PAS Prof. Joy Gleason Carew - Perspectives on Migration & Immigration
Associate Professor (Pan-African Studies)
The dramatic rise in xenophobia today is extremely troubling, and the thought of building barriers to close off the flows of people who could contribute to societies is incredibly myopic. When thinking about migrants or immigrant flows, one must realize that no one leaves home if things are fine. It is only when one’s future is in question that one is willing to take that drastic step.
I deal in cross-cultural relations as a Linguist and an African Diaspora scholar, and I am passionate about forging linkages across national and cultural boundaries. I was set on my path as a Russian major by my high school Russian teacher, Stepha. The language fascinated me, but also I was drawn by the unstinting affection from my teacher who had come from so far away. (I often tell my colleagues, that you must ‘watch’ what you are teaching, for that may have an indelible impact upon your students.) Thanks to Stepha, my research focuses on the ties between Blacks and the USSR/Russia.
I explore the choices and impacts of African Americans and other Blacks who, fed up with Jim Crow and other prohibitions in their home societies, reshaped their futures by testing out the Soviet experiment. The 1920s and 1930s-era visitors left their imprint on the early development of the USSR and that country’s relations with peoples of color. Not only were many bringing technical and agricultural skills desperately needed by the industrializing Soviet Union, they were also bringing goodwill that reached across racial boundaries. Many of those early pilgrims renewed their contracts several times, and, some decided to settle there.
I have been traveling to the USSR/Russia for nearly 50 years, and people continue to make a point to express their admiration of the African American artist and Pan-Africanist Paul Robeson. Robeson frequently visited the USSR and advocated cross-global friendships. He, like W.E.B. Du Bois – also a frequent visitor – saw great potential in the Soviet experiment’s example of a more equitable distribution of resources (education, health care, job security). To their minds, those social models, along with technical support, could be invaluable to African nations gaining independence after World War II.
With their encouragement, the USSR and Blacks in Africa and elsewhere began to come together in the late 1950s in a most innovative way. And, for just over 30 years, from 1957 to the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of young Blacks took the chance to leave their homes for periods of 6-10 years – depending upon their field of study – for university scholarships in the USSR. These long years, away from family and friends, home food, and dealing with Russian winters, were not easy. But, these opportunities led to a dramatic increase in the intellectual and professional infrastructure of many African nations when these young people returned home. The Soviets also benefited, as these long periods of living and working together in the USSR produced large cohorts of allies scattered around the African continent.
Despite the troubling rise in unchecked racism in this post-Soviet era, thousands are still taking up scholarships there. They travel on waves of nostalgia of their grandfather’s generation that was welcomed so enthusiastically by the Russian people. But, also, they are determined to redirect their futures. We all need to make good use of these shared educational and working environments to learn more about each other and to disabuse the current waves of intolerance.