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422. One Love

In blogs and blogging, culture, Inter/Transnational, Music, Politics, Stories, Words & phrases on April 19, 2019 at 2:31 am


Reggae: music of the postcolonial diaspora, now protected by the UN                         BBC News, 2018 (photo:Mike Prior)


My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter will stand for One Love.

In the 1970s, as a young woman and a new immigrant, Reggae music brought my worlds together and soothed my soul. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh sang of Third World and poor people’s struggles in Zimbabwe and throughout Africa, for equal rights and justice. They warned that there would continue to be war  and rumours of war until it was achieved. We don’t want no peace, sang Peter Tosh, We need equal rights and justice, we shouted back. Them belly full but we hungry, called out Bob Marley, A hungry mob is an angry mob, we responded, with the I-Threes. We little people didn’t have nuclear arsenals, but we had a small axe.

Reggae music was not all righteous anger; it sang the blues, songs of sorrow, exile, and longing. It sang of homelessness with talkin’ blues and exile by the rivers of Babylon, times of terror and transition with Sitting in Limbo and desolation in a strange land with Many Rivers to Cross. It wailed of so much trouble in the world but sang praise to the salt of the earth in Night Shift.

And then it offered us hope and succor. Bob Marley sang, Baby don’t worry about a thing, ‘cos every little thing’s gonna be all right. He had to go, we knew that, but while I’m gone, mind, No woman no cry. (By the way, Andrew and I were at that very  Harvard Stadium Amandla Concert in the videoclips above where Bob Marley and the I-Threes sang “Zimbabwe,” “War,” and “No Woman No Cry.”)

Through all the pain and struggle, all that fussing and fighting, we did want peace. Reggae held up a sustaining vision for the world, a message of unity and inclusion: One Love. It still does.


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415. G is for the Great Migration

In blogs and blogging, Books, culture, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 10, 2019 at 1:13 pm

This is my seventh entry for the 2019 Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge: G for the Great Migration.

An African-American family leaves Florida for the North during the Great Depression. (MPI/Getty Images)

An axiom of the U.S. national discourse is the statement that we are a nation of immigrants—with the exception of the Native Americans. But this oft-repeated idea (and I myself admit to repeating it just yesterday) has yet another glaring omission: the Africans taken from their homes against their will, made to travel the deadly Middle Passage, and enslaved in America. They were not immigrants fleeing persecution or looking for “a better life”;  their imaginations were not captured by the American Dream; on the contrary, better lives for the European settlers were achieved on their backs, the freedom of the American Dream depended in large part on their un-freedom. So yes, Africans were migrants, but not of their own accord. But there is a migration that they did undertake out of choice—one that, strangely, is often unacknowledged when telling the American story—and that is the Great Migration.

The Great Migration, which started as a trickle in 1916, and then grew to a flood over the next six decades, was the movement of more than six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to cities in the North. As Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, has written: By the time it was over, in the 1970s, 47 percent of all African-Americans were living in the North and West. A rural people had become urban, and a Southern people had spread themselves all over the nation. Despite the end of the abhorrent institution of slavery after the Civil War, despite having been declared U.S. citizens with the right to vote, Reconstruction had been sabotaged and African Americans had been systematically impoverished, disenfranchised and marginalized from mainstream American society. White supremacy was rampant, and a reign of terror was maintained by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, supported by state governments. According to the NAACP, thousands of lynchings took place between 1882 and 1968, mostly of blacks, and mostly in the South. During that period, there were 581 lynchings in Mississippi, 531 in  Georgia, and 493 in Texas alone. Life became unbearable, and  eventually African Americans, prevented from declaring themselves at the ballot box, had had enough. They voted with their feet, and left. Building their lives anew in new environments required strength, courage, and creativity, and all those they had in abundance.

The Great Migration led to the transformation of American society in many, many ways: increasing urbanization, a cultural renaissance in almost every arena, people’s movements, notably the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement, that led to the end of Jim Crow segregation and profound political change for all Americans. The South was not forgotten, either. African American families in the north, like so many migrants, made the pilgrimage back whenever they could to visit their children’s grandparents and their extended families, to what Farah Jasmine Griffin, in her first book Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative, has called “the site of the ancestor.”

At this time I can only pay homage to the cultural contributions of the Great Migration through one example. Look at the formation of Chess Records in Chicago, one of the centers of the blues as it migrated from places like the Mississippi Delta through musicians like McKinley Morganfield—the late, great Muddy Waters, without whom there would not have been rock-’n-roll as we know it.

Here’s Muddy Waters in 1963, giving an inimitable performance of Got My Mojo Working, with the help of Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica and Willie Dixon on bass, both of whom were also Mississippi natives.

