Identity in motion: The symbiotic connection between migration and identity in four 20th century novels by African diasporic women writers
TABLE OF CONTENTS
“Your World Converged with Mine”
Chapter One: Searching for Self as a Jamaican - British Woman in 20 th Century London
in Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon ………… …….……………………………......21
Chapter Two: Shifting Paradigms: Migration as Impetus to Self - Revision in
Buchi Emecheta’s Kehinde …………………………………………………………...65
Chapter Three: Dislocated Migrant: The Challenge of Being a Conduit of Change
in Edwidge Danticat’s Bre ath, Eyes, Memory …………………………….………...116
Chapter Four: Renegotiating Identity through Sisterhood and Migration
in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple… ……………………………………………...166
Wherever I Hang
I leave me people, m e land, me home
For reasons, I not too sure
I forsake de sun
And de humming - bird splendour
Had big rats in de floorboard
So I pick up me new - world - self
And come, to this place call England
At first I feeling like I in dream –
De misty greyness
I touching d e walls to see if they real
They solid to de seam
And de people pouring from de underground system
And when I look up to de sky
I see Lord Nelson high – too high to lie
And is so I sending home photos of myself
Among de pigeons and de snow
And is so I warding off de cold
And is so, little by little
I begin to change my calypso ways
Never visiting nobody
Before giving them clear warning
And waiting me turn in queue
Now, after all this time
I get accustom to de English life
But I still miss back - home side
To tell you de truth
I don’t know really where I belaang
Yes, divided to de ocean
Divided to de bone
Wherever I hang me knickers – that’s my home.
Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman and Other Poems, 1989
Embarking on a journey for reasons unknown, Grace Nichols, a Caribbean - born migrant to England uses the poem, “Wherever I Hang,” to explain that migration has produced a change in her consciousness, making her British in thinking and actions. In the initi al lines of the poem she says, “I leave me people, me land, me home” – the Caribbean. When she arrives in England, she notes the changes from and contrasts to her homeland. Even as she mails photos of her adopted country to her family, she still consider s the Caribbean her home. Gradually, however, she begins to change her “calypso ways,” reflecting the fact that she has conformed to the dominant culture. Not only is she physically in a different place, but she has experienced a mental migration, to the point where she does not know where she belongs. The end result is a revision of her understanding of home. As she becomes more comfortable in her surroundings, she experiences a paradigmatic shift, “I get accustomed to de English life,” and that reposi tioning results in a sense of loss and disconnection. Suddenly, she does not know where she belongs. She does not explain why she feels she does not belong in England, despite her adjustment to it, but implies that she is not warmly welcomed and embraced
there. Indeed, she does not know where she belongs, and therefore has no choice but to declare “home” “wherever I hang me knickers.”
This poignant poem reveals the complexity of migration for Black women and the impact it has on their identities and thi s complex process is at the core of my study as I explore the journeys of four diasporic female protagonists in Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy (1999), Kehinde by Buchi Emecheta (1994), Breath, Eyes, Memory by
Edwidge Danticat (1994), and The Color Purpl e by Alice Walker (1982). The texts of these four African diasporic women are the focus of my dissertation because they have been especially useful in my understanding of the interconnections between identity and migration across the diaspora resulting fr om slavery and colonialism. Historically, the African diasporic woman has played a monumental role in the transmission of cultural, social, spiritual, moral, and educational values, beliefs, and practices. She has played an integral role in establishing and maintaining the Black family, while teaching core values within the Black community. Examining the literature of African diasporic women provides further illumination of and insight into the history, tenacity, and resiliency of African people.
I am particularly fascinated by the ways that African diasporic women maintain their connections to their cultural roots in spite of migration and separation from their origins. As these women relocate, they typically maintain aspects of their African identity , even though at times some women initially fail to see such a connection; ultimately there are defining moments with other women that help these characters recognize the importance of a bi - cultural perspective. Levy, Emecheta, Danticat, and Walker have e nabled me to see that success for the African diasporic woman is contingent upon her ability to maintain her connection to her ancestral legacy, while she migrates to various landscapes. Each time the women of these texts shift their locations, they are s haped by that relocation, which also impacts the women they have left behind. I see these texts saying that the Black woman’s experience is about the negotiation of landscape and her ability to reconceptualize (that is refine, adjust, or adapt) definition s of self as she migrates and encounters other female migrants whose movements impact her.
Not only is she changed, but she passes on to her loved ones the wisdom she has gained through her experiences.
This transference of knowledge and experience is a p owerful phenomenon within the four novels I explore in this study, and all four authors trace the interconnections of identity and place for diasporic women from such locales as, England, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. Andrea Levy’s Fruit o f the Lemon (1999) raises the issue of migration and identity. In the novel Mildred and Wade Jackson have immigrated to London from Jamaica, where they establish careers, begin a family, and purchase a home. While the couple is content to live in the “Mo ther Country” they do not think through the consequences of raising Jamaican children in London. Their son and daughter, Carl and Faith Jackson, struggle to assimilate and to define themselves within a homogenous British culture that does not readily welc ome members of British colonies. As a result Faith dissociates from her Jamaican roots, choosing to identify as a contemporary Briton. It takes several racially driven confrontations for Faith to examine her life through a racial lens. Ultimately, she m ust visit Jamaica before she comes to understand her parents’ ethnic and cultural background and her positioning within her family. Her journey to Jamaica results in a change in her self - identity and an ability to embrace herself as a second generation Ja maican woman.
