Academic journal article African American Review

Black Anxiety about Immigration and Jessie Fauset's "The Sleeper Wakes"

Academic journal article African American Review

Black Anxiety about Immigration and Jessie Fauset's "The Sleeper Wakes"

Article excerpt

The cover story of the July/August 2006 issue of The Crisis is "Immigration: Should African Americans Be Worried? 5 Black Leaders Weigh In."

The opinions vary. Constance Rice, co-director of a Los Angeles equity organization concerned with low-income residents' welfare, states bluntly: "Do you think Martin Luther King, Jr., would for a moment stand for the fact that you have a group of totally exploitable people in this country who are treated just like the slaves were? Not for a nanosecond" (22). Less clear, then-president of the NAACP, Bruce Gordon, warns African Americans not to fall into the "trap" of anti-immigrant racism yet does not want to label immigration a civil rights issue. He calls it instead a human rights concern (24). But political science professor Ronald Walters takes a definite position. He identifies African American worry as "legitimate" (23). Walters cites high unemployment among black men in U. S. cities, points out that black and Latino workers compete for low-wage jobs, and criticizes immigrant workers for not joining unions and thereby depressing all laborers' wages.

Such division typifies early twenty-first-century African American views on immigration, which are complex. A 2007 Gallup poll of non-Hispanic whites, blacks, and Hispanics found that sixty percent of each group disapproved of the government's handling of immigration, though no doubt for different reasons. But when asked if English should be mandatory for immigrants allowed to stay in the U. S., high percentages of whites and blacks said yes (80% and 76%, respectively), in contrast to Hispanics (59%). As Carroll Doherty observes in a summary of research conducted in 2006: "The issue of immigration leaves many Americans deeply conflicted. But the social and economic cross-pressure may be greatest on African-Americans, who express relatively positive opinions of immigrants even as they view them as competitors for scarce job opportunities" (1). Black America splits on whether to seek solidarity with immigrants or perceive them as a threat. (1) One side argues in favor of coalition, stressing shared experiences of oppression and race-based discrimination. (2) The other, as is obvious from titles such as Greg Mathis's "Black People Want Work, Too" or James Clingman's "Hey Ya'll, When is the Match for Black Folks?," voices anti-immigrant sentiment. Many Americans of African descent fear that newcomers are stealing African American jobs and jeopardizing black political advancement.

This anxiety is not new. At the time Jessie Fauset published The Sleeper Wakes in three installments in the Crisis in 1920, worry about the huge numbers of immigrants that had been arriving from southern and eastern Europe since the early 1880s similarly dominated many black Americans' perspectives on the subject. The Sleeper Wakes addresses that anxiety, I argue here, by cautioning African Americans not to get drawn into anti-immigrant racism, the position taken by leaders such as Booker T. Washington, who sided with white nativists out of worry that immigrants posed a threat to black workers. Fauset's novella instead narrativizes an argument similar to that of W. E. B. Du Bois and The Crisis in its first decade, the belief that anti-black racism and anti-immigrant racism come from the same source and work in concert to consolidate and perpetuate white power. Not to recognize that fact, Fauset's text shows, is to remain asleep: an extremely dangerous, because totally vulnerable position for black Americans to occupy. Fauset did not avoid divisive issues in order to offer old-fashioned bourgeois romances, a verdict on her too often reproduced in the scholarship, as recent critics point out. (3) In The Sleeper Wakes she links anti-black and anti-immigrant racism to expose their systemic interconnectedness. In doing so, she implicitly but nevertheless clearly critiques Washingtonian accommodationist economic claims, especially for working-class African American women. …

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