A dozen years ago, I accepted a teaching job in Senegal. An undistinguished American university had opened a campus in the West African country and it is worth noting, although I did not do so at the time, that the university’s business school had taken ownership of the campus. The school’s president had been an early adopter of ideas that were becoming popular, even faddish: globalization as the path to riches and the university as capitalist enterprise.
I decided to teach The Great Gatsby in my first-year literature class. My African students were completing their first two years of college before coming to the United States, and I imagined that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel would serve as an introduction to American life: the depthless yearning that bears tragedy in its wake, the inchoate nature of a culture that has never quite defined itself. I have to admit my motives weren’t entirely selfless. I was writing a novel and I wanted to examine Fitzgerald’s writing more closely.
At first, my students hated Gatsby. I mean, hated it. Fitzgerald’s parsing of 1920s upper-class mores, punctuated by moments when he tears them apart (“the secret griefs of wild, unknown men”) were tough calls for teenagers from Francophone Africa struggling with basic English. After a while, though, it became clear that my students and Jay Gatsby shared a a lingua franca: money.
The students’ view of America was as a Promised Land, the Magical Realm of the Bizopp. Their imaginings were mirrored by the university president’s aspirations for his African venture. Their shared fantasy was Gatsby’s, too: a hazy, half-angry, half-romantic view of an earthly paradise where a sense of injustice was salved and dreams came true, all powered by unexpressed greed.
My revelation didn’t come easily. For the first week, I winced inwardly at my struggles to elicit a reaction from my skeptical students: a smile, a nod, an argument, anything but resounding silence. “I know you’re out there, I can hear you breathing,” I wanted to say, the plaint of a Vegas comic. Was it a problem with the language?
As it turned out, I was the one who didn’t understand.
The first student to take pity on me was the affable son of a Nigerian customs agent. (“My father is the only one who’s not corrupt,” he volunteered, before describing luxurious family vacations in Hawaii and the South of France.) The university’s West African campus had been a bust, he confided during his requisite appearance for my office hours.
The idea was to offer two years of college at relatively low cost: $12,000 a year. After completing their basic courses, the students could transfer to the university’s American campus, where their parents would be on the hook for $40,000 a year. Or they could apply to other universities in the U.S., two years of American-style education strengthening their application.
The proverbial win-win, on the face of it. For African families, the university not only cut costs, but streamlined the challenging process of obtaining a student visa. For the university, Africa’s newly monied classes — Africa Rising! — promised an expanding revenue stream.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Originally, the Dakar campus had been conceived as a desirable assignment for the university’s professors. By the time I arrived, there was only one other American. Ted, I’ll call him. Ted reminded me of the agent Marlowe encountered on his way upriver in Heart of Darkness, a low-level bureaucrat believed to be spying on behalf of the rubber plantation’s manager. Conrad’s character was notable for being a hoarder of small luxuries that are difficult to obtain in remote places.
Illustration for Heart of Darkness competition by Sean McSorley
“He struck a match, and I perceived that this young aristocrat had not only a silver-mounted dressing-case but also a whole candle all to himself. Just at that time the manager was the only man supposed to have any right to candles,” Conrad wrote.
Like the manager, Ted kept the one working printer in his private quarters; the rest of us were left to the empty promises of the Liberian computer teacher, who doubled as the school’s IT guy. In practice, this reduced us to begging the boubou-clad Senegalese secretaries to print out our readings and assignments.
Ted had an explosive temper, and it surfaced almost immediately. I arrived a week before the semester started, and in that first week he fired me three times. The first was after I read student essays to determine placement. Shocked at the students’ poor English, I handed the majority of the papers back, telling him these students needed to remain in developmental English. Having recently earned my MFA, I was stoked about teaching, but I had no training in English as a Second Language, much less English as a Fourth Language, which it was for many of these freshmen. Their essays were incomprehensible.
Ted went postal, accusing me of not wanting to work, as if I were a recalcitrant coolie. Here’s what I didn’t know: parents had been complaining about spending $12,000 a year on developmental English classes that earned their kids no college credit. With enrollment declining, the school had been forced to engage in what is politely termed social promotion. The university could have allowed teachers to switch between French and English in the classroom, the more modern bilingual approach that has been shown to improve student performance, but we were strictly forbidden to speak French anywhere on campus.
As I was to learn, the upside of Ted’s rages was their brief shelf life. Minutes after he fired me, he was calmly showing me how to evaluate the student papers. One simply got used to a certain version of English, a language unto itself. Alrighty. I cut the reading list for my classes in half and carried on.
