I met black America for the first time in 2005, after three years of living and teaching in America, and one year before I returned to Canada. The long journey to this eventful meeting started in my father’s library in Isanlu, a small town in central Nigeria. I came of age in Nigeria as the locust decades of military despotism and civilian kleptocracy set in, destroying everything including what used to be known as the middle class. This class comprised a proud and hopeful generation that returned home from Cambridge, Oxford, Canterbury, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard in the euphoric 1960s-1970s. After years of colonial humiliation in the hands of the British, a newly independent and proud Nigeria beckoned and this generation answered enthusiastically. “Unity and Progress”, “One Nigeria”, and other such soporific mantras were on their lips as they fanned across the land, taking up jobs in every sector of national life. Those who joined the education sector took up positions in the Universities; some joined High Schools founded and run by Western Christian missions; some others joined public elementary schools all over the country.
Those who accepted teaching positions in rural missionary schools took the now rested culture of the family library with them to our villages. My father belonged in this category. Being more catholic than the pope, he had hurried home from Dundee University in Scotland to be Principal of a Catholic High School in Isanlu. Over the years, as our leadership transformed the Nigerian state into carrion and turned one of the world’s richest geographies into Africa’s most embarrassing atrophy, my siblings and I would blame him to no end for that “ill-considered” decision. “Dad, why couldn’t you just wait for the three of us to be born in the UK before rushing home”? We were in secondary school and could not understand why he denied us British citizenship. For most transnational Nigerians of my generation, the passport of one responsible state in addition to your Nigerian passport, evidence of dual citizenship, is a vital insurance. Whenever the Nigerian state defaults on its responsibilities to you as a citizen, your second citizenship kicks in to save the day. But Dad didn’t wait. He returned to Nigeria with his books and a wife carrying the pregnancy of his first child.
That family library became his most important asset. He continued to expand it till he died in February 2007 and it became my most significant inheritance. I was practically raised in that library. As his last born and only son, there was nothing he enjoyed more than having me spend hours with him there in my formative years. When we weren’t reading, he was giving me long lectures on the value of knowledge, fulminating against the one thing he couldn’t tolerate: “a mind that has not read books”, to put it in his words. And by books he meant “serious books”. Thus, while my secondary school mates enjoyed the delights of ‘soft’ literature – James Hadley Chase, Nick Carter, Frederick Forsyth, and the Macmillan Pace Setters series – I was stuck in my father’s library in the company of “serious writers”. His vigilance, however, could not stop an underground addiction to Hadley Chase! Years later, I discovered the thematic thoroughness of my father’s acquisitions: shelves of West African literature and history led to shelves of South African literature and history which, in turn, yielded to shelves of African American literature and history. Colonialism. Apartheid. Slavery. These were the three great themes that informed his systematic acquisitions in black textual cultures as his library grew to take up two large rooms in the family house. This was the beginning of my ensorcellment by the great texts of the black world. It was in this library that I encountered the names that would plunge me into an intricate web of trajectories and experiences that, years later, Paul Gilroy would make theoretically consumable as the Black Atlantic. From my senior years in secondary school and onward, my father’s library ensured that names like Fredrick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Claude Mckay, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Stokely Carmichael, and Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jnr, and Malcolm X entered my world in that small village in the middle of Nigeria. Whenever Mom complained that some of the stuff was just too high for my level, Dad would quip dismissively that Catholic missionaries had already introduced him to Latin texts at my age!
What University training added to this foundation was to create a transcendental, borderless Black world that privileged color, history, and memory above geography and nation. Thus, apartheid and slavery were also very much ‘our experience’, ‘our property’ in those undergraduate lecture rooms in Nigeria. The curriculum socialized us into treating histories and narratives specific to Black South Africans and African Americans as phatic links to our own major narrative: colonialism. Our Professors created a world of ideological intermeshing in which W.E.B du Bois, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison were as much “our writers” as were Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Ben Okri. Years later, the strictures of disciplinary boundary cutting in North American academe, the exigencies of national identities, and the fractious politics and tensions of intra-Black relations, would unsettle the soporifics of this seamless Black world I brought to the New World from Nigeria.
