A 2016 article by the Kinder Institute reported that roughly 61,000 African-born people were living in Greater Houston. That community made up about 4.5% of the city’s foreign-born population at the time, described as a “small” but “growing and increasingly visible group here and across the country.”
Indeed, according to the Migration Policy Institute, African immigrants had the highest growth rate (82%) among the city’s immigrant population between 2010 and 2017, and with more recent data suggesting closer to 90,000 individuals in the region.
Poet, educator, and filmmaker Loyce Gayo points out that behind these numbers are multitudes of stories and nuanced understandings of what it means to be an immigrant, to experience both estrangement and belonging, to find home – to shape, and be shaped by, Houston.
Gayo set out to explore and document stories of the African diaspora in Houston, with funding from a grant from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs through the Houston Arts Alliance.
The resulting project is By Way Of, Houston, a docuseries that profiles five local African immigrants.
It will be shown in a free screening, followed by a conversation with the filmmaker, on Friday, December 17 at 6:30pm at the SAiD Institute. Gayo also plans to archive each episode online in the future.
Houston Arts Journal reached out to Loyce Gayo for the following interview.
Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind this project? How did you come up with the idea and why did you want to do it?
I have been closely studying how African immigrants negotiate belonging in Houston ever since I moved here from Tanzania in 2007. From being able to easily source ingredients for a traditional Tanzanian dish to singing Swahili hymnals in church, Houston afforded me, and many like me, the material conditions to feel at home in a foreign place. I wanted to capture that magic in this project.
Tell me about the Houstonians you profiled and why you chose them.
I selected each person because of their unique perspectives on the African Diasporic experience: Ayo’s experience living in Southwest Houston largely informs his poetry. Nneka works closely in the Black immigrant justice movement in Texas and spoke about how local policies influence African immigrants. Martins and Anita spoke about how customs and tradition influence their dating life. And Ofili spoke about the City supporting his work as a visual artist through financial opportunities.
A 2016 article by the Kinder Institute shares the views of sociologist Anima Adjepong: “Even though Houston’s African immigrant community contains a variety of ethnicities and languages, argues Adjepong, once those immigrants arrive here, they form a common identity. ‘In spaces such as African grocery stores, strangers develop community as African, through shared experiences of estrangement from home, and their need for that space,’ Adjepong said.”
I just wanted to bring in that context to set up my asking you for your thoughts on “home” and “belonging.” What did you learn about those notions from your interviewees?
To a certain extent the sentiment of a common identity is true. There is often a far-reaching sense of kinship, especially in religious spaces, but what I gathered from my interviews was a desire to add nuance and complexity to the common Diasporic identity we know.
Another thing that was emphasized in my conversations was how that commonality doesn’t translate to organizing towards collective political power.
As part of Ayokunle Falomo’s profile, he reads his poem “S.W.A.T, ALWAYS,” an ode to Southwest Alief Texas.
On social media, you wrote: “This poem beautifully captures what it is like living in Southwest Houston, the city’s international district, and where many African immigrants live!” Would you say more about how that poem resonates with you?
I can’t think of a single African immigrant who doesn’t have some relationship to Southwest Houston. When my mother first moved to Houston, we lived in Pasadena but traveled every week to the international church on Beechnut. We bought our sambusas at the halal store on Hillcroft. We bought our clothes and fragrances at the shops on Harwin. Southwest Houston is the backdrop to virtually all African diasporic experiences.
Was there another moment, or story, in the docuseries that particularly moved – or surprised – you?
I was really moved by Nneka’s comment [in the video below] on the local ordinance affecting the Southwest stretch of Bissonnet. There are a lot of things to celebrate about this city and its ability to accommodate people of all walks of life, but if politicians don’t listen to and work to meet the needs of especially those on the margins of our community, Houston stands to lose the very magic that makes this city special!
You’re an accomplished poet and performer – was this your first foray into filmmaking? Did you experiment visually to add to the storytelling?
Yes, this was my first venture into filmmaking! It was both incredibly terrifying and exhilarating. The best part of the entire process was the conversation. I worked really hard to curate a space and thought-provoking questions that promoted deep reflection and vulnerability. I desperately hope the work honors each story shared.
I really wanted to try my hand at a different form of storytelling. The use of split-screen in non-fiction filmmaking is very popular, and that was an experiment.
Why is it important for you to tell, and share, these stories of the African diaspora in Houston? Does this moment in history – in this time of a global pandemic, political divide, and social unrest – give it more urgency?
My recent Google search of “african immigrants houston” yielded results on travel bans due to the new COVID variant, and reports of “illegal immigration.” The ever-nuanced and complex lives of African immigrants in this city (and ultimately, even their unique needs) go unmentioned and unrepresented! There is an urgent need not to just tell these stories, but use these perspectives to galvanize and collectively organize.