Contribution by Topher Liggett
Dominic Thomas’ essay “The Aesthetics of Migration, Relationality, and the Sentimography of Globality” and Nasia Anam’s “The Migrant as Colonist: Dystopia and Apocalypse in the Literature of Mass Migration” offer vastly different views of the migrant. While Thomas presents migrants as the destitute in need of empathetic support, Anam features the migrant as a powerful force that non-migrants (especially Europeans) fear as invaders. As with most topics, a binary approach to migration limits possibility as it disregards the complexities of conceptualizing human movement around the globe. Finding that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines a migrant as “a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons,” we remember that most human beings are migrants at one point or another (Who is a Migrant?). Encompassing an expansive array of human travelers (emigrants, immigrants, refugees, nomads, displaced persons, etc.), migration is emblematic of a courageous epic: the physical journey in search of a better future. Migrants, in their broad spectrum of definitions and experiences, are not best represented as the “other.” They are neither always to be feared because of their strength nor always empathized with out of pity. In a richer and more productive effort, migrants should be treated as those to be respected.
As an officer in the United States Army, I study human migration within my profession, and I too am often a migrant. Relating to Thomas’ essay, I was deployed to Burkina Faso in the Sahel region of Northwest Africa in 2019. While there, I worked with IOM to conceptualize migration as a means to counter ISIS terrorist operations, and I also facilitated humanitarian aid to strengthen the resiliency of those displaced by war. As a partner with the Burkinabe National Government, we studied internal migration, cross-border movements into neighboring countries, and continental travel from the littoral states into North Africa and onward to Europe. Along with the flow of people followed the flow of information, resources, and ideology. Neither to be viewed exclusively as threats or as the helpless, we viewed migrants as their own peoples with individual agency, capable of both harm and help. Recognizing their strength, in having the force-of-will to leave their home and cross vast expanses in search of opportunity, we respected migrants and worked to gain their support as partners. This mentality of respectful partnership does not discuss migrants in the binary terms of self and other or us and them. The approach centers on the pronoun we.
I find this distinction important as it becomes more evident to me that empathy is not always the best approach to respecting our fellow humans. Some forms of empathy rely on our ability to see someone else as “like us” in order to value them. Saidiya Hartman attests to this as she suggests that, “It’s as though in order to come to any recognition of common humanity, the other must be assimilated, meaning in this case, utterly displaced and effaced” (Hartman and Wilderson 189). An empathetic approach, like the one found in Thomas’ essay, positions the migrants as an other and is not necessarily productive. Frank Wilderson also addresses the limitations of empathetic othering in his interview with Saidiya Hartman “The Position of the Unthought.” He states that, despite a cause of empathy, the “gestures [of solidarity] disavow . . . that subjects just can’t make common cause with objects” (Hartman and Wilderson 190). This conversation, discussing white allies’ attempts to support Blacks in the United States, shows the limitations of an empathetic approach that, in trying to make all people the same, only further highlights the differences between the two. While it is clear that Thomas intends to support migrants through the empathetic powers of art, his specific focus on refugees as a helpless mass confined to the platform of a precarious rubber raft strongly positions them as the other.
Likewise, I think many of us have witness the perplexing trend where the empathetic approach does not carry the motivation for action that might be expected. Perhaps it encourages donations and public outcry, but its positioning of the self in contrast to the object of pity appears counterproductive. As Christina Sharpe so eloquently captures it, “We have been reminded by Hartman and many others that the repetition of the visual, discursive, state, and other quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violences enacted on Black people does not lead to a cessation of violence, nor does it . . . lead primarily to sympathy or something like empathy” (Sharpe 116-117). An alternative approach where all humans recognize their own migrant status and view migrants as equally deserving partners might be more productive. I do not help my neighbor because I pity them or because I imagine myself suffering in their shoes. I help my neighbor because I value them as a human; I understand that our relationship is essential for us both. Migrants, strong and powerful people with an endless repertoire of experience and skills, should be treated this same way: as partners who are an integral part in the strengthening of a society. While migration in force certainly has the capacity to colonize and although there are many instances where migrants face terrible violence that should inspire empathy, treating migrants with respect, regardless of the circumstances, may prove a more fruitful approach for the ultimate goal, which is, I believe, humans living together in peace.
As I focus on my master’s thesis, the concept of the self and other, as well as the idea of empathy have taken center stage. Twelve years in the Army, deployments to Afghanistan and Burkina Faso, and the relationships resulting from those times have influenced the way I understand human interaction. As I reflect on these immigration essays, I think about some of the people who have influenced me. A Senegalese woman and a Togolese man taught me French for six months and prepared me to work on my own in Africa. They were the best instructors I have ever had, and their lessons kept me safe. Interpreters in Afghanistan, who protected me on more than one occasion, have since immigrated to the United States and are family friends. I also reflect on difficult conversations I had with my soldiers: explaining that, although we are in a combat zone, most of the people we see are not the enemy. I am hoping that my work here at The University of Colorado will give me an even broader perspective and equip me with the language to continue striving for peace in this world.
I appreciate the opportunity to read these essays, and I value the ability to respond. Thank you for the conversation!
Anam, Nasia. The Migrant as Colonist: Dystopia and Apocalypse in the Literature of Mass Migration. 21 Dec. 2018, muse.jhu.edu/article/711837.
Hartman, Saidiya V., and Frank B. Wilderson. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle, vol. 13, no. 2, 2003, pp. 183–201., doi:10.1215/quiparle.13.2.183.
Thomas, Dominic. “The Aesthetics of Migration, Relationality, and the Sentimography of Globality.” L'Esprit Créateur, Johns Hopkins University Press, 28 June 2019, muse.jhu.edu/article/728229.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: on Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.
“Who Is a Migrant?” International Organization for Migration, 27 June 2019, www.iom.int/who-is-a-migrant. Accessed 30 October 2020.