Tuesday, May 2, 2017

My Author Interview

The Beyond Footnotes series of KPSU radio station and the PSU History Department recently interviewed me about my forthcoming book: African, American: From Tarzan to Dreams from My Father--Africa in the US Imagination. 

Click here to listen to the forty-five minute interview. The folks at Beyond Footnotes do a great job of preparing and asking questions, and there are many other interviews in the series.

The book will appear in mid-July and is dedicated to Mr. Brando Akoto, a Yo Ghana! board member who passed away late in 2015.

​For more information about the book, consult the Zed Books website.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Three Evening Scenes

  • Tuesday night had already been a full day when I arrived at the Troutdale City Hall. I was there to talk a little bit about Yo Ghana!'s partnership with Reynolds High School, but mainly I was there to support two of our students. One of them was Rando, a small, ebullient Muslim girl from East Africa who has been interviewing family elders to relate their journey through civil war and refugee camps to America. Her voice started very faint, then became stronger and stronger as she shared the remarkable story, and the council members' eyes filled with respect and wonder.

    About two hours later I boarded a transit train and heard the voice of Diana calling to me, another one of our students, a girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who in the rainy night was in charge of her little brother and wheel-chair bound mother, all of them struggling to understand a new language and new skills such as how to negotiate the transit system in a wheelchair. But they seemed much more resolute than frail and not at all deterred by missing a stop.

    ​Then I joined an apartment full of Ghanaians full of joyful expectation. The wife and children of a leading volunteer were about to arrive, ending a separation of nearly five years. When they stepped into their new home it exploded with noise and joy. The eyes of the three young children were wide. So much to take in. Twenty years from now they'll still remember that night, and by then they'll be doing great things.

    ​Americans often ponder going to Africa and helping Africans. But Africa is also coming to us, and Africans' resilience, warmth, and determination are helping all of us, now and far into the future.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Making Sense of Each Other

​Kwame Anthony Appiah, the distinguished philosopher born to an English mother and a Ghanaian father, remarks in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers: "when the stranger is no longer imaginary, but real and present, sharing a human social life, you may like or dislike him, you may agree or disagree; but, if it is what you both want, you can make sense of each other in the end."

His words came to Wednesday morning during the Yo Ghana! Student Showcase at St. Andrew Church's Community Center in Northeast Portland. Students of Deb Tavares (shown above) who are learning English shared their work. A boy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo related how his father survived and escaped war; a Muslim girl from East Africa spoke of how she has come to love wearing her hijab; and a student from Mexico showed a photograph of the truck his father uses for his landscape business, a job that leaves him exhausted, but "this is how we make a life."

Yo Ghana Board member Dr. Labissiere shared the delights and fears of growing up in Haiti and how coming to the U.S. brought new challenges of racial and personal identity. Yo Ghana Project Coordinator Ibrahim Ibrahim emceed, young Maddie from Fowler Middle School read some fine letters on overcoming hardship from Ghana, and a bunch of students received awards. Students and teachers from Reynolds High School, Vernon School, St. Andrew Nativity School, Fowler Middle School, George Middle School, Campfire Columbia, and Judson School--all the way from Salem!--attended.

We are often urged to exercise tolerance toward others. Appiah urges us to "make sense of each other." I hope that tolerance and understanding can lead to deeper exchanges in which we learn from and move forward together.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chance to Support Resilient Youth

Over the past ten weeks I've had the honor of working with some truly inspiring students who have immigrated to Portland from SE Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, West Africa, Eastern Europe, Mexico, and Central America. Next Wednesday, March 29, they'll be sharing from the interviews they've done of their parents and their photographs illustrating the rich range of cultures they are living out.
The event is 10:00 a.m. at the Community Center behind St. Andrew at NE Alberta and 7th in Portland. Admission is free.
Other students will read from their letters and letters from Ghana on the theme of adversity, stories of overcoming poverty, loss of parents, and abuse, among other challenges.
So please forward this to anyone who might be interested in learning from and supporting diverse, determined, and resilient young people.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Resilience: "There's Nothing More"

I'm one of those people who spent much of his life wondering what I should do when I grow up. I think I believed that there was one shining path that I was meant to walk, and all would be lost and wasted if I didn't find it. The poet Sylvia Plath wrote of watching figs ripen on a tree and being so afraid that she wouldn't pick the right one that they all grew rotten and fell to the ground. That image resonates for me.

