Step 

Founded in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, Step Afrika! Is the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. Step Afrika! Blends percussive dance styles practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities; traditional African dances; and an array of contemporary dance and art forms into a cohesive, compelling artistic experience.  Step Afrika!’s signature work, The Migration, is based on Jacob Lawrence’s iconic painting series that chart the story of African-American migrants moving from the south to the north in the early 1900s. Each piece uses the images, color palette and motifs of one or more of the paintings to tell the migration story through body percussion and dance. 

Coming to America by K’naan Warsame (1978-)|Song 

Rapper K’naan Warsame is a Somali refugee who came to North America to flee the violence in Mogadishu. He released this song in 2012 dedicated to those forced to leave their homes and raps about his story: “I came out of a killer, neighborhood called River | Where life expectancy is shorter than a caterpillar| I was once a gorilla, and this show was my cage | My trainer was the gauge, AK was my baby sitter | When we be out and looted, the whole city was shooting…” 

“If you hate immigrants…” by Trevor Noah (1984-) | Comedy 

Former “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah touches on tacos, runaway snakes, camping, racism immunity and lessons he learned from his mother in this comedy special. Noah’s South African roots and upbringing merge into his recent American experience making for funny and human juxtapositions and observations. 

Arriba “Who is home? | Where is home?” by Aluoch Ojode and Nelson Baltazar | Spoken Word / Music 

The Center for Cultural Power shares the work of Austin-based Kenyan poet and visual artist Aluoch Ojode(she/her) and NYC-based musician Nelson Baltazar (he/they). The piece, entitled Arriba, gives the audience a glimpse into the past, the present, and the future of Black Immigrants who both find themselves grounded in a sense of community and lineage while also feeling a sense of searching for “who is home, where is home?” as Ojode muses in her piece. 

Many of these artists were pushed to the United States due to human rights violations that stem from violent conflict, political instability, environmental degradation, extreme poverty, or persecution based on race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.   

Throughout U.S. history there has been a clear legacy of harsh treatment of Black immigrants. Unfortunately, this legacy continues today. Recent policies such as the Circumvention of Lawful Pathways Rule, which requires Black migrants to wait in Mexico, heightens the risks involved in coming to the United States. In U.S. immigration proceedings, Black asylum seekers face higher credibility standards and are often arbitrarily denied parole or bond. 

Immigration is critical for the arts to thrive; without it we would exist in a cultural vacuum. So, this Black History Month let’s celebrate African Americans and the Arts by reforming the U.S. government’s response to Black migration.  



  • Madhavi Narayanan

Published on February 28, 2024


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