This paper was presented in a panel discussion in 2004, for a conference organized by women writers of African descent, "Yari Yari Pamberi: Conference of Black Women Writers from all over the Globe" (October 12-16). The venue was New York University. I was invited to participate by one of my aunties, Dr. Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr. I was as usual, very much embroiled in the "busyness" of everyday life, but given that I love and respect Aunty Rashidah, I agreed--with trepidation. Why trepidation? I am not what an old, good friend calls a "Lit Crit", her shorthand for literary critic and creative writer. The panel discussion was to center around "The cultural interaction and adjustments of writers in exile and writers who have immigrated to other locations." I felt therefore obliged to channel "Lit Crit" type energy and write a short story. This is not a true story but a pure fictional treatment derived from imaginative story telling. Afterall, I listened to many stories while a child in Nigeria.
I also felt ambivalent about designating myself an exile. In fact, I could only be considered an economic exile because the vagaries of the international political economy and the effects it had on Nigeria had marooned me in the United States, making me wonder, can I go home anymore? Don't get me wrong, I am always traveling to Nigeria, so, I am not talking about going home in a literal sense. My musing is instead about whether or not home remains the same for a sojourner.
This is a subject that I take up in my contribution to the newly published book, West African Migrations: Transnational and Global Pathways in a New Century. Edited by MojúbàolúOlúfúnké Okome and Olufemi Vaughan and published by Palgrave Macmillan. You can click on the following links to see the book on the Palgrave website in the UK and the Macmillan website in the US respectively:
Here's the table of contents for those who don't want to bother to click on any links:
Chapter 1: West African Migrations and Globalization: Introduction - Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome and Olufemi Vaughan
Chapter 2: "You can’t go home no more," Africans in America in the Age of Globalization - Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome
Chapter 3: Transnational Identity Formation as a Kaleidoscopic Process: Social Location, Geography, and the Spirit of Critical Engagement - Samuel Zalanga
Chapter 4: What to Wear? Dress and Transnational African Identity - Elisha P. Renne
Chapter 5: Insurgent Transnational Conversations in Nigeria’s ‘Nollywood’ Cinema - Peyi Soyinka-Airewele
Chapter 6: Centripetal forces: Reconciling cosmopolitan lives and local loyalty in a Malian transnational social field - BruceWhitehouse
Chapter 7: Towards an African Muslim Globality: The Parading of Transnational Identities in Black America - Zain Abdullah
Chapter 8: African Migrant Worker Militancy in the Global North: Labor Contracting and Independent Worker Organizing in New York City - Immanuel Ness
Chapter 9: Transnational Memories and Identity - Titilayo Ufomata
Chapter 10: Arrested Nationalism, Imposed Transnationalism and the African Literature Classroom: One Nigerian Writer’s Learning Curve - Pius Adesanmi
The cover image is by Stephen Adeyemi Folaranmi "Four Friends and Me", 2006, acrylic on canvas
The cover image is by Stephen Adeyemi Folaranmi "Four Friends and Me", 2006, acrylic on canvas
My chapter's title: "You can’t go home no more," Africans in America in the Age of Globalization" explores many of the issues considered in this attempt at fiction. I have a disclaimer: Nothing in the following story is to be taken as a factual representation of the life of anyone, living or dead. It is purely the product of my imagination.
I began my presentation thus:
The topic of this panel immediately brings to my mind, the words of Psalm 137, reiterated in Boney M’s “By the Rivers of Babylon”. By the Rivers of Babylon is a hymn of national mourning, according to a Jewish source from the evidence reproduced below. It is also evident from reading the Psalm that this is an expression mourning, a lament about exile. So like many other writers, I decided to use Babylon as a creative device to speak of the exile of Africans and the toll that the ongoing diasporization could take.
The destruction of the state and the Temple and the exile to Babylonia (6th-5th centuries, B.C.E ) were traumatic experiences that produced extensive literature expressing desires for revenge, stirrings of repentance, expressions of anguish and lament, and a yearning to be reconciled with God and restored to the land of Judah. Outstanding in this literary outpouring is Psalm 137 (best known by its opening words "By the rivers of Babylon"), a hymn of national mourning.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.