To be fair, Ted cared about the students, and at times, he acted as their advocate. He didn’t feel the same protectiveness toward me. After he had fired me two more times - I no longer recall why - someone on the staff told me that he had Asperger’s. Nobody had informed the students, of course. My second informant, a female student with a ladylike Jackie Kennedy flip who struck me as mature beyond her years, explained that Ted’s rages were the reason the students were so determinedly silent in class.
“They think that’s just how Americans are,” she said.
Americans, one can say generally, are not at their best in foreign countries. We speak too loudly, few of us speak foreign languages, our manners are brusque to nonexistent. My own stress was exacerbated by the fact that I was newly married. At a writers conference in Kenya, I had fallen in love with a former professional soccer player from an island off the coast. We married quickly; otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible for him to come to the U.S. We were madly in love and perhaps, like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, I craved an answer.
The deal was that my husband would take college courses in Dakar while I taught. He chafed at being a student again. He found Dakar oppressive: hot, humid, too urban. He hated being supported by me, he said. I think what he actually hated was the loss of status that he had on his home island, and the strangeness of it all. We began to live separate lives. He gave English lessons to a cute neighbor. Refusing to go out with me, he watched music videos and smoked. I stayed awake until the early morning hours, watching 30 Rock on pirate websites because it reminded me of being single.
At the beginning of the second week, I abandoned my purist notions of the written word. My odd fixation on the antiquated practice of reading hadn’t been popular with my post-literate, social media-addicted American students either. Firing up my laptop, I dialed in the school’s Internet connection and slalomed through the Jazz Age: the wild music, the relaxation of moral standards, the artwork of Modigliani and Picasso with their whopping debts to African art.
The Roaring Twenties were a lot like present-day Senegal, where globalization was running up against the country’s rich and creative indigenous culture. Rap music and Facebook were popular among my students, but so was “tradition” which had a fashionable black power aspect including a cordial relationship with Bob Marley. When several of my male students wanted to write a defense of female genital mutilation, I used every bit of tact that I possessed to gently convince them that this was likely to cause a controversy that would obscure our larger mission: ensuring their ability to write a bulletproof college admissions essay.
The Jazz Age made sense to the students, its convention-defying flappers and post-modern juxtaposition of old and new. At Modigliani, the hands started going up, tentatively at first, then energetically. Modigliani’s narrow, mask-like faces, the slits of eyes, the sense those faces conveyed of a knowledge beyond the quotidian power of words, seen in a new context, these qualities were both arresting and familiar. The notion that Africa could influence Europe instead of the other way around wasn’t something the students had learned in secondary school.
Our classroom became more enjoyable. But when they turned in their Gatsby essays, I was flummoxed again. I had offered several choices, but many students chose to write about Daisy. Not Jay Gatsby, the book’s most complex character. Not Nick, the preternaturally passive narrator, or Tom Buchanan, a rich bully with no redeeming characteristics other than his immovable status in the stratified world of 1920s America. No. They wanted to write about Daisy.
“Daisy only cared about money.” I read this simple declarative sentence, written in surprisingly clear English, in almost every essay.
Poor Daisy! I wore out my pencil reminding my students of the passage describing Daisy’s decision to marry Tom Buchanan, if it was a decision - and that’s just the point. How many choices did Daisy have, a woman in the 1920s?
It seemed perfectly clear to me, an American woman, as Gatsby finally unveils the secret of his past to Nick Carraway. Gatsby’s real name is Jimmy Gatz. Daisy was the first “nice girl” he had ever known. Nick hears of their wartime courtship, Gatsby’s success in the military, and how it went wrong:
After the Armistice he tried frantically to get home, but some complication or misunderstanding sent him to Oxford instead. He was worried now there was a quality of nervous despair in Daisy's letters. She didn't see why he couldn't come. She was feeling the pressure of the world outside, and she wanted to see him and feel his presence beside her and be reassured that she was doing the right thing after all.
For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the "Beale Street Blues" while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.
Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men, and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed. And all the time something within her was crying for a decision.
“Doesn’t it sound like she’s depressed? I asked. “She’s drifting, right? Passive. Do you think women had freedom back in the 1920s? She took a risk by falling in love with someone who wasn’t from her social class. And Gatsby didn’t come back for her!”
One student tapped his pencil. Another simply shook his head, and then cut his eyes away.
“She just wanted money,” he said, finally.
The others nodded, looking at me expectantly, as if hoping if a light bulb would incandesce over the head of a particularly slow child.
My husband decided to bag the whole thing in November. He missed his children and it was becoming clear that I would not stay for the spring semester. Naturally, as he prepared to leave, romance reared its paradoxical head.
