African Immigration in the United States


Africans have lived in the United States for Centuries. They came to the country first because of slave trade. Many Africans were shipped into the country to provide cheap labor. Long after slave trade was abolished more and more Africans have been immigrating to the United States out of their own free will. The number of African immigrants to the United States rose during the twentieth century. Many African immigrants come for various reasons such as to seek education, seek asylum and look for economic fortunes or greener pastures as well as share in the American dream. Therefore, in the recent past many Africans have applied for United States citizenship. The Focus of this paper will be how the Africans maintain their identity in the United States.

History of African Immigration to the U.S

The history of African immigration to the United States dates back to slave trade (Mannix and Cowley, 1962). Thousands of young energetic Africans were uprooted from their countries to work in the cotton plantations (Williams, 1966). Slave trade did not last forever and after a time it was abolished in 1865 in the United States (Takougang, 1995). Later African students went to America for educational purposes and aimed to return home after completion and use the newfound knowledge to develop their own countries (Takougang, 1995). Some of the Africans students who got their education in America and returned home are Nigerian Nnamdi Azikwe and the famous Pan Africanist Kwame Nkurumah the first president of independent Ghana (Takougang, 1995). Due to the success of such students, many young Africans also wanted to come to the United States and acquire education to bring about change in their home countries. The number of the students went up after the Second World War ended (Takougang, 1995). Nonetheless, the situation changed and many African students opted to settle in the United States after the completion of their studies from the 1970s and since then African professionals such as nurses and doctors have migrated and settled in America together with their families (Takougang, 1995).

Many Africans have migrated to the United States because of various reasons. Political climate in many African countries prohibits “political and individual freedoms” (Takougang, 1995: 52). The lack of these freedoms has led to political upheavals and civil wars; many governments have been overthrown due to their autocratic regimes (Mazrui and Tidy, 1984). Vocal people in countries with autocratic regimes are oppressed and in most cases arrested, thus many chose self-exile to escape from assassination (Takougang, 1995).

The United States has also been receptive of African refugees who run away from their countries during the time of war for instance Sudanese, Somalis and Ethiopian refugees (Logan, 1987). The refuges have been welcomed and they have settled in various states in the country.

Economic fortunes have led Africans to seek settlement in the United State. They take many risks to come to America to seek better fortunes (Mutume, 2006).This is due to lack of adequate employment opportunities back in their home countries even after they acquire education in the United States. The few available jobs pay low wages. Corruption is also rife in many African countries, which makes it very difficult in such an atmosphere. Economic mismanagement is also rampant in some African countries (Takougang, 1995). This can be attributed to political interference that stem from autocratic governments. This makes it very difficult for economic development due to lack of political pluralism (Takougang, 1995).

Some Africans sojourn to the United States to find employment to enable them to take care of their families. This is due to the social responsibility they have towards their families. Thus, by living in the United States they are able to take care of their families back at home instead of going back to their countries and lack employment, which will lead to lack of finances to support their families (Chukunta, 1979).

Theory of Migration

Migration refers to the change of residence. The change may be permanent or temporary. There are voluntary or involuntary reasons for immigration and it may be within a country or to another country. Both long and short immigration involve an “origin, destination and intervening causes of obstacles and personal factors” (Lee, 1966:48). There are factors that attract people to remain in an area and others that repel them. In the destination, we have factors that attract people. The factors in both origin and destination affect people differently. For example, some will find some factors in the origin attractive and the same factors will be repellant to others (Lee 1966). People willing or planning to migrate have a long association with the origin and may not know the advantages of the destination area as they need to stay there to know the merits and demerits of that area (Lee, 1966).

