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“When I Think of Home”: Reflections from an African Immigrant in the US

By Stephanie Shonekan, Art, Music, and Pop Culture Contributing Editor

I have just returned to the US from a week in Trinidad, my mother’s home country. While I enjoyed getting reacquainted with the place where I had spent the first few years of my life, I was happy to come home to the US. As my children and I got off the airplane in Houston, we walked behind a pair of Texan men, who had incidentally stayed in the same hotel as us in Trinidad. They were part of a large group of oil men who had come to do some work on the island. As we approached the customs hall, there were airport workers who were ushering us, US citizens, to the kiosks which would get us through much quicker than people who were not citizens.

The woman who directed us to the Customs kiosks was of Asian descent, her accent retaining the cadences of the original country of her birth. My pleasure at returning home was shattered when I overheard one of the Texans say to his companion, “Damn! I come all the way home and who is the first person I see? An immigrant!” His tone was a combination of anger, frustration, fear, and disdain. The word “immigrant” is now equivalent to words like “outsider,” or “other.” Here in the US now, there is a significant semantic difference between the words “immigrant” and “citizen.” I am both: an immigrant and a citizen. Most likely, this woman he referred to is also a citizen.

Since the 4th of July, I have been reflecting on the current state of the US. Every year, Americans take a day off work to celebrate the notion of independence and freedom, but are we striding forward, marking time, or sliding backwards? How is it that one American can so quickly strip away the legitimacy of another such as the Texan at the airport? As an immigrant, I don’t take holidays like this for granted. By the time I took the oath at the citizenship ceremony, I had studied up on the history, and passed the test with flying colors. I like to think that we immigrants have a fresher understanding and higher expectations of this notion of freedom than people who were born here, never had to study for the citizenship test, and go through the arduous process of becoming a citizen.

I consider both the US and Nigeria home. Lately I’ve been thinking about how certain aspects of my new home, the US, resemble the home of my childhood in Nigeria. Particularly, I’ve been thinking about immigration and citizenship. During the 1980s in Nigeria, there was an atmosphere of suspicion against Ghanaian immigrants. We remember this era as the “Ghana must go” period. In my young teenage mind, I struggled to understand why all the brilliant Ghanaian teachers who tutored us in math and English were being chased out of the country.

I later learned that there was an overwhelming fear among much of the population that Ghanaians were taking jobs away from Nigerians. It must have been a terrifying time for these Ghanaians, but it didn’t affect me personally, until one night, when an angry Nigerian woman drove up to my house and began shouting for my mother to come out. She was incensed because her under-aged child had not been given a place in the school where my mother was the principal. The woman threatened my expatriate mother with deportation. My thirteen-year-old self stood next to my stoic silent mother as the woman screamed threats and abuses. Even though my mother was in Nigeria legally, I was terrified. I had recurring nightmares about what would happen if my mother was taken away from our family.

These two distant memories from my childhood have returned to me recently because of the recent discourse on immigration and citizenship raging in the United States. These days there seems to be a vast population of Americans who are afraid of immigrants, and I see eerie parallels between the home of my past and current events in the US. I am closely following the news about the family separations at the Mexican border, and it’s disturbing to witness the exuberant cheers of anti-immigrant supporters in response to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. But the animosity is not directed towards all immigrants or asylum seekers. I’m reminded of Sting’s 1987 song “Englishman in New York”; its lyrics “Oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien” describe an Englishman “walking down 5th Avenue” blending in. The lyrics don’t tell us whether this alien has a valid visa, or a green card. But white migrants, like the First Lady Melania Trump, are welcome. It is immigrants of color who are in jeopardy.

Xenophobic and racist actions and sentiments of white Americans have been recorded since slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, but in our digital era, the phenomenon is so much more visible. Extensive footage captured on video by passersby of Black people being assaulted and murdered by the police in everyday spaces show that Black folks are at risk of losing their lives whether we are gathering at picnics, selling water, or sitting at coffee shops.

