Afua Atta-Mensah’s commitment to creating a world that serves her people drives her work as the first ever Chief of Programs at Community Change and in her own neighborhood. She’s the proud daughter of immigrants, representing Ghana and New York equally, and she’s always wearing fresh Jordans. She has led movements and fights in the States and in Ghana, advocating for Black, Latinx, APPI and Indigenous people.
I am also the daughter of immigrants, but I was born in Miami and don’t own a single pair of Jordans. Having spent time working with Afua, listening to her inspiring way of balancing realness with compassion, and humor with honesty, I became even more curious about her vision for the work we strive to do everyday. So, for Women’s History Month, I sat down with her to talk about the Black immigrant experience and Black liberation.
Jasmine Nazarett: Was there a moment, or a series of moments in your life that shifted the direction of your work?
Afua Atta-Mensah: There were several moments that shifted the direction of my work. One of them was when I was trying to get my grandmother care.
She had cancer and I knew I could get her better care in the U.S. than I could in Ghana. The whole process of applying for a visa in Accra carried centuries of colonialism with it. For starters, we couldn’t even wait inside of the embassy. We had to stand across the street until the doors opened.
Have you felt the heat in Ghana? It’s not pleasant — and it’s made worse because there are countless others racing you to get a place in line. That experience angered me and showed me the plight of Black people around the world is consistent when the rules for our lives are dictated by colonial standards.
Another moment that I can point to is when I realized that litigation is not power, it’s a tool. Our court systems don’t work for our people. When I was fighting for tenants’ rights as the Urban Justice Center’s Director of Litigation and Policy for the Safety Net Project, filing lawsuits to protect public housing and community centers, it would take years to get a decision. Many times those decisions came too late. The disrespect and the struggle tenants faced was outrageous.
I took a sabbatical and moved to Ghana where my work focused on protecting women’s rights. When my sabbatical was over, I made a point of coming back into the movement in a different way. While I love practicing law, I wanted my work to be about the collective, not just individual wins. My analysis had evolved to circle in on organizing.
Nazarett: Did you ever think you’d be leading the programmatic work at a national nonprofit like Community Change? Where did you think your career would go?
Atta-Mensah: Through laughter: No.
After serving as the director of Community Voices Heard in New York I thought I would focus on building a strong base and network of Black women — which I’m also doing at Community Change, but the programmatic work is broader.
Nazarett: Your advocacy work is international, including working with indigent women in Ghana and drafting proposed legislation to criminalize marital rape. How did that experience inform your work stateside? How can domestic Black liberation organizations bring an international lens to their work?
Atta-Mensah: I think it’s critical that Black liberation organizations travel throughout the diaspora to allow a deeper perspective of how our freedom is inextricably linked. Racism and colonialism has harmed our communities here and abroad, and I think that we need to understand each other because we can only achieve liberation if we work together.
I am reminded of the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who studied in the U.S. He’s a graduate of Lincoln University — an HBCU in Pennsylvania. He earned his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and then went on to study in London. So many of our anti-colonial fighters came to school in the States and were inspired to change the situation back home. Progress in one place allows for progress in other places.
Nazarett:The mainstream conversation about immigration tends to focus around Spanish-speaking immigrants and the southern border. The stories and voices of Black immigrants tend to be left out even though 1 in 10 Black people in the U.S. are immigrants. The Black immigrant population is projected to reach 9.5 million by 2060 — about a third of the U.S. Black population’s growth — in the same time window. What do you consider the biggest challenges facing the Black immigrant population?
Atta-Mensah: The two biggest challenges are the two R’s. Recognition and racism. So many people act as if you are either Black or an immigrant.
More than twenty years ago the New York Times published a piece about the different way two best friends experience life in America because of their race. Though both of them are Cuban, live miles apart in Miami, one is Black and one is not. This was published nearly 23 years ago, but is still relevant in how the color of your skin dictates so much of your life.
When you come to America, and you’re a Black immigrant, you face racist stereotypes about being Black and about the country you come from. You would think non-Black immigrants would understand and be allies, but the truth is that people come here and conform to the racist systems that exist here. I’m not saying everyone is this way, but look at the way some non-Black or white-passing immigrants talk about Black immigrants from Haiti and who they cast their ballots for.
Blackness in America has a price. It doesn’t matter where you come from if your skin color appears Black, your life in America will be dictated by that. The experiences will not all be the same as we are not a monolith, but in America Blackness has a meaning and it exacts a price.
The progressive movement needs to recognize that we are not monolithic. We are diverse in language and religion, customs and cultures. We need to be recognized because we’re here and our narrative must center our dignity.
Nazarett: How do you define Black liberation? Do you think we’ll get close in your lifetime?
Atta-Mensah: I am not sure I have a full definition, but I would say an integral part of liberation is self-determination. I believe deeply that Black individuals and families should have and be able to make choices. For far too long our key aspects of our lives have been due to the results of systems or chance, and I want them to be due to what we determine for ourselves.
I hope we get closer to Black liberation in my lifetime. I know the fight is ongoing, but I hope so.
Nazarett: What lesson do you hope to leave behind for the generations coming up in this work?
Atta-Mensah: I hope to learn from the next generation because I don’t think that learning only comes one way. I would hope they’d learn from me the importance of faith and humility. I hope they also learn from me some things not to do, but those are stories for a different day.