In Georges dream he was young, joking, and amused on the main run of Aux Cayes, in Haiti. The sun is nourishing, the air is clean, and the people at the port are smiling. A feeling resonates deep within him, even as Georges sleeps, he laughs. With irony, he awakes.
Georges is in New York and his laughter breaks – the charming city in his dreams would simply stay, a dream.
Nina Glick Schiller and Georges Eugene Fouron offer a case study through the form of ethnography with the hopes that a process of rethinking will take place. Allegiance, affiliation, nationalism, and citizenship are affected by the globalization overtaking nations today. The trans migrant’s experience will take place in “the laugh” – an incongruous state to awake in.
The life of a trans migrant is simultaneously active in two countries. While the trans migrant invests their time into shaping a life style in their current host country, the devoutness is to remain politically, financially, and emotionally involved in their home country. Trans migrants do this by sending money and gifts back home (Glick Schiller, Fouron, 2001) buying property, and building houses (3) and socially maintaining a strong-hold on one’s vision and interpretation of their home country – often regarding politics and associated with watching and listening to the Haitian news.
“In Georges Woke Up Laughing, we explore the continuing significance of nation-states in the world where state borders do not confine flows of capital, labor, culture, or political emotion.” (4)
Georges experiences America – his host country – as a “black American” (6). To be in the shoes of a black American is to live every day knowing that you are either being unknowingly assimilated into “Americanness” (6) or very visibly cast outside of mainstream society, invisible to the majority of those who are within. The constant reminder that Georges will never be another American is an underlying theme within the ethnography. People will cross the street (39) to avoid his company on a sidewalk, his professionalism and identity are questioned by authorities (92), and the extent to which he must prove himself in order to be hired (98) are all reinforcements of Georges modified – abruptly restraining – life in America. In Chapter 5, Georges responds to the racial discrimination that take hold on his day-to-day routine whilst living in the United States. Georges must remember that his lineage goes way back to African slaves and that the Euro-centric knowledge which defines the governance of the United States also defines him.
In the lens of trans national kinship “the blood remains Haitian” (92) and this blood represents an entire nation. Georges has left people behind including his elderly parents, brothers, nieces, nephews and friends. It is through kin that he feels recognized as a Haitian, and it is because of his ties to America that he feels obligated to improve himself and his family (61).
… whatever I achieve, good or bad, will mark the nation. If I succeed, the nation will be proud of me; if I fail, I will bring disgrace to the nation. As you improve yourself and your family, you are contributing to Haiti. If you abandon your family and its is know, than you bring shame to your family. (61)
When Haitian trans migrants finally purchase their first plane ticket home, there is an anticipation of monotony. They will wear the old pants which they wore when they lived in Haiti – they will step into the “old roles” (84) of being a son or daughter, friend or acquaintance. However, it has been evaluated by Glick Schiller and Fouron that the process which occurs between the flight out of one’s home country and then to the return trip back, will produce a sense of culture shock. This process of actual transformation has taken place simultaneously within a geographical location (i.e. Haiti) and the individual’s soul (i.e. Georges). There is a “white gaze” (101) explained by Georges that diminishes the significance of Haitian culture and governance which intercepts with Georges reaction to the conditions of Haiti on his return (100).
At What Pitch Does Georges Laugh?
The authors, Nina and Georges have carefully crafted an ethnography which implies that the private is indeed political. An alternative review on this ethnography by Marie-José N’Zengou-Tayo can attest to the fact that the analysis surfaces “patterns of relations that [are] often overlooked by researchers because they seem to belong to the private sphere of family relationships” (N’Zengou-Tayo, 2001). It is the personal aspects within the book that make it an ethnography. Without Georges voice embedded recurrently within the text I am not sure it would be considered a true ethnography. While trans migrants and long distance nationalists make up a large social group and disperse themselves among diasporas, the voice of Georges is the voice of his nation and it has been articulated to piece together this ethnography. Voices of Haitians are brought to the forefront when Georges returns to Haiti to speak with those he left behind. These voices speak words to the other end of a trans migrant’s life, the ways in which a Haitian living in America is viewed by the nation of their belonging. Peggy Levitt, a scholar of Harvard University sees the purpose behind the biographical quality to this ethnography and how it has created a “readable and perceptive” (Levitt, 2002) projection of the trans migrant experience.
The readership pertaining to this ethnography is open for interpretations by anyone. Because I am an anthropology student, and have picked up bits of information of nationalism through political science and religion courses at my university, I found this read quite palpable. By the second chapter of the text, the true ideology is declared to be one of “potent contemporary politics” (17). With that being said, the authors touch openly on the ways in which they have executed the ethnography “… without jargon that [Rolande, Georges wife] can read and enjoy” and so in doing that, the literature used that has been built upon scholarly sourcing has not taken full figure within this particular project. This leads to my next point, because ethnography often entails the “embellishment of jargon” (Cushman, Marcus, 1982) it was interesting that the authors would make a statement regarding the lack of jargon being used. Alongside the above mentioned principle of ethnography, I would also like to draw on two more of Marcus and Cushman’s modes of Ethnographic Realism, [a] an un-intrusive presence of the ethnographer in text, and [b] the representation of a native point of view. Primarily, the presence of the ethnographer within the text is taking place, however it is because of the secondary that relieves this from being unacceptable. Georges, the ethnographer has incorporated his voice, as a Haitian, nationalist, and long distance trans migrant therefore giving an emic, or native point of view. Other ways in which a student like myself would distinguish the characteristics of an ethnography are through Willis and Trondman’s outline in Manifesto for Ethnography. It is through the intersectional approach which Nina and Georges take on a trans migrant’s experience and attend to the meanings of those within the community of trans migrants.
Word Count: 1260
Levitt, Peggy. “Georges Woke Up Laughing: Long‐Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home (Book Review).” American Journal of Sociology 108, no. 2 (2002): 486-88
Marcus, G E, and D. Cushman. “Ethnographies as Texts.” Annual Review of Anthropology 11, no. 1 (1982): 25-69.
N’zengou-Tayo, Marie-José. “Review of Georges Woke Up Laughing: Long-Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home.” Caribbean Quarterly 48, no. 2/3 (2002): 128-32.
Schiller, Nina Glick, and Fouron, Georges Eugene. Georges Woke up Laughing : Long-distance Nationalism and the Search for Home. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2001.
Willis, Paul, and Mats Trondman. “Manifesto for “Ethnography”.” Ethnography 1, no. 1 (2000): 5-16.