Notes on blackness - A Nigerian perspective
Updated: Jun 4, 2020
I wasn’t born black. I wasn’t black till I was 17. Before I was 17, Nigeria was my world. Nigeria was my life. It wasn’t that I was ignorant of race, it was just that it didn’t matter. We were all bound by a level of sameness that made identifying as black useless. Those who were not like us were regarded with a degree of awe. They had an air of mystery that we lacked. They were pale, or cappuccino coloured and they were beautiful in their lightness, but their beauty wasn’t singular. We were beautiful too but in a different way; in a more familiar way.
I only became black when I was 17 and I moved away to Cheltenham for school. I embraced my blackness then because I had no other label to hold on to. I needed to be identified as something. I didn’t want their eyes to question what I was when they looked at me. I wanted them to know that there were others like me. But I wasn’t the black they knew, or rather the black they expected. They didn’t know enough about my brand of blackness to interact with it. They would say to me with the lights of humour dancing in their eyes, “I’m going to whoop that black ass.” They always said this in the typical African American accent, and I always laughed. They imagined this to be familiar to me, they didn’t realize that it was as familiar to me as it was to them. We had both learned about that black by watching television.
They told racist jokes that emphasized stereotypes that I was vaguely aware of, like the one where a man sees his television floating in mid air on a dark night and shouts, “drop it nigger”. They didn’t understand that where I’m from the policeman and the thief and the owner of the television would all be niggers. They toyed with the word nigger around me to see how I would take it. To see whether or not I’d get mad and raise hell. I could feel their surprise when I didn’t. They couldn’t see that the word "nigger" has no power over me. They didn’t understand that in a world where everyone is a “nigger”, there is no reason to call anyone a “nigger”. The history of the word hadn’t embedded itself in my DNA.
After watching Blood Diamond they would say, “Where is the diamond?” in a Sierra Leonian accent that always sounded more South African than anything. I would look at them and smile. I wasn’t that sort of black either. My history had nothing to do with diamonds or the lack of them. They told me they were going volunteering in Uganda and Tanzania, and I nodded. That too wasn’t my sort of black. It did not strike a chord of perceived kinship. I didn’t think, “Well done Tom, or Charlie or Jimmy it’s so good of you to spend the summer plastering walls and teaching English to those that are so like me”. Them going volunteering in Africa, was the same to me as them going volunteering in America or Iceland or Greece. I went to a thirty thousand pound a year school. While it is true that my parents, my father specifically, only had to pay 85% of that amount because my performance in the entrance exam was awarded with a 15% discount, I didn’t get the endowment because I needed it. My family has been blessed with sufficient enough good fortune and privilege that cost has never been an issue.* I would never need their charity. I had more in common with them than I did with the “poor” African children who needed their help.
Then they would say, “We had a Nigerian here a few years ago. His father was a minister. He was minted, loaded, absolutely swimming in it.” I would nod and ask his name even though I knew that I may not know who the person was. They imagined my situation to be like his; that we swam in the same pools of petro-dollars and government contracts and fifty pound notes. They did not know that I too, looked at the Ministers and their families and questioned their excess. They soon learned that my father is only an accountant, with a tax trail that cannot possibly boast of any irregularities.
Everything else they learned, I did not say. I did not say because there was never any need to. They got to know me, the way only those that live together can come to know one another. They knew that after placing a few bad bets on some horses at the races, I couldn’t go to town for the rest of the month. They knew that I had other black Nigerian friends, and that I didn’t call them nigger. Living with them and saying nothing was perhaps even more effective than explaining every misconception they had for I am confident that by the time we left, they knew my kind of black and they understood that I wasn’t alone.
Correction made on the 4th of June 2020. An explanation for the correction is available here: https://www.theroam.me/post/a-retraction-notes-on-blackness-a-nigerian-perspective