When a man is murdered in small-town Texas, the town’s Ethiopian diasporic community convenes to decide where to lay his body to rest. The decision makers, dubbed the Elders, must choose whether to bury him in his country of birth—Ethiopia—or the country he immigrated to in search of a better life that ultimately wound up snatching his life. The man’s body has been defiled, permanently spraypainted with “hateful, unrepeatable words.” The heart of the debate exposes the community’s complicated relationship with America: many who were once celebrated as defectors when they fled the Derg regime and had wholeheartedly believed in the American Dream were now subject to “intolerance, racism, and betrayal.” The murder seems to be a culmination of the micro and direct aggressions aimed at the community: “scrawled slurs on the town’s one billboard,” trolls “spewing xenophobic insults,” people “advocating for the ouster of immigrants.” Even the community’s gathering in a synagogue is a result of an aggression, because their original community center had been “burned to the ground.”
As an African American woman who was raised Muslim and saw the rise of racist and xenophobic attacks after events like 9/11 and the election of former president Donald Trump, I found myself nodding in many areas of this short story by Meron Hadero, aptly titled “The Elders.” Black man murdered and no one knows who did it? Yeah, sounds about right. Very American. Racism online, on billboards, on the news, in your face? Sounds about right. Very American. Being attacked simply because you’re different? Yup, very American. However, I paused when I reached the final elder’s thoughts, where he reveals how the unsolved murder leaves them with questions about whom they can trust:
What if it was their friends or neighbors who did it, the very ones who put signs in their yards saying immigrants are welcome? What if it was their colleagues or their kids’ teachers, the very ones who smiled at them every day? Or someone else—the police chief, a doctor, a taxi driver? And regardless of who committed the crime, who knew about it, permitted it, allowed it to happen, protected the assailants, continued to protect them?
These questions reveal grief, not only for the victim, but also for a shattered understanding of belonging in America. The community is confused; the deceased had his papers, so “he belonged in the eyes of the state. He was a citizen. He worked and contributed his skills, so he belonged in the eyes of the economy.” Without a deep understanding of America’s complicated history of race, otherness, and violence, the elders are at a loss. Here, when Hadero draws a distinct line to carve out this diasporic community’s unique experience, she also raises questions that reveal what’s disturbing them: who gets to belong in America? Who’s allowed to achieve the American Dream? What role does race and nationality play in the idea of belonging in America?
Meron Hadero explores these questions along with others in her debut short-story collection, A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times. Hadero’s indelible prose and storytelling demonstrate why this book won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, a prize for writing “that addresses identity in a global age.” Hadero’s collection brims with men and women, old and young, grappling with displacement, identity, immigration, and Blackness in America—not Blackness as a monolith, but as a multifaceted, complicated aspect of identity. These stories explore what becomes of an identity when you must adopt a new country, custom, language, and troubled history.
In “Mekonnen aka Mack aka Huey Freakin’ Newton,” Hadero employs a retrospective narrator in Mekonnen to explore what Blackness means for people who are not African American, at least in the common usage of the word, yet, due to their complexion and country of origin, inadvertently become embroiled in America’s complicated history of race relations. In 1989, when Mekonnen’s family first arrives to America from Ethiopia and they fill out their immigration forms, Mekonnen’s mother lists herself as yellow for her “yellow-hued skin” and his father lists himself as red, since “that’s what he was called—kay—the color that tinted his medium-brown skin” in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, there are different ways of viewing skin color, class, and tribal affiliation, what Mekonnen describes as “multiple stratifications (light, brown, red, black along with Amhara, Tigray, Oromo, Kembata, and all the other eighty-one tribes).” However, at the immigration booth, the family receives their first lesson about race in America when an immigration officer “correct[s] the forms. Africans, he said, are Black.” A monolithic classification is imposed on this family. This leads Mekonnen’s mother to accept the possibility of two identities: “Ethiopian . . . and maybe we might become African Americans concurrently.” Mekonnen’s father, though, “declare[s] that no, not African Americans, but Africans in America.” His parents rebuff Mekonnen’s suggestion that they just be “Black.”