I have the photograph of our bittersweet night at a faux French bistro, quite Parisian, as if it were the Roaring Twenties, my husband’s face, the cigarette in his hand, piano player in the background. In the photos of us together, I am tan and smiling and utterly bereft.
Once I was no longer worried about my husband’s unhappiness, I noticed that classroom participation improved. I may have been less stressed out. At the same time, I suspect my informants had reported back to the other students, reassuring them that I wouldn’t go ballistic if they spoke up in class.
The final papers on Gatsby showed students expanding their notions of the book, particularly its social context. They had learned about the Jazz Age and its similarities to contemporary West Africa. In Senegal, and virtually every country in the world, diverse cultures were flooding into people’s consciousnesses, thanks to Facebook, and music videos, and universities like ours.
Taking a chance, I assigned Heart of Darkness, followed by Chinua Achebe’s landmark 1975 speech “An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness,” and a passage from Adam Hochschild’s groundbreaking history of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost. This risky move became the high point of what would turn out to be my abbreviated teaching career. I could barely stop the students from shouting at once. The semester ended on a high note.
I won the war, but I lost the battle for Daisy. I insisted that they were applying a double standard - I hadn't heard any criticism of the horrible Tom Buchanan - and suggested that their singleminded focus on her materialism was simplistic. I identified with Daisy: the inability to make a full-throated decision, the need for an outside force to shape one’s life.
I remembered a friend, another Peace Corps veteran, bemoaning her teenage daughter’s feigned helplessness in the presence of boys. “Africans don’t have our cult of helpless beauty,” she had said.
After basically getting myself fired, I joined my husband on Lamu, the island off the coast of Kenya where he had lived most of his life. I fell madly in love with his kids, we sorted out some issues, as they say, and after five months, when I was running out of money and headed home, we decided we were in it for the long haul.
None of this made me an old Africa hand, yet when I returned to the U.S., everything felt wrong. A Stanford grad who served in the Peace Corps in Somalia in the 1960s told me that the reverse culture shock is worse than the normal kind. The place you considered your home suddenly feels vertiginous and unfamiliar; threatening, even. What I experienced is essentially what many Americans feel now, in the Age of Trump. Dude, where’s my country?
I had left for Dakar in August of 2008, slipping out of the U.S. effortlessly, the housing meltdown a collection of headlines on the financial pages. I sold my house in Tucson close to the top of the market, using the money to bankroll research for my novel.
I expected that I’d move back to one of the places I’d lived before: New York, Washington, D.C., maybe San Francisco. Our unplanned departure had bollixed up my husband’s visa status and I had no idea how long it would be until my husband arrived in the U.S. Everything felt provisional, unsettled.
I spent a month in Manhattan, where I had grown up, staying at an apartment that had belonged to the mother of a high school friend. Margie’s mother, a sculptor, had recently died and her apartment was on the market. A rambling co-op with casement windows, the living room proffered a view of city streets like an Atget photograph. When the real estate agent wanted to show it, I would clean frantically, or call my mother’s housekeeper, who was seventy-five years old and needed the extra money.
I spent long days riding the subway around Brooklyn, looking at apartment shares with people several decades younger than myself, the only places I could afford. I saw a lot of Brooklyn, and the subway, until a sensible young woman in Carroll Gardens told me that if I wanted to finish my novel, New York wasn’t the place. You had to work full-time to live there; it was just too expensive. My best friend swooped in, offering to rent me her mother’s pied a terre in San Francisco’s Marina District. I’d helped her find it, so I knew how much it cost: fifteen hundred dollars a month.
“How much can you pay?” she asked me.
“Three hundred,” I said, honestly. Three hundred was what I had paid as a renter in Tucson and I had less than $10,000 to my name. The same friend helped me land a gig with the University of California, providing “content” for their website. I trolled Craigslist, looking for the same mythical “deal” I had searched for in New York, with the same success: zero.
And I wrote.
I knew what denial was, and I knew I was practicing it. I told myself this was the only way I could finish my novel. I was wrong, of course: I should have rushed to get a job and written on the weekends. But I was convinced that if I could just finish the book, I would be able to go on to the next stage, whatever that might be. I’d enjoyed a certain success in my earlier career. I assumed that all I had to do was show up, once I deigned to, work like a demon, and it would all happen again.
The university gig became sporadic. My editor had reached the terminal age of sixty, the factor of irrelevance in American society, and was being eased out. As my Dakar savings drained away, I kept bankrolling my husband’s visa fees, including the trips back and forth to the U.S. consulate in Nairobi. Before becoming a tour guide, he had been a plumber, and I’d seen Moonstruck. Once he arrived I figured my troubles would be over.
