Is it possible to write a contemporary book that is combination autobiography and analysis of society? Two recent reads make me wonder. I described Debra Dickerson's An American Life in entries here and here. Her effort led me to think it might be a better idea to write a separate autobiography, while devoting essays or books to analysis of society. I finished Manthia Diawara's We Won't Budge yesterday. It also left me thinking the author would have fared better by writing two books instead of one.
Diawara is a Malian who immigrated to France, and then the United States, during the 1970s. He attempts to describe his journey as an individual and the challenges facing African immigrants from former French colonies in the same volume. He falls short of doing either. To the extent the book works at all, it is as an autobiography.
Diawara grew up mainly in Bamako, Mali, too poor to afford more than a single set of clothes much of the time. During his teens, he and his friends developed a superficial interest in American music. That became his inspiration to become an American someday. But first, he traveled to France, the typical goal of Francophone Africans. He went on a student visa, but received little education in the three years he lived in Paris. His immigration occurred at the same time France's Right Wing political parties were passing laws to dissuade immigrants from their former African colonies. Like most people in his position, Diawara was continually harassed by the police and immigration officials. Though he was not sans papiers, i.e., without documentation, he found himself ensnared in the same web as the thousands of Africans in France who are.
In the mid-1970s, Diawara obtained a student visa to attend American University in Washington, D.C. Again, his poverty was problemmatic. The young men coming to the U.S. from Africa invariably told the Immigration and Naturalization Service that their parents would support them. Usually, they were lying. Their relatives were too poor to send them money. So, they worked off the books and in constant fear of 'Migra.' Diawara began as a dishwasher at French restaurants. He eventually became a pantryman, preparing salads and desserts such as chocolate mousse and creme caramel. The sojourns at the restaurants were trying because the French owners brought their racist attitudes with them. It was not unusual for the immigrant workers to be referred to as monkeys or worse. The tension and raids by the INS were the backdrop against which Diawara studied for his degree.