As of May 2021, the Collective for Black Iranians has developed a lively audience of over 20,000 followers from all over the world. The Collective centers the Black and Afro-Iranian experience through various media in Persian and English in collaboration with their network of resident artists, storytellers and filmmakers.
Despite a centuries-long presence in Iran, Black Iranians are regularly written out of national historical narratives. Sailors, merchants, laborers, religious leaders, political figures and enslaved people all connected the East African and Iranian coasts. By the nineteenth century, however, Iranians saw East Africans largely through the lens of enslavement. Although Iranians had, for centuries, enslaved Caucasians, Central Asians, South Asians and East Africans, geopolitical changes ultimately left East Africans most vulnerable. While some East Africans were enslaved as date farmers or pearl divers, the prevalence of domestic workers in urban centers informed Iranian conventions about race, particularly Blackness. In the cities, enslaved East African men, women and children worked as nannies, cooks, pages, escorts and housekeepers to manage elite and wealthy Iranians’ day-to-day lives. Persian speakers commonly used the term “siyah” or “black” as an adjective to describe a variety of people, ranging from people from Baluchistan to elsewhere in the subcontinent. But the growing association of East Africans with enslavement turned the term “Black” into a noun that referred specifically to enslaved East Africans.
British and Iranian efforts to stop the trafficking of enslaved people into Iran began in 1848, but it was not until 1929 that the Iranian Parliament outlawed enslavement and declared all those enslaved to be free. The process of abolition, however, brought an erasure of Black Iranian experiences, enslaved or free. To this day, many Iranians deny any history of enslavement within Iran. The few scholars who have acknowledged it have shrouded enslavement in Iran as a benevolent, familial relationship distinct from the chattel slavery associated with the transatlantic slave trade. Further, the mass embrace of the Aryan national myth—which claims that true Iranians are white—has led to the damaging exclusion of Black Iranians from Iranian identity.
The groundbreaking work of the Collective for Black Iranians is the first and only effort of its kind in Iran that brings together the voices of Black and Afro-Iranians, sharing their stories and experiences to foster greater racial consciousness and combat the anti-Black racism endemic to the Iranian community. Their work has been featured in multiple news outlets, including Al Jazeera, AJ+, The New Arab and more, and they have partnered with Because We’ve Read book club and Cassava Republic Press to create a unit around the history of race, Blackness and enslavement in Iran. In September 2021 the Collective will be showcasing their first multimedia exhibition at Twelve Gates Arts in Philadelphia, PA, a show titled “Hastim: We are Here.”
Beeta Baghoolizadeh interviewed a founding member of the Collective for Black Iranians, Priscillia Kounkou Hoveyda, in April 2021. Kounkou Hoveyda, a human rights lawyer, has a decade of experience working with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as well as other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations that focus on building international and national policies for the most vulnerable populations around the world. She is also a documentary filmmaker. Baghoolizadeh is an assistant professor of history and Africana studies at Bucknell University and serves as the resident historian for the Collective for Black Iranians. She is currently writing her book, The Color Black: Enslavement and Erasure in Iran
Beeta: Since the launch of the Collective at the end of August 2020, storytelling through art, music and film has been a major thread in the efforts to center and amplify Black Iranian voices. Could you tell us about the power of storytelling in the Collective’s work?
Priscillia: Storytelling plays a significant role in both African and Iranian cultures. At the Collective we are all about standing at the intersection of who we are and sharing the power of what it means to be who we are. Hence, we naturally use storytelling to do so. We tell the stories of Iranian and African and Black realities that many didn’t know existed, to ensure that we learn from one another in ways that enable us to cohabit in this global society, now equipped with a greater understanding of one another.
We are, in a way, the griots of the Iranian community. In ancient West African tradition, griots were the storytellers of their times—they observed society and recounted its stories so that those stories are never forgotten. Equally important, griots asked that the stories they’ve told are retold so that they are owned by all. The Collective, in that same griot tradition, conveys the stories of Black and Afro-Iranians from around the world and then asks audiences to share these stories so they are owned by all of us.
We make an effort to improve accessibility; all our content is available in both Persian and English. Our goal is to be available in more languages because we believe that identity is transnational.
Beeta: How do you choose what stories to share?
Priscillia: We founded the Collective with a pool of Black and Afro-Iranian storytellers in Iran and from across the Iranian and African diaspora. We are already a village of voices, so we have looked toward the Collective—that is, to its founding and contributing members—to begin to share segments of who we are to inspire others to do the same. For example, another founding member, Parisa Nkoy, shares the story of her love for singing. She explains, however, that she never sang in Persian within her Iranian community for fear of being mocked because she is Black. And so through the series “Voices from Home,” Parisa sings a song by the famous Iranian singer Googosh.
