“Othering” and the Ebola Crisis

Last year, my mother, sister, and I came to a decision: Summer 2014 was the year that we would finally board a flight that would eventually land us in Monrovia, Liberia. It would have been my and my sister’s first trip to any African nation. It would have been the long-awaited return of my mom to her country of birth, the city where she was raised until the age of 19.

My grandfather–a Nigerian who had long since been a naturalized citizen of Liberia, that nation which was once a colony of the United States until 1847–wanted his daughter to come to America to further her education. My mom left for California from Robertsfield airport in 1976. What she wouldn’t have known, couldn’t have known then, was that would be the last time her feet would touch the earth of the sweltering, tropical country. Not many years after her departure, Samuel Doe led an overthrow of the government, assassinating the president and executing members of his cabinet.

The many years of instability in my mother’s patria–in addition to the 1980 coup that led to Doe “winning” the presidential election five years later, there were back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003–made it so that she never got the opportunity to return. My father, on the other hand, did make several returns, most recently three years ago.

We talked about traveling for a number of years, hindered in large part by the high cost of airline tickets. By 2013 it was decided–we would visit in June or July of 2014. By then my younger sister would be a high school graduate and it would be a great vacation before she started her freshman year of college. She and I would get to meet for the first time our maternal grandmother, a woman who refused to travel to the United States even when the opportunity presented itself. Years prior two of her sisters left Liberia to stay with family in New Jersey and both women had passed away from cancer within years of each other. According to my grandmother, this land was simply not the place for her. For my mother, this trip would have been a long-awaited reunion with her own mother. Sadly, the reunion is on hold.

By Spring of this year, an Ebola outbreak in several West African nations raged with no end in sight. As each month passed, the numbers of afflicted and dead grew, and for those with immediate ties to the region, concern ballooned on par. What was lacking, however, was interest by those in the U.S. Patrick Sawyer, a naturalized American from Liberia, contracted the virus in Liberia in July only to die two weeks later in Lagos, Nigeria. Here we had the first American death from Ebola, and it passed without much word from news outlets, certainly not on the level of talk circulating when Dr. Kent Brantly contracted the virus not more than a week after Patrick Sawyer’s death.

Since Dr. Brantly’s arrival along with missionary Nancy Writebol’s to medical facilities in the U.S. (and their subsequent recoveries), all eyes have finally turned to the outbreak. And only a month after their recoveries, we saw two more contractions of the virus, one of which was initially misdiagnosed and then finally correctly diagnosed in Dallas, Texas. The problems, however, with us now looking to what this virus means are manifold. Because Ebola has touched down, so to speak, in the United States hysteria and fear have reached apocalyptic levels. One man has died in U.S. from the virus, and two nurses who were part of the team caring for him are now battling it. Three people have or had Ebola on U.S. soil, and it has now given a number of folks carte blanche to flex their xenophobia muscles.

Though I first and foremost describe myself as a Black woman, I am technically “African American.” More specifically, I am Liberian-Nigerian-Sierra Leonean-American. Yes, three of the four countries that have been dealing with this outbreak (though Nigeria is on course to say that it has officially wiped out Ebola from its nation) are three of the countries where my family comes from. Since Thomas Eric Duncan’s initial diagnosis, the hysteria has reached a fevered pitch. Jokes about zombie apocalypses, discussions about instituting travel bans, talk about “bushmeat” (though we’re perfectly content with calling deer, rabbit, snake, and alligator, animals consumed in various regions of this country, “wild game”) prevail in social media and in person. People who I usually consider reasonable and intelligent resort to using pronouns when talking about Africans. Or they lump Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria into a catch-all nomenclature: Ebola countries. We were all good, everything was copacetic, until someone from one of those “Ebola countries” came here.

The two incidents of recent travelers from Nigeria going to local hospitals–Howard University Hospital and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital–turned out to be malaria cases. Yet before that was disclosed, my Facebook news feed was a mess of statuses about the zombie apocalypse in D.C. and how “Oh my goodness! Ebola might be in D.C.!!!” Twenty-four hours later when the Washington Post published on their site the update that the patients exhibiting Ebola-like symptoms actually had malaria, my news feed was (oddly?) devoid of follow up. Navarro College in Texas rejected two applicants because they are from Nigeria. The students don’t have Ebola, but the country from where they come had cases of Ebola.

How do we justify this kind of behavior? This complete lack of sympathy? Instead people will say with a straight face, “Well, I just don’t want it here.” What is the implication of such a statement? Do you think Guineans want it? Sierra Leoneans? Nigerians? Liberians?

The resulting stigmatization has inspired a number of Liberians to declare “I am a Liberian, not a virus.”

The video states, “We didn’t bring this disease upon ourselves. Stop the stigmatization!”

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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.