Being African is different from being Black. If you are an African, it means you do not get to know anything about your past, except that you know that your grandmother died due to malnutrition or any of those simple propositions your parents tell you to remind you that you are a product of a particular genealogy through ejaculations. Why is this? History has been excluded from your school curriculum, since the beginning of your primary education, because you are expected to see your ancestors as carcass of what seems to be of value and white men as the originator of what and where you are today. So, you just go to the exam hall and tick the box that says Mungo Park discovered the river Niger, even though when he came to the town, women cooked his meals with water from the same river. However, Mungo Park is white and everything a white man sees he names.
You are African and you don’t get to learn history in school because, today political leaders see themselves as failures. Old people don’t want their young ones to know of their failures. Old men can bear no shame. Yakubu Gowon could not imagine his great-grandchildren learning that he orchestrated the pogrom of Igbo people. Obasanjo, too, could not bear the guilt of relearning that he was a commander of the army that attempted a pogrom. Therefore, here we are, living in the shadows of our fathers fear and for that, we do not get to learn history except if it is the history of America, history of Britain or the history of the transatlantic slave trade as explained from a very Eurocentric perspective by a European.
There are many things I do not understand: How somebody like Donald Trump, despite the pinkish color of his body, fits into the race of whites or how Barack Obama exhibited chocolate all over his body and he still counts as black. Human beings, most times, are wrong when it comes to descriptive analysis. An editor after accepting my poem in a UK based online magazine said I cannot substitute pink for white and they have to edit. I asked them not to publish the poem – they get to define me as black, despite the fact that I might be yellow, but I cannot describe them as pink, even though it is a very subjective opinion, because colonialism makes me unworthy of that. If that is not racial, then I must be too sensitive. Western validation should not be a necessary requirement towards authenticity of being African and African academicians do not care. In 2019, the Oxford Dictionary added some vocabularies and calls it Nigerian English. Nigerian and African academicians will reject a research paper that does not italicize such words like danfo until pink people said,” it is okay, and we’ll let the vulgar word count as English.” That is imperialism and African academicians do not care. Most lecturers if not all, are doing the work to feed their families and not because they have a major interest in changing the face of Africa educational system which is majorly westernized.
Being African is quite eccentric. You don’t get to get annoyed with your past because you don’t know it. Africans will not have time for race discussion because there is no time. The little time Africans have, they have a lot to fight already: bad roads, epileptic electricity, no salary, corruption, sex trafficking, climate change, bad leaders, terrorism, the other person at the neighborhood who they don’t like because he/she just bought a car, patriarchy, poor water, poor healthcare… among others. So, talking about racism, with all these problems, is quite subtle. Neglect, therefore, becomes Africans ally when it comes to issues related to race.
The character Ifemelu, in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s sublime novel “Americanah” tells a lot about Africans and race. Ifemelu does not identify as black, but just African, when she is in Nigeria. It is until she gets to the United States of America that she realizes that there are boundaries to one’s personhood. Being African is different from being Black. Being African means that you live in a geographical place marked as Africa or furthermore, you came from the continent but you now live somewhere else, though your grassroots are from Africa. That is what makes you count as African and even though your British accent is fluent and you barely know that in your mother’s town, they speak another language different from English, you count as African. So of course, African is different from being Black. Egyptian, Libyan and Algerian folks will rebuke the attribute of being Black because the Arabs have systematically eradicated the Black community from the social and political scene, albeit retaining them in the economic –labour- scene. Blacks in those countries now serve at the back stage curtain. Chimamanda Adichie emphasized the strangeness of transforming one’s personhood from being African into Black through Ifemelu in one of her blog posts:
Dear non-American Blacks, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican, Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
With those lines above, Adichie systematically appraised the fact that anywhere you come from in Africa, when you get to America or Europe or any country that is dominated by pink (conventionally called white) people, for the pink people you have no longer any heritage that qualifies you as African. You have been initiated into the class of former Negroes, as Adichie stated. Because for white people, it is a privilege that you get to be in their country; to enjoy all the luxuries of their good government, who albeit, corrupt and poke-nose in other countries’ affairs, yet, still take good care of their citizen’s welfare, unlike the government of African countries, that all they do is steal and launder money abroad. African leaders are not concerned about a lot: epileptic electricity is never an issue for them to tackle; bad road is normal since they get to travel in luxury cars. In Nigeria, the country in which I am writing this essay, people no longer buy newspapers; the problem is everywhere for them to see: if you turn your face to the right side, you will see bad-roads, turn it to the left you will see a senator sharing radio for members of his constituency. Despite all these socio-political absurdities, Africans, due to insensitivity, are yet to develop resentments, excluding few who read books out of school curriculums.
The facets of racism in white dominated countries are so large. Providing justification for this assertion, former Nigerian Football Star, Jay Jay Okocha, said, “I do not know I was black until I got to Germany.”
Africans do not talk about race, Blacks do.
It is easy to identify, as an African, and then Black if you live in Africa. One does not get conscious of the self as black until one gets to America or Europe. This is because Africans don’t care about race. Even though Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a negation of another story that attributes Africans as irrational, and Wole Soyinka’s poem Telephone Conversation is another, we opt to know that these writers were not conscious of their Blackness until they came into acquaintance with white supremacy and how it diminishes being Black. In other words, their reaction to racism was not born through intuition but through acquaintance with Race.
This is the simple reason Blacks talk about race but Africans do not: when the p.m. news was reported, and you are in the living room with your white folks drinking beer, and the broadcaster starts reading a report about a crime, you start murmuring prayers that the person is not Black. Because one of the folks in the room, while trekking back from school to your apartment, said most Blacks in America are into drug trafficking and you’d tongue-lash him for not knowing much but saying too much. Now, he might just prove his proposition with just one premise.
Another reason Blacks talk about race is while walking to the first-class section in a plane, white folks are looking at her like hey, girl, you actually don’t know where you are walking to, right?” And when she tells her white friends about it all they say is racism is no more and it is because of too much sensitivity that makes you think people, especially white folks, are watching you when you walk to the first-class section.”
You will think you are just an African, but you will transmit from being African to being black when you travel to a white dominant country who psychologically initiates you to the class of former Negroes. So, please, after transmitting to black, while walking in pedestrian areas, don’t pocket your hands. A cop might have a reason to blow your brain cortex with a pistol. And (s)he will have justifications. Justifications like self-defense. Some white cops may think you were bringing out a gun when they say, show me your hands. Pink people expect every Black person to be a rogue.
Idowu Odeyemi is a Nigerian poet and essayist. He is the winner of the 2019 Merak Magazine Annual Recognition Literary Awards for Poem of the Year. He was shortlisted for the 2018 Nigerian Students Poetry Prize, and the Christopher Okigbo InterUniversity Poetry Prize.