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This Isn't the America I Thought I'd Find: African Students in the Urban U.S. High School

reviewed by Sarah Dryden-Peterson - July 31, 2007

coverTitle: This Isn't the America I Thought I'd Find: African Students in the Urban U.S. High School
Author(s): Rosemary Traore and Robert J. Lukens
Publisher: University Press of America,
ISBN: 0761834559 , Pages: 258, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

Streets paved with gold? Most immigrants do not arrive in the United States expecting this mythologized boon. Given media images of the U.S. broadcast around the world, however, many do arrive expecting wealth and satisfaction. The impetus to leave one’s home is certainly inspired by hopes of a ‘better life’ and yet, globally, life for immigrants in a new country frequently fails to live up to expectations.  Immigrants are often forced to work in jobs not commensurate with their education and skill levels; they face discrimination and prejudice in the labor market and in their social interactions; they are disappointed with the quality of their housing and the public services accessible to them.

In “This Isn’t the America I Thought I’d Find”: African Students in the Urban U.S. High School, Rosemary Traoré and Robert J. Lukens describe how African immigrants to the United States face a particularly challenging affront to their expectations. First, many African immigrants are surprised by the racial composition of the U.S. cities in which they usually settle. For example, Fanta, one of the Liberian participants in Traoré and Lukens’ study of African student experiences at Jackson High School in Philadelphia, expected that all of the students in her high school would be white (p. 32). Second, African immigrants face a racial categorization imposed on them by U.S. society. While most have never before thought of themselves as black, African immigrants quickly realize that in the U.S. they are ascribed as such. Third, and related, African immigrants must reconcile the negative media images of African Americans to which they have been exposed before arriving in the U.S. with the understanding that “the Black American is family” (Traoré & Lukens, 2006: 125). Finally, African immigrants, like immigrants from all parts of the world, are often faced with unsatisfactory employment and standards of living.

An immigrant parent often endures these disappointments as simply part of his or her family’s transition to life in the United States; life will be better for the children. Researchers agree that it is too early to judge the educational and economic success of the second generation, but the evidence to date is decidedly mixed. For example, a recent research synthesis indicates that while some children of immigrants get better grades and drop out less often than native-born children, many - particularly children with limited English proficiency - struggle (Murray, Batalova, & Fix, 2007). Immigrant groups with small populations in the U.S., such as African immigrants who make up only 3.5 percent of the foreign-born population (Dixon, 2006), are often overlooked in these studies, with their numbers appearing only as part of national averages. Yet African immigrants now comprise the fastest growing immigrant population (Dixon, 2006).  There has nevertheless been scant attention to the experiences of African students in our nation’s schools. Is there hope for educational and economic success for these students, for a ‘better life’ in the United States? Traoré’s and Lukens’ response in “This Isn’t the America I Thought I’d Find” is no, not under the current conditions.

Through their action research, what they call an “intervention,” Traoré and Lukens worked with thirteen African and eight African American high school students to identify factors that contributed to the conflicts, such as name-calling and teasing among students at Jackson High in Philadelphia and that influenced how students perceived one another. The authors articulate a hope that, after bringing students together to share ideas and experiences, ripple effects would occur among other students so as to change the culture of the school. Reflecting the practice that it represents -- the book in some ways seems an afterthought to a series of carefully-crafted experiences for students in this one school -- the intentions of the authors are clear; the book is framed by a moral outrage at the ways in which students of color are disadvantaged by the racism of schooling experiences in the United States. The voices of the students are also vivid. The reader comes to know, and care about, Hamed, the first President of the African Students Association at Jackson High who was born in Liberia but spent nine years living with his grandmother in Guinea while his father settled in the U.S., and about Camara, who came to the U.S. alone from Sudan at age nineteen and needed to pay his own rent and buy his own food as well as try to get an education.


The bulk of the book enumerates challenges that African students face in achieving success in U.S. schools, which are often presented in Hamed’s, Camera’s, and the other students’ own words. In so doing, this research demonstrates “how the American Dream looks from the inside of a racial and ethnic hierarchy that allocates resources and approbation determined by the color of one’s skin and the size of one’s wallet” (p. 71). One of the biggest surprises for African immigrants was the inferior quality of the schools they attended in the U.S. One African student explained:

Schooling was a privilege in their country, and they took it seriously. Teachers had control. Here, some teachers have no control. Students disrupt the class continuously and no teaching, no learning occurs…. America is not all that it was cracked up to be, and they feel deceived (pp. 68-69).  

Myths, misperceptions, and stereotypes about Africa emerge as an additional common challenge shaping African students’ experiences of the United States. African students at Jackson High discussed their frustration with constantly being asked whether they have cars or houses, whether they wear clothes, and whether they live in jungles. Traoré and Lukens thus asked them what they would want Americans to know about them. The most frequent answer was, “‘We are civilized. We respect ourselves and others. We respect our parents and our teachers. We help each other’” (p. 37).  

Traoré and Lukens suggest that educators could use these and other elements of Afrocentricity to help both African immigrants and native-born students to be successful in school and in their future lives. The authors focus on four elements of Afrocentricity: 1) community, 2) the spiritual/material connectedness of all things, 3) a circular understanding of history and time, and 4) the existence and importance of the Creator (p. xxx). With their unique perspectives having taught and lived both in Africa and in the U.S., the authors do not treat Afrocentricity as a theory but as a lived philosophy, a worldview. There is an unexamined assumption present throughout the book that Africans and African Americans necessarily share this worldview, given their shared ancestry (see, for example, p. 113). Despite this questionable assumption, in using a curriculum that respects this worldview, Traoré and Lukens demonstrate that African and African American students can counteract an education system that “appears disinterested or obstructive to their success” (p. 41). The specific intervention the authors developed is not well articulated until the final two chapters of the book and, even then, is short on the details of the activities in which the students were engaged. This section, however, and the resource list in the Appendix, would prove useful for the teachers the authors claim as a primary audience.

This book is the first to focus exclusively on the experiences of African immigrants in U.S. schools and, for this reason, makes an important contribution to the literature on immigrant education. It also illuminates more broadly the issues of educational inequity and culturally non-relevant curriculum that plague urban schools in this country. Traoré’s and Lukens’ principal contribution may be in the reciprocal learning of their intervention that they demonstrate can help to create the kind of environment that enables immigrant and native-born students alike to be in better positions to achieve the educational and economic success they came to the United States seeking.


Dixon, D. (2006). Characteristics of the African born in the United States. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Murray, J., Batalova, J., & Fix, M. (2007). Educating the children of immigrants. In M. Fix (Ed.), Securing the future: US immigrant integration policy (pp. 125-152). Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Traoré, R., & Lukens, R. J. (2006). "This Isn't the America I thought I'd find": African students in the urban U.S. high school. New York: University Press of America, Inc.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 31, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14569, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:05:13 PM

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About the Author
  • Sarah Dryden-Peterson
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    E-mail Author
    SARAH DRYDEN-PETERSON is an advanced doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She conducts research on migration in Uganda, Canada, and the United States with particular interests in local integration of refugees in countries of first asylum and the role of schools in the reception of refugees and immigrants. Her publications have appeared in the Journal of Refugee Studies, Refugee Survey Quarterly, and the International Journal of Education Development. Dryden-Peterson has taught middle school in Boston and founded a non-profit in South Africa.
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