The New World Way

There’s a thought-provoking piece in the June 30th online edition of The New York Times about African writers, their international bent, and their sudden (or what seems like sudden) literary fêting:
New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent
. To be certain, African writers have been celebrated in the past. Writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka received awards and international attention over the works, rooted heavily in the lives of Africans in Africa, they produced. Contemporary writers like Helen Oyeyemi and Dinaw Mengestu draw on their experiences as Africans in so-called western lands (Oyeyemi in England and Mengestu in the United States) and produce works about characters who are similar to them, who are making their way in the new world.

As a writer I’ve done the same in fiction–create West African characters who live in the U.S.–because it makes sense to me. It has also made sense to create strictly black American characters in other stories because I straddle both worlds. In the home that I was raised, my mother never hesitated to tell me “I’m an African mother. This is how it’s going to be.” However, when I was in school I tried to be as American as possible, which for the time period in which I came of age (late 80s/early to mid-90s) meant being entertained by episodes of A Different World, 90210, or Martin, or listening to artists like Salt n Pepa, Tupac, or 112.

Yet even with those outside influences, my home remained one where I heard conversations about the civil war in Liberia or interacted with the Nigerian side of the family (my mother’s cousins and uncles) or attended African weddings and listened to African music. The effect of all this was to produce the woman I am today who writes black American characters or West African characters.

What the NYT piece makes me contemplate is this new trend toward the “African in the West” trope and what would it mean for me as a writer of African characters if my name were readily recognizable as African as opposed to the very Anglo that it is (my middle name is solidly Igbo, however). There’s a story in there about how three-quarters of my family have Anglo last names despite the quite obvious locations of their births: My paternal grandfather; my paternal grandmother with her Anglo maiden name as well as Anglo re-married name; and my maternal grandmother whose maiden name is as Anglo as one can get. The story in few words is that there must be some connection to those who were sent back to Liberia and Sierra Leone at some point during or toward the end of slavery in the new world; that they docked in Liberia and Sierra Leone bearing the names of their previous owners.

If editors at literary journals are more convinced of a story about Africans by a writer with a traditional ethnic African name, I wonder where that places me? The complexities of a child of immigrants in the new world is something I’ve lived. It’s also something that I’ve attempted to pull from when writing a particular short story. However, if it’s submitted by someone with a Jane Smith-like name, does that affect “sellability,” as in could a reader buy the culture represented as it is, of the narrative? Would it read as not authentic? Are assumptions being made that I’m trying on another culture by virtue of having the name that I have? Would the story be more convincing if it were written by a Grace Obinna or Amaka Agu rather than Jane Smith? I struggle with these questions. I don’t have the answers.

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You Know How Not to be Offended? Stop Gawking!

Hunger is a natural part of the human existence, whether it’s a figurative hunger for something abstract like power and success or a literal hunger for food. When an infant is hungry and his mother decides to nourish him from her breast, a controversy should not ensue. However, it does, and it’s baffling to say the least. All manners of straw man arguments break out. The mother is derided for breastfeeding in public, and if she has a picture of her taken while feeding her child, she’s chided in a number of offensive ways.

During her college graduation ceremony, a 25 year old mother in Los Angeles breastfed her infant daughter. She had a photo taken of the moment then posted it to the Facebook group, Black Mothers Do Breastfeed, as a way of showing support for mothers like her: black women who have opted out of using formula and have chosen instead to nurse. A number of studies and surveys reveal that black mothers lag behind other mothers when it comes to breastfeeding, hence the creation of the Facebook group. The goal of it is simple: to encourage via sharing that many black women do, in fact, breastfeed. Karlesha Thurman, the graduating mother, is one of many.

Since the picture went viral, she’s received an outpouring of support. Those folks understand. Her child was fussy and hungry, and it was a long graduation ceremony. (I can vouch for the lengthiness of the ceremony. My cousin also graduated from CSU-Long Beach two years ago, and even though we arrived as the ceremony was underway, my family and I still sat for nearly two hours until the program was finally concluded.) There has also been kvetching about the picture.

But why did she have the baby with her? The baby should have been with family. Why couldn’t she sover up? She should have covered up. Would it be OK if I just whipped out my penis? To the first two questions, Karlesha has explained in interviews that her mother initially had the baby, but when the little girl became fussy in her grandmother’s arms, she collected her daughter and began to feed. A graduating friend asked to take the picture, and there you have it.

Though I am not a mother, I do know that, if I am able, I will breastfeed once I have children. I think it’s perfectly natural, and when you see a mother nursing her child, what is visible is really only some décolletage. During summer months, one can spot a number of women with revealing cleavage thanks to low-cut tops. Why is there so much emphasis on visible cleavage when the woman is breastfeeding? Is it that we’ve so classified breasts as objects solely for sexual gratification that there’s a feeling of cognitive dissonance when we see them being used as a source of nourishment for infants and toddlers as well? Perhaps therein lies the Catch-22: Public breastfeeding isn’t seen as “normal” and when a mother does take a picture doing just that (or actually breastfeeds sans photo), as a way of normalizing breastfeeding, some people have near-strokes because seeing a baby suckling from a breast is “weird.”

The first time I witnessed actual grousing about public breastfeeding was a couple months ago. It was in the checkout line at the Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom, and this woman (black like me) was positively scandalized. At first I didn’t understand what was going on. She was in front of me. I was minding mine. She was all, “Oh my God! I can’t believe she’s doing that!” Me: *Should I get that chocolate bar over there?* Woman: Does she really have to do that right there?” Me: *You have chocolate at home. You don’t need to get that chocolate bar.* Woman [speaking directly to me]: Can you believe what she’s doing? [motioning to a woman on the sidewalk breastfeeding her toddler] Me: Oh. Well… Woman: She shouldn’t be doing that. The child has teeth. That’s too old. Can you believe? Me: I mean, the kid’s hungry… [blank stare] Woman: That’s like child abuse.

Then I tuned her out, and she got the message. I’m not even a mother, and I was offended. No one compelled the woman to keep gawking at a mother feeding her child, yet the woman refused to look away. The more she looked, the more worked up she made herself, acting like it was an offense to her. And I kept thinking: You know how not to be offended? Stop fucking gawking! Damn.