When the Diol family finally made it to America from Senegal, I’m sure they didn’t picture their dreams going up in literal flames. But, early in the morning on Aug. 5, the Diols’ journey in America ended in tragedy. Arsonists set their house ablaze like a burning cross in the Jim Crow South.
Three masked men in white masks are suspected to be the culprits, and Denver police are investigating it as a possible hate crime among other things. If so, this crime took the lives of Djibril and Adja, and their daughter Khadija. Hassan Diol and her daughter, Hawa, also lost their lives in the blaze.
I admit that I am losing hope the arsonists will ever be found, though Denver police have increased the bounty to $40,000.
Denver’s African immigrant community has suffered a great, vicarious trauma through the loss of this family. The fact that these arsonists are still on the loose is a dark cloud that hangs over their heads. Sadly, I feel like they are living in the same nightmare Black Americans have faced here for centuries.
What’s even sadder is this history of hatred is not a part of the American narrative that attracts so many immigrants to this country.
Immigrants often face extremely difficult, dangerous and harrowing journeys just to step foot on American soil. This is especially true for many African immigrants, many of whom come here to escape some of the most stringent poverty and acute conflict on Earth.
So many Americans just do not appreciate what it takes to become American when you were not born one, and my heart goes out to these immigrants in their time of need.
The death of the Diols brings back painful memories for me. This is not the first time I’ve seen African immigrants targeted for violence. In my sophomore year in high school, a white supremacist killed Omar Dia, who happened to be an immigrant from Senegal.
Though the shadow of gang violence long loomed over my head, the fact that I could still be targeted because of my skin color kept me awake at night.
Over time, I would forge close bonds with the African immigrant community. In fact, I am married into an African immigrant family. My wife is from Ghana. My inlaws tell me that in Ghana, there is little to no talk about American slavery and racism. The colonial education system barely mentions the slave castles on their shorelines.
When they come here, the fact that Black Americans laid the foundation to make America remotely hospitable is lost in the shuffle of surviving in the new land.
Yet, in the eyes of the bigots, we are one and the same. In 1999, Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was shot 41 times by the NYPD. In 2003, the NYPD also killed Ousmane Zongo, an immigrant from Burkina Faso.
In March of 2015, the video of LAPD killing Sudanese immigrant Charly Keunang went viral. I saw it the day it happened, and my blood ran cold. The scene gave me literal shivers and spasms in my arm as I sat there transfixed on the tragedy that unfolded before my eyes.
This was before the days Facebook warned you of graphic content. It was just autoplay and then … death.
It seems like the deeper you dig, the list goes on and on.
African immigrants have overcome some of the toughest possible obstacles to get here to America. America herself should not be their final battle. The intellectual capital, richness of culture, beauty and style they bring to this land is irreplaceable.
The untimely deaths of these good people unveils the monstrous truth beneath the pretty myth that attracted them to this country. We can do better, and we must, America.
Even here in sunny Colorado, there are miles and miles to go before there is truly liberty and justice for all.
Updated at 7:50 a.m. on Sept. 14, 2020: This story has been updated to correct that the suspects in the Diol arson case wore white masks.
Theo Wilson is a poet, speaker, activist and CNN contributor. Learn more about him at TheoWilson.net.
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