Despite his youth, Mekonnen understands better than his parents the urgency of crafting an identity that allows him to navigate racial tensions in America. When Mekonnen’s family moves to New York City, he learns that “Yusuf Hawkins, a Black child, was murdered in Bensonhurst by a mob of white boys.” Mekonnen is warned (presumably by other Blacks) to stay away from Howard Beach, “where a young Trinidadian man had been attacked and killed by a group of white guys,” and Gravesend, “where Willie Turks was so battered on Avenue X that some judge called it a lynch mob in Brooklyn, but for the rope and tree.” The subtext of these events and warnings informs Mekonnen that his prior understandings of race don’t hold up in America, that while there are multiple ways to self-identify, in order to survive America, one must understand America’s racial stratifications, no matter how unequal or unfair or imposed.
To build on his understanding of identity, Mekonnen achieves his goal of becoming part of the African American All-Stars, pre-teens who rule the playground with their ability to step and drop knowledge of African American history; they look up to “Malcolm and MLK and Fannie Lou and Lewis and Baker and Belafonte.” He also attends an all-white magnet school, where he notes his classmates “had their own racial awakenings . . . they hadn’t noticed they were in a white class till I got there.” Mekonnen’s migration to America splits his identity into three (hence the title of the story): Mekonnen at home with his Ethiopian family; Mack, the name his white friends call him; and Huey Newton, a well-liked member of the African American All-Stars. In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois dubbed this sensation of embodying different, conflicting roles based on perception as “double consciousness” (or in Mekonnen’s case, triple consciousness), that “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Mekonnen’s navigation of his different consciousnesses is very compartmentalized, leaving him unable to articulate his feelings when an Asian American proprietress asks him to leave her corner store. When he returns with his white friends the next day and the proprietress again asks him (and only him) to leave, he gives one of his white friends money to buy him candy. They never discuss the incident. It’s also because of that compartmentalization that he’s unable, at first, to articulate to Kareem, the leader of the All-Stars, what happened at that corner store and, once he does, try to make sense of not only why he returned to the store but also suggested the All-Stars patronize it despite his experience. Regardless of his intelligence and memorized knowledge of famous African Americans, it’s only after he and Kareem get into a physical and verbal altercation and Kareem confronts him about his multiple identities that Mekonnen learns how to articulate and defend himself against racist acts.
Mekonnen carries this understanding with him when he goes with his father to a florist to pick up flowers for a funeral and the clerk refuses to serve them. Mekonnen’s father, still stuck in his “Africans in America” self-identification, points out his expensive suit. The clerk doesn’t care and tells them: “The problem is you Negros think your food stamps are as good as gold,” to which his father replies, “We’re Ethiopians.” Mekonnen’s father understands the term “Negro” and offers a delineation; however, Mekonnen knows just as we know, “This meant nothing to the man.” Money, Mekonnen understands, can’t buy your way out of racism. No matter how unfair this is, no matter how different all Blacks in America are, no matter the nationality, this categorization based on skin color means that if one is perceived as Black, one will be treated in accordance with America’s treatment of African Americans, whether that person identifies as African American or not. Appearance, in this case, trumps self-identification.
