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Renowned Nigerian poet and dramatist, John Pepper Clark, exposes the problems that African migrants face in America. Written from his experiences there in the 1960s, this memoir remains relevant to date.
America, Their America is a memoir written by J. P. Clark regarding his experiences as a young man in 1962 America as a beneficiary of the Parvin Fellowship. The fellowship was established to give young Africans from newly independent states the opportunity to come to the United States to socialise, interact, and learn about American politics so that they could employ the knowledge in their respective countries. Eventually, Clark is kicked out of the programme ostensibly for irresponsibility.
If Clark was bitter about his experiences in America, this book is his outpouring of it. The title readily encapsulates Clark’s message about America. He considers Americans a group of people who are obsessively self-important and who demand nothing else from outsiders but to regard them just as eminent as they do themselves and to treat them with the utmost respect and reverence. Clark implies that he was booted out partly because he did not do so.
The idea is succinctly expressed in these lines:
Americans … like being liked a lot by foreigners. The picture they cut is of a big shaggy dog charging up to the chance caller in mixed feelings of welcome and defiance, and romping one moment up your front with its great weight, all in a plea to be fondled, and in the next breaking off the embrace to canter about you, head chasing after tail, and snout in the air, offering furious barks and bites. “Where are you from?” they breathe hot over the stranger to their shores. And before you have had time to reply, they are pumping and priming you more: “How do you like the US? Do you plan to go back to that country? Don’t you find it most free here? In Russia the individual is not free, you know, he cannot even worship God as he likes and make all the money he should.” And from this torrential downpour of self-praise the American never allows the overwhelmed visitor any cover, actually expecting in return more praise and a complete instant endorsement. God save the brash impolitic stranger who does not!
This is also a book about racism – and hypocrisy. In a land that prides itself as a Free State and the centre of freedom and equality, the black man is treated as something less than human. Blacks are expected to constantly fawn over the whites, and be unreservedly grateful for the opportunity to leave the floor and eat at the table with adults.
Worthy of note, though, is the question of whether Clark’s subjectivity comes into play. He was expelled from his Parvin Fellowship and that no doubt made him bitter. He was not allowed to be as free as he had expected, or wanted, to be; and his tardiness did not help matters. How his story and his ideas should be interpreted in light of these details rests upon the reader. What is clear is what Clark feels about America and the fact that he has written an excellent, if contentious and controversial, book on it.
“The account of God’s Own Country spares nobody. It does not spare the author himself. America, Their America deserves to be read for its difference. It is a vivid, prickly book.”
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