There on the willows we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement,"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem's fall;how they cried, "Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!"Fair Babylon, you predator,a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us;a blessing on him who seizes your babiesand dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137 has been attributed by rabbinic sources to the prophet Jeremiah, placing him "at the rivers of Babylon" either at the very beginning of the exile or at the very end; many modern scholars refute this view. In his scholarly article on Psalm 137, James Kugel discusses the complexity in pinpointing this poem's authorship and period of composition.Several scholars have claimed that the harp-playing weepers by the rivers of Babylon were not an abstract personification, but the levitic singers, whom their captors forced to join the other exotic court orchestras that the Assyrian and Babylonian kings kept for entertainment. After the return from Babylon, these orchestras served as the prototype for Temple music established in Jerusalem. Music as a sacred art and an artistic sacred act was gradually given its place in the organization of the Temple services, but not without a power struggle between the levites and the priests. It has been suggested that the descriptions of the numbers and performance of the levitic singers may have been exaggerated so as to afford prestige for the levitic singers, and for the same reason, the poem "By the waters of Babylon" may have been inserted in the collection of Psalms.
WHY THEY CRIED AT THE RIVER
The midrash offers us another insight: "Why did Israel see fit to weep along the rivers of Babylon? R. Yohanan said: The river Euphrates killed more people among the Israelites than the wicked Nebuchadnezzar had killed. For when Israel had been dwelling in the Land of Israel, they drank only rain water, running water and spring water; when they were exiled to Babylon they drank the water of the Euphrates, and many of them died."Writes Prof. Kugel: "This explanation, perhaps rooted in reality a well as biblical texts (see Jeremiah 3:18), connects the weeping in Babylon with that weeping's cause: there was where we sat down and wept because it was there, at the river of Babylon, that more of us died than had died even at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. It is to be noted that such a reading not only justified the emphatic 'there,' but gives new meaning to the psalm's opening words 'al naharot bavel' meaning not so much 'by' or 'beside' Babylon's river as because of Babylon's rivers we sat down and wept, for they were the cause of our greatest suffering."
A Jewish reference can be found at: By the Rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137) I: A Hymn of National Mourning
And a Biblical reference at: Psalm 137 :: King James Version (KJV)
There are also songs that give a melodious interpretation. Below are two versions, one by The Melodians and the other by Boney M.
And now I return to the topic at hand: Globalization And The Impact Of Dislocation And Population Movement On The Creative Process: The cultural interaction and adjustments of women writers in exile and writers who have immigrated to other locations.
Where do I begin? What do I say? How can I express it? What does it all mean? It was a New York Fall morning. It was just after rush hour on the number two line going uptown in Manhattan. A young, beautiful, well-dressed black woman came out of the train. The train sped off. She crossed to the opposite side of the tracks, looked toward the direction from which the train should come, saw a train speeding toward the station, and promptly jumps onto the track in the path of the oncoming train. The train screeched to a stop inches from her. The driver jumps down. Hands reached down to the track and pulled her up. She looked dazed. Inside, she was disappointed because she had hoped to die. The train operator kept asking her, Why? Why? Why did you do this? She remained mute. Finally, an ambulance arrived and she was led away. She spent the next month at a psychiatric hospital. This young woman was en route to the university where she was a Ph.D. student. She was married with one child. She lived in a middle class suburb of New York City. She was loved by her entire family. She had completed all the coursework for her degree and was studying for the comprehensive exams. Her grades were well above average. What happened? What was wrong? What could possibly make a woman with such a promising future decide to do something so destructive? This was what the psychiatrist tried to tease out of her for the entire month that she was in the hospital. By the time she left, neither the psychiatrist nor herself was any wiser as to the whys and wherefores. She still regretted not having died.
