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Longing and Regret Defines Africans’ experiences in the US

Posted by Administrator on September 29, 2009

By RASNA WARAHPosted Monday, September 28 2009 at 16:56


Whenever i hear that a Kenyan living in America is making plans to return home, I am hardly surprised. Being African-American in the United States is hard enough; being a first-generation African must be even harder, not withstanding that the current White House is occupied by people associated with both groups.

When you are black in America, your dreams fade fast. Wealth and accomplishment do not protect you from everyday insults and suspicion-filled eyes, as a black Harvard professor learned recently when he was arrested for “breaking into” his own home.

Racism in America is still alive and well, and has perhaps become more so since Barrack Obama became president. Last month, a pastor in a Baptist church in Arizona had the audacity to urge his congregation to pray for Obama’s death!

The decisions by Africans to return home is often made in an attempt to regain self-respect. Many, however, retain what the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to as a “complicated affection” towards America.

In Adichie’s new book of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, many of the characters – some of whom are undoubtedly based on real people – are Africans who are desperate to belong to an America that constantly rejects them. Some give up parts of themselves – the parts they hold dearest – so that they can fit in.

I know what that feels like. When I was in America as a student in the 1980s, I spent a lot of time denying my roots. (This desire to assimilate is not just the American people’s greatest strength; it is also their fatal weakness.)

I tried to mimic the ease with which first-generation immigrants tried to fit in. I once visited an Indian couple whose successful medical practice had enabled them to buy a big house in one of Boston’s wealthier suburbs. It had huge white pillars like the White House, but the house was empty and cold inside.

There was no smell of food being cooked in the kitchen, or the warmth of human flesh. I was served a cold sandwich. I wondered if they were happy.

I also visited a nuclear engineer who refused to move out of his slum-like hovel in New Jersey because he was saving every penny to build a house for his family in his village in Gujarat.

He was nearly 50 years-old and had spent most of his adult life living in a cramped bedsitter, where he dreamed of returning home one day. I have often wondered if he ever made it back.

I would not be like them, I told myself, when I was still thinking of making a life in America. I would live in a big city like New York or Boston, in a loft where my bedroom window would face skyscrapers.

My street would be one of those that hum with life all day and all night. I would have breakfast in the corner café and order take-away dinners from the Chinese restaurant down the street.

would work in a big firm in a tall building that would value my work, and give me a raise and a promotion every two years. I would fall in love – with a white American, of course – and have lovely biracial children who would pass for Italian.

My parents would come to visit, and I would take them to Florida for a holiday, and they would tell all my relatives back home how well I was doing and how lucky I was to live in America.

That never happened, of course. My life took a completely different trajectory. But as I look back now, I wonder whether I too would have headed back home.

At what point would i have had to confront my demons and admit that I really did not belong—and that I would never be truly accepted? Would I be like one of Adichie’s characters, full of regret, longing and sorrow?

Or would I end up writing books such as The Thing Around Your Neck, which, like most post-colonial literature, aims to deconstruct colonial representations of “the African” but in the process manages to bind Africa and the West even more tightly together?

Would I have become one of those transplanted writers who tailor their writings for white Western readers in the hope that their books will be awarded prizes in the “New African Writers” category?

I’ll never know. What I do know is that in trying to be accepted by white America, I would have had to deny my unique heritage and give up parts of my soul.



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