Sociologists have come up with some theories of immigration in a bid to explain the immigration phenomenon. People move due to different reasons and hence no one theory can explain migration (Migration- theories of migration, 2010).Ravenstein, one of the earliest theorists of migration came up with the theory of pull and push (Migration- theories of migration 2010). He urges that unfavorable conditions in a place or origin for example war, oppression push people to look for acceptable conditions in other places. This means that the destination pulls people if it has favorable conditions as compared to the place of origin (Migration- theories of migration 2010). Ravenstein came up with immigration laws; one states that the fundamental cause of immigration is favorable economic opportunities. The distance between the place of origin and the desired destination also determine migration. This means that the greater the distance the lesser the volume of migration and vise versa (Migration- theories of migration 2010). Other factors such as age, gender and one’s social class also affect immigration in terms of mobility (Migration- theories of migration, 2010).

Neoclassical theory explains that immigration is associated with “global demand and supply of labor” (Migration Theories 2010). Countries that have scarce labor attract people from countries with surplus labor by offering attractive packages such as high wages and easy immigration policies, which pull people into those countries (Takougang, 1995). In the United States, there is the diversity immigration lottery that gives 50,000 immigrants and opportunity for work, residence and study. Through this program, many Africans have come to the United States.

Demographics of Africans Currently in the U.S

The current population of Africans in the United States is estimated to be about 881,330. Some of the top African countries that have contributed immigrants in the U.S. are Somalia, Ghana, Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Eritrea. Males form about 55% while females are 45% of the total African immigrants (Wilson 2008). The largest age group of immigrants is 35-44 years with 27.9%, followed by 25-34 24.5 % and 45-54 at 15.0% (Wilson, 2008). Most African immigrants are concentrated in the urban areas. About 36% of the total African immigrants are spread across four states and each has more than a hundred African immigrants (Wilson, 2008). The states are California, Maryland, New York and Texas (Wilson, 2008). Minnesota, Washington DC and Maryland have the highest number of African immigrants.

African immigrants in America rank first in educational attainment among other immigrant groups apart from Asians (Le 2010). However, the high level of education does not ensure them good jobs due to discrimination. Those who are employed earn less other workers.

Cultural practices

Many African immigrants continue to practice their culture once in the United States (Olupona and Gemignani, 2007). They do not abandon the cultural practices but look for ways of incorporating their culture in the new life. It is also important to note that there are different Africans in America thus no specific African identity. Instead, different Africans come together due to their similar national affiliations and ethnicity (Olupona and Gemignani 2007). Some Africans organize themselves according to country of origin, ethnicity or region (Olupona and Gemignani, 2007). There are organizations formed along this categories for instance, Sudanese Association, Malawi Washington Association. Through such organizations, Africans in the United States are able to maintain their identity as well as help new immigrants who join the associations to adapt to life in the new country. Many Africans who come to the United States have to deal with a number of challenges. Being faraway from home and their family members is not easy and they deal with immense loneliness in addition to their minority status. Families living in America welcome new immigrants before they can find jobs and stand on their own. For example, Diallo’s uncle in New York City accommodated him he arrived (Stoller, 2001). In addition, Africans immigrants speak their African languages amongst themselves and this helps them to main their identity (Stoller, 2001).

Marriage practices

Africans from different communities have diverse marriage practices. In most African communities, polygamy is acceptable and Islam allows the practice. However, polygamy is outlawed in the United States and many African immigrants practice monogamy (McGoldrick, Giordano and Garcia-Preto, 2005). Africans who marry in the United States often incorporate their traditional marriages practices. However, a very important practice of dowry payment in African communities is not practiced by the immigrants Africans (McGoldrick, Giordano and Garcia-Preto, 2005) Marriage for most African is supposed to “ensure economic and social survival for families via the children the couple produces” (McGoldrick, Giordano and Garcia-Preto, 2005). In African countries, people marry at an earlier age than their immigrants counterparts in the United States (McGoldrick, Giordano and Garcia-Preto, 2005). People in Africa marry people from different tribes or clans whereas the Africans in America are marrying people from outside their race that has brought on a challenge to the parents in negotiating multiracial contexts (McGoldrick, Giordano and Garcia-Preto, 2005). To maintain their African identity they have to keep their practices alive by practicing them in the foreign land. Below are some of the cultural practices that help African immigrants maintain their African identity.

