Narrative is everything. Narrative is powerful. We are living in uncharted times, here in America, let us just call it the spring of discontent, dissent and rage. The rage over the senseless murder of George Floyd by a policeman was a long time coming. To be black in America is to be immersed in a daily conversation, mostly with oneself about race, discrimination, bigotry, microaggressions and the struggle to just make it through the day. There is food, there are good roads, mostly good schools, and services (well, compared to Nigeria) but there is that heavy knee on your neck. And sometimes it kills you.
What does it feel like to be a Nigerian in America? One gets tired of talking about America. To be honest, nothing prepared me for America. I have written several essays on my almost four decades’ sojourn in America and the one I need to write has not been written.
We were middle-class kids thrown into an unfamiliar culture – and familiar spaces of privilege and entitlement. There was an “International House” waiting to welcome us, that doted on us and made sure we were comfortable in the ways we were used to. We were told to avoid certain places because they were just horrible spaces, filled with guns, drugs and violence, there was nothing good or important there. There were all poor black neighborhoods. But then, a certain thing happened. I ventured into those worlds and found a story more complicated and compelling than what our white hosts had told us. No one shot at me, no one stole from me; while it was edgy, as long as you lived by their unwritten code, you were fine. Some of my best friendships and most valuable gifts were birthed at CB Webb Projects. There was a class difference but that did not diminish our shared humanity.
To be clear, growing up in Nigeria, my knowledge of Black America was more complicated and nuanced (perhaps even romanticized and glamorized) than what currently holds among many Nigerians. One of the unintended consequences of the decline of the reading culture is for impressionable minds to be colonized by the single story spewing forth from television. My generation grew up on books, there was little television. There was Angela Davis and the Soledad Brothers, James Baldwin, WEB DuBois, Alex Haley’s Roots, and the whole arts and entertainment culture. We also had African Americans come teach us in high school and in the universities. So, growing up we had a pretty robust impression about African Americans. All that changed when we got here. I found a nation that was drenched in racism, deep to the tips of her every root. Disrespect and loathing were everywhere. Africans joined in the loathing. At OLEMISS, we kept to ourselves and said really mean things about “those people.” In turn, they said mean things about us. The disrespect was mutual. However, on the streets, and in the classrooms, the cops and the professors could not – would not – distinguish between us. We were relentlessly discriminated against.
It is a paradox. When you think of the trauma that was the middle passage, when you think of slavery, freedom and the continuing racism, and you see where African Americans are today, you would have to concede that African Americans are geniuses with an unrelenting spirit. Television and the decline of the reading culture globally have tended to reduce much of humanity to caricatures, with African Americans disproportionately impacted by the new narrative of hurt and humiliation.
Black America is not all about the school-to-prison pipeline, the academic achievement gap, gangs and violence. There is that, but in every sphere of life, the African American has also triumphed. It is interesting, if it were possible to calculate the GDP of Black America as a nation, it would surpass that of any African nation, perhaps with the exception of South Africa. African Americans without question enjoy a better quality of life than the average Nigerian, no question about it. The African American can walk into a hospital and get what is high-quality care compared to what obtains at home, they attend public schools that put to shame even the best school in Nigeria, and for the most part, regardless of what you see on television, you can drive into most of their neighborhoods on good roads and not worry about being kidnapped. When they are talking about their societal challenges, they are not interested in being compared to the relative hell that is Nigeria. They are in America to stay and thrive, and they absolutely are not going to be treated less than human beings, they are demanding to be treated with respect. As an aside, as brutal as the American policeman can be, their excesses pale in contrast to that of the average Nigerian policeman.
What happened to George Floyd is a loud commentary on the value Nigerians and the world place on the Nigerian’s life. One black man is dead in America, and the world erupts. In Nigeria, hundreds are slaughtered for stopping the convoy of a Nigerian general and nothing happens. Our writers actually rely on one of the perpetrators of the genocide to fund their annual literary jamborees. That would not happen in America. You would not dare kill a cat in America and not catch hell for cruelty. My point? Nigerians have a very long way to go before they can be on the same footing as African Americans. To get there, the masses would need to be just as educated, and aware, and be prepared to fight and die for their rights. We have a long way to go.
I have said this before: Also, from my experience, the disrespect between continental Africans and African Americans can often be mutual; indeed it is a symptom of deep-seated anxieties within both groups that play out often when finite resources are discussed. It is not surprising that some of the fiercest proponents of harsh anti-immigration policies are African Americans. There are many rivers that run through our nations and join us with the African American nation, and I am not just talking about the middle passage and slavery. Just like with South Africa and apartheid, Nigerians are continuing victims of the institutional racism that inherited from colonialism. All the institutions that were inherited after Independence were set up to subjugate and oppress Nigerians as second-class citizens – the army, the police, the educational systems, etc. With very little exception they have not been re-tooled to meet the needs of modern-day Nigeria. My point? We have a huge problem back home. Sneering at African Americans will not solve our challenges. We need them more than they need us. It is a failure of leadership.
Finally, Socrates Mbamalu has a good piece on the hypocrisy of Africans who mourn disasters beyond their countries’ physical boundaries. Nigerian intellectuals and writers who cheered the toppling of racist statues in the West should summon the same energy to call for the deletion of evil faces and names from our currencies and airports. Take a knee for massacred Shiites. Nigerians are human, they hurt and bleed.
Ikhide R. Ikheloa is a social commentator and literary critic
This is the first in our series of guest commentaries on “Race & Progress in America: Nigerian Perspectives”