The next nine years were marked by unpredictable fits and starts. My husband had elegant manners; truly elegant because they were genuine. He listened sympathetically when people unburdened themselves. He was unfailingly kind, at least to strangers. Put him in a suit and he could pass for a lawyer or a banker. My stepsister once called him an angel.
He couldn’t fill out a job application, read a map, or drive a car. Every few months, he would insist on returning to Kenya, overcome by the strangeness and difficulty of life in the United States. Even if he left with money, a crisis inevitably arose: malaria, his mother’s tuberculosis, an Al-Shabaab attack that shut down the construction project he was supervising. Western Union and I became close; closer than I wanted.
I was becoming African. I had warmth, loyalty, and kinship. Money was another matter. As work on my novel dragged on, and my assignments for the university dwindled and finally disappeared, it dawned on me that I was poor. Not the voluntary poverty I’d embraced in Tucson, leveraging my expensive education to spend time in nature while earning a marginal living as a writer. This was real poverty. Desperate, powerless, unable to plan for anything beyond the next crisis, I found myself changing. I became brittle, less genuine, fearful that I would offend the friends whose goodwill I needed to maintain basic survival: food, a roof over my head, an assignment.
I wasn’t the only one. I ran across an article by a former New York Times reporter offering advice about brushing off friends when they asked for money. She wasn’t talking about homeless people on the street. She was talking about her friends, nice, middle-class women, women not as canny or as fortunate, women who had fallen on hard times. Women like me.
What a horrible person, I remember thinking. I realized that Americans had no social and cultural mechanism for helping one another; sure, there were those treacly appeals for kids needing surgery, and people still carted food over after a funeral, but that was it.
Denial was no longer an option. Even if I had wanted to remain oblivious, the stories I had been writing for the university provided a wakeup call: the middle class was disappearing. More people were falling into poverty, the social safety net was fraying, tensions were ratcheting up.
This was certainly true in my own life. I couldn’t bear to be around one particular friend, watching her spoil the child she’d had in her forties with a transplanted egg, talking about her elective plastic surgery. My husband’s sons from his first marriage weren’t starving, but they were living in a two-room apartment with their mother, their younger half-brother with cerebral palsy, and their aunt. They shared a single used bike we had bought for them for $150 when I still had my Dakar salary. We struggled to pay their school fees.
I was American and I was not American.
“Love and money are separate here,” I would explain to my husband when he called me, broke again. “I hate it when you ask me for money. It makes me feel like you don’t love me, that you’re only in it for the money.”
Occasionally he would stalk off, telling me he didn’t want my money. I felt guilty but relieved. Most of the time, though, he would try to head off my lectures by beating around the bush, hinting, wheedling. He would do everything but ask me directly, which is what I asked him to do, repeatedly. Be business-like, I would say. Let’s make an arrangement. A deal. What really bugged me was that he didn’t see anything wrong with taking money from me. His sons were in Kenya, so I understood how torn he felt, but shouldn’t he be hustling to get established in the U.S., so we could bring them over? But he couldn’t seem to wrap his head around any timeframe longer than, say, today. Maybe next week, at a stretch.
In his book Crazy River, Richard Grant, a writer who had been a neighbor of mine in Tucson, describes his attempt to follow the route taken by Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke as they searched for the source of the Nile. The modern-day Richard started on the island of Zanzibar, just north of my husband’s home, where a seedy, half-Dutch golf pro became his cultural interpreter.
“When you go without food for two or three days, everything changes,” the golf pro explained. “There’s a mentality in Africa of give it to me now, I must have it now, tomorrow no matter and next week doesn’t exist. And if I don’t get it now, my best friend will become my enemy. That’s how you think when you’re hungry, and there’s been so much hunger in Africa that the mentality has got into the culture. What blows my mind is that people here will be hungry-hungry and they’ll still share what food they have.”
I was coming to understand this mindset, from both sides. In Kenya, I was a mzungu - a white person. When I lived on his island with my husband and his twin sons in Kenya, I would complain about being charged mzungu prices - five, ten, or even twenty times what a local would pay. When they were only seven, the boys shopped for me, rescuing me in gentlemanly fashion from the clutches of the shop owners and my own ignorance.
You could argue that ripping me off corrected the structural inequality between Africa and America, but these shop owners almost certainly had more money than I did, plus I was already doing my bit as a one-woman NGO, thank you very much. To the boys, I was not mzungu. I was family and they protected me.
They were practically the only ones. One afternoon, a friend of my husband’s, seeing that I was unhappy, invited me to lunch. He grabbed the check before that moment of awkwardness when it would have to be discussed. I practically wept, overcome by the fact that someone had treated me like a human being instead of a cash register. Of course, my husband’s friend had lived in the U.S. He understood that he was expected to pay and it made him feel good to do it.
