Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Double Diversity

We Went Out for Ethiopian Food Last Night

and had a great meal at a local place we’d been to once before. The owner also serves the meals and so as we gushed over the food we got talking. I asked where he was from and it turned he himself is from Nigeria, an Ibo, while it is his wife — the chef — who is Ethiopian. He’s an engineer by day, runs this bustling, growing restaurant in the evening — last time we were there his wife was in the kitchen minding their baby while stirring the pots, now the baby is 2 and there is a staff working the stoves. In a strange way that enterprising couple reminded me of an experience last spring, when I visited a school in a African-American and immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn. In that school the deep divide was between Caribbean and native-born-US blacks. 

For much of our history, we defined this country as bi or tri-racial: black, white, red — even though there were Asians here from the 19th century on. Ever since 1965, when we re-opened the door to immigration from all over the world — we’ve added shades of brown — South Asian, Latin American — to the spread of colors and peoples. But my experience with the Nigerian-Ethiopian couple, like my visit to the Brooklyn school, is a reminder that those older groupings themselves are breaking apart, shifting, taking on new meaning. African immigration is not African slavery — and so all of our identity associations are shifting. Of course this came up with Obama, but it is one thing to talk about a single prominent person and another to really grasp how dated our conception of our population is, and how much it is changing right now.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, America was born in 1965, not 1776 — and we are only learning how much that is true every day.

Comments

  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    Marc, I read your blog often, and I agree that 1965 (like 1910 earlier) changed our perception of our world, because it made communities and people more obvious; the large numbers from Asia, the former colonies, and Latin America, as well as other under-represented groups forced the majority to acknowledge their presence & to pay attention. However, though the histories of Caribbean Blacks and African- Americans, both began in slavery, they are different. The Middle Passage ended in colonies where whites were a powerful minority , but the majority were former Africans, while in the U.S. whites predominated. And, we also know that color does not always unite different groups within a culture.

    In NY, Brooklyn and Queens, especially, reflect those demographic changes, for there always were “hidden” communities of non-white residents before 1965, but visible only to each other and to their employers. The rest of the city knew little and wanted to know less. And, now with immigrants from Africa bringing their languages and cultures to the mix, we have a more complex and challenging era. That is why it is so interesting that our new president, by his own history, informs us of those threads in our own cultural web.

    In classrooms, the differences are visible; for example, reading Achebe’s books, as well as Caribbean writers’ works, raises issues and conflicts about language, attitudes, and life experiences. For adolescents, those differences are often significant and disturbing.

  2. marc says:

    Shirley:
    Our Ibo owner of the Ethiopian restaurant had fascinating things to say about Achebe.

  3. Shirley Budhos says:

    Marc,
    In his wheel chair, Achebe visited the U.S.& participated in literary events several times under the guidance of our dear friend, the poet Raymond Patterson.
    Yeasr ago, at conferences with booksellers to the schools and colleges, I had a hard time convincing chairpeople and teachers, as well as U.S. publishers to publish Achebe for American distribution. My copies were from Heineman which I bought in London years before, as well as other African, Caribbean, Indian, and post-colonial literature because so little was available here. I would certainly be interested in what the Iborestauranteur has to say about Achebe.