Malian expat Manthia Diawara says his history is in danger. Like countless other immigrants, he arrived in this country in search of the American Dream. Twenty-nine years later, he directs NYU’s Institute of Afro-American Affairs, and is the author of a new memoir, We Won’t Budge: An African Exile in the World (Basic/Civitas). He worries that for those who follow, the opportunity for success is slipping away precipitously. What with restrictive immigration laws and Western fears of terrorism, Africans yearning for a life in America or Europe increasingly face the uncertain fate of illegal entry. The notion of a hand of fate haunts Diawara. He opens his book with a reflection on the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo (a vendor as he once was), whose misfortune, he tells the Voice, “could easily have been my own.”
“Little do the Amadou Diallos of the world know that the black man in America bears the curse of Cain,” he writes, “and that in America, they, too, are considered black men, not Fulanis, Mandingos, or Wolofs. In America . . . putting a price on their heads elects politicians; and the police will hunt them down.”
As President Bush visits Africa and prepares to send troops to Liberia, the press is already falling back on tropes about Africa as the forgotten continent. But Diawara’s life and memoir make clear that even if Americans forget Africa, the African story and the American one have been bound up together ever since Africans were first shipped to these shores as slaves; and that African identity has drawn on African American culture ever since James Brown and Fela Kuti started cocking an ear to each other.
We Won’t Budge is by turns elegiac, unsentimental, angry, and wise. Written partly in Paris and partly at Space Untitled, a Soho café where Diawara talked with the Voice, his story unfolds in the triumphant days post-1960 (when Mali gained independence from France), trips into reverie for a youth spent in thrall to rock and roll, and evokes his awakenings to art and racism in the West. A central contention is that as a member of the African independence generation—optimists for the future of Africa, beneficiaries of the drive to educate—he had a kind of success that is all but impossible for African immigrants to achieve today. “I am sadder than I have ever been before,” he writes, “because the more they say the world is globalized, the more they marginalize Africans and endanger our lives.”
At Space Untitled, jaunty in his trusty gray fedora, Diawara describes himself as a “modern man”: a Muslim who no longer prays, a worldly thinker who “can let myself go into music in a spiritual way.” He refuses to claim any one identity: writer, filmmaker, scholar; African, Malian, Soninké.
Diawara’s journey has been informed by an ideal of America inspired by music, a subject he returns to frequently in the book. He talks wistfully of how he learned about America from Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. About himself and his friends in Mali he writes: “We called ourselves the Rockers, and we considered ourselves to be the vanguard of youth in Bamako. We wore Afro hair to show our affinity with black Americans; we listened to rock and roll to rebel against our parents and our socialist government.” Ironically, it was in Greenwich Village, that he first “realized the significance to the lives of immigrants” of the great Malian musicians he now counts as friends: Salif Keita and Ali Farka Toure. We Won’t Budge takes its title from Keita’s 1989 song “Nous Pas Bouger,” “an in-your-face denunciation of racism” that has become “like a national anthem” among Malian expats.
Upon graduating high school in 1972, Diawara flew to France. “It was very easy to get a visa then,” he says. “I enrolled at the Université de Vincennes, but I was working so much, I was only a nominal student.” By day he assembled radios in a factory; by night he haunted bookstores. A chance encounter at Paris’s Shakespeare and Co. with African American Beat poet Ted Joans changed the course of his life. Concluding a reading, Joans pointed to Diawara, anointing him before the crowd as one who could really feel poetry. Joans later warned Diawara that he could end up like other Africans in Paris, without a degree or a job, and insisted he go to America.
Thus prompted, in 1974 Diawara arrived in Washington, D.C., where he worked illegally as a dishwasher, a salad chef, a street vendor selling African artifacts. One day, immigration officers, passing over Diawara, nabbed and deported a Malian friend, a twist of fate he ponders in a dizzyingly intimate chapter. Their boss “would call Idi Amin Dada and Mobutu down on you . . . you laughed too. . . . Maybe your defenses had been broken by such public humiliation. Maybe you were also being punished for buying such expensive shoes. Sixty dollars was a fortune in Mali, and you had spent that on a pair of shoes to go dancing in.”
Diawara learned English at a community college and won a scholarship to American University; he then went to the University of Indiana, earning a Ph.D. in comp lit and film. “I had a major identity crisis in Bloomington when I realized I had an accent,” he says. By 1985 he was a professor, married to a Methodist from Zaire, and the father of two children. (He has since divorced and is remarried to Regina Austin, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.)
At Diawara’s crammed NYU office, an assistant edits a film Diawara has made with friend Danny Glover about Conakry, Guinea, where he’ll be teaching next year. It’s part of a series about African cities, which makes the case that African immigrants must be willing to lose some parts of their culture in order to gain a new one; and that they must join forces with African Americans to combat racism. By Diawara’s account, his scholarly work belongs to the Cornel West-Henry Louis Gates wing of black studies, “which teaches that black art, literature, and film are redefining America,” rather than to the Afrocentric wing, which “privileges a lot of mystification of Africa and serious study of hermetic languages that have nothing to do with contemporary Africa.”
Despite his achievements, Diawara carries the immigrant’s perpetual alienation—he finds privacy in crowded cafés, and observes colleagues (black and white) leaving him out of discussions about Israel or Iraq, “as if because I am African I do not know about these things.” The fragility of success haunts him. “I wonder if I have become the cosmopolitan individual of my dreams, or if I am still trapped in a racial or ethnic group,” he writes. And lately, mortality looms on the periphery, fate its uncertain companion. As a boy, he prayed to Allah to help him leave Mali and live to 50 (the average life expectancy for men in Mali is 46): “I was bargaining my place in heaven for happiness in this world.” Facing his 50th birthday in December, he says, “Yes, I’m worried I might die soon. I’m not religious, but I’m superstitious.”