Everyone is so materialistic here, I would exclaim in frustration. My husband says the same thing about Americans. He thinks we place a monetary value on everything. He accuses me of ignoring all the things he’s done for me and for my family. Besides, didn’t he pay the security deposit and the first month’s rent that time when we moved? It didn’t matter that this happened only once, or that he had panicked and messed up his chance to join the plumber’s union, which would have ensured a middle-class existence for us and a real salary for him. The person who has money shares it. Nobody keeps score, at least not in the way I was accustomed to.
When I remember sailing on dhows, the Arab-style boats that ply the Swahili coast, I think of how everyone in the crew, including my husband, ate out of a big dish using their hands. The guys were accustomed to European and American tourists so they gave me my own plate. I felt left out, but I was relieved, worrying about germs.
If dinnerware seems like a trivial example of what one of my friends calls transactional relationships, consider J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. In it, the protagonist, David Lurie, after seducing a student, refuses to bow to the guardians of political correctness at his university. Faced with their questioning, he maintains a stubborn silence, along with an allegiance to aestheticism that leaves little room for the merely human.
His daughter is the antithesis of her urbane father, a clumsy, heavy girl living on a farm. After she is raped by men linked to a neighboring black farmer, she refuses to prosecute. Instead, she agrees to be the farmer’s wife, at least in name, signing over her land to him. In return, he will allow her to keep her house and crops.
Like Lurie’s dismissal from the university, an old order is giving way to a new - or ancient - one. Lurie's daughter is participating in a reorganization of the political economy on the household scale.
Her father doesn’t see it that way. To him, she is tolerating the worst kind of violation, not only physical and emotional, but legal — and moral.
He's not wrong. It is the material world, in the D.H. Lawrence sense, that she has embraced.
“'Then help me. Is it some form of private salvation you are trying to work out? Do you hope you can expiate the crimes of the past by suffering in the present?’
"‘No. You keep misreading me. Guilt and salvation are abstractions. I don’t act in terms of abstractions. Until you make an effort to see that, I can’t help you.’
"He wants to respond, but she cuts him short. ‘David, we agreed. I don’t want to go on with this conversation.’ Never yet have they been so far and so bitterly apart. He is shaken.
Is this everyone's world now? Perhaps it always was, and the rest of it was illusion, cultural carapace.
After I returned from Africa, necessity introduced a transactional element to my relationships, too. As I migrated from city to city, frantically trying to finish my novel, trying to find a “deal” on housing, struggling to find decent-paying work, I had no choice but to rent from friends at below-market rates. Other than my friends, mostly “nice girls” like myself, my world was gone. There was only The Market.
People in America spoke of business with a kind of reverence, using it as an excuse for any kind of behavior, as if brandishing this word made even the most egregious act acceptable. Business had become like the word love, or wilderness, in semiotics, a sign, a term so capacious that it is transmuted into something akin to a religious icon, attracting meaning like lint.
While I was in Africa, my Tucson landlord, Bill, sold the house and casita that I had rented from him for $300. The place had been in his family for half a century. He kept his own house, next door, and as I write this, one of my cars is sitting in his driveway because I haven’t quite figured out, still, where I belong, or if I have a home anywhere. What I’m looking for isn’t a place. It is a time and it is gone. Like my girlfriends, Bill is vestigial.
So am I.
In March 2016, my mother died in what I have to admit was a timely fashion, rescuing me from my five-year plunge into poverty. Nine months later, after Donald Trump was elected president, several of my most thoughtful friends posted on Facebook an essay written by a Cameroonian academic: Achille Mbembe.
Mbembe’s essay “The Age of Humanism is Ending” posited a future when politics no longer exist. Inequalities will keep growing worldwide, but “far from fueling a renewed cycle of class struggles, social conflicts will increasingly take the form of racism, ultra nationalism, sexism, ethnic and religious rivalries, xenophobia, homophobia and other deadly passions…The denigration of virtues such as care, compassion and kindness will go hand in hand with the belief, especially among the poor, that winning is all that matters and who wins — by whatever means necessary — is ultimately right.”
When Trump was interviewed by Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes in 2018, he brushed aside her repeated questions about his mockery of Christine Blasey-Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape.
"You know what? I'm not gonna get into it because we won. It doesn't matter. We won.”
It doesn’t matter. We won. Trump may be trying to turn the clock back for Archie Bunker white guys, but his world view is surprisingly au courant, if Mbembe’s analysis is correct. Mbembe's essay ends with the central provocative idea: “The transformation of the political into business raises the risk of the elimination of the very possibility of politics. Whether civilisation can give rise at all to any form of political life is the problem of the 21st century.”
