While living in Iran in the early nineties, I couldn’t help but notice how rare it was to encounter US Americans. According to the Baltimore Sun (April 14, 1991), only 2000 Americans were in Iran at that time, as compared to the 50,000 who had lived there prior to the revolution. In my four years of living there, I met only two American people. And I saw even fewer people who appeared to be Black like me.
There was only one other woman I saw in those four years whose lips, nose, hair, and skin color told me that she and I shared a Black heritage. Her name was Ms. Fatemeh, a teacher at the local daycare center that our daughter Parisa was attending. I learned from another parent that Ms. Fatemeh was African Iranian—in her case, the daughter of an Iranian father and a Nigerian mother. And she had lived in Iran her entire life!
I was delighted! Parisa would have someone else to look up to who actually looked like her! And although Ms. Fatemeh didn’t seem to acknowledge a bond between us (I would nod my head slightly, but she wouldn’t nod back), and although her cultural upbringing was totally different from mine, she was always kind and pleasant. And I found it comforting to see Ms. Fatemeh daily in a country where Black people were few and far between. Or so I thought--
Little did I know that along regions of the Persian Gulf, some 400 miles from Isfahan (our city) is an entire, substantial community also known as Afro-Iranians: descendants of Black slaves, predominantly Arab traders, and the region’s local inhabitants from centuries past. Eventually released from slavery in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Afro-Iranians have long dominated this area, practicing and maintaining its own Afro-Iranian culture. It also has endured its own share of racial discrimination.
But how was it that I had not heard of this Afro-Iranian (or Black Iranian) community when we were living in Iran? The first time I became aware of it was only last year in 2022. As it turns out, the existence of Black Iranians is not widely known or publicized, even among the larger Iranian population. This is in part because the population is largely self-contained—and also because there are differing views on what it means to be “Iranian,” both literally and historically.
But in light of our ever-increasing global community with its ever-increasing valuing of diversity, it looks like the tide may be turning. The awareness of a vibrant Black community in both Iran and the Iranian diaspora is growing. And a community of Black Iranian voices are working to make their presence and contributions known—including individuals of both Black and Iranian heritages in the USA!
Specifically, this group in the USA—known as the Collective for Black Iranians—is dedicated to demonstrating to the global community how (in their words), “We are part of the tapestry of what it means to be Iranian.”
How, you might ask me, did you come to find out about the Collective for Black Iranians?
Answer: From two of my favorite Black American Iranians: our daughter Parisa and our son Nikiar!
Dr. Leslie Ahmadi discovered her intercultural calling in her parents’ home at age four--where between the jazz, the spirituals, and the rock ‘n roll music, she heard folk songs in languages from around the world. Thirty years later she had a doctorate in foreign language and culture education--and her folk song guitar never far away.