Unlike Mekonnen, Yohannes in “Medallion” never emerges from his struggles of straddling two nations and two understandings of race, self, and belonging. The naive Ethiopian protagonist meets Bobby, who is from Barbados, when he lands in L.A. to attend university. This story, a metaphor for the failed American dream and Hollywood dream, offers us another glimpse at what happens when one declines to make the connections and attempts at understanding history that Mekonnen does. In “Medallion,” Bobby picks Yohannes up from the airport in his taxi. At first, Yohannes has no interest in Bobby’s blathering about the American Dream or Hollywood. While Bobby isn’t the most honest character, he reveals key aspects of America’s history with race that are crucial for Yohannes’s survival: “A degree is just a single piece of paper. . . . A degree doesn’t shift things much.” When Yohannes tells Bobby he will be studying engineering, Bobby says, “That’s a good line of work, because it might, might get you rich, and as a Black man in this country, that could just be the difference between ending up like Rodney and ending up like OJ.” The double usage of the word “might” hints at possibility but not probability. Yohannes is clueless. Unlike Mekonnen, he does not possess the curiosity to learn more. He becomes blinded by this idea of the American Dream, by the hope that if he works long enough and hard enough, he will succeed. That hard work (in this case, driving Bobby’s taxi for him while Bobby swindles him out of his earnings) leads to a revoked scholarship and losing his admission to the university. Because Yohannes doesn’t internalize these lessons of race and otherness as being blockades to the phantasmal American Dream, Bobby becomes his only friend. While he senses Bobby’s dishonesty, Yohannes “wonder[s] if there was any choice but to surrender. He had come for an education, but this was not what [he] had in mind. These were not the lessons he expected, but he could see now he had a lot left to learn.”
Hadero resolves some of these questions about belonging, otherness, and race in “Preludes,” the penultimate story of the collection. This fantastical story takes place in “the most diverse zip code in the US,” Rainier Valley in South Seattle. In this redlined neighborhood, diversity happened over time: “American Indians, then the white settlers, Black migrants from Southern states, immigrants from China, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, and, most recently, from around the horn of Africa.” Similar to “Medallion,” a person from Ethiopia and a person from the Caribbean connect, but this time with the best intentions on both sides—Marla drops by to comfort Amare about losing his house to foreclosure during the Great Recession of 2008. Unlike the aggressions faced by the Ethiopian community in “The Elders,” there is no suspicion of neighbors. No violence. No spraypainted bodies. While there’s a clear, lurking threat of gentrification, Hadero immerses us in the kindness of the neighbors. Unlike Mekonnen, the neighbors aren’t trying to figure out how to navigate different racial groups. In fact, acceptance of multitudes, of different backgrounds, is so ubiquitous that in a closed-off section “known as Little East Africa, where signs in languages from around the Horn were juxtaposed over signs in Mandarin and Vietnamese, which were layered over signs in characters too faded to make out,” when the house of Gashe Ayeloo and Eteye Amsala levitates “two inches”—as in “[n]othing [holds] the house up”—the floating house quickly goes from being a spectacle to being “absorbed and accepted as a neighborhood quirk.”
This isn’t post-racial America; rather, it’s an exploration of what happens when we embrace diversity and accept multiple ways of being and existing within our skins in America. In “The Elders,” one of the elders asks, “But can we really let others define what it means to belong?” The answer is no, because then you’ll never belong. According to “Preludes,” the others, those who are different, will, with time, create their own definitions of belonging. Marla, a “ ‘porous’ personality” from the Caribbean, directly answers this question through exploring what it means to her to belong:
“I could write a book on lessons for new immigrants. . . . First and foremost, trust no one who doesn’t like the food you eat or the way you smell or the clothes you wear, and if you don’t know if they like the food you eat or the way you smell or the look of you, better safe than sorry. Ultimately, you’ve got no real choice but to seek out a little help when you start over, but first and foremost, turn to those who like the food you eat and the clothes you wear and the scent of you.”
It’s fitting for this collection to close on the flash piece “Swearing In, January 20, 2009.” An unidentified retrospective narrator, aware of the rise in Trumpism and hate crimes, recalls being filled with joy when attending former president Barack Obama’s inauguration. The narrator realizes that these feelings of hope and possibility prevented the recognition that at the same time fear was rising in others. Ultimately, what Hadero shows us in A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times is that America is full of contradictory possibilities: a place of the fabled American Dream, where it’s possible for all to belong, yet also exists as a place full of fear, misunderstanding, hate, and racism. Despite these tensions, Hadero still sees possibility within the fabled American Dream. After all, in that final story, the protagonist declares belief and faith in America’s potential can make “an immigrant be among the most patriotic of all a country’s citizens.”
A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times. By Meron Hadero. Brooklyn: Restless Books, 2022. 224 pp. $26.00.