The young woman was an African immigrant that had been in the US for three years. She was deeply unhappy every single second of those three years because she felt like a fish out of water. It wasn’t the food and it wasn’t the people around her. It wasn’t the pressure of school work, as a matter of fact, that was a welcome relief. It was everything. She constantly wondered, what am I doing here? She dearly longed to return home. For her husband who was very supportive and loving, how could they possibly afford to pay for the airline ticket on their meager resources, which would be better spent paying for necessities like rent, food, clothing, childcare, school fees and transportation? Some patience, some perseverance, some more sacrifice, and they could finish school in flying colors and go back home in style, having garnered the precious golden fleece like the heroes in one of those tales that were first recorded in ancient Greek mythology, tales of course, that as educated Africans, they knew better than their own ancestral tales that were passed down by word of mouth, a treasure trove of orature, but only the truly educated could possibly know this, not the mis-educated products of postcolonial African educational systems.
The young woman knew all this in her head – home was something that had to wait. Much preparation and sacrifice was still to be endured. Her heart however, did not understand it. She wanted her family, a loving, supportive community that extended beyond the nuclear family of husband, child and herself, a culture wherein she was understood and accepted, contradictions and all. She wanted to go home. Being in America, the land of opportunities was for her, imprisonment, exile, misery personified. Her creativity was stifled, although she still passed all exams. Her heart was broken. She had no support system to speak of, and lost the capacity to articulate what the problem was. She turned within herself and began to converse with herself. She even argued vociferously with herself. She could no longer sleep well. She could no longer eat. She was tormented and conflicted. Her whole life up to this point had been consumed with getting a good education. She had planned to become a tenured professor before she turned thirty, and was determined to accomplish her goal. However, now, life had lost all meaning. All former purposeful actions had become irrelevant. She was broken.
Getting to the heart of what caused all the problems ended up taking up to two decades to sort out. In the meantime, our young immigrant woman graduated with her Ph.D., got a job right away, published books and articles, got tenured, became respected in her field. She also tried to commit suicide four times. She took years of this anti-depressant or the other. She tried the talking cure. She prayed fervently to God to show her the purpose for her life. Why was she spared? What would it take to be happy? She was now able to go home on visits. She noticed that she anticipated the home-going passionately and felt elated and at peace while back at home, only to be deflated and miserable when she returned to "God’s own country". She realized that she was in Babylon and was stuck. She was a captive in a strange land and could not possibly sing the Lord’s song as entertainment to those who held her in bondage. But how could this woman rationally be said to be in bondage? She was accomplished, gifted, talented, educated, liberated, the epitome of today’s hybridized global citizen.
What had brought our young woman to America? She came for education, in search of the proverbial “golden fleece”. She chose this university because she bought into the hype about it being one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the United States of America. Everyone was nice, but nobody was warm. She made no friends, but had plenty of acquaintances. The professors were polite but not interested in mentoring her. This is what brought the first self doubt – she wanted to apply for a fellowship. This is a classic "rivers of Babylon situation". How can a person be happy, fulfilled, and creative in a strange land? Creativity necessarily demands centeredness, belongingness,
This necessarily brings up one of today’s most used buzzwords: globalization. Our young woman eventually figured out sans therapists and psychiatrists that she was driven to come to America by the powerful draw of globalization. She was kept there by globalization and she self-liberated from globalization by re-connecting with her source, her origin, what makes her unique and special – mother Africa. The reconnection is not unproblematic, because going home, time and again, she discovered that it is true what Lou Rawls and George Benson’s lyrics say: “you can’t go home no more, your past is dead, dead and gone, they tore down the house where you were born.” Most of the things she longed for in her nostalgic desire for home had either lost their appeal, or they’d changed irreversibly, and she was forced to figure out what exactly made home home. To bring things away from the personal to the general, what is globalization, and how does it affect the creative process?
There are a few possible effects, but they cannot be homogenized. The effects are determined by a woman’s class and race, and possibly status. What does this mean? It’s possible for globalization to cause not dislocation, but re-location. Some African women are a part of the chosen few, those who are actively sought-after and recruited to take well-paying jobs and prominent leadership positions, and they can pick and choose which opportunities to pursue. Other African women are not at this stage yet, but they are in training for becoming desired. Our young woman whose abbreviated story I told left Africa in hopes of becoming prominent. Yet other African women can only hope to move, not anywhere in the world, but to some other African country and some of these are recruited too. Another group of African women would leave the continent “by any means necessary” and they are willing preys for well-paid staff of multilateral organizations like the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund as candidates for domestic service. Another category of these same women are daily recruited into the international sex trade as trafficked persons. Yet another set are drug couriers. There are also African women who are dislocated by war and conflict to become refugees in just about any country that would take them. One more group is imposed by those who flee from political oppression and persecution by the state. They become exiles, and again, would go anywhere there is refuge. There are finally, African women who never leave home but are still dislocated by globalization, a relentless economic force that changes the nature of home and hearth, that causes both poverty and affluence, and if they are afflicted by the former effect, poverty, they are forced too, to survive “by any means necessary”, and they do, every living moment.