We’re all in business now.
Like so many Romantics, I had traveled to Africa to find the deep past. Instead, I found the future. Over the last thirty years, Africa has been pummeled by the same neoliberal capitalist forces that are now holding the American civitas hostage.
In the 1970s, newly independent countries were convinced to take out loans to help them "develop." Too many started off at low rates of interest, but quickly rose to unsustainable levels, sometimes as high as 20 percent. And too often, corrupt political leaders siphoned off enormous amounts of money to their Swiss bank accounts.
By the 1980s, African nations were struggling to repay the loans ostensbibly intended to catapult them into the developed world. The world’s bankers cracked down. Structural adjustment, it was called. The bankers' remedy? Privatization, deregulation, and reduction of trade barriers.
Strapped governments cut back on human services like health care and education. These are not abstractions.
In Madagascar, anthropologist David Graeber saw 10,000 people die of malaria, many of them children, when a mosquito eradication program was cut to pay off the country's debt.
"I met young mothers grieving for lost children. One might think it would be hard to make a case that the loss of ten thousand human lives is really justified int order to ensure that Citibank wouldn't have to cut its losses on one irresponsible loan that wasn't particularly important to its balance sheet anyway," Graeber wrote in Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
By the 1990s, with countries like Sierra Leone, once called “the Athens of West Africa,” devolving into civil war, pundits took up the term failed state. This was not chaos, others said. This was Mad Max capitalism. And it is coming to your neighborhood soon.
Countries like Liberia and the Congo sell off raw materials that make up their patrimony, just as Trump's acting head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Perry Pendley, aimed to do here until his recent ouster.
What is a country in 2020? A holding company for rogue capitalists? As the Manhattan real estate market attests, the people raking in the profits aren’t tied to a place or country. They live in the land of John le Carré novels, a global class of shady money men with yachts and Trump Tower apartments.
Even in technology, America’s only thriving business sector, it is not stuff that drives profits, but information. Who makes that?
We do, only we don't get paid for it. The commodification of American lives, turning our births, our marriages, our deaths into data, is a pyramid scheme of epic proportions. With the advent of Big Data, one can’t help wondering if a new slave trade is upon us, one that must endure no Middle Passage because it exists in cyberspace. We have gone beyond globalization as a force that rewards some workers while destroying the livelihoods of others, and into disruption based on another set of values entirely, as Mbembe wrote, one with the human factor absent. When you are no longer marketable, you are tossed.
No wonder Trump voters yearn for an earlier America. “One people, one nation, end immigration,” chanted the alt-right in Charlottesville. They would be the last to admit it, but it was not Aryan blood that made a motley collection of immigrants into a nation-state, but feeding at the same trough: decent public schools, a medical system that worked for most people, wages that paid the bills. That’s gone now, along with our illusions of safety.
Mbeubeuss Landfill, Dakar
For most of my life, more Gatsby than Daisy, I had the luxury of pretending there were no limits. My relentless striving is certainly one reason my husband had trouble dealing with America; I tried to inculcate him with the guiding notions I had been taught as the daughter of assimilated New York Jews. Now, like Daisy, I am in a funk, not knowing where to go, what to do.
Can I afford a husband whose main contributions consist of empathy and a strong back? Don’t I need an American man who lands me back in the proper social class, someone forceful enough to be my advocate in business, dealing with contractors, making sure I’m protected in a health care system once again stacked against the old, the sick, the poor? A feminist since eighth grade, I have been put in my place, not only by Trump and his ilk, but by history.
If Trump has changed my mind about nothing else, he has disabused me of the notion that I can be the man of the family. Like so many women, his treatment of women forced me to recall similar incidents in my own life and career, looking at the real cost, in terms of dollars and lost opportunities, when I walked away from those situations.
Rich women and poor women have always had a clear sense that they were regarded as commodities. Only middle-class girls like me believed the stories we read in women’s magazines, whether Cosmo or Ms. We could have it all, and orgasms, too.
Perhaps I need my own Tom Buchanan, and the sooner I realize it, the better.
“She wanted her life shaped now, immediately and the decision must be made by some force of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality that was close at hand,” Fitzgerald wrote of Daisy in those lost days and nights while she waited for Gatsby to return from the war.
That force took shape in the middle of spring with the arrival of Tom Buchanan. There was a wholesome bulkiness about his person and his position, and Daisy was flattered. Doubtless there was a certain struggle and a certain relief. The letter reached Gatsby while he was still at Oxford.
It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with gray−turning, gold−turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow, pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool, lovely day.
"I don't think she ever loved him." Gatsby turned around from a window and looked at me challengingly.
