I’ve got a long post to write about my first Children’s Literature Association conference but I got home at 2am last night and need a day of rest (and silence–even in my head). So for now, I’ve decided to post my conference paper; not sure I’ll develop this for publication, but figured it couldn’t hurt to make it available on the blog.
“The Bottom of the Pot: Blackness and Be/longing in A Wish After Midnight”
I am an immigrant. I was born in Canada, which means that I grew up “resisting Americanization;” in school I was taught to embrace the “tossed salad” metaphor rather than the “melting pot”—Canada was presented as a multicultural “mosaic,” a nation where all kinds of differences were not only celebrated but protected. Canadians often define themselves in opposition to Americans; they pride themselves on being quiet, polite, and progressive—the antithesis of their loud, boorish, bigoted neighbors. I learned at an early age to look down my nose at the United States; it’s something of a national pastime and a legacy of Canada’s colonial past. Of course, it didn’t help that my father used to slip across the border whenever life in “the Great White North” became unbearable. He would eventually return, bearing wondrous gifts (like a black Barbie doll) and for months we’d have to listen to him rhapsodizing about the US. As an adolescent, I disdained the United States yet still elected to study American History in high school, perhaps as a way of connecting with my father. I could not deny that the US had a certain allure—all the pop stars and television shows I admired were American—but I also understood that a fascination with “that country” could and would disrupt my life.
Although he came to Canada from the Caribbean as a teenager, my father spoke without an accent and felt perfectly at ease around whites. I never wondered why. Indeed, I grew up thinking of my father as a “generic” black man with no fixed ethnicity, and I was myself a young adult before I understood how the United States had shaped his identity—and mine. When my father arrived in Toronto at age 15, his stepmother indicated that he was not welcome in her home. Desperate to keep the peace, my grandfather tried to enlist my father in the army, but when that scheme failed, my great-aunt instead enrolled my father in a Christian high school—in Allentown, PA. Her conservative church handled everything; my father was sent to the United States where he finished high school and then entered Eastern Pilgrim Bible College. He was one of only two black male students on campus and in the spirit of Christian fellowship, was strictly forbidden from dating the white co-eds.
My father returned to Canada after graduation and married my mother—the white daughter of a United Church minister. Despite being groomed for the ministry, my father chose to teach rather than preach. He ran for public office—and lost. He tried to add a Black Heritage component to the Toronto public school curriculum—and failed. He had an affair with a black woman he once knew back in Allentown—and my mother divorced him. My father grew out his Afro and became something of a black militant. But there wasn’t much tolerance for militancy in Toronto in 1980. Within a few years, my father settled down, started a new family, and learned to accept the status quo. Or so I thought.
The year before I graduated from high school, my father disappeared. We all knew he’d gone to the United States again and we all assumed he’d eventually return. We were wrong. I started college in Quebec and received a letter from my father telling me he was now remarried and living in Brooklyn, NY. Not yet certified to teach there, he drove a gypsy cab along the bus route and would occasionally send me three or four crumpled dollar bills. When I graduated from college, my father invited me to spend the summer with him in Brooklyn and before long I moved all my belongings across the border. His stated goal was to have all four of his children living in the United States. But my father died of cancer in 2004, and I am the only one of my siblings who chose to pursue my own “American Dream.”
I begin with this summary of my father’s life because I see evidence in his narrative of the many forces that operate upon the immigrant generally and upon the black immigrant to (North) America specifically—forces which shaped my own life story and my young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight. My father used to complain that he “couldn’t get anything started” in Canada. The United States, by contrast, stuck in his memory as the land of opportunity where a hard-working black man of humble origin could aspire to almost anything, despite the pressure he once felt in the 1960s to lose his Caribbean accent, keep to his side of the color line, and not join the Civil Rights Movement. Though my father cautioned me against a life as a writer (and wished I had chosen a practical profession like law rather than academia), it is as a storyteller and scholar that I have learned to detect, embrace—and mount my own resistance against—the processes of Americanization.
A recent article published in The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults affirms that “…studies have consistently found that minority-race characters are underrepresented in fiction for children and young adults, and that existing portrayals of minority characters are often riddled with stereotypes or otherwise negative images.” The author further asserts, however, that “Studies addressing nationality of authors or characters are less common.”[i]
This paper will address my competing nationalities and those of my fictional characters. Many immigrants experience a degree of ambivalence when it comes to assimilation; the allure of a new life/identity is tempered by the desire/duty to honor one’s heritage. For black immigrants, that ambivalence can slide into cynicism (and even rage) when it becomes clear that every black person in the US is subject to a pernicious sort of reduction: we all “fit the profile” despite our varying ethnicities, class locations, and/or places of origin. Black immigrants, therefore, experience pressure to become American and additional pressure to suppress ethnic/cultural/political differences in order to conform to a “generic” domestic blackness—a kind of “African Americanization.” For the purpose of this paper, I will use “Americanization” to refer to pressure to assimilate certain “representative” US values and to perform the role assigned by the dominant group.
