Wed | Apr 1, 2020

A microscope on discrimination and migration

Published:Sunday | October 6, 2019 | 12:23 AM
Ann-Margaret Lim
The cover of ‘Immigration Essays.’

In Immigration Essays, author Sybil Baker, presents experiences of the immigrant through a successful combination of research, interviews, storytelling, and activism.

These experiences range from her own as a world traveller to interviews with refugees from countries like Ukraine, Iraq, Sudan, Cuba, and Mexico and examinations of the exiled or wanderer figures in classic literature.

This book could be categorised as experimental literature as it is, in parts, a travelogue narrative, an exposé on social injustice, focusing on racial and migrant discrimination, and even a literary critique, using Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, W ide Sargasso Sea, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and other books to examine the idea of the wanderer that migrants, be they refugees or not, encapsulate.

Though wide-ranging in its approach and sources from which it draws, the book zooms in on the experience of the socially upended individual. Having received a MakeWork grant to write about Chattanooga’s ‘unheard voices’, and having seen the common denominator of income equalities and social displacement between immigrants and the historically socially upended in Chattanooga (the minorities), the author begins a journey that ends with the extremely engaging Immigration Essays.

Baker, whose great-great-grandfather was, amongst other things, a slave-owning preacher in the southern american state of Georgia, even goes back to the native Indians as she, through tracing history and noting the associated landmarks left, tells the story of Chattanooga that, like many other cities, has developed with social inequalities as part of its fabric.

Chattanooga, in Tennessee, United States, is where the author lives and teaches at the University of Tennessee and where, like many other states, international migrants have settled.

It is also a place from which Native Americans were forcefully exiled, and a place where blacks have been on the receiving end of social injustice. One such was Ed Johnson, infamously lynched for a crime he was, after the fact, proven innocent of.

She writes:

Near the Walnut Street Bridge at Ross’ Landing is a tribute to the seven tribes sent away on the Trail of Tears, called The Passage. It’s a water walk way and pedestrian bridge linking downtown to the riverfront, known for its emotional and aesthetic reminder of …when more than four thousand Cherokees died on the way.

On the south side of the bridge are two plaques with the names Ed Johnson and Alfred Blount, who were both lynched there… .As of this writing, Chattanooga is still one of the top American cities in income inequality. As of this writing, there has still been no discussion about the case for reparations.

At the end of the chapter titled ‘Brief Histories’, the author visits the cemetery where Johnson is buried and reads the epitaph: “God Bless you all. I am an innocent man.”

While leaving the cemetery, she was asked if she had seen earlier a soaring eagle. Answering in the negative, she writes; “I was still digging for those hidden histories still waiting to be found. Still waiting to be told.”


Piqued by Baker’s interest in the Johnson case, the reviewer went to Google and found that Ed Johnson’s image was not made public until 2018. Immigration Essays was published in 2017. The questions below were put forward to Baker.

Lim: If it is that you saw Ed Johnson’s face for the first time in 2018, do you think a bit more of the ‘hidden history’ has now been found and told?

Baker: I believe I was out of the country when the article appeared with the photo of Ed Johnson’s face, so I only saw it when you pointed it out to me. Seeing the photo of that innocent face made me confront his specific humanity, and reminded me that Johnson was not just a ‘cause’ but a person who was brutally killed. I’m so happy this photo surfaced and believe that photo, along with the documentary and the Ed Johnson Memorial, will help uncover more of Johnson’s hidden history, as well as other hidden histories in Chattanooga.

Immigration Essays is not yet 150 pages, but it is a large, small book. In one book, you almost cry for the injustices blacks and Native Americans suffered in Chatanooga alone and nod with empathy as you read the various reasons the immigrants find themselves in that city. In that same book, you are a tourist in Greece, witnessing its epic tango with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

As it focuses on different migrants, be they religious or political refugees in flight for their lives, we see how the migrant’s philosophy influences and gels with the author’s.

“… I knew a man named Mr. Cho who worked a desk job at Georgetown Law Library. …He’d been educated in one of the top universities in Seoul, South Korea… . He and his wife, a nurse … bought a house in the DC suburbs…saved to buy a bigger house, which they rented out... . Their own … house had a tiny old-fashioned black-and-white TV and furniture. Mr Cho bought his wife tickets to a movie for her birthday (once) and she yelled at him for being frivolous. There … was the immigrants’ focus on saving and generating wealth to pay for their daughters’ educations and as security against the unknown.

Our reasons for living out of our car and a boarding house, for not eating in restaurants with our friends … had something in common with the immigrants’ mentality. Rowan (the a uthor’s husband) had grown up a rich and privileged white boy in apartheid South Africa. When his family emigrated to Canada, they lost most of their fortune, and eventually scattered. The US was the fourth country Rowan had lived in, the fourth country where he had started over.

Baker shares how the book, which is now on the compulsory list for first-year writing students at her university, changed her life.

“I’ve considered myself a fiction writer, but when I received a grant to write essays, I was thrust out of my comfort zone. That said, I now look forward to writing another book of non-fiction, further exploring the themes from immigration, namely the legacy of white supremacy on my family’s history and their concept of the American Dream.

“I’ve also been gratified to hear from life-long Chattanoogans that the book made them see Chattanooga differently.”

Book: Immigration Essays

Author: Sybil Baker

Publisher: Conscious & Responsible (C&R) Press: 2017

ISBN: 978-1-936196-57-9


- Ann-Margaret Lim is a published poet. Her second collection of poetry, ‘Kingston Buttercup’, was amongst the Bocas Prize 2017 poetry shortlist. Her books, which include ‘The Festival of Wild Orchid’, are available at Bookophilia, and Feedback: