Written by Annis R. Sands, Graduate Research Assistant in the GMTaC Lab

In February 2018, I participated in the Media, Refugees, and ICTs workshop hosted by the Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab. Prior to the workshop, I had very little knowledge about public policy on migration and refugee crises occurring around the globe. When I was writing a paper last semester about the complex reasons for why African-Americans participated in the Great Migration between the late nineteenth into the early twentieth century, I started seeing and hearing scholars describe Black subjects as refugees. In many ways, I embraced the reasoning for behind why these scholars saw the influx of Southern Black people to Northern cities (New York City, Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, and Oakland just to name a few.

The mass movement of people from geographies that they consider home, whether temporary or permanent, represents tremendous violence and disruption. Disruption of communities, families, individuals, institution, society, an individual’s sense of safety. Throughout GMTaC’s two-day workshop, I realized how little agency refugees have in deciding when, where, or how to navigate the “arbitrary” migration policy systems as my colleague Matt Graydon and others remarked throughout the workshop.

Being able to hear directly from individuals who either navigated life as a refugee or who worked with refugee communities helped me contextualize and better understand the complex decisions Black Americans had to make in escaping the South for new opportunities up North. Several times throughout the workshop, participants remarked how much their realities of the United States greatly differed from what they saw in the media or Similarly, African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South consumed newspaper and letters from others who previously migrated about how wonderful the North was. These media objects greatly informed and arguably misrepresented the North through an imagined North as the bastion for economic, social, and political opportunities. 

The workshop was particularly helpful in connecting me with the lived experiences and human stories of these issues as it relates to my own history and research interest. That is to say, as an American-born woman of Afro-Caribbean descent, I recall ways migration and identity have shaped access to social, political, and economic resources. Most of my family is from the Caribbean island of The Bahamas where questions of belonging and citizenship play out in real-time. Many people of Haitian descent actually live and work there too in what I now see as a forced migration due to a refugee crisis. However, like many nations and communities that absorb refugee communities and peoples, Bahamian society has to come to terms with how and in what ways can they accept, embrace, or remain neutral to the Haitian refugee crisis.

With these ideas and historical context allowed a more nuanced understanding of Haitian presence in the Caribbean, specifically in The Bahamas, and related the experiences of people who lived lives parallel to that of refugees. I had to unpack and unlearn many of my own misunderstandings about Haitian people in relationship to citizenship, nationality, and geography. Displacement and mass migration was also part of the experience of those close to me.

Participating in my lab’s workshop allowed me to think deeper about the relationship between citizenship and nationality. An awareness emerged. Privilege, for instance, to speak about migration, citizenship, and nationality so abstractly is not an opportunity afforded to everyone. Yet, my historical training and ability to understand ways citizenship creates an arbitrary system of inclusion and exclusion based on factors outside of our control (i.e. where we were born, the religion we practice, our gender, our family‚Äôs class background, our ethnicity, etc.).

This workshop inspired new questions for future critique. For instance, I wonder at what extent are these new opportunities for connectivity simply replicating past iterations of marginalized communities being exploited for their utility to major power players? How can refugee and migrant communities participate in the decision-making process as to their movement? And most importantly, how can we evaluate the efficacy of scholarship that studies or critiques refugee crises and move closer towards more inclusive scholarship beyond the traditional players who control the narratives (particularly in media) circulated about the different refugee crises? That is to say, how can we use a historical approach to understanding how communities worked with and through refugee crises?