As a child in Canada I vividly remember watching American cartoons on Saturday morning; this meant that, like millions of US children, I learned about American culture, history, and government through the Schoolhouse Rock series. On the issue of immigration, Schoolhouse Rock set to music the widely accepted narrative of “The Great American Melting Pot” (click on image for video) where immigrants from (mostly white European) countries willingly jump into a literal pot filled with others happily frolicking in the red, white, and blue “stew.” Not surprisingly, no mention is made of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that supplied the forced labor that built the new nation; the catchy song rightly predicts that “any kid could be the president” but falsely claims that “You simply melt right in, it doesn’t matter what your skin.”[ii] Scholars in the field of Whiteness Studies have demonstrated how assimilation, over time, diminished ethnic and religious differences that once led to the persecution of groups like the Irish.[iii] Yet descendants of enslaved Africans could not as easily “blend in” to US society. Long after Emancipation, “the problem of the color line” persisted and official and unofficial segregation policies denied equal opportunities to black Americans. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), WEB DuBois reflected upon the curious position of the African American, introducing the term “double-consciousness” to convey the complicated hybrid status of blacks in the US:
One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
Gender bias aside, DuBois makes a sound argument for the hyphenated identity that many African Americans take for granted today. It might surprise many people to learn that up until the end of the Civil War, there was widespread support for physically removing blacks from the US. Believing that the country could not sustain and/or tolerate a free black population, even President Lincoln—“the Great Emancipator”—seriously considered sending freed blacks to Haiti, Belize, Panama, or Guyana. The American Colonization Society founded the colony of Liberia in the 1820s and drew the ire of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass who insisted that blacks knew no home other than the US, had earned the right to citizenship, and had already demonstrated their ability to assimilate in the North.
The issue of belonging (in the past and present) is central to my writing, and the complicated project/process of identity formation drives the narrative in A Wish After Midnight. As a mixed-race woman of African descent living in NYC, I am often read as Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Cuban; in Brooklyn, where the majority of blacks is Caribbean, I live and “blend in with” neighbors who speak dozens of languages, practice as many religions, and otherwise embody the multiplicity of blackness in the US. Like many immigrants from the African diaspora, I identify more with the global South than the US South and I wanted to write a novel that would reflect the hybrid identities of the teens I was teaching in Brooklyn. According to the 2010 census, “12.6 percent of the U.S. population…self-identified with the Black or African American category;” more than 90 percent of those blacks were born in the United States, but the number of foreign-born blacks (originating from the Caribbean, Africa, and Central and South America) is on the rise: “The black immigrant population…has grown 47% since 2000 to 3.1 million.”[iv] Many of these immigrants live in NYC.
My two teen protagonists, Genna and Judah, have conflicting plans for the future: fifteen-year-old Genna hopes to attend an Ivy League school and become a psychiatrist; Judah, a sixteen-year-old Jamaican immigrant and Rastafarian, sees no future for himself in the US and believes—like his fellow Jamaican, Marcus Garvey—that the destiny of black people is to return to Africa. For Judah, New York City is “Babylon,” a place of confusion and corruption; he sees Genna’s “American Dream” as a delusional attempt to fit into a society that clearly has no place for blacks besides the bottom rung of the social ladder. But Genna resists his cynicism and his plan to abandon the US:
I ask Judah what’s so important about Africa, why he can’t wait ’til he’s done with school. And Judah says he’s already done with school, that he won’t learn anything in an American college except lies and misinformation. So then I ask Judah why he doesn’t just go back to Jamaica if he doesn’t like it here. And Judah says, “Sankofa, Gen. Return to your source.”
…“But you’re Jamaican,” I argue.
Judah…shakes his head solemnly. “African, Gen. All of us—no matter where we’re born or where we are now—we come from Africa. We’re African.”
