“This is like poetry” -Obinze

“This is like poetry” -Obinze

It is morning. A truck, a government truck, stops near the tall office building, beside the hawkers’ shacks, and men spill out, men hitting and destroying and leveling and trampling. They destroy the shacks, reduce them to flat pieces of wood. They are doing their job, wearing “demolish” like crisp business suits. They themselves eat in shacks like these, and if all the shacks like these disappeared in Lagos, they will go lunchless, unable to afford anything else. But they are smashing, trampling, hitting. One of them slaps a woman, because she does not grab her pot and her wares and run. She stands there and tries to talk to them. Later, her face is burning from the slap as she watches her biscuits buried in dust. Her eyes trace a line towards the bleak sky. She does not know yet what she will do but she will do something, she will regroup and recoup and go somewhere else and sell her beans and rice and spaghetti cooked to a near mush, her Coke and sweets and biscuits.

It is evening. Outside the tall office building, daylight is fading and the staff buses are waiting. Women walk up to them, wearing flat slippers and telling slow stories of no consequence. Their high-heeled shoes are in their bags. From one woman’s unzipped bag, a heel sticks out like a dull dagger. The men walk more quickly to the buses. They walk under a cluster of trees which, only hours ago, housed the livelihoods of food hawkers. There, drivers and messengers bought their lunch. But now the shacks are gone. They are erased, and nothing is left, not a stray biscuit wrapper, not a bottle that once held water, nothing to suggest that they were once there.

(Americanah, page 584)

The Expensive Lifestyles of Some Young Women in Lagos

The Expensive Lifestyles of Some Young Women in Lagos

There are many young women in Lagos with Unknown Sources of Wealth. They live lives they can’t afford. They have only ever traveled business class to Europe but have jobs that can’t even afford them a regular flight ticket. One of them is my friend, a beautiful, brilliant woman who works in advertising. She lives on The Island and is dating a big man banker. I worry that she will end up like many women in Lagos who define their lives by men they can never truly have, crippled by their culture of dependence, with desperation in their eyes and designer handbags on their wrists.

(Americanah, page 521)

The Nigerpolitan Club

The Nigerpolitan Club

Lagos has never been, will never be, and has never aspired to be like New York, or anywhere else for that matter. Lagos has always been indisputably itself, but you would not know this at the meeting of the Nigerpolitan Club, a group of young returnees who gather every week to moan about the many ways that Lagos is not like New York as though Lagos had ever been close to being like New York. Full disclosure: I am one of them. Most of us have come back to make money in Nigeria, to start businesses, to seek government contracts and contacts. Others have come with dreams in their pockets and a hunger to change the country, but we spend all our time complaining about Nigeria, and even though our complaints are legitimate, I imagine myself as an outsider saying: Go back where you came from! If your cook cannot make the perfect panini, it is not because he is stupid. It is because Nigeria is not a nation of sandwich-eating people and his last oga did not eat bread in the afternoon. So he needs training and practice. And Nigeria is not a nation of people with food allergies, not a nation of picky eaters for whom food is about distinctions and separations. It is a nation of people who eat beef and chicken and cow skin and intestines and dried fish in a single bowl of soup, and it is called assorted, and so get over yourselves and realize that the way of life here is just that, assorted.

(Americanah, page 519)

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend

One great gift for the Zipped-Up Negro is The White Friend Who Gets It. Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that white friend who you don’t need to explain shit to. By all means, put this friend to work. Such friends not only get it, but also have great bullshit-detectors and so they totally understand that they can say stuff that you can’t. So there is, in much of America, a stealthy little notion lying in the hearts of many: that white people earned their place at jobs and school while black people got in because they were black. But in fact, since the beginning of America, white people have been getting jobs because they are white. Many whites with the same qualifications but Negro skin would not have the jobs they have. But don’t ever say this publicly. Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card.” Nobody quite knows what this means.

When my father was in school in my NAB country, many American Blacks could not vote or go to good schools. The reason? Their skin color. Skin color alone was the problem. Today, many Americans say that skin color cannot be part of the solution. Otherwise it is referred to as a curiosity called “reverse racism.” Have your white friend point out how the American Black deal is kind of like you’ve been unjustly imprisoned for many years, then all of a sudden you’re set free, but you get no bus fare. And, by the way, you and the guy who imprisoned you are now automatically equal. If the “slavery was so long ago” thing comes up, have your white friend say that lots of white folks are still inheriting money that their families made a hundred years ago. So if that legacy lives, why not the legacy of slavery? And have your white friend say how funny it is, that American pollsters ask white and black people if racism is over. White people in general say it is over and black people in general say it is not. Funny indeed. More suggestions for what you should have your white friend say? Please post away. And here’s to all the white friends who get it.