And here’s Muddy Waters with James Cotton (also from Mississippi), and Muddy Waters with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy (from Louisiana).








Grateful for the Great Migration and all that has flowed from it.


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413. E is for Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile

In blogs and blogging, Books, culture, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2019 at 6:54 pm

This is my fifth entry for the 2019 Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge and since, yet again, I couldn’t settle on just one, I offer you three related words: Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile.

Emigrant is a word used much less frequently than its counterpart, Immigrant. People are emigrants when they leave their country of origin. When they arrive at their destination, they are immigrants. That seems cut-and-dried, doesn’t it? But it leaves me with all kinds of questions. Once an emigrant arrives and becomes an immigrant, is her emigrant status over and done with? Or does she become an emigrant all over again whenever she returns to her country of origin? What if the person seen as an immigrant in the new country actually thinks of himself as an emigrant and inhabits the remembered haunts of his past as much as he does the physical spaces inhabited in his present? Another way to look at it might be in terms of Raymond Williams’ concepts of dominant, emergent, and residual cultures or and social structures; the social structures of the new society may be dominant; the immigrant status may be seen as emergent, as the immigrants develop interesting new fusions of culture and thought; and the emigrant status may or may not be residual, with old traditions and habits of thought persisting. The bottom line, for me, is that the immigrant and the emigrant are the same person; it’s simply that the former word privileges the place of departure while the latter privileges the place of arrival.

I’ve had an English translation of W. G. Sebald’s 1992 work, The Emigrants,on my bookshelf going on two decades, and still haven’t read it. I’m not sure why; maybe it would call me out as a fellow-emigrant. Sebald was German, studied in Germany and in England and tried to return to Europe but could not settle; he lived in Britain for the second half of his life but continued to write in German. Here’s the closing paragraph of Elizabeth Jaeger’s review of the recent New Directions edition of The Emigrants:

Here in America we think in terms of immigration, people coming to us. All too often, we lose sight of the fact that these men and women were emigrants first, leaving a place they may have loved. We focus on their expectations, their dreams of a new life, and we have written history in a way that highlights what they are running towards. As a result, we often forget or overlook the reasons they fled, the shadows in pursuit, and the memories that may never stop haunting them. The Emigrants is a reminder that many immigrants are burdened with experiences that we are fortunate not to have endured.

An expatriate is a person who lives outside their native country. This category may include people who must live abroad for work, for tax purposes, because it is cheaper to live there, because the climate suits them. It can be a temporary status or it can become a way of life. For one reason or other, expatriates don’t completely burn their bridges back to their country of origin, neither do they fully put down roots in the new country; why not? Are they dilettantes, privileged people who, unlike political exiles who have been banned or expelled from their countries, have the choice to return if they so desire? Sometimes; but expatriates certainly don’t all have lives of luxury. Consider, for instance, the many African Americans who have lived or currently live outside the United States, in search of a place where they can feel free—or at least freer—to be themselves, outside of the U.S. straitjacket of race. France Francois interviews 10 African Americans living in as many different countries in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and all of them say that they feel freer living abroad. Francois concludes her piece:

All the responses came from people who have lived abroad for years and have immersed themselves in a new society and culture, making a conscious decision to disengage from the U.S. and reaffirm their humanity elsewhere- an act that is still revolutionary in its simplicity almost 50 years after Baldwin left for Paris. Rather than remaining static, Baldwin reminded us that we have a responsibility “to move as largely and freely as possible.”

James Baldwin in Istanbul, 1965. National Museum of African American History and Culture

Kimberly Springer’s essay in The Atlantic, The Tricky Allure of Becoming a Black American Expatriate, notes that for generations African American artists and intellectuals have left the find a place where they can be free from the toxic racism that they have to endure back “home” on a daily basis. Still, she notes that they face other struggles and no place is free from institutionalized inequities. She concludes:

Feeling free from the metaphorical shackles of American racism has lasting value. Yet, being a black expat, one who’s attuned to American racial suffering, can merely heighten one’s awareness of other colonialist histories around the world and the racial disparities that persist because of them—a far cry from actually escaping racism. Living abroad can mean becoming one’s full self and being more deeply engaged with black struggle throughout the diaspora. But after staying in London for seven years. . .I arrived at the sobering conclusion that it’s better the devil you know. And with that, I came home.

Exile is the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. An exile is a person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion; so, too, is an émigré: someone who has left their own country in order to settle in another, typically for political reasons.

In 1984, the late Edward Said, the eminent Palestian postcolonial scholar and author of Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, Covering Islam, The World, the Text, and the Critic, and the memoir Out of Place, among other works, wrote, “Reflections on Exile,” later reissued in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.  In an audio interview, Said explained that the essay

seemed to me to capture—for my purposes, anyway—the condition of being somebody away from the place where he was born and belonged to, which was my condition. And I tried to generalize out from that to a more widespread modern condition of exile, of uprootedness, of migration, immigration, expatriation, and so on.

