LITR 5831 Seminar in Multicultural Literature
American Immigrant Literature



Af Am & immigration

overall, not an immigrant narrative of voluntary migration for opportunity and equality 

instead, forced migration > slavery, then segregation

limits on assimilation and intermarriage enforced partly by both sides

intermarriage widely illegal until 1967, Supreme Court Loving vs. Virginia

comparable to caste system in which race or birth replaces class


some rough or occasional analogies between African American history and immigrant narrative

internal migration from South to North and / or from farm to city

urban ethnic enclaves may be immigrant or African American (though African Americans stay in enclaves longer, + other effects on housing)


Overall, immigration probably doesn't help African America in many direct ways

  • Civil Rights Movement climaxed at end of low-immigration period

  • High rates of immigration depress wages at lower ends of economic ladder (more working people, more competition)--African American women who practice birth control sometimes express anger at immigrant women who don't--"Having more children than you can take care of"

  • Immigrants often bring or develop negative attitudes toward African Americans

  • African Americans as unknown, associated with crime and danger

  • African Americans as negative measure of assimilation, upward mobility; immigrants avoid being identified with African Americans > identify with dominant culture, desire to assimilate

  • immigrants in niche economies sometimes exploit African Americans (source of long-term enmity b/w Jews and Af Ams despite Jews' general liberalism)


Teaching rationale: not same story, can't judge by same standards: "The American Dream" > "The Dream"

Quandary: should schools support separate separate but equal black identity or assimilation and intermarriage?

Intermarriage rates b/w African Americans and other Americans have increased, but not by much. OK to date black?

Learning two separate stories may be only way to reconcile, exchange.






Poetry: "Blonde White Women" p. 77

African Americans follow the immigrant narrative in moving from the South to the North

South = Old World, traditional culture, oppression

North = New World, modern culture, equality and rights (?)

Gomez 182 both from Virginia

Bambara 145 we all moved North the same time






Equiano notes

1.1 traditional culture, elders, wealth

1.4 our wants are few and easily supplied

1.5 Our land is uncommonly rich and fruitful

[nonfiction reconstructed beyond memory]


2.3 African kidnappers

2.17 cultural and language change

2.19 slave ship, world of bad spirits, complexions [assimilation?]

2.20 a multitude of black people of every description chained together, everyone of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow

2.21 I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore which I now considered as friendly; and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo.

2.23 brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice [greed], as I may call it, of their purchasers. (nonfiction: editorializing, commentary)

2.25 Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites. (nonfiction: contradiction or complexity of attitude; cf. 4.1)

2.27 Africans of all languages


3.1 I now totally lost the small remains of comfort I had enjoyed in conversing with my countrymen

3.2 I had no person to speak to that I could understand

3.3 a black woman slave as I came through the house, who was cooking the dinner, and the poor creature was cruelly loaded with various kinds of iron machines; she had one particularly on her head, which locked her mouth

3.7 By this time, however, I could smatter a little imperfect English;

3.16 employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books

3.19 washing make my face of the same colour as my little playmate (Mary), but it was all in vain; and I now began to be mortified at the difference in our complexions.


[4.1]  . . . I have often reflected with surprise that I never felt half the alarm at any of the numerous dangers I have been in, that I was filled with at the first sight of the Europeans . . . . That fear, however, which was the effect of my ignorance, wore away as I began to know them. I could now speak English tolerably well, and I perfectly understood every thing that was said. I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners (change not dramatized but reported)

4.2 I thought now of nothing but being freed, and working for myself, and thereby getting money to enable me to get a good education; for I always had a great desire to be able at least to read and write

styled me the black Christian.


6.2 I immediately thought I might in time stand some chance by being on board to get a little money, or possibly make my escape if I should be used ill: I also expected to get better food, and in greater abundance; for I had felt much hunger oftentimes . . . .

