Project Title:
"African Immigrants & the Global Midwest: Detroit and the Twin Cities"

Project Description:
We will test the promise of using ethnography and oral history to understand fraught dimensions of African immigrant experience in Detroit, including forms of exclusion and integration within the Midwest’s so-called “Black City,” since the 1980s. While African immigrants in the United States are usually viewed through lenses of need and race, through humanitarianism and asylum, we expect to learn about Africans of diverse backgrounds who have been successful economically, professionally, and within sundry communities that they have shaped. We are also anticipating comparative research with the Twin Cities, where the strikingly different history of African immigration will permit a powerful, contrasting parallel.

Our pilot research will begin, in part, at The Freedom House, a unique residential institution founded in 1983 and providing legal, language- and job-training, medical, mental health, and social assistance to those seeking asylum in North America. Since the mid-1990s, most Freedom House clients have originated from sub-Saharan Africa. While migrants have often overcome extreme adversity before arriving at the Freedom House, they discover that livelihoods in Detroit are often insecure, and most urban residents are poor African Americans. What kinds of activities and spaces have connected Freedom House residents and alumni to religious, social, and economic communities in the city? What role have regional networks of immigrants from diverse countries in Africa or other world regions played? When and how have African immigrants integrated into Detroit’s diverse African American communities or maintained distinct African identities? These are among our questions, and we will use contacts at the Freedom House to extend beyond that institutional space into the city at large.

Thus, we will collect a pilot set of oral history interviews with African migrants once affiliated with the Freedom House, while we will also focus on the viability of other spaces or zones where African immigrants congregate, create a livelihood, or work. We anticipate conducting exploratory interviews, therefore, in mosques, Pentecostal churches, and African national associations, as well as businesses, whether owned by Africans or not. In particular, we expect that two kinds of enterprise and labor will allow us to learn about how African immigrants understand the global, the Midwest, and honor and pride: (1) hair braiding salons that publicize themselves as African or diasporic and (2) taxi companies that do not. We will also use these pilot interviews and the networking associated with them to develop possible strategies for collecting and sharing personal and institutional stories, archives, and photographs.

The possibility of a future collaboration with colleagues at the University of Minnesota is already stirring us to think in productive ways. The contrast between African immigrant experiences in Detroit and the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) is striking both in terms of scale, institutional emphases, and larger immigration contexts. In the Twin Cities, almost twenty percent of all immigrant residents were born in Africa; social scientists have already begun studying African immigrant communities there (notably health issues like female genital cutting or autism), and municipal authorities have developed policies facilitating refugee resettlement. Detroit’s private non-profit, The Freedom House, with its fascinating and yet untold history, may prove to be one poignant divergence in a larger analysis of contrasts. In sum, it would seem that divergences in urban history and policy, in tandem with Africa’s unfolding humanitarian and economic crises since the mid-1990s, have been creating not only novel municipal challenges, but also striking opportunities for African immigrants who are creating communities and livelihoods within our unevenly globalized Midwest. This pilot research will allow us to begin mapping out relevant spaces and questions, while subsequent research will aim to complement these ethnographic forays with deeper analysis, grounded by a stronger empirical—demographic, economic, and cartographic—base.

Organizer's Name, Contact Information, and University Affiliation:

Nancy Rose Hunt, Professor of History, University of Michigan, Principal Investigator
Ramah McKay, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Minnesota
Robyn d’Avignon, Ph.D. Candidate, UM Joint Program in Anthropology & History
Shana Melnysyn, Ph.D. Candidate, UM Joint Program in Anthropology & History