While exile can be a terribly lonely state, in fact, as Said notes, it can be enlarged from an individual plight to the condition of our age, one in which we are all uprooted; all dislocated even if we have never moved outside of the town in which we were born, the ground itself shifting under our feet. We can choose to resent and resist the change, or we can seek to understand all the forces that have brought the world to this moment and seek, as Edward Said did all his life, to encourage people in this shrinking world to find ways to live together, with all their differences; to thrive in the insecurity of our times rather than to live in a permanent state of siege, trying in vain to shut out the feared barbarians at the gates.

Let me tell you a story of an exile. Back in early twentieth-century Japan, a man translated Marx into Japanese and was banished from the country for leftist activity. But in Japan at that time a man’s son could go into exile in his place, and so Takashi Ueda Ohta left the country of his birth forever and set out to travel the world. He eventually met and married Virginia Berry, an American woman, and together they moved to Munich, where their daughter, Toshi Aline Ohta, was born. The Ueda family returned to the United States and settled in New York City, where Toshi met and married the singer and musician Pete Seeger, and they became legends in the folk music community, living a long, joyful, engaged, hard-working life together that touched millions of people across three generations and around the world. Toshi Aline Ohta Seeger’s life was predicated on her father’s voluntary exile. But she went on to carry the best of her grandfather’s values to the world.

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406. Of Piercings, Pain, and Authenticity

In Books, culture, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on January 7, 2018 at 2:27 pm


For the past nine days and counting it has been a low-grade irritation at best; at worst, almost as excruciating as the opening scene in Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure (L’Aventure Ambiguë, 1961), in which the young protagonist’s teacher, to drive his Qur’anic lessons home more deeply, grips Samba Diallo’s tender earlobe between the nails of his thumb and forefinger and pierces right through it. As the tenth day dawns, my dwindling hopes are at vanishing point, and there is no consolation. What else did I expect?

Let me start at the beginning. It’s about ear-piercing. In India, at least in Dad’s generation, ears were pierced at birth, during infancy or in early childhood, boys and girls alike. But mine were not done, and for some reason I can’t remember, I wasn’t inclined to get them done when I came of age. As I grew older, I came to consider it a barbaric practice, or so I retorted loudly whenever someone asked me why my ears weren’t pierced. For was ear-piercing different from any other form of ritual or cosmetic body-modification? Why would one want to violate the body’s integrity by piercing and scarring it?

Then I started getting earrings for presents. Dad returned from his first trip to India after our immigration to the States with beautiful silver necklace-and-earring sets, of which I could only wear the necklaces. And when Andrew and I went to India after our marriage, various relations wanted to present me with earrings fashioned from family gold, and were downright annoyed with me for not having pierced ears. What Indian woman didn’t have her ears pierced? Just more evidence of my cultural inauthenticity.

After dear Leela-kaki in Pune presented me with a pair of custom-made gold post earrings, my cousin Kalyani, with her characteristic no-nonsense efficiency, took me out into the alley behind the jeweller’s, where they did the job unceremoniously over an open flame. We continued on our travels with my newly-pierced ears, in the heat of May.

The outcome was predictable, I suppose. It was impossible to care for my ears properly while on the move, and they became infected. I can’t remember when I took out the earrings, but I kept them in until the situation was untenable. Upon returning to the U.S., I made the mistake of not leaving them in permanently, so every time I put on a pair of earrings, my ears would bleed afresh. Eventually I gave it up as a bad job and decided to let the hole seal up.

Ten, fifteen years went by. After Nikhil graduated from university he started going to India quite often and bringing back beautiful earrings for me, so I decided to try again. But when I got to the ear-piercing place at the local mall with my gold studs from India in hand, I found that they wanted you to purchase special earrings from them, and so I changed my mind and came away with nothing to show for it.

Fast forward another decade and my dear friend Marianne presented me with beautiful silver earrings, expecting me to put them on right away. Like everyone else, she had simply assumed that my ears were pierced: whose weren’t? I determined then and there that I would get the deed done this time, come what may, as a Christmas present to myself. Well, I did, and “what may” has now come to pass.