Religious practices

African immigrants in the United States belong to various religious affiliations. The affiliations include Indigenous African religions, Christianity and Islam (Olupona and Gemignani, 2007). These religions are predominantly practiced in Africa. Most of the Christian immigrants belong to Pentecostal churches. These kinds of Christians are born again and emphasis on fervent prayer, visions, divine healing, Holy Spirit and holiness among others. The practices in the Pentecostal Christians are highly borrowed from the traditional practices in worship for instance, ancestor worship and spirit possession (Olupona and Gemignani, 2007). African congregations in denominations such as Musam Disco, Deeper Life Bible Church and many others scattered across the United States. The Africans in this way of worship are able to maintain their identity by continuing to worship in the same manner they did back at home (Olupona and Gemignani, 2007). Those religious groupings also bring them together and they have a chance to share experiences and encourage one another in a far away land. On the other hand, some Africans are Muslim and practice Islam (Olupona and Gemignani, 2007). The Muslims come from diverse groups such as Sufis and Mourides who originate from Senegal. Other Muslims originate from northern Africa and when they meet in America, they interact as one group. In their interactions, they tend to use indigenous languages as well as Arabic, which is the official language of Islam. These practices help them to maintain their identity in the United States (Olupona and Gemignani, 2007). Thus, they do not become assimilated into American culture completely. They may be away from home but keep home practices with them.

Food preferences

African immigrants desire the kind of food they were used to back at home. This desire has been fulfilled due to the high number of African immigrants coming to America and some have opened enterprises that cater for the immigrants needs (Arthur, 2000). Some of the traders who have opened shop import goods from Africa that fill the void in the immigrant’s community. Some of the goods imported include foods, jewelry, cultural artifacts and others (Arthur, 2000).


Africans have close social ties with their family members. They have the responsibility of providing for them financially and when they immigrate to other countries, the responsibility is not lifted. This means that the African immigrants remit finances to their families to cater for the needs of those who depend on them (Obadare and Adebanwi, 2009). The immigrant families back at home at times rely on the remittances for provision of their basic needs (Obadare and Adebanwi, 2009). Therefore, the immigrants cannot fail to remit money to take care of these needs, as doing so would lead to lose of status in their communities back at home (Hyden 2006). For example, most West Africans immigrants say that life in America is not easy, but due to social obligation, they bear it to support their families (Arthur, 2008). Ghanaian immigrants remit money because they have a moral obligation and belief they will be successful by being generous to their family embers back home (Arthur, 2008).This has led to an increase in remittances into the continent by 2005 about US$7 billion was remitted (Stoller, 2001 ). The World Bank and remittances fact book 2008 estimates that about US$10 billion was sent back to Africa. The data puts Nigeria at the top of the list with US$3.3 billion, the other top countries in remittances are Sudan, Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania, Cote-d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Obadare and Adebanwi, 2009). The governments of the recipient countries have developed in their citizens in the Diaspora because of their economic advantage. Therefore, the Diaspora citizens are kept abreast of the political happenings in their home countries thus they maintain their identity by remaining loyal to their home country (Obadare and Adebanwi, 2009).

Community feelings

Africans have strong family and ethnic values. When they came to the United States, they lived together in urban areas. This is because they encounter discrimination and racism, poverty and economic deprivation because of segregation (Arthur, 2008). African immigrants are forced to form clusters just like other groups that are marginalized in the United States. The clusters they form help them to find comfort and they are able to “buffer against a race and class conscious American society” (Arthur, 2008: 84).


African immigrants in the United States are a force to be reckoned with because their number is growing by the day. They contribute to the economy of the country even if many are in odd jobs. The African immigrants have a fighting spirit, which is evident in their ability to adapt and even start businesses that have helped them to improve their economic status. They have also fought to maintain their identity by ensuring that they incorporate part of their cultural practices in their new American life. They also have to contend with the African Americans who say they are not part of them and so they only way for them to express themselves is by ensuring their identity remain African in a society that is class conscious. On the other hand, through their practice of remittance which keep them connected to families back at home they help to develop their own countries and alleviate poverty to some extent. Finally, the African immigrants will continue to influence the societies they settle in and those of their origin.


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