- Liberal Humanitarianism: Obscuring US Culpability in James Disco and Susan Clark’s Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan and Dave Eggers’s What Is the What
In 2001, nearly 4,000 Sudanese refugees, displaced during the second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005), resettled across the United States. The newcomers were mostly young men who had grown up in refugee camps in North Africa after fleeing attacks on their villages in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As reports of the refugees’ lives began to circulate, much of the US public turned its attention to a war that by its end had killed nearly two million and had displaced four million. In particular, the US public encountered harrowing tales of unaccompanied children walking across a thousand miles of desert to seek refuge first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya. Numbering more than 20,000, less than half the boys survived the combined threats of dehydration, starvation, wild animals, and roaming bandits. Referred to as the “lost boys” by journalists and aid workers in reference to the unaccompanied youth in the tale of Peter Pan, the children became part of a narrative of US benevolence toward refugees fleeing a war in which the United States seemed to have so little at stake. Unlike earlier US policies welcoming refugees because of their flight from communism, the Sudanese refugee resettlement appeared to be emblematic of a post–Cold War US commitment to human rights untainted by geo-political ambition.
After the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, much of the West saw hope in the triumphant human rights ethic that promised to better the world. In Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition , Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith highlight their investment in the discourse, referring to the 1990s specifically as the “ decade [End Page 198] of human rights” (1). US journalists largely situate the 2001 Sudanese refugee resettlement in this context, that is, as the reward of the post–Cold War era. Immigration journalist Mark Bixler, for instance, writes that the end of the Cold War “opened the door to a small but growing number of refugees stuck in desolate camps around the world, like the one in Kenya where so many Lost Boys were coming of age” (80). Celebrating the end of the Cold War as the end of the so-called selective compassion that undergirded US refugee policy since the 1950s, Bixler indicates that refugees were welcomed into the United States because a national commitment to human rights ensured it, not to demonstrate the evils of communism.
Cultural conditions made fertile ground for journalists to entangle the promise of human rights with another narrative made triumphant after the Cold War: the promise of free markets. In the context of the 2001 resettlement, journalists presented free-market capitalism as the first guarantee of life in the United States. CNN correspondent John Vause, for instance, describes refugees buying groceries: “The Winn-Dixie Supermarket in Louisville, Kentucky, is not normally a place of awe and wonder. But for 10 Sudanese ‘lost boys’ who recently arrived, it is like nothing they have ever seen.” Vause depicts entry into the United States as entry into the center of modern capitalism, represented by the awe-filled mundanity of a grocery store. In her study, Melinda B. Robins critiques news coverage of the resettlement for blatantly merging consumerism and freedom. “For the ‘Lost Boys,’” she notes, “learning about freedom is shown as happening at the shopping mall” (41). Combining sensationalized descriptions of the refugees’ pasts with bright portrayals of their futures, most reports position the United States not only as the nation that saves but as the nation that saves precisely because of its promise of free markets.
In this essay, I examine two creative texts about the lost boys and their experiences that both affirm and resist the narratives that made headlines. The authors collaborated with refugees to produce these texts: James Disco and Susan Clark’s graphic narrative Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan (2011) , illustrated by Niki Singleton, and Dave Eggers’s novel What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006) . Through the comics medium...