6.3 At length I endeavoured to try my luck and commence merchant [start his own business]. I had but a very small capital to begin with; for one single half bit, which is equal to three pence in England, made up my whole stock. However I trusted to the Lord to be with me; and at one of our trips to St. Eustatia, a Dutch island, I bought a glass tumbler with my half bit, and when I came to Montserrat I sold it for a bit, or sixpence. Luckily we made several successive trips to St. Eustatia (which was a general mart for the West Indies, about twenty leagues from Montserrat); and in our next, finding my tumbler so profitable, with this one bit I bought two tumblers more; . . . When we came to Montserrat I sold the gin for eight bits, and the tumblers for two, so that my capital now amounted in all to a dollar, well husbanded and acquired in the space of a month or six weeks, when I blessed the Lord that I was so rich. As we sailed to different islands, I laid this money out in various things occasionally, and it used to turn out to very good account, especially when we went to Guadaloupe, Grenada, and the rest of the French islands. Thus was I going all about the islands upwards of four years, and ever trading as I went, during which I experienced many instances of ill usage, and have seen many injuries done to other negroes in our dealings with Europeans: and, amidst our recreations, when we have been dancing and merry-making, they, without cause, have molested and insulted us.  . . .

6.5 though I did not intend to run away unless I should be ill used, yet, in such a case, if I understood navigation, I might attempt my escape in our sloop

6.6 we took a load of new slaves for Georgia and Charles Town

Opportunity of selling my little property to advantage: but here, particularly in Charles Town, I met with buyers, white men, who imposed on me as in other places.

6.7 hope of getting money enough by these voyages to buy my freedom in time, if it should please God; and also to see the town of Philadelphia,

he heard that I meant to run away from him when I got to Philadelphia: 'And therefore,' said he, 'I must sell you again:

6.9 at that instant my mind was big with inventions and full of schemes to escape.

6.10 Captain confirms speech

6.11 That he also intended to encourage me in this by crediting me with half a puncheon of rum and half a hogshead of sugar at a time; so that, from being careful, I might have money enough, in some time, to purchase my freedom; and, when that was the case, I might depend upon it he would let me have it for forty pounds sterling money, which was only the same price he gave for me. This sound gladdened my poor heart beyond measure . . .


8.2 a cargo of slaves

8.4 before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master, and completely free.

giving, granting, and releasing unto him, the said Gustavus Vassa, all right, title, dominion, sovereignty, and property, which, as lord and master over the aforesaid Gustavus Vassa, I had


Toni Cade Bambara, "The Lesson"


Back in the days

lady w/ nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup (realistic detail, unpredictability)

naturally we laughed at her

Miss Moore, only woman with no first name

black as hell, feet fish-white and spooky  (realistic detail)

us being my cousin, mostly, who lived on the block cause we all moved North the same time

Miss Moore always looked like she was going to church, though she never did

She'd been to college and said it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones' education, and she not even related by marriage or blood. [traditional]


arithmetic [dom cult]


Miss Moore asking us do we know what money is . . . I mean real money, she say

go to the sunset and terrorize the West Indian kids

how money ain't divided up right in this country

about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don't feature.

hands me a five-dollar bill and tells me to calculate

I'm mostly trying to figure how to spend this money


my plan, which is to jump out at the next light and run off to the first bar-b-que

White folks crazy.

"Can we steal?"

"I beg your pardon"

"It's a microscope."

Miss Moore gabbing about the thousands of bacteria

price tag $300, how long save allowances, Too long     (realistic detail, nonfiction)

learning instruments, medical students and interns

$480, don't make sense


[teacher talk]         (realistic detail, nonfiction)

on your desk at home . . . x-desk, no homeowrk

important to have a work area all your own

handcrafted sailboat $1195

"Unbelievable" . . For some reason this pisses me off.   (internality)


"That much money it should last forever"

"how much a real boat costs? I figure a thousand'd get you a yacht any day."

least you could do is have some answers.

"Let's go in" . . . only she don't lead the way

I kinda hang back . . . I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. . . Sugar . . . hangs back too (internality)


tumble in like a glued-together jigsaw done all wrong.

like the time me and Sugar crashed into the Catholic church on a dare

And I watched Miss Moore who is steady watchin us like she waitin for a sign. Like Mama Drewery watches the sky and sniffs the air and takes note of just how much slant is in the bird formation. [traditional]

"You sound angry, Sylvia. Are you mad about something?"

I could see me askin my mother for a $35 birthday clown. . . . could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen's boy. . . visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country


rent and piano bill too

Who are these people that spend that much . . . . What kinda work do they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it? Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don't necessarily have to be that way . . . poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie and don't none of us know what kind of pie she talkin about

"White folks crazy."