(Americanah, page 448)

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: A Few Explanations of What Things Really Mean

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: A Few Explanations of What Things Really Mean

1. Of all their tribalisms, Americans are most uncomfortable with race. If you are having a conversation with an American, and you want to discuss something racial that you find interesting, and the American says, “Oh, it’s simplistic to say it’s race, racism is so complex,” it means they just want you to shut up already. Because of course racism is complex. Many abolitionists wanted to free the slaves but didn’t want black people living nearby. Lots of folk today don’t mind a black nanny or black limo driver. But they sure as hell mind a black boss. What is simplistic is saying “It’s so complex.” But shut up anyway, especially if you need a job/favor from the American in question.

2. Diversity means different things to different folks. If a white person is saying a neighborhood is diverse, they mean nine percent black people. (The minute it gets to ten percent black people, the white folks move out.) If a black person says diverse neighborhood, they are thinking forty percent black.

3. Sometimes they say “culture” when they mean race. They say a film is “mainstream” when they mean “white folks like it or made it.” When they say “urban” it means black and poor and possibly dangerous and potentially exciting. “Racially charged” means we are uncomfortable saying “racist.”

(Americanah, page 435)

What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non-White

What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non-White


“What’s the matter?

It’s the same distance!”

So this guy said to Professor Hunk, “White privilege is nonsense. How can I be privileged? I grew up fucking poor in West Virginia. I’m an Appalachian hick. My family is on welfare.” Right. But privilege is always relative to something else. Now imagine someone like him, as poor and as fucked up, and then make that person black. If both are caught for drug possession, say, the white guy is more likely to be sent to treatment and the black guy is more likely to be sent to jail. Everything else the same except for race. Check the stats. The Appalachian hick guy is fucked up, which is not cool, but if he were black, he’d be fucked up plus. He also said to Professor Hunk: Why must we always talk about race anyway? Can’t we just be human beings? And Professor Hunk replied—that is exactly what white privilege is, that you can say that. Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier. Black folks don’t have that choice. The black guy on the street in New York doesn’t want to think about race, until he tries to hail a cab, and he doesn’t want to think about race when he’s driving his Mercedes under the speed limit, until a cop pulls him over. So Appalachian hick guy doesn’t have class privilege but he sure as hell has race privilege. What do you think? Weigh in, readers, and share your experiences, especially if you are non-black.

PS—Professor Hunk just suggested I post this, a test for White Privilege, copyright a pretty cool womancalled Peggy McIntosh. If you answer mostly no, then congratulations, you have white privilege. What’s the point of this you ask? Seriously? I have no idea. I guess it’s just good to know. So you can gloat from time to time, lift you up when you’re depressed, that sort of thing. So here goes:

When you want to join a prestigious social club, do you wonder if your race will make it difficult for you to join?

When you go shopping alone at a nice store, do you worry that you will be followed or harassed?

When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another race?

Do you worry that your children will not have books and school materials that are about people of their own race?

When you apply for a bank loan, do you worry that, because of your race, you might be seen as financially unreliable?

If you swear, or dress shabbily, do you think that people might say this is because of the bad morals or the poverty or the illiteracy of your race?

If you do well in a situation, do you expect to be called a credit to your race? Or to be described as “different” from the majority of your race?

If you criticize the government, do you worry that you might be seen as a cultural outsider? Or that you might be asked to “go back to X,” X being somewhere not in America?

If you receive poor service in a nice store and ask to see “the person in charge,” do you expect that this person will be a person of another race?

If a traffic cop pulls you over, do you wonder if it is because of your race?

If you take a job with an Affirmative Action employer, do you worry that your co-workers will think you are unqualified and were hired only because of your race?

If you want to move to a nice neighborhood, do you worry that you might not be welcome because of your race?

If you need legal or medical help, do you worry that your race might work against you?

When you use the “nude” color of underwear and Band-Aids, do you already know that it will not match your skin?

(Americanah, page 429)

Is Obama Anything But Black?

Is Obama Anything But Black?

So lots of folk—mostly non-black—say Obama’s not black, he’s biracial, multiracial, black-and-white, anything but just black. Because his mother was white. But race is not biology; race is sociology. Race is not genotype; race is phenotype. Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look. Not about the blood you have. It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair. Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass had white fathers. Imagine them saying they were not black.

Imagine Obama, skin the color of a toasted almond, hair kinky, saying to a census worker—I’m kind of white. Sure you are, she’ll say. Many American Blacks have a white person in their ancestry, because white slave owners liked to go a-raping in the slave quarters at night. But if you come out looking dark, that’s it. (So if you are that blond, blue-eyed woman who says “My grandfather was Native American and I get discrimination too” when black folk are talking about shit, please stop it already.) In America, you don’t get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you. Barack Obama, looking as he does, would have had to sit in the back of the bus fifty years ago. If a random black guy commits a crime today, Barack Obama could be stopped and questioned for fitting the profile. And what would that profile be? “Black Man.”

