- Narratives of African Immigration to the U.S. South:Dave Eggers's What Is the What and Cynthia Shearer's The Celestial Jukebox
A prominent, even dominant trend in U.S. Southern studies today is the resituation of the South, traditionally understood in regional and national terms, within hemispheric contexts. Scholars have sought to relocate the South in relation to the Caribbean by identifying a shared history of plantation slavery, and emphasizing the demographic and cultural connections among the New World black diaspora. Although this paradigm shift in Southern studies has generated important work, there is a danger—as Jon Smith, one of the key figures in the field's realignment, has recently noted—that a newly hegemonic hemispheric focus crowds out other ways of seeing the South in "comparative and transnational" frameworks (2009). As I have observed elsewhere, the "New Southern Studies" has seemed oddly disinclined to consider writing about the South in (Black) Atlantic contexts (2005, 194-98). I would like to take this opportunity to draw attention to recent fiction that focuses on contemporary African migration to the South. The emergence of this fiction gives new impetus to the development of Black [End Page 65] Atlantic approaches within (new) Southern studies, not least by expanding our sense of how the African diaspora continues to redefine the region.
In talking about African immigration to the U.S. South, there are obvious problems with generalizing about experiences emanating from a multiplicity of nations and cultures stretching across a whole continent. Beginning nearly four centuries ago a collective "African" identity was both forced upon and forged by peoples from a wide range of tribal cultures as they endured the traumatic experience of the Middle Passage and entered a new life of slavery in the American colonies. Still, twenty-first-century voluntary migrants from the African continent are, like their predecessors, thrown and drawn together by the shared experience of crossing the Atlantic; moreover, many confront the legacy of slavery and racism that has so profoundly shaped U.S. history in general and U.S. Southern history in particular. But what really distinguishes the modern influx of Africans is the sheer weight of numbers: between 1990 and 2005, more Africans "arrived voluntarily than the total who disembarked in chains before the United States outlawed international slave trafficking in 1807" (Roberts 2005, A1). In the American grain of transatlantic immigration, New York state receives the largest percentage of these new arrivals. However, other areas of the country, including Southern states like Texas and Virginia and major cities like Atlanta and Houston, are now among the nation's leading destinations for African immigrants.1
This extraordinary growth in the United States' African-born population has had two striking effects. First, Africans are lumped together, not only by whites but also "by American-born blacks" (Roberts 2005, A18). Second, African immigration poses a challenge—some would say a threat—to the established definition of black identity. Native-born descendants of African slaves have exhibited ambivalence about the arrival of another kind of African American. Tension has emerged over issues ranging from jobs (African migrants are often perceived by whites as being more compliant and hard-working than native U.S. blacks) to affirmative action programs in universities (an ongoing Princeton study shows that 40 percent of black students at Ivy League universities are actually immigrants or the children of immigrants). Whereas a vast majority of African Americans voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, early in the campaign some black [End Page 66] commentators expressed concern that Obama's father was born in Kenya rather than Kentucky. In the New York Daily News, Stanley Crouch declared that candidate Obama was not "black like me," and insisted that Obama "will have to run [ for president] as the son of a white woman and an African immigrant" (2006). In Salon, Debra Dickerson argued that "Obama isn't black" because "'[b]lack,' in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves" (2007).
If African immigrants pose a challenge to the "political and social reality" of the U.S. racial categories "black" and "African American," narratives of African immigration...