Sugar: "I don't think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs." And Miss Mooore lights up

"Imagine for a minute what kidn of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven."

Sugar: "not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dought"   (nonfiction, essayistic commentary, but fiction b/c put in mouth of character)

ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.




Upon exposure to the dominant culture's heights on 5th Avenue, the normal Immigrant or American Dream response would be to ask, How do I get a piece of this? How do I get my share of this great wealth?

The African American teacher and children (Miss Moore, Sylvia, and Sugar) see something different . . . .

Not something they want to join . . .

Rather they see something that's gone wrong, basically unfair . . . .





Alice Walker, "Elethia"


a certain perverse experience

carried with her at all times a small apothecary jar of ashes

the town where she was born (nonfiction)

a man whose ancestors had owned a large plantation

many slaves

grandson of former slaveowners held a quaint proprietary point of view where colored people were concerned. He adored them , of course. Not in the present . . . his grandfather's time.

locally famous restaurant

Old Uncle Albert's

stuffed likeness, small brown dummy, lips intensely smiling, white napkin

Black people could not eat at Uncle Albert's, though they worked of course in the kitchen. (nonfiction)

how near to the real person the dummy looked.

smiled as a dummy in a fashion he was not known to do as a man


grateful to the rich man, taste of vicarious fame

though niggers were not allowed in the front door, ole Albert was already inside, and looking mighty pleased

For Elthia, fascination: fingernails (realistic detail; nonfiction? can't make it up)

worked as salad girl, discovered the truth

not a dummy, stuffed like a bird, moose's head, giant bass

someone broke in and stole nothing but Uncle Albert

Elethia and her friends, boys

They carefully burned Uncle Albert to ashes in the incinerator of their high school, and each of them kept a bottle of his ashes. . . . reaction profound

experience undercut whatever solid foundation

became secretive, wary

haunted museums, remains of Indians, real, stuffed people cf. Rue Morgue  (nonfiction, reference to shared reality beyond text)

wasn't nobody's uncle and wouldn't sit still for nobody to call him that, either.

308-9 just like always

309 Albert was born in slavery

boss man kept them ignorant of the law

trying to make him forget the past and grin and act like a nigger

seriously disremembered his past

never would let him get a job anywhere else. And Albert never would leave home. (contrast mobility of immigrant culture)

Eletheia went away to college and her friends went into the army because they were poor and that was the way things were.

They discovered Uncle Alberts all over the world . . . textbooks, newspapers, TV (nonfiction, reference to known reality, not created or directly represented)

Aunt Albertas

jar of ashes, old-timers' memories written down

her friends wrote that in the army they were learning skills that would get them through more than a plate glass window (sounds dangerous rather than comforting or supportive)

Uncle Alberts, in her own mind, were not permitted to exist.





Alice Walker, “Elethia” (IA 307-309)

How much does or doesn't the immigrant and American Dream narrative apply to the experiences shown?

What other stories begin to emerge? What different social contracts?

What challenges to dominant-culture ideas such as assimilation, individualism, love it or leave it?

What is Uncle Albert's relation to the white culture? Can he join? What are his rights?






Immigrant / American Dream story is endlessly repeated and almost never questioned, or if it is questioned, you're being un-American, or not sure what kind of story to tell instead.

But Literature courses never just celebrate. 

Our duty is critical thinking, which involves asking questions, analyzing, complicating, identifying and solving problems.

First question: What does our description leave out? Where does it break down or face complications?

The immigrant narrative presumes a fresh start and a fair chance for everyone, but has that always been the story for all Americans?

Does the immigrant narrative apply to all Americans equally?





Toni Cade Bambara, “The Lesson” (IA 145-152)

compare "The English Lesson"--how different? What different lesson for the immigrants and the black children?

Conclusion of "The Lesson":


Upon exposure to the dominant culture's heights on 5th Avenue, the normal Immigrant or American Dream response would be to ask, How do I get a piece of this? How do I get my share of this great wealth?

The African American teacher and children (Miss Moore, Sylvia, and Sugar) see something different . . . .

Not something they want to join . . .

Rather they see something that's gone wrong, basically unfair . . . .