Last week, I posted a story on Facebook about my teenage son who had just started his first job at a restaurant and came face to face with racist customers who refused to acknowledge him even when he held the door open for them. I tried to shield him from the ugliness of racism by explaining their behavior away – maybe they were too hungry or distracted, I told him. He shook his head sadly and responded, “No Mom. It was the color of my skin.” This hurt my soul deeply. Responses to my Facebook post were overwhelming and other friends shared their own stories about recent encounters with racism. One friend wrote about an encounter at church (of all places!): “A mother wouldn’t allow her daughters to shake hands and offer the sign of peace with two of my sons at Mass yesterday. Pulled them away. The boys were shocked. Of course, I tried to explain it away.” Another friend wrote about how a white kid spat at her black child as he was riding his bike in the neighborhood. Yet another friend wrote about eating out at a restaurant, only to be ogled by a biracial boy and his white grandparents: “A young biracial boy, about 11, stares at me while I eat my food, and the white grandmother says, ‘You think she’s pretty?’ He responds, ‘No, she’s black.’ The grandparents laugh and say, ‘Kids are a mess. He didn’t mean that; you know how they can be.’” It strikes me that so many of us who have stories like this want to try and explain this away because the truth means that the world is not a safe place for all our children, and that we have not come as far as a nation as we think. While these microaggressions are a far cry from assault and murder, when racism permeates our everyday culture, it sets the stage for racist violence.

Thankfully, many of us refuse to accept xenophobia and white supremacy, from Colin Kaepernick to the diligent founders and activists of the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement. Yet, there are consequences for protesting, for demanding justice. Kaepernick has still not been signed by an NFL team, and BLM activists have been targeted as “black identity extremists” by the FBI. They have been vilified by public officials in the US administration to the apparent delight of their supporters.

This brings me to another memory from Nigeria when I was growing up. As a young adult, I heard stories of how Afrobeat musician and human rights activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti was repeatedly raided by the army and police because his caustic lyrics criticized corrupt and despotic leaders as well as the systems of corruption that oppressed the masses. Another iteration of that government grew wary when writer Ken Saro Wiwa ramped up his non-violent activism against an unjust system that was affecting his Ogoni people of the Niger Delta. And then, on November 10, 1995, the government brutally executed Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists. I will never forget the gnawing feeling of sadness and hopelessness when we heard the news of the executions.

So, lately I’ve been thinking about what happens when the leader of a country, one with unabashed influence and power, openly criticizes those who speak up for justice for all? What happens when people are urged to act on their dangerous notions of xenophobia, nationalism, and their white supremacist notions of patriotism? These questions are particularly troubling in a nation like the United States that proclaims to be the best democracy in the world. I never expected it to resemble the dictatorship of the 1990s Nigeria.

Whenever I think of this complex notion of home, I think about the song “Home” from The Wiz. The main character Dorothy dreams of a home where there is love overflowing but also wonders if she should stay, go, or leave things as they are: “Should we run away, should we try and stay, or would it be, better just to let things be?” Indeed, this is home, so we should not have to run. Neither can we simply let things be, even as the tide of hatred and fear of the other seems unrelenting.

As an educator, I think one of the things we must do is to deepen our understandings of racism and xenophobia. We can promote and utilize the humanities to contend with the most pressing questions that affect us as human beings. For instance, last Spring I collaborated with my Mizzou colleague, political science professor Adam Seagrave, on a new class called “Race and the American Story.” Frustrated with the shallow contemporary commentaries about racism and xenophobia, we designed a course using primary documents – speeches and essays— from American history. We invited our diverse group of students to spend the semester reading and reflecting on how race has been constructed and construed in America since independence.

Race and the American Story Class photo
Race and the American Story class. Image credit: Stephanie Shonekan

This class was the best thing I did in the classroom last spring because students from different majors peeled themselves away from social media discourse to delve into old documents that form the fabric of this country and its attitudes. We reviewed Thomas Jefferson’s philosophies as presented in the “Declaration of Independence” (1776) as well as in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), and we spent some time considering the validity of the phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We wondered afresh if Jefferson and others actually meant what the words say. On discovering Thomas Jefferson’s views on freed slaves, a white male student commented:  “Jefferson’s attitude towards freeing the slaves is a replication of many American’s viewpoints on immigrants in 2018. Our country likes to pride itself on being the land of the free and having liberty for all but when an outsider tries to join us and further adopt this notion, many citizens of our country push them away and have the same attitude that Jefferson did…Americans view immigrants as people of crime, as people that will tarnish our peace and only bring problems when in reality they are willing to work harder than most Americans. Jefferson had the same opinions towards slaves.”

Our students in the “Race and the American Story” class did what we all should be doing – i.e. thinking critically about how what we are experiencing today is a ripple of the deep waves of injustice that were initiated even before the 18th century. In 2018, no one should fear simply driving or walking the streets, being shunned at churches or restaurants, or being spat at or called ugly simply because of our particular identity. My current home should not resemble the dictatorial past of my childhood home.

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