Finding “Home” Abroad

In this blog entry, Carol Kelley, author of Accidental Immigrants and the Search for Home, explains how women immigrating to foreign countries find a sense of belonging in their new homes.

A surprising story in the news last week concerned a Norwegian television program about, of all things, wood. Not just how to chop and stack wood, but how to burn it. Eight straight hours of this twelve-hour program consisted of nothing more than watching a fire burn. Broadcast on Norway’s primary television station, NRK, the show was popular – twenty percent of the Norwegian population watched at least part of the broadcast. The Norwegian interest in wood astounded American media outlets. The New York Times ran an in depth article, there was at least one mention on NPR, and Steven Colbert had a field day.

Cultural quirks and differences are fascinating, and many of us dream of travel and adventure in order to experience them first hand. Imagine, however, that you are Anna, a young Maori woman who has never experienced winter. You arrive in a small Norwegian town with your Norwegian husband where you will live, very possibly for the rest of your life. You look different, speak differently and cannot begin to engage in a conversation about wood fires, not to mention lutefisk or skiing. How will you learn to belong in this culture, and how long will it take? Will you ever truly feel “at home” here? Or will you forever be an “outsider”?

I first became interested in how immigrants find a sense of belonging and home in middle school. I became friends with Susan, who with her parents had escaped from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968. I remember how confused Susan’s mother was about how to raise her adolescent daughter in the suburban Mid-west. While Susan was getting ready to leave the house, her mother would often pull me aside and ask questions: “Do your parents let you date? What time do you have to be home? How much time do you spend studying?” Even as a teenager I understood how eager my friend’s mother was to fit-in in her new American home.

I will never forget the beaming faces of this family on the day they became American citizens. The joy and pride they found in creating a new home for themselves radiated across the room. Years later own my sister immigrated to Norway, where she has now lived for nearly 30 years. Over time her feelings about living in Norway have fluctuated. Sometimes she seemed to love her life there, enjoying Norwegian culture and appreciating their commitment to social equality. At other times the weather, food and social rules felt oppressive. Eventually she realized that her search for a sense of belonging would not end, but would be a life-long process.

When I began to study anthropology, I pursued my growing interest in immigration, home and belonging. I worked with immigrant populations, researching the effect of social policies and exploring how effective programs can be created for their health care and education. My interest in the emotional, as well as the practical, aspects of immigration continued, and I began to research immigrant’s life histories. My sister’s experience had taught me that to understand issues of belonging and home, I would need to learn how immigrants’ feelings evolve over a long period of time.

Accidental Immigrants_smFor Accidental Immigrants and the Search for Home, I conducted in-depth interviews with four women, all of whom have lived in adopted countries for many years, including Anna. The results of the research surprised me. While all of the participants struggled with issues of belonging, not all faced that struggle abroad: two left home in the first place because they knew they would never belong in their country of origin. They discovered that a totally different culture could better support their values and worldviews.

Belonging is complicated. For some, it feels immediate in a new place, but never exists in their first home. For others it takes a lifetime to adjust to living away from early roots. The commonality is the striving to find a place to belong, and in the tension between commitments to two places. Arriving in the Turks and Caicos Islands a few years ago, I looked for the correct line to have my passport stamped. I expected to see designated lines for citizens and non-citizens. Instead, the signs read “Belongers” and “Visitors.” Despite my knowledge of Anna’s life and her feelings, I wondered: if the same signs existed in the Norwegian immigration line, which would she feel comfortable choosing? I suspect that her choice would be something she still had to contemplate, even after living away from New Zealand for most of her life. But one thing I am sure of – even though she loves Norway, and in many ways feels herself to be Norwegian – she wouldn’t be watching an eight-hour film of a wood fire.

Call Harilyn Rousso anything but “Inspirational”

In this blog entry, Harilyn Rousso explains why she titled her memoir  Don’t Call Me Inspirational

Rousso.HarilynWhen I was thirteen years old, in junior high school, I found myself standing next to my gym teacher during a fire drill. When she saw me, she put her arm around my shoulder and said, “I want you to know how inspirational you are.” I was perplexed since in gym, as a girl with a discombobulated walk and poor coordination in my arms and hands, the result of cerebral palsy, my performance was mediocre at best. Then she went on: “I understand that you wash and dress yourself. That is truly amazing.” What was she talking about? I had been washing and dressing myself since I was four years old. In my confusion and embarrassment, I could only respond “Thank you.” But I was wondering why she expected so little of me that even my most modest achievements could inspire her.

Since that incident many years ago, I have repeatedly encountered people who call me inspirational, usually people who barely know me. They stop me on the street, in the supermarket, or at some event where I am scheduled to give a talk or run a workshop. They know nothing about me other than how I look, with my disabled body, or how I speak, with my disability accent. From those clues alone, they declare me inspirational. The most disconcerting are the “inspirational” comments from those who have just heard me speak or conduct a training session. In the past, I’ve told myself that perhaps they were inspired by my words or my ability, through the training process, to change attitudes toward disability. But when I inquire why they find me inspirational, I hear: “If I were you, I’d never leave my house, much less speak in public. You are so brave, truly amazing.” I get this reaction even when I have just given the most hostile, confrontational speech, challenging people’s stereotypes of me and other people with disabilities as sick, helpless, dependent, or, in more pseudo-positive language, brave, courageous and inspirational. In some of those speeches, I insist, demand, cajole or even beg that they don’t call me inspirational. But my words don’t matter. They have only responded to the seeming imperfections of my voice and body.  Why do so many nondisabled people expect me to retreat to my home and hide? Why do they harbor such limiting assumptions about the potential and quality of my life?