Dr. Rose Ihedigbo, from Sandals in the Snow (IV2 149-172)

Ihedigbo b. 1952

149 Nigeria, Christian Igbo > Biafra, Nigerian Civil War (Biafran War) 1967-70

Missionary groups, husband Apollos, college-trained teacher

Church groups + continuing educations

1979 western NY, Houghton College, Wesleyan church + 1980 3 children joined

Nigerian immigrant history: educational opportunity

Ethnic groups sponsor

1970s 9000 students

1980s 35,000 students < U.S. Immigration and Reform Act 1986


1950 ethnic financial infrastructure

Rose bachelor’s, master’s, PhD early childhood education

1999 Nigerian-American Technical and Agricultural College in Abia

+ Head Start

2013 Sandals in the Snow: A True Story of One African Family’s journey to Achieving the American Dream

Narrative + interview [community narrative]

Homeownership = acculturation and upward mobility

Maintaining cultural ties with extended Nigerian community


151 a two-story paradise

Always improving, advancing, growing

“like really middle-class now! . . . really normal  . . . "

My own room, suburban neighborhood

Embodiment of the American dream

This is ours!


152 sofa, evening television network lineup

Spray-painting machine  fnf

Commercial failed to mention

Many do-it-yourself projects


153 typical Nigerian way

Bedrooms changed with allegiances, factions

Family’s first minivan . . . created for us [Evangelical language + Nigerian English as Edwardian: shenanigans]


154 110 mph like a dream

Gadgets, toys . . . entertain passive, sedentary young people today

Boys who were parents’ only son  (realistic detail)

A gang of boys . . . looked out for one another



155 lost bike  fnf (contingency)

NFL fame James enjoys today (reference to shared reality beyond text)

Pop Warner pee wee football

Backyard football games [1950s-60s]


156 surrounded by a number of immigrant families

Violent tackle football . . . x paralyzed or killed

Rose preparing yam flour

She constantly prayed . . . x seriously hurt


157 never wanted to quit


158 backyard sports legend fnf > fiction

competition at its best


158-9 being an “other” in society > bellowship among our cultural group

Nigerian community


159 children connected to their roots

Lots of aunties, uncles, cousins, and music

Cf. family reunion

acceptance and connectedness


159 American education values and practices x-raditionally accepted in un-Westernized homes

Tight family, strict parents, strong biblical beliefs

Seeing kids act like this for the first time


160 camera, pictures of their butts   (realistic detail, reality effect, not predicted, outrageous and beyond pale)

Respect for those older

Parents leaders and authoritarians of household

White ones talk back disrespectfully

Missing elements were fear and accountability  (editorializing, commentary; values named rather than evoked, ergo nonfiction)

CPS > parents fear children [cf. Grande, U.S. has lawas]


161 friends acting irreverently

Get me what I want

Would have gotten them knocked out in their own culture

Another cultural difference: Nigerian children understood what it took for their parents to get where they were, so they valued whatever their parents could afford for them.

American model of family .  . . call the authorities


162 “It takes a village . . . “

Slapped by someone else’s parents

Child services

Community uncle or auntie

Spirit of entitlement . . . others owed them something


163 lacrosse: preppy, suburban, all-American players

x-self-righteousness, self-importance, and over-privilege

African in Massachusetts cf. black panther walking in snow fnf figurative language?

[childhood +] most obvious outsider

Clothing, Survival Center shoes (local specific reference)


164 external appearance

Ethnically styling Onyii’s hair . . . non diverse school

Teacher takes out plaits

Shocked that teacher let this go on


165 letter written to Onyii (Debbie)

[fnf focus on Onyii-Debbie; divided self, lack of voice > 167] fiction

For Rose, no compromise, no defeat.

Boys had their own challenges

Hair . . . specimen x human being

Assimilation battles > sports


167 unique way they smelled . . . like Nigerians . . . natural smell

House . . . not used to our smell

Onyii-Debbie: want odors eliminated . . . husband thinks disorder

Deodorant = less Nigerian, more American


168 shampoo

Maternal grandmother Helen—knew she was different

Family station wagon, First Baptist Church fnf (realistic details)


169 Grandma relieves herself fnf (reality effect, unpredictability, beyond formula)

170 Uncle Smarts > Uncle Dumb


171 foods . . . palm oil, egusi soup, stews, rice, yams

Occ. Spaghetti and hot dogs for the children

Assimilated tastes


171-2 more American middle names of Debbie and Joseph

After high school > Igbo names

Special in so many ways