I wondered if my students understood Daisy better than I did. Perhaps shelter is what we need, and romantic love a luxury we can no longer afford. Perhaps romance is just an illusion. “The dream is over” Mexicans say when a love ends. Perhaps, as one of my students wrote, Gatsby, with his desperate striving, and Buchanan, with his ruthless re-affirmation of supremacy, were equally flawed.
As of this writing, I am still married. I have become a little bit African and my husband has become a little bit American. It started when he was still overseas, the code-switching. A couple of years ago, my husband told me that he had stopped calling me when he had bad news: an expensive illness, another terrorist attack that means his island’s economy will stall out. In the past, when he had hinted that he needed money, I would harangue him, but I usually sent the money anyway. I was just too worried; malaria and election violence weren’t my everyday American crises. After a while, I started sending money only in true emergencies. He took it as a loan, telling me somewhat resentfully that he was doing it my way. Once he returned to the U.S., he paid me back, either in cash or in labor. Finally, he settled in America, and, as I had hoped, we became more equal. But not really, not completely. We never will be. I was born with too many advantages; his advantages mean so little here; his ability to read the ocean currents, spot an animal before anyone else. There is no value to these things and it breaks my heart.
I have gotten tougher. I revert to the helpless beauty stance only with Americans, and even with them, far less. With my husband? We laugh and share memories, but I don’t rush in to solve problems the way I used to. I hold him accountable. On my best days, I evince the warmth he misses from African life. Like him, I miss those moments of impersonal kindness, the sense that there is a safety net and it is made up not of programs but people.
There is an analogy to climate change. A few years ago, the scientists stopped talking about preventing climate change. They tried to avoid saying it outright, but if you read between the lines, you could tell they recognized that it was too late. Adaptation was the word they used: constructing levees, building farther inland.
Despite the counter-currents, the crazy Trump voters who sound like 1950s John Birchers, the rants of undergraduates who have only now discovered that the world isn’t fair, globalization will keep coming. It changes us. We can’t help it even if we try. Somehow, a new political economy will emerge, and it’s our job to make sure it has room for the merely human.
Will my husband and I find enough common ground to make it work over the long haul? No idea. I’m painfully aware that one of my husband’s attractions was that he didn’t wield the power over me that a successful man from my own culture would possess without even trying. The Kavanaugh confirmation hearings telegraphed the connection between economic clout and male dominance, in case you missed it on election day in 2016.
I’d been scarred by it, even as a girl. Every woman has had to make hard decisions about how she bends herself to that reality.
How can you complain? I ask myself. You chose him. You chose him for precisely that reason.
Tommy Hitchcock, thought to be Fitzgerald's model for Tom Buchanan. Bruce Dern played Buchanan in the 70s movie starring Redford as Gatsby. It was even worse than the recent one directed by Baz Luhrman. Dern was the only good thing in either of the films.
In 2017, curious about whether their views had changed, I contacted several of my students who live in the U.S. My Nigerian student, the customs official’s son, didn’t respond when I messaged him on Facebook. So I contacted the student body president, Thérèse Mbaye. After Thérèse posted my request on a closed Facebook page, Souleymane Touré contacted me.
Souleymane had been working at Morgan Stanley, but he’d recently enrolled in a graduate program at Johns Hopkins and working at the U.S. Department of Defense, working on budgets for Pentagon projects in developing countries.
I happened to be traveling to the Washington, D.C. area, so we arranged to meet at a brew pub I like in a Maryland suburb. He ordered a Coke and a sandwich, returning the food when he realized it contained bacon. I'd forgotten. Like most of my students, especially the boys, Souleymane is a practicing Muslim.
As we chatted, I reminded him that he’d been quite hard on poor Daisy. He laughed, slightly abashed. He told me he was more mature now, and realized that women had complicated inner lives.
What about money? I asked. I told him that when I lived in Africa, I found people to be tough about money. Africans monetized their relationships in ways I wasn’t used to in the U.S.
“It’s true,” Souleymane said, bemoaning the fact that money is interfering with culture and tradition in Senegal. But, he added, he hadn’t been prepared for the way Americans fetishize wealth. He called it an obsession.
“Money has always mattered,” he said. “But money makes the decision here. I don’t think the vast majority of people fully understand. Everywhere you go, you feel the presence of money, the power of money.
“I mean, people here really care about money!” he said, his voice suddenly younger, and shocked.
Power corrupts, the old saying goes. Perhaps the same is true of money. The only one of us who had seen great wealth up close, as it turned out, was Femi Olofinleye from Nigeria. Older than most of his fellow students, Femi had been serious and very hardworking. I'd appreciated having him in class.