For Kehinde, the protagonist of Emecheta’s 1994 novel, migration begins shortly after birth. Because she is a twin whose sister is stillborn, Kehinde is adopted by her aunt and taken out of her rural village in central Nigeria, where twins a re believed to be evil. Kehinde’s birth causes much turmoil, as her mother and twin sister have died during childbirth. Her aunt, Mama Nnebogo, assumes custody and migrates to Lagos where
twins are celebrated. Mama Nnebogo is free to embrace and enjoy motherhood, and Kehinde is shaped by life in the capital city. Disconnected from some of her tribal values, Kehinde grows up with a progressive outlook, which makes it hard for her to imagine life as a subservient woman and one of many wives married to on e man. After secondary school, when she marries and immigrates to Britain, she fits in quite well with London’s western values. In both instances, moving from her rural village to Lagos and from Nigeria to England, Kehinde is transformed by the act of mi gration into a woman who embraces both her traditional African and modern British values.
Similarly, Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) is a text that explores the effects of migration on a Haitian family’s values, beliefs, customs and culture.
Raised by her aunt in Haiti, protagonist Sophie Caco is summoned to America to join her mother when she is twelve. In New York she meets her mother, Martine, and she learns to adapt to American culture, where she is viewed as an outsider. In spite of l iving in America, Martine expects Sophie to live within the confines of Haitian customs, remain within a Haitian community, and settle down with a Haitian man. Despite the pressure she puts on her daughter, Martine suffers from her own trauma and the lif e she left behind in Haiti. Although she migrates to America in an attempt to forget her past, she must eventually face the ghosts of her youth in order to move forward. This sense of pain and inescapable suffering is something she passes onto Sophie, wh o must learn to find solutions drawing on both her American experiences and her Haitian upbringing. For both Sophie and Martine, migration has had an indelible impact on their sense of self and personal identity.
In Alice Walker’s 1982 text, The Color Pu rple , migration is a critical and often overlooked aspect of Celie Johnson’s identity development. Written in the form of letters to God, her sister, and then to no one in particular, Celie’s narrative unfolds as she describes how she was victimized by he r step - father, by whom she bears two children. As a teenager she is married off to a slightly older man, Mr._____ who likewise abuses her. She is traumatically separated from her sister, Nettie, who has been her only friend. Her husband prevents Celie fr om having any contact with Nettie, who migrates to Africa with missionaries, but whose letters to Celie are intercepted by Mr._____, unbeknownst to her. Celie is isolated and voiceless until she develops strong and impactful connections with various women. From her in - laws to Shug Avery, her husband’s lover who becomes her idol and love interest, Celie evolves through these female relationships. As she encounters new ways of seeing herself and expands her conception of womanhood, Celie becomes a stronger, better - spoken individual.
What critics have overlooked is that her ultimate growth and journey towards self - definition largely occur as a result of two forms of migration. When Celie discovers her sister is not dead, but has been living in Africa for m any years with Celie’s two children, she has an epiphany and realizes that she is connected to a greater legacy, one shaped by migration from Africa to America. The second monumental act of migration that impacts Celie occurs through Shug Avery, who liber ates her from her husband, Mr._____ (Albert). Shug is a blues singer, who is not only the embodiment of the prototypical blues - woman archetype but she is a financially independent woman who affords Celie the opportunity to migrate north from rural Georgia to Memphis, Tennesee. In Celie’s ascent north, she experiences profound transformation, as she suddenly enjoys physical,
psychological, and sexual freedom. She becomes empowered through her affirming relationships with Shug and other women and she is fin ally able to establish a unique identity as an entrepreneur, selling pants, something she never could have imagined prior to her migratory liberation.
These four novels demonstrate that the concept of identity is fluid, dynamic, and ever - evolving , especi ally for Black women . Because it informs my reading of these diasporic fictional accounts of migration, I want to begin with my own story of migration as a modern African American woman. My journey to define myself began at a young age, as I was playing w ith some children of my own race but from a different class background who pointed out just how different I was from their idea of a Black person . The seventh of eight children, I had grown up in an upper - middle class New Jersey town, considered to be a b edroom community of New York City. My parents had moved there from Newark just after the birth of their fifth child. Although they were one of a handful of African - American families to live in Montclair in the late sixties , the town had become 35 - 40% Afr ican - American by the mid - 19 80s, when I was growing up. My father, who by then had answered a call to become a pastor, assumed leadership of a large Baptist church in the South Bronx. I still recall what some of my classmates replied when I told them we h ad gotten an apartment there , where I would be staying on weekends : “T h ey’re gonna kill you over there! ”
Undaunted, I found this new world to be exciting and different from anything I had ever known. I was fascinated by the running water that filled the streets when
shoeless kids danced in the wake of gushing fire hydrants to combat the heat. Th e loud car horns, speeding cars; the bright yellow awnings of the bodeg as; the sizzling Meringue
music; the dangling tennis shoes that hung from the telephon e wir es in the street; the graffiti; the double - dutch jump rop e matches on every other corner; the lyrical Spanglish;