After completing a doctorate in Canada in 2002, I was hired by Penn State University, the beginning of my American odyssey. State College, Pennsylvania, is one of those typical American college towns where everything revolves around an octopus University. Rich, serene, beautiful, and almost always completely White, many American college towns have an invisible sieve that lets in just the right quota of a certain kind of yellow, brown, and black skin. Just enough dosage of colored skin to enable the authorities to make politically correct noise about diversity and multiculturalism. Strategic tokenism. That certain kind of colored skin is almost always a student or faculty, in essence, already mainstreamed and stabilized as non-threatening to America’s ur-text: whiteness. Thus, my ‘black’ world in Pennsylvania comprised African and African American faculty and students, some of whom became family. Outside of that immediate circle was the broader circle of Nigerian writers and artists of my generation – we all moved to North America in the great hemorrhage of the 1990s. I spent alternate weekends with the writers Ogaga Ifowodo and Akin Adesokan in Ithaca, the painters Victor Ehikhamenor and Victor Ekpuk in Maryland, or the novelists Maik Nwosu and E.C. Osondu in Syracuse. The poet, Obi Nwakanma, made infrequent visits to our axis from his base in Missouri.
In the Spring of 2005, I co-taught a funded graduate seminar in African and African American drama with Professor Charles Dumas, an African American actor-Professor who has featured in a good number of Hollywood films and also makes appearances in the television drama, Law and Order. We had enough grant money to take the entire class to stage productions of Black plays in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. Towards the end of the semester, we got word that an August Wilson play was on at the Yale Repertory theatre. Charles could not come along so I had to drive the entire class of ten white students to New Haven, Connecticut. It didn’t take long into the play before I realized to my horror that I didn’t understand anything the African American actors were saying! Not a word. I strained and stretched my ears to no avail. This was pure Ebonics. The sort of fast-paced Ebonics that always stands between me and one of my favorite comedians, D.L. Hughley. This, however, was my first blood and flesh contact with Ebonics. None of my African American brothers and sisters used it to interact with
me in our cocooned sphere in academia. As my frustration mounted, I had to rely on my students to whisper things to me. What’s he saying? What’s she saying? I kept asking. Then another shocking realization: here was a Black Professor asking his White students to interpret and make sense of Black actors for him! Suddenly, the Atlantic Ocean and the four centuries that stood between the African American and me were no longer the stuff of literature and history books or scholarly discourse. There it was inside that theatre, the tragic separation, requiring the separator to serve as bridge and reconnect what s/he separated! In Yale of all places!
This jolting contact with non-academic, non-mainstreamed African American idiom was only the beginning of a series of events that would take me to Black America, away from the ostracism of academe. Shortly after the incident at Yale, I received an invitation from an old Nigerian friend who had made it to America on a diversity visa lottery and was living on Staten Island, New York. As we hadn’t seen each other in years, I wrote down his address and promised to spend an entire weekend with him. The trouble with mapquest is that it takes you to a specific doorstep without telling you anything about the sociology of the neighborhood. As I approached my friend’s address after a six-hour drive from Pennsylvania, I got an eerie sense of the familiar. Apart from the fact that I was familiar with the ghetto in West Africa and had visited South African townships, years of reading African American writing and watching media stereotypes of the ‘hood’, especially blaxploitation films, had given me a fairly good mental picture of America’s black ghetto. Could my Nigerian friend possibly be living in the ghetto? Everything around me looked very much like the mental image I had of the hood.
My suspicions were confirmed when I pulled up in front of my friend’s huge apartment complex. He was waiting for me in front of the building and rushed to my car as soon as he saw me. We barely exchanged pleasantries before he exclaimed: “you can’t park here. I’ll take you to a friend’s place. You’ll leave your car there and we’ll come back here by bus”. I let him in beside me in front. “What’s the problem?” I asked. “You didn’t tell me you drive a brand new Toyota Camry!” He explained that my car could attract hostility from folks in the neighborhood. I was bewildered and it showed on my face. He explained that the idea of successful continental Africans coming to flaunt their success didn’t always go down well. I got it. I’d read the literature about such areas of tension between continental Africans and the Black community in America.