We were happy and surprised to find out we now lived only a few hours from each other. Femi had married an American and was living in the Bronx. He rides the subway into Manhattan on weekdays, working for the Hasidic Jews at B&N Electronics.
Femi had a backstory I hadn’t known about when I was his teacher. Before coming to the school, he’d worked as a personal assistant for Moshood Abiola, a self-made millionaire who had won Nigeria’s presidency in what was called the nation’s fairest election. This was too good to be true in corrupt Nigeria. Abiola’s electoral victory was annulled and he was imprisoned. He died in in prison under mysterious circumstances.
While most of my students were well-off, Femi had struggled to pay his tuition and eventually completed his college degree in Australia. He landed in Dubai, where he started two small businesses, leaving them when he married. Even after what he’d seen in Nigeria and Dubai, Femi still idealized America.
“It’s a club that people in Africa don’t get access to,” he said. “When I was growing as a young boy in Nigeria, an uncle of mine came from the U.K. to Nigeria. Back then - it was the early ‘90s, there’s a way they look at people who come back to visit. They’re like angels.”
After landing in the U.S., he was surprised to discover that Dubai was far ahead of the U.S. in technology. Like so many immigrants, he found life in the U.S. harder than expected. I reminded him of something he’d written in his paper on Gatsby, that Americans value hard work and honesty, while majority of the people in Africa worship money and power. “Nobody cares about the source of wealth of African rich men, and the rich continue to milk the economy to the detriment of our own values,” he had written.
“Do you still believe that?” I asked.
The answer was no. Femi had left a country of rich men who bilked their countries for cash only to find the same thing in his Promised Land. And what about Daisy? Alleging that Daisy loved both Gatsby and Tom Buchanan only because of their wealth and social position, in his paper, Femi had quoted Nick Carraway’s response to Gatsby’s line about Daisy’s voice sounding “full of money.”
“That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money - that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it….high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl….”
I asked Femi if he judged Melania Trump the same way that he had judged Daisy. Femi seemed to contradict himself when it came to Melania. “Whatever she’s doing, she’s doing because of the money,” he said. Then he said: “If Melania is misdoing it, by now she would have left Trump.”
But, Femi said, whatever Melania's motives: “I wouldn’t blame her.”
Underneath our elevated talk of civil society, perhaps it comes down to the primal. Thérèse, the student who had helped me get in touch with her classmates, reminded me that she hadn’t been in the class that read Gatsby. But she’d seen the movie, and she had opinions.
I wasn’t surprised. Even as an undergraduate, Thérèse had been a force of nature. After she was elected student body president, we jokingly called her Madame President, predicted she’d run for office for real someday.
One of the school’s few scholarship students, Thérèse grew up in a single-parent household in Senegal. Women are competitive with each other in Senegal, the country with the world’s highest rate of polygamy, and men are, by my standards, obscenely powerful. Therese grew up acutely aware of gender inequality and since I've known her, has considered herself a feminist.
In an echo of Melania’s infamous jacket, Thérèse told me she has a tattoo on her back that reads: “Je ma fou. It means, ‘I don’t care.' I have it on my back so you see it when you pass me. In my mind, at least. My skin is too dark to really see it.”
The tattoo was a gesture of rebellion in a culture that does not allow such things and where Thérèse felt judged. “I grew up being pointed at. She’s a whore. I’ve been Daisy, I’ve been non-Daisy, all of it," she told me. Thanks to the intervention of a professor at the university where I had taught her, Thérèse made it to the U.S. She is married now and runs a fitness business.
“I’ve been called a gold digger because I married an older guy, a white guy,” she said. “That’s a worldwide thing, but we just have a weird thing about it in Africa. We tend to stereotype women. Even men. Anyone who married someone with money or power.”
Like the other students, Thérèse says she has become less judgmental. But her political sense remains acute. I asked if her view of America changed after Trump was elected. Did America reveal itself as more materialistic? Therese corrected me; I’d asked the wrong question.
“With this administration, I think it’s more twisted toward male power,” she said. “You know, with men like Tom Buchanan, when they lose it, they don’t have anything. Without power, they’re nothing.”
Susan Zakin is one of the editors of Journal of the Plague Year.
After I wrote this essay, I ran across an interesting piece comparing Trump to Tom Buchanan here. And I saw the spectacular film The Atlantics. The movie evokes globalization, its dreams and possibilities, along with its discontents, in a quite remarkable way. On Netflix. Check out the trailer here.
Pitch Mi :::: Youssou N’dour
Chauffeur Bis ::: Thione Seck
Djaam Leeli ::: Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck
Money No Be Sand ::: Charles Iwegbue & His Archibogs
Beale Street Blues ::: Louis Armstrong