Those of us in the disability rights movement joke about our “inspirational” status. We go to events featuring writers, painters or other artists with disabilities and wait for the inspirational comments, knowingly looking at each other and rolling our eyes when we hear them, which inevitably we will.

Don't Call Me_smWhat compels nondisabled people to repeatedly engage in such misguided, oppressive labeling?   What I experience most profoundly when nondisabled people call me inspirational is a sense of distance, a barrier they have created between them and me. It is as though they are afraid to really get to know who I am and then run the risk of relating to or identifying with me as a peer. To do so would render them vulnerable, since they perceive me, a disabled person, as vulnerable. They cannot allow themselves to imagine a disabled person as strong, competent and at ease with herself, disability and all. Of course all of us, disabled or not, are vulnerable in one way or another. But in our “can do, must do” culture, vulnerability, imperfection, the possible inability to do ordinary tasks is a secret fear that most people try to keep from themselves. People with disabilities appear to embody that fear. We are a threat to others’ sense of wholeness and invincibility. I think they imagine that if they were vulnerable like they perceive me—or any visibly disabled person they see—they would have to abandon an active life and possibly even end their life. What a sad assessment, particularly given that most people, if they live long enough, are likely to acquire a disability. What can be done to change their vision of their own future? And, damn it, what can I do to stop people from instinctively calling me inspirational without knowing who I am?

I attempt to do that in Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back. Will I succeed? I am not sure. The “inspirational” myth is tenacious; people hold onto it as though their lives depended on it. In fact, their lives would be enhanced if they could give up the myth and see me and my disabled sisters and brothers for who we really are. Then the reality of aging and possible disability would become less terrifying.  Occasionally, when I develop programs or engage in activities such as writing or painting that hopefully transform how people think and feel, I am proud to accept the “inspirational” label. But most of the time, my life is fairly mundane—going to the grocery store, paying the rent, spending quality time with my life partner and close friends, eating more chocolate than I should, and so forth. Sound familiar? That is the point.

 

Uncovering the life and work of Robert Beck (aka Iceberg Slim)

In this blog entry, Justin Gifford, author of Pimping Fictions, explains how he came to tell the story of African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing

In my journey to uncover the life and works of Robert Beck (aka Iceberg Slim) I have made many surprising discoveries along the way.  I began my search by traveling to black neighborhoods in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and many other American cities in search of Beck’s books. GiffordScouring used bookstores, thrift shops, and bootleg video stores, I discovered hundreds of black-authored paperback novels inspired by the works of Iceberg Slim.  I began collecting, reading, and categorizing them all in order to get a picture of the entire literary scene he helped create.

The next big breakthrough came in 2004, when I met Robert Beck’s second wife, Diane Millman.  She was selling all of Beck’s old pimp suits, alligator shoes, and silk shirts on ebay to raise money for charity.  I purchased all of these items, and then I flew to Los Angeles to interview her, as well as Beck’s publisher at Holloway House books, Bentley Morriss.  Millman and Morriss both supplied me with letters and other documents owned by Beck, and they have been ongoing resources for information for many years.

Pimping Fictions_smIn 2008, Millman introduced me to Ice-T’s longtime manager, Jorge Hinojosa, who at the time was creating a documentary on Beck, titled Iceberg Slim:  Portrait of a Pimp.  Hinojosa brought me onto the project as a research consultant, and I was given the rare opportunity to appear in the film as a literary expert on Beck.  This is where my book really took off.  I suddenly had the chance to view rare archival materials that no other scholar had ever seen—FBI records, photographs, and even an unpublished Iceberg Slim novel, titled Night Train to Sugar Hill.

I also was fortunate to gain access the insider perspectives of the former editors, authors, family, friends, and fans that knew Beck and his works best.  I have had the privilege of talking to a range of important figures about Iceberg Slim and his legacy, including comedian Chris Rock, Los Angeles poet laureate Wanda Coleman, and pioneering author of underground black literature, Odie Hawkins.  Pimping Fictions is the result of countless people’s generous contributions over a period of ten years.  

 

 

 

 

Visions of the ENVISIONING EMANCIPATION authors

This week we showcase images of Envisioning Emancipation authors Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer at their recent events at the International Center for Photography in New York City, the National Archives in Washington D.C. and The Free Library of Philadelphia.

Captions (from top to bottom):

At the Free Library of Philadelphia: Barbara Krauthamer (left) and Deborah Willis (right); Deb Willis with Photographer William Williams.

At the International Center for Photography in New York City: Barbara Krauthamer (left) and Deborah Willis (right)

At the National Archives in Washington, D.C.: Barbara Krauthamer speaking with one of the curators of the “Discovering the Civil War” traveling exhibit ; The authors signing Envisioning Emancipation; the authors with Alelia Bundles, journalist and granddaughter of Madam CJ Walker.

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