On my first free day after Christmas I set out for the mall, resolute. When I got to Claire’s, recommended because they regularly pierced children’s ears, I saw a pre-teen girl perched on the high stool waiting, her mother by her side, supporting her in this small coming-of-age ritual. Slim and leggy, like a young deer, she was shivering with equal parts eager and anxious anticipation, anticipation of the piercing itself, to be sure, but also of the solemnity of the occasion, of the adulthood into which it was initiating her, and all that it signaled, both pleasure and pain. I told her that I was nervous about my own coming ordeal, and was watching her carefully. If she cried, I would run a mile. She giggled, shivered again, and came through the ordeal sporting pretty pearl ear studs. Wreathed in smiles, she leaped off the stool to join her mother in shopping for new earrings. Her life was all ahead of her; what was I thinking, undergoing this ritual at my age? But now I was trapped: it was my turn.

It was a straightforward procedure, except for the numerous forms I had to sign releasing Claire’s from legal responsibility for anything and everything that might possibly go wrong. Besides whether to stay or to run a mile, there was just one choice to make: which one of their selection of post earrings I wanted put in my ear while the piercing healed. But I made the wrong choice.

I was all set to go ahead with a low-priced pair featuring gold clasps and a clear shiny stone of no particular value when the manager arrived and came on strong with a recommendation of the diamond earrings. They were “only” 40-odd dollars more, but they were smaller, sat closer to the ear, and came with a full replacement warranty should they break or get lost. Best of all, they were nice enough for me to wear them all the time as my default pair. Stupidly, I relented. After all, this had been a long time coming; why economize now?

But from the second that I heard the click of the hole punch, the problems began. One side felt relatively normal after the initial sharp pain of the piercing, but the other one felt wrong from the start. Both ears were soon red and swollen, accompanied by a persistent dull throb. I followed the cleaning and care instructions religiously for several days, but to no avail; things only got worse, to the extent that the sharp diamond studs were actually starting to get absorbed into my ear. I looked it up and found that it was called embedding; now that was truly frightening. A week out, I went to my doctor, who took one look at the studs and told me that they were on too tight. The problem, we soon discovered when we went to loosen them, was that the posts were too short and they were already on their loosest setting. She prescribed an antibiotic and recommended adding a saline wash and a thrice-daily heat pack  to the treatment regimen—if I didn’t want them taken out, that is. She said there was only a slim chance that things would improve, but that it was up to me how to proceed. So here I am four days later, and things aren’t appreciably better, although I keep telling myself that there is a slight improvement and I’ll give it just one more day.

Why didn’t I simply ask the doctor to remove the earrings and be done with it ? It was because I would have to give up on wearing earrings for the rest of my life (not to mention leaving scars from two failed attempts on my earlobes). But why was this such a daunting prospect? After all, I haven’t worn them all these years and here I am in my sixties. Was it because deciding to let go of the idea of piercing my ears once and for all would force me to accept that the time of self-adornment was over for me? Or because now, all those earrings lovingly given to me as presents would never be worn? Or was it because I would have to acknowledge one more sign of my ethnic inauthenticity? All of the above, I think, but there’s something more.

(from india24)

As postcolonial theorist R. Radhakrishnan concluded in an early essay, “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?”, the answer is inevitably Yes: the culture and consciousness of those living outside of their country of origin are bound to depart from its norms. Migrants, minoritized and marginalized in their new environment, often cling all the more to their ethnic identities unquestioningly, frequently shoring up outdated identities in the process. We can all think of examples of ethnic  subcultures in the New World preserving beliefs, practices, and cultural forms (including language) that have long been obsolete in their home countries. But is that the point? After all, people who have never left their country of origin also flout its cultural—and its political—norms. One can be out of touch and uninformed no matter where one lives; conversely, one can remain current with and critically informed about one’s country and culture no matter where one lives. But what does any of this have to do with my inflamed ears?

Going back to the young Samba Diallo in Ambiguous Adventure, one can safely say that the painful corporal punishment meted out to the boy in his religious tradition was extreme, even barbaric. However, in that powerful and haunting novel, the pain that Samba Diallo was to encounter later, as a young man, was far more excruciating—the pain of cultural alienation. Realizing that in order to survive under French colonialism, they would have to adopt the tools of their new masters, his family made the decision to give their beloved son a French education, and with it came the wrenching loss of everything he held dear, alienating him from all that made him who and what he was. I suppose that, deep down, I fear that loss for myself, even though I know that true authenticity is not something worn on one’s sleeve—or my case, in one’s ear—but something deep and inward.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that my ears are inflamed simply because I am allergic to earrings. My body reacts violently to any foreign object piercing holes in it, even if it is made of pure gold. I can keep delaying the inevitable, loth to relinquish that last flicker of hope that my system will finally accept the intruders; but in the end, I will have to accept what I knew all along: that this will never happen, and being authentic, being true to myself, means acknowledging and accepting this fact.

In the meantime, I will continue with the treatment regimen three times a day, continuing to kid myself until I can do so no longer. And when that time comes, there will be no consolation; what else did I expect?

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