Throughlines in Migration and Citizenship

I’ve been thinking about throughlines, threads, and what could be weaving our stories together. One of the unique joys of this project is being in fellowship with the other activist-curators. Our bi-weekly check-ins are grounding and illuminating.


During our check-ins, I’ve heard a few of the other fellows  describe themselves as migrants. Their ancestors were African American migrants from the American South who took part in the Great Migration up North, or they themselves were migrants from the South, with parents who grew up in the North. And maybe those parents had parents who came from the South, this migration happening many times over, as family members keep moving from South to North, down and back. Grandmother bringing grandchildren to the South so they don’t forget their roots, and those children finding that neither North nor South is truly home, not feeling truly settled.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania – Negro Migration in 1916-17

African Americans who migrated from the U.S. South to Philadelphia were escaping oppression and unjust laws, an experience many immigrants can identify with. For immigrants, it’s about leaving everything behind for a dream. It’s about working single-mindedly to achieve that dream. It’s about finding that the dream was a mirage. That the shiny polished dream we hold in our minds are full of mines. Be careful not to step on white supremacy.

Citizenship for African Americans

In my last post, I asked the question, Who gets to be a citizen in America? We take for granted birthright citizenship today but many immigrants may not realize that African Americans had to fight for this right.

In a previous blog post, the question of “Who is this Country Meant For?” illustrated the concept of citizenship through the letter of an African American man named Samuel H.G. Sharp from New Jersey. During his visit to Liberia, he was amazed that “[e]very man can vote,” something that he, as a Black man could not do at the time. The American Colonization Society effectively deported African Americans to Liberia to ‘solve’ the problem of free African Americans here in the United States. Samuel H.G. Sharp was living before the passing of the 14th Amendment that defined birthright citizenship. He was living in the time of the Dred Scott decision that declared that African Americans could not claim citizenship in the United States. This was a country that they were born in, a country where their ancestors were forced to move to, yet, they became stateless in their own country.

What can undocumented immigrants, Dreamers and DACA recipients learn from the experience of African Americans and their fight for citizenship? When do you get to be a citizen of this country?  When do we become human?

Home is Here March, November 2019, Philadelphia City Hall. Photo courtesy of the author.

Many immigrants are not aware of how deeply the history of slavery and white supremacy permeates into everyday life in America. Many come to this country as adults and may not fully understand the African American experience in this country. It’s not their fault, it goes back to the question of, “Who gets to write history?” And even when we do come to this country as children and became pupils in the American education system, the histories we were taught were whitewashed. We were taught that slavery was a thing of the past, that the Civil Rights movement was victorious, and that we are living in a post-racial America. We were not taught about segregationist housing policies like redlining,  about school segregation through property taxes, we were not taught about the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, about the systemic ways that African Americans were left out of the progress of this country with the end of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and the New Deal, just to name a few.

Immigrants need to understand the full history of America to understand what they are seeing in their neighborhoods. Why are neighborhoods segregated, for example? How have immigrants internalized anti-blackness through colonization? Immigrants who lived in a country with a history of colonization likely inherited the ideas of white supremacy of their oppressors. And they try to be the ‘good native’ in front of their masters, so they can be elevated to whiteness. This continues to happen when they move to America.



The other fellows and I discovered that a few of us are reading NourbeSe Philip.  For me, the poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language” has been haunting me ever since I saw a video of her recite it. Three minutes in, she recites:

Edict 1

Every owner of slaves shall, wherever possible, ensure that his slaves belong to as many ethnoliguistic groups as possible. If they cannot speak to each other, they cannot then foment rebellion and revolution

This idea of divide and conquer has succeeded throughout the era of empire and colonization, and was also being used in the United States to prevent rebellion. We see it in our respective communities:  Anti-black sentiment in the Asian communities and Anti-immigrant sentiment in the African American community. Each group holds on to their prejudices, yet, we should ask, in whose best interests is it for our groups not to see ourselves in each other, in the similarities of our shared experience? Who wants to divide and conquer us?

How do we find solidarity in our wildly different yet similar experiences as African Americans and immigrants? Is there a model we can learn from?

In 1955, President Sukarno of Indonesia, along with other heads of states from Myanmar (Burma), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, and Pakistan convened the Afro Asian Conference (Konferensi Asia Afrika in Indonesian) in Bandung, Indonesia. This meeting is commonly referred to as the Bandung Conference.  Representatives from twenty-nine newly independent Asian and African nations, representing almost half the world’s population at that time, met to counter the domination of the two warring factions during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union, and sought to define the role of the Third World during this time. The Bandung Conference condemned colonization in all its forms, and created a ten-point declaration which included sovereignty for all nations, a recognition of the equality of all races, promotion for mutual interest and cooperation. This conference ultimately resulted in the creation of the Non-Aligned movement which sought to counter the Cold War’s focus on the “West” and the “East.”

Richard Wright wrote of his experience at the Bandung Conference in his book The Color Curtain, which I will explore in my next post to learn more about how an African American observed the events of the Conference and about Wright’s meetings with Indonesian writers and intellectuals.

What if black and brown people of America banded together and created a non-aligned movement against white supremacy? What would that look like? In my mind it is sharing our histories, but not the ones that were whitewashed. It is finding solidarity in our struggles, and reclaiming our shared humanity. It is working together, to recognize the equality of all races, to defy the fallacy of white supremacy.

Copyright 2021 by Katherine Antarikso. All rights reserved.

Katherine Sarwopeni Antarikso (she/her) is an architect, artist, and activist. She was born in Jakarta, on the island of Java, Indonesia, and moved to the United States at the age of 10. As an architect, she is interested in issues of equity in the design of urban spaces. She performs traditional Indonesian dance and writes poetry and essays focusing on themes of home, migration, and displacement. She is an activist for immigrants’ rights and is a founding member of Pejuang: Indonesian Social Justice Coalition.