(Americanah, page 419)

Traveling While Black

Traveling While Black

A friend of a friend, a cool AB with tons of money, is writing a book called Traveling While Black. Not just black, he says, but recognizably black because there’s all kinds of black and no offense but he doesn’t mean those black folk who look Puerto Rican or Brazilian or whatever, he means recognizably black. Because the world treats you differently. So here’s what he says: “I got the idea for the book in Egypt. So I get to Cairo and this Egyptian Arab guy calls me a black barbarian. I’m like, hey, this is supposed to be Africa! So I started thinking about other parts of the world and what it would be like to travel there if you’re black. I’m as black as they get. White folk in the South today would look at me and think there goes a big black buck. They tell you in the guidebooks what to expect if you’re gay or if you’re a woman. Hell, they need to do it for if you’re recognizably black. Let traveling black folk know what the deal is. It’s not like anybody is going to shoot you but it’s great to know where to expect that people will stare at you. In the German Black Forest, it’s pretty hostile staring. In Tokyo and Istanbul, everyone was cool and indifferent. In Shanghai the staring was intense, in Delhi it was nasty. I thought, ‘Hey, aren’t we kind of in this together? You know, people of color and all?’ I’d been reading that Brazil is the race mecca and I go to Rio and nobody looks like me in the nice restaurants and the nice hotels. People act funny when I’m walking to the first-class line at the airport. Kind of nice funny, like you’re making a mistake, you can’t look like that and fly first class. I go to Mexico and they’re staring at me. It’s not hostile at all, but it just makes you know you stick out, kind of like they like you but you’re still King Kong.” And at this point my Professor Hunk says, “Latin America as a whole has a really complicated relationship with blackness, which is overshadowed by that whole ‘we are all mestizo’ story that they tell themselves. Mexico isn’t as bad as places like Guatemala and Peru, where the white privilege is so much more overt, but then those countries have a much more sizable black population.” And then another friend says, “Native blacks are always treated worse than non-native blacks everywhere in the world. My friend who was born and raised in France of Togolese parents pretends to be Anglophone when she goes shopping in Paris, because the shop attendants are nicer to black people who don’t speak French. Just like American Blacks get a lot of respect in African countries.” Thoughts? Please post your own Traveling Tales.

(Americanah, page 410)

Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness

Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness

Dear American Non-Black, if an American Black person is telling you about an experience about being black, please do not eagerly bring up examples from your own life. Don’t say “It’s just like when I …” You have suffered. Everyone in the world has suffered. But you have not suffered precisely because you are an American Black. Don’t be quick to find alternative explanations for what happened. Don’t say “Oh, it’s not really race, it’s class. Oh, it’s not race, it’s gender. Oh, it’s not race, it’s the cookie monster.” You see, American Blacks actually don’t WANT it to be race. They would rather not have racist shit happen. So maybe when they say something is about race, it’s maybe because it actually is? Don’t say “I’m color-blind,” because if you are color-blind, then you need to see a doctor and it means that when a black man is shown on TV as a crime suspect in your neighborhood, all you see is a blurry purplish-grayish-creamish figure. Don’t say “We’re tired of talking about race” or “The only race is the human race.” American Blacks, too, are tired of talking about race. They wish they didn’t have to. But shit keeps happening. Don’t preface your response with “One of my best friends is black” because it makes no difference and nobody cares and you can have a black best friend and still do racist shit and it’s probably not true anyway, the “best” part, not the “friend” part. Don’t say your grandfather was Mexican so you can’t be racist (please click here for more on There Is No United League of the Oppressed). Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparents’ suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don’t say it’s just like antisemitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews, there is also the possibility of envy—they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews—and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American Blacks, there is no possibility of envy—they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks. Don’t say “Oh, racism is over, slavery was so long ago.” We are talking about problems from the 1960s, not the 1860s. If you meet an elderly American black man from Alabama, he probably remembers when he had to step off the curb because a white person was walking past. I bought a dress from a vintage shop on eBay the other day, made in 1960, in perfect shape, and I wear it a lot. When the original owner wore it, black Americans could not vote because they were black. (And maybe the original owner was one of those women, in the famous sepia photographs, standing by in hordes outside schools shouting “Ape!” at young black children because they did not want them to go to school with their young white children. Where are those women now? Do they sleep well? Do they think about shouting “Ape”?) Finally, don’t put on a Let’s Be Fair tone and say “But black people are racist too.” Because of course we’re all prejudiced (I can’t even stand some of my blood relatives, grasping, selfish folks), but racism is about the power of a group and in America it’s white folks who have that power. How? Well, white folks don’t get treated like shit in upper-class African-American communities and white folks don’t get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don’t give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don’t stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don’t choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don’t tell white kids that they’re not smart enough to be doctors and black politicians don’t try some tricks to reduce the voting power of white folks through gerrymandering and advertising agencies don’t say they can’t use white models to advertise glamorous products because they are not considered “aspirational” by the “mainstream.”

So after this listing of don’ts, what’s the do? I’m not sure. Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.

(Americanah, page 403)