High Hopes and Disappointment

The theme of disappointment has been prevalent in each of the works we have read or watched thus far. The journey of Africa through colonization and independence was a tumultuous one, and one that culminated in a great hope for a free, united, democratic Africa, but that ultimately ended in disappointment, However, as All Their Names attests, this lack of fulfillment is not unique to Africa. Although we see the Pan-African dream falling to shambles in the “Isaac” storyline, we see a similar crumbling of the American dream in “Helen.” In both, disappointment is experienced on both the macro and the personal level, and we see that the personal is inherently shaped by larger societal issues. For instance, take the relationship between Isaac and Helen. Although their relationship is unorthodox as it is secret and professionally inappropriate, what really ends up putting a strain on it is the enduring racism they encounter. We see their relationship really start to take a turn for the worst when Helen tries to take Isaac to the diner for lunch. It becomes clear to Isaac that Helen is using him to superficially make a point and get brownie points for her open-mindedness. What becomes clear after that scene is that Helen was painfully ignorant of the ugly realities of racism. Isaac reminds her that change is not all hope and rainbows, but often pain, humiliation, and failure. The passion and excitement that was their relationship, and indeed the idea of an exchange student in America, is quickly ruined by a reality that punishes deviation from the status quo. Similarly, Isaac and Langston’s relationship is closely married to the political situation in Uganda. The conflict in Uganda alternatively brings them closer and pulls them apart. But ultimately, the hope they had in claiming a share of the capital’s wild growth was cut short by escalating violence and human rights abuses. The boy’s hope – to scratch and claw their way out of poverty and into fame and fortune – represents the idealistic plans set out for Africa’s future, the Pan-African dream that was marred by foreign meddling, ruthless leaders and government-instigated violence.

What I can’t figure out is the significance of including America’s failures instead of just focusing on the failure of African statehood. In a way it implies that disappointment is a universal human experience, particularly during the post-civil rights, post-independence era. The problem with this is that it erases Africa’s unique experience. So how do we, in a class about Africa, go about analyzing a book that takes place partly in America, and even parallels American and African experiences?

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Posted on September 26, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I agree that when I first started reading “All Our Names,” I did not view it as a “uniquely African” novel. I doubt that half of us signed up for “The African Writer” to hear from the perspective of a white social worker in the American Midwest. But while Helen’s hopes and disappointments in love and post-civil war racism were substantial themes in the novel, I also see the book as a reflection of the hopes and disappointments of the African diaspora. This is what enables this book to be considered a work of African literature.

    Having been written by a first generation Ethiopian-American, the book does incorporate settings in the United States. However, Isaac’s experience coming to America and trying to live represents the “after” part of the “happily ever after” that people hope for at the end of African novels. We want to see the refugee from a war-torn country making it to America and living a life full of peace and opportunity. Mengestu debunks all this, painting a picture of what Africans feel, say, and do once they get to “the other side.” Isaac struggles, recounting his past life while trying to maintain a rocky relationship with a white woman. Evidently, Isaac is not overjoyed by his transition to American life. So, while the novel is not geographically restricted to the African continent, it relates to a community of people who are undoubtedly and uniquely African.

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