What are the effects of globalization on the creativity each of the seven categories of women? The first, the desired category of women may very well jump into the global fray eagerly and land on their two feet and immediately begin to produce creative works of art, literature, and so forth. They don’t miss a beat. The danger for them is that their creativity is bounded up by the demands of the job, the grant, the workshop, the conference, the career. They produce, may be prolific, may be recognized worldwide, but should rightly lament and mourn. “by the Rivers of Babylon” should be their theme song because they are studk in a strange land and must sing in response to the demands of those who carried them off into captivity. Of course, these gifted and desired women are not knocked down and dragged at gunpoint to take their important jobs. They’re instead wooed and attracted, bound by silken cords to the oppressors’ realm. The “desired in waiting” category of women could become successful and become what they wish for. They could also run into problems as our beginning story so clearly illustrates. The same possibilities await them as those for the successful women.
Women who are forced to move to another African country because they are not in the “A” class of the desired may experience the fate of the first group, but may not yet be able to more quickly find a niche that nurtures and rewards their creativity than if they had been pushed to the West. They may also find as Nigerians and other Africans do in South Africa that they are resented and rebuffed. One possibility not raised thus far is that hostility and brutality can and do strengthen people. As the Yoruba say, “Adanilóró f’agbára kó ni,” that is: one’s tormentor teaches one to be strong. They may rise above the compulsions and hostilities that marginalize them and be creative in spite of and in response to marginalization.
What are the possibilities for those who leave Africa “by any means necessary”? As some one else’s domestic servant, what happens to creativity? One could rise above adversity, realize one’s hopes and dreams and challenge all the stereotypes about what one’s ultimate hopes and dreams should be. This would be the experience of a minute minority. As a sex worker, what are one’s possibilities? As a trafficked person, what are they? There are some stories of "successful" sex workers who build fabulous mansions in their villages or towns of origin and themselves become independent madams who recruit other women into the trade. Yet others, and these others are the majority, make no headway, succumb to sexually transmitted diseases and all that this entails, and suffer all manner of indignity. Can they go home? Can even the "successful" sex worker go home? What might that home be?
For a refugee, exile, and a dislocated victim of globalization, what happens? The possibilities cannot be predicted a priori. The only right starting point is as a first step, to resist oppression by refusing to entertain the tormentors, the oppressors, the brutal dominators by not singing the Lord’s song in a strange land. If they don’t sing the Lord’s in a strange land, are they thereby silenced? No! It is actually succumbing to singing the Lord’s song in the strange land that is a desecration because it would be a gratification of the desire of their oppressors for reducing sacred hymns of worship to songs for sheer entertainment. As suggested by the very first reference to “The Rivers of Babylon in this paper, resistance and fighting back are the right responses.
This means African women who are dislocated, re-located and moved from home must necessarily dig deep to excavate and rehabilitate their connections with home. They can create support systems through making new friendships and forming new kinds of family that draw upon African indigenous systems of building family and friendship. They must build new institutions that foster and support creativity. They must be willing to recognize, acknowledge and assist fellow exiles and write songs of freedom in the multiply possible forms that exist – poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, textbooks, monographs, paintings, protests, memoranda, arts, crafts. They must ensure that they make an impact on the world and effect change. Since globalization is an inexorable process, they must use its innovations to project their voice and to build new transnational communities that cannot be bound, cannot be controlled, constrained or curtailed by Babylon. This of course is easier said than done, but that being said, it is not impossible. To connect with creativity in spite of being captive in Babylon is the sweetest revenge. As our young woman’s story demonstrates, this is a treacherous path. As her story demonstrates, it is not an impossible path to successfully traverse.