A piece of advice I heard somewhere that made an impression on me was that one shouldn't try to do everything. Find a passion, something you are reasonably good at and care about, find others who feel the same, and work with them and stick to it. Christians often refer to this as one's "calling." But you don't need to be a Christian to be devoted to a particular cause, even in the face of apparent failure.

One problem that people like me, an American who has had a pretty comfortable life, commonly run into, is what to do when problems arise while pursuing one's calling. Many Americans are raised to expect happy endings, even if we are working with vulnerable people. As the humanitarian Paul Farmer puts it, we often assume that "all of the world problems can be fixed without any cost" to ourselves. Caring about other people inevitably leads to disappointment and suffering.

But if you truly believe in what you are doing and are collaborating with good people, you can decide that giving up simply isn't an option. One of my favorite fictional characters is the Nigerian headmaster in Helon Habila's Measuring Time, a man who is determined, against what seem to be impossible odds, to maintain a school for vulnerable children. "This is life," he explains. "There's nothing more." And that's more than enough.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Immigrants, Cosmopolitanism, and Conservatism

I've been spending a lot of time around immigrant students, lately, teenagers from all over the world. Some have been exposed to extreme trauma, fled violence, lived in refugee camps. Some have had much more ordinary lives. All find themselves in the U.S. trying to sort out how to reconcile or blend their traditions, the lives of their parents, with the American youth culture they encounter at middle and high school.

The children are diverse in ways that extend beyond their point of origin or their varied cultures. Some are shy. Others are anything but. Some love school, others, well, not so much.

I've long studied immigration, but much in the same way that I studied West Africa. It wasn't until I went there and experienced for myself that I was deeply affected by it.

And so I find myself deeply affected by these young people, by their ready gifts of friendship, their openness, their determination and optimism.

In today's polarized and often poisoned political culture, liberals and conservatives often divide over immigration, with conservatives fearing that such people might dilute American culture. Yet immigrants are often deeply conservative. Most have strong religious beliefs, a ferocious work ethic, and a deep commitment to their families. The other day in one class we discussed the tension between commitment to family and pursuing one's dreams. Students strongly asserted that they would not live apart from their parents to pursue any dream, not after the sacrifices their parents had made for them. Some had tears in their eyes as they spoke about how much their families meant to them.

It makes a person think about what life is for, in the end, which I think is a great benefit of cosmopolitanism, of seeking contact with a variety of cultures. Cosmopolitanism may seem like a liberal idea, but it often leads to more conservative (if "conservative" is defined in a traditional sort of way rather than as whatever the Republican Party currently favors) points of view.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Gift of Turning 60

The most obvious blessing of being sixty years old is that it beats the alternative.

But I've noticed a lot of other benefits, too.

One of the historical anomalies of modern life is that we live a long time. Paired with the great comfort--again, relatively speaking--that most of us in the West enjoy, this understandably leads to a sort of assumption that we have all the time in the world. And that can become a sort of burden. "What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon, and the day after that, and the next thirty years?" wonders a character in The Great Gatsby.

Old age has a way of reminding you that time is short. People your age--or younger--that you care about start passing away, sometimes with scant notice. One's energy level and memory are not what they used to be. Weight is easier to put on, harder to lose. Ailments start creeping in--or sometimes rushing in.

Life becomes more of a gift, less of a burden. One hopes for many more years, especially productive and healthy ones. But clearly most of life is in the rear-view mirror, and the road ahead may be much shorter and more difficult than we hope for. And that is a good thing to ponder.