PhD candidate, African Cultural Studies, minor in African American Studies
Faculty advisor: Matthew Brown
Harry Kiiru is a PhD candidate in the Department of African Cultural Studies studying how African immigrants become racialized in the United States.
Currently, one in five Black people in the U.S. are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Yet, according to Kiiru, African immigrants as part of the Black immigrant population are under-researched, partly due to their recent migration history to the U.S. unlike other groups that have longer histories.
Kiiru’s dissertation considers how African immigrants to the U.S. from the 1950s through the present day interact with American racial logics and politics, in how they are seen, defined, and treated, and how they accept or challenge the racial designations placed upon them. He approaches his research questions using archival records, African immigrant film and literature, and self-ethnography.
A key focus of Kiiru’s dissertation is the 1959-1963 East African Students’ Airlift, which brought almost 800 African immigrants to the United States and Canada to study. One of his archival discoveries at Michigan State University’s Murray & Hong Special Collections (Cora Weiss Papers) were hundreds of university sponsorship application letters by the students. What struck Kiiru was how the students introduced themselves using specific identity categories, such as, African (which was a racial category in British East Africa), followed by their gender, their ethnic group, and their age. Though these immigrants would now be considered Black in the U.S., it was not a label they would have used to describe themselves.
In his scholarship, Kiiru distinguishes between immigrants’ self-identification, where the immigrant says who they are, and interpellated identities that are placed upon them regardless of their personal decisions. Self-identification and interpellation can appear in processes such as filling out immigrant documents where someone is required to select a racial category for themselves, which many Africans have never had to do before.
As an immigrant from the same ethnic group as many of the airlift students, Kiiru also uses self-ethnography as part of his scholarship. He examines his own stories as an African/Black immigrant in the U.S. to further think and write about African immigrant experiences.
“The ways in which we are thinking of African immigrants as just Black, and that’s it, takes away the pre/post-migration identities from them,” Kiiru said. “I came to the U.S. when I was 19 years old. I am first and foremost a Gikuyu man – my ethic group and gender, that’s how we identify – so the saliency of Blackness then diminishes all these other identities that are more important to me than this racial category.”
Kiiru’s work aims to contribute to knowledge production about African immigrants, as well as help scholars in other disciplines such as educational policy and sociology take new ideas into account in their own work. Kiiru’s faculty advisor is Matthew Brown, associate professor of African Cultural Studies. Kiiru has also benefited greatly, particularly on archival research, from working with African Cultural Studies professor Marissa Moorman, a member of Kiiru’s dissertation committee.
During his first year of graduate school, Kiiru had support from an Advanced Opportunity Fellowship. A non-traditional student, Kiiru started graduate school at age 40, after having worked for years as a musician and starting a family.
“When I got accepted into my department and got the AOF, which meant that I did not have to teach my first year, that was a gift,” he said. “I did not realize how hard graduate school was going to be, especially as a dad. I needed a lot of time to learn how to read massive amounts of information, process it, and then write critically and substantively.”
Kiiru also received a Graduate School fellowship during a subsequent year, which he said was very helpful for preparing and taking his preliminary exams and working on his dissertation proposal.
“The rigor of graduate school can be quite taxing and I think that people who have only known academia, that is, have never worked outside academic institutions sometimes fail to understand the difficulties that non-academics and returning students face in joining graduate programs,” Kiiru said. “Funding like that was very helpful, both in my first year and during my prelim exams. I’m definitely fortunate to have received it.”
Since then, Kiiru has earned additional funding support for archival research at Michigan State University’s libraries, which has the largest archive about the East African Students’ Airlift. He has also earned a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship and an Institute for Regional and International Studies award for archival research in Kenya to further his scholarship.