I don’t really like it when Judah talks that way…when Judah starts talking about Africa, his Jamaican accent returns—it’s like he becomes somebody else, someone who’s not like me…I may not know everything about the continent of Africa, but I’m not ignorant—at least not as ignorant as Judah seems to think I am. Judah acts like there’s something wrong with me just ’cause I don’t hate the United States. I do hate living in the ghetto, and I definitely want to get out of here someday, but I’m not ashamed of being American. And I’m not ashamed of being African, either. That’s why we call ourselves African Americans—‘cause we’re both, not just one or the other. But Judah doesn’t see it that way. (56-57)
But Genna isn’t so naïve as to think that reaching her goals will be easy; her African American mother warns her against internalizing the “ghetto mentality” that has already ensnared Genna’s older siblings, and she knows that many of the rules of success don’t apply when you’re “young, gifted, and black”—and female, and poor. Genna befriends an elderly Danish man while visiting the local botanic garden but understands that his vision of the US is outdated at best and quite likely skewed by his own privilege:
Mr. Christiansen’s a really sweet man. So I just bite my tongue and listen while he talks about America being “the land of opportunity,” or “the great melting pot.” I want to ask Mr. Christiansen what happens to the folks who get left at the bottom of the pot. I’m thinking whoever’s down there probably gets burned. Not just black people, either. A while back they executed a white man for blowing up a government building in Oklahoma…It takes a whole lot of hate to do something like that. Papi, he didn’t like America and that’s why he left. But that white man, he made a bomb and killed a hundred and sixty-eight people. And never said he was sorry…
Mr. Christiansen sees things differently…Maybe he just sees what he wants to see. Maybe he can do that ’cause he’s old and white. All I know is when I look around me, I only see what’s real. (28-29)*
Genna thinks of herself as a realist and so initially believes she must be dreaming when a portal opens in the garden late one night and she is drawn into the past. Though her mother has tried to prepare her to face the ugly reality of racism, Genna struggles to survive in the 19th century; believed to be a fugitive slave, she must resist virulent racism, fend off sexual predators, and escape a mob of Irish immigrants that rampages through the city during the 1863 Draft Riots. In A Wish After Midnight, the history of terrorism in the US doesn’t begin with 9/11 and so is an internal rather than an external threat; for Genna, Osama bin Laden isn’t Public Enemy #1—that (dis)honor goes to Timothy McVeigh, the white “all-American boy” who helped to perpetrate the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Genna recognizes that many Americans are discontent—not only her father, a Panamanian immigrant who abandoned the family after being unable to find steady work; Mr. Colon “can’t get anything started” in his adopted home and bitterly concludes that “in America, a black man can’t even be a man” (6).
When her abuela follows her father back to Panama, Genna finds it difficult to identify with her Afro-Latino heritage and gets no encouragement at home; her mother says, “If you’re going to learn another language, you might as well learn how to talk white” because “in America, that’s the only language that really counts” (50). Genna explains:
I speak a little Spanish, but not much. Just what I learned at school. Mama always told us we were black, not Hispanic. She says in America, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak. Black is black, and you might as well get used to it. And if you are black, then you better speak English ’cause that’s what white folks speak. (5)
Genna’s mother rejects cultural or ethnic hybridity and pressures her children to accept the American racial binary of black versus white. Although her three children have different skin tones and Afro-Latino/indigenous heritage, Mrs. Colon tries to reduce them to what Elizabeth Alexander calls “bottom line blackness,” a kind of generic identity “which erases other differentiations and highlights race.”[v] Alexander contends that all blacks in the US are bound to one another by “sometimes subconscious collective memories” that “reside in the flesh” and are triggered by contemporary spectacles of violence enacted upon black bodies. Admitting her theory is somewhat “romantic,” Alexander argues that published images of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till (lynched in 1955) became “the basis for a rite of passage that indoctrinated…young people into understanding the vulnerability of their own black bodies…and the way in which their fate was interchangeable with Till’s. It was also a step in the consciousness of their understanding themselves as black in America” (92). But do immigrants from across the African diaspora really share this collective consciousness? Can factors like gender, sexual orientation, and nationality be so easily dismissed?
This unifying impulse succeeds at times, but “the bottom” too often relies upon a US-centric construction of blackness that erases both complementary and contradictory histories of persecution and resistance from throughout the African diaspora. Before the 2010 census was taken, a group of black immigrants mobilized members of their communities, many of whom were checking the “other” box because they identified as Nigerian or Jamaican rather than African American, Negro, or Black. A USA Today article on the subject concluded that,
In a nation where most blacks trace their origins to slavery, immigrants and refugees from the Caribbean and Africa are redefining what it means to be a black American…Many black immigrants’ homelands have a history of slavery, but they don’t necessarily equate that with the U.S. legacy of slavery…That’s why immigrants cling to national origins rather than racial identities.[vi]
Of course, it isn’t either/or—it’s a “new stew” called hybridity. In writing A Wish After Midnight, it was important to me to develop narrative strategies that would expose the coercive intraracial dynamics at play in the US, while emphasizing the importance of radical traditions of resistance brought to the US from the Caribbean and other corners of the diaspora. Of the sixty black-authored YA novels published in the US last year, I found just half a dozen with black protagonists who had at least one immigrant parent. New York is the publishing capital and it is a city of immigrants; my next project is to develop a Diversity in Publishing Network here in the US so that stories which challenge traditional notions of American-ness have a better chance of reaching young readers.
*Last month I read from this chapter of Wish as part of the “Myth and Magic” night at Franklin Park; they’ve posted the video on their YouTube channel, if you’re interested:
[i] Stephanie Kuenn, “Are All Lists Created Equal? Diversity in Award-Winning and Bestselling Young Adult Fiction,” June 14, 2011.
[iv] Haya El Nasser, “Black coalition pushes for ‘unified’ 2010 Census tally,” March 3, 2010.
[v] Elizabeth Alexander, “‘Can You Be BLACK and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” in The Black Public Sphere, edited by The Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) 84.
[vi] El Nasser reports: “‘Somebody from Jamaica may not identify themselves as African-American, black or Negro,’ says Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation who helped found the Unity Diaspora Coalition. ‘This is about understanding that the black population is not monolithic but that we’re all part of the American experience.'”