In other cases, one of us knows of someone else who is Black and Iranian and/or of African descent, whether a relative, a friend, an acquaintance. Or we admire someone’s art. For example, I had known Pegah Bahadori before launching the Collective. She is Iranian of African descent, from southern Iran, a student in psychology and now a contributing member to the Collective. Pegah has taken our audience to powerful moments from her childhood and she’s taught us so much about who we are by paying attention to what we may not have known. She explained during our roundtable conversation around Transnational Blackness how the vast majority of people around her did not know about the Persian Gulf slave trade and Iran’s involvement in it.
Once we’ve identified storytellers, they decide what story to tell based on who they are; the Collective then becomes a creative echo by sharing and amplifying their voices.
Beeta: The role of memory seems to operate at two different levels throughout the work of the Collective. Many of the scenes and stories shared are directly from different members’ memories of their own experiences—for example, Arameh Anvarizadeh’s recollections of her birthday in Iran or Melika Khorsandipour’s memories of being mocked for her taste in clothing. Then there is the second layer, where we’ve presented historical stories gathered from archival sources or memoirs to combat the erasure of the history of enslavement and abolition in Iranian Collective memory. How are these two different layers of memories related, if at all?
Priscillia: There are indeed two layers of memories that the Collective strives to connect. In fact, I would add a third one: the memory of the future. This future-oriented memory is not yet integrated into our work, but we wish to set the ground for its formation.
The first layer is the one that connects memory to the past. This is history and it is important to know all its dimensions, especially those that are relevant to living with one another today. Within Iran and among the Iranian community at large there is a general lack of knowledge about the Persian Gulf slave trade, for example, and the fact that enslavement was only abolished in 1929 in Iran. Dialogues around race are either scarce or foreign—literally and figuratively. I grew up hearing folks say to me, “We do not have Black People in Iran,” even after I tell them I am also Iranian. My experience is echoed by many other Black Iranians who have also constantly felt the need to explain how they can be both.
It was clear to the Collective that there was work that needed to be done in the realm of memory and consciousness, the awakening of what is there but we do not know. The other layer of our work on memory grounds us in the present and establishes through stories like Arameh’s in Los Angeles and Melika’s in Bandar Abbas that we are here, not only in Iran and throughout the Iranian diaspora but also throughout the world. Melika’s stories are here to teach us that we, Black women who are also Iranian, share a current Iranian reality—at family gatherings, at wedding ceremonies, at Nowruz celebrations. At every single Iranian moment. Black women are here and history should remind everyone that we were, and indeed are, always here.
The Collective’s work, then, is essentially one of writing ourselves into existence—in the past, the present and the future.
Beeta: When scrolling through the Collective’s Instagram account (@CollectiveforBlackIranians), we might think of the artwork as an album of these memories, personal and forgotten, along with quotes and reminders to help us build more memories in the future. What role does the art play in the retelling of these stories?
Priscillia: I see art as a tool to communicate emotions and to connect with one another. Using art to place Blackness in the Iranian reality, or the Iranian reality in Blackness, is another way of writing, or in this particular case drawing, ourselves into existence.
Similarly, the Collective has worked to imagine and visualize some of the histories available to us today. For example, we created a series on the life of Khyzran in a visual format, researched by you, Beeta, and illustrated by Iranian American artist Mina Jafari. Khyzran was born in Zanzibar in 1834 and trafficked into Iran in 1856, where she advocated for her own and others’ freedom. In one piece, we see Khyzran on a dhow holding Walladee, a young, enslaved boy she had tried to free.
A very touching series produced by the Collective, #WritingOurselves, says it loud and clear: we are here. In this series, we continue to put art at the service of history and advocacy. For example, we created art around the fact that in 1867 a census showed that 2.5 percent of Tehran’s population was Black. Let’s bear in mind that migrations were not only forced, some people chose to migrate due to economic opportunities or other forms of social mobility. In collaboration with Congolese artist Ben Lugamba and under your guidance as our resident historian, we produced a piece representing Black African Iranians’ presence in Tehran at the time. It truly is a visual invitation to seeing Blackness in Iranian history. Art is used here in our effort to redress the erasure and the subsequent formation of a void around being Black, African and Iranian simultaneously—being Iranian and of African descent or African of Iranian descent.
As griots, we are now drawing the history of our African ancestors into existence, for the world to see us.
Beeta: I remember before the Collective was launched, you, Priscillia, were telling me how you asked Mina Jafari to illustrate the scenes in color, as opposed to black and white. Since then, each of the resident artists have brought their own signature color palettes to the artwork—bright yellows and pinks, earth tones, pastels and more. Can you tell us about the role of color in storytelling and how it relates to the Collective?
Priscillia: I can discuss the different palettes of browns with artists for hours. Color is so important at the Collective—particularly the color black or brown as it translates into actual palettes of colors. It is the importance of drawing the color black or brown and thereby ensuring that Black Iranian folks are seen in Iranian visuals. It is about also taking control of the way color is used, and thus, the way race and being Black are perceived. I was and still am often called “siyah” in the streets of Tehran, Bandar Abbas or Isfahan. And of course, again, I am not the only one. The color of our skin gets folks’ attention and the reactions to it vary. We know it to be a reality for many other Black Iranians—the mocking, the teasing, the singling-out, the anti-Blackness. We use art here with talented Mina Jafari and others, like Black American artist Chyna Dumas, Iranian American Kimia Fatehi or Afro-Iranian artist Arefeh Avazzadeh, to take control over the representation of the colors Black and brown in our community.
The Collective is simply here to say that Black is beautiful.
Beeta: Some of these histories are difficult to listen to—for example Narges’ story of being enslaved and sold repeatedly in Tehran in the early twentieth century, only to find freedom with the help of Haji Naneh. How have your many audiences reacted to these stories? Black Iranians in diaspora and in Iran, other Iranians, non-Iranians?
Priscillia: The most common reaction has been one of shock for not being aware of the existence of Black women of African descent who were indeed enslaved not so long ago in Iran. Others doubt the veracity of what we are bringing forward because, perhaps, they cannot comprehend how these stories remained unknown all their lives. What’s important for us to emphasize is the erasure of Blackness not just in history but also in Iranian contemporary society, including in its diasporic iterations. Most Iranians, worldwide, would tell you that they had “no clue there were Black people in Iran.” Or they say that “it is not the same as Black people elsewhere.” All of those are ignorant, and quite harmful, statements.
When confronted with these difficult but important histories, we are presented as a community with the possibility of living a more informed understanding of ourselves and one another. We can ask ourselves, individually and as a community, what this newfound and important information means to me as an Iranian, whether in Iran or within the diaspora, whether Black and/or of African descent or not.
What it also shows is the importance of democratizing history and access to “knowledge” to enable conversations. We’ve received messages about discussions among friends in cafes in southern Iranian towns—Abadan, Bushehr, Bandar Abbas—about the practice of enslavement and the impact it has left on their towns. There are also messages of 30-something-year-old Afro-Iranian men and women telling us stories of a grandparent hailing from Africa, photos of chosen migrations, languages being intertwined between Persian, Arabic and Swahili, as well as anecdotes of an African “relative” who, in stories passed down at family reunions, is described as someone who always worked for the family as a “servant.” There’s some sort of racial consciousness that is happening thanks to our work. If it weren’t for the grassroots efforts of the Collective, these conversations would remain available only to an elite that rarely includes, let alone is led by, the voices that they research.
Beeta: You have often described the work of the Collective as “creatively disruptive.” What does it mean to creatively disrupt? What are some of your future plans in this regard?
Priscillia: Albert Camus wrote about “creating dangerously” and the social responsibility of all artists. “Any publication must be an act,” he wrote. Well, what I mean by work that creatively disrupts is what this renowned French Algerian author said much more eloquently decades ago. The Collective’s work is creatively disruptive because it is work that makes the society we are living in think. Think about fundamental topics such as race, a topic that was never discussed from the perspective of Black folks in the Iranian community. Think about the interconnections between Africa and Iran and think about the importance of the resonance of the words “Black is beautiful” in Persian.
The Collective plans to continue bringing forward points of view that were ignored or erased in Iranian culture in order to shift the discourse in ways that acknowledge the many segments that make up who we are. We will be making more short films that continue to focus on Black stories in Iran and throughout its diaspora. We are envisioning an animated series telling the stories of Black Iranian women like Khyzran and Haji Naneh. We will also be producing more advocacy pieces that remind our community that Black is beautiful and that being Iranian should always also potentially mean being Black and vice-versa. We are also working hard to show our work offline in Tehran, Los Angeles and Toronto through art exhibits and more. So, stay tuned for more.
 Thomas Ricks, “Slaves and Slave Trading in Shi’i Iran, AD 1500-1900,” JAAS, XXXVI/4 (2001); Mansureh Ettehadieh, Sirius Sa’dvandian, Amar-i Dar al-Khilafih-yih Tihran (Nashr-i Tarikh-i Iran, 1368).