The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said that she did not realize she was black until she came to America. That is a pretty dramatic way of telling the truth. When I came to Oxford, Mississippi from Nigeria in the early 80’s to attend the University of Mississippi (OLEMISS), I knew I was black—but my notion of blackness was very different from what it meant to be black in America, certainly in OLEMISS. Come to think of it, I had no idea what I was doing when I accepted a place at OLEMISS in 1982. I came to a place that seemed hostile to black folks, and by the time I realized what I had done, I was too broke to leave the place. I was miserable.
I was not the only one miserable. I found out that OLEMISS was smack in the middle of America’s anxieties about race. I read about a man, James Meredith, whose crime apparently was that he was black and therefore ineligible to be in a classroom with whites—real human beings—or so said the Mississippi authorities, just 20 years before I entered the school. The federal government disagreed, and military guards escorted Meredith into OLEMISS over the objections and dead bodies of racists. For a long time I kept thinking, I should never have come here. I kept remembering their admissions catalog in our library in Nigeria, and that catchy phrase: “OLEMISS! Come get the spirit!” I got the spirit alright—of racism and the restlessness of change.
I had just come from a homogenous society; we were all black, we just didn’t obsess about it.
In the spring of 1982, John Hawkins had just been made the first black cheerleader at OLEMISS. In the summer, just as I was getting there, the young man announced that he would not be carrying the Confederate flag during games. That heresy caused an uproar of immense proportions. I thought I had come to a very unstable place waiting to blow up in a conflagration of riots. I did not understand what the big deal was, and why this young man would not carry the flag. I lived across from the football stadium and suddenly we began to see the Confederate flag everywhere during football games. As a young man, it was a dawning—I began to understand the waving of the flag as a fiery and picturesque act of defiance, of privilege and entitlement. I began to appreciate the power of visual images, of words, in shaping harmony and discord. Hawkins stayed on the cheerleading squad but he did not carry the flag. We were all miserable.
I had just come from a homogenous society; we were all black, we just didn’t obsess about it. There were other prejudices. Ethnic cleansing was a deadly weapon of choice in times of communal anxiety, and as a member of a minority ethnic group I had suffered the occasional indignity of an ethnic slur hurled at me, a constant othering when I was in the wrong neighborhood. But OLEMISS was different. Before coming to America I had read quite a bit about the civil rights struggle, and developed a huge crush on the warrior Angela Davis. But nothing prepared me for America—nothing. As a little boy in Nigeria, I had seen a little bit of my country’s civil war, I had endured five years of Catholic boarding school in the hands of Irish priests, both were equally terrifying. But America was something totally different. I remember my first car, a rickety 1976 Ford Maverick with a good chunk of the floor rusted off that I bought for the princely sum of $200. I remembered it primarily because this one day I was coming from a date at about 2:00 am when on Fraternity Row I saw members of the Ku Klux Klan in their white robes gamboling on the lawn of a fraternity house, holding aloft the confederate flag. My car’s engine shuddered and I almost wet my pants at the thought that this jalopy of mine would break down in front of the house. It did not.
I remember that the beer was weak. I missed the beer of my old country. I missed being a human being in my old country.
In my graduate class at OLEMISS, a group of perhaps 20 or 25, I was the only black student; in a perverse way, that had its perks. The white kids seemed to take pleasure in treating me like some sort of mascot. I am not sure if it was because I was an international student with a certain accent and weird stories, or simply that I was black, or some combination of the two. They took me everywhere and I met even more white kids, and every now and then in a pub, a drunken kid would start some off-color racist joke. We would move on to the next pub. There was never a shortage of jerks willing to cross the racial line with slurs and insults. I remember that the beer was weak. I missed the beer of my old country. I missed being a human being in my old country. It was easier to be black back there.
Once, in an introductory management course I was taking, the white lecturer actually sidled up to me and said he was worried about my chances of academic success; according to him each time he saw me he was reminded of a disabled person in a wheelchair who needed a specialized ramp. That horrid statement has stayed with me all those years. Words are powerful. Until he told me that, I’d always felt sorry for him. His lectures were long rambling affairs, he didn’t seem very bright, and I always marveled at America for giving everybody a fair shot at anything.
When my drop-dead gorgeous daughter came home from school one day and told me that a white boy in her class had been making monkey noises at her, I died a thousand deaths.
My first real girlfriend was from CB Webb. A thousand soldiers could not have kept me away from her; I stayed in her townhouse most days along with her two daughters from two different men. She was pretty, church-going and ambitious. CB Webb was an enchanting place. I made friends at CB Webb with strange men who would take my car for days and return it with gas in the tank and all things broken in her fixed. We lived in a semi-dry county, which meant that no alcohol was sold on Sundays. At night on Sundays we would go to the bootlegger’s joint and buy dime bags and cans of beer, the bootlegger’s gun always visible to encourage us to behave. The day the welfare checks came was always something; there was a festive air and people seemed to celebrate life for a few days, and then there was the waiting. I did not understand these people who looked like me but did little I could relate to, except for their kindness and generosity. I am still here; they did not kill me. Class and race have always occupied an uneasy, colorful junction.
Many people of color will tell you privately that they avoid stores in certain neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are not white. This is not all about self-loathing: life is just too short to be miserable.
The legacy of racism has produced dysfunctions that go beyond white-on-black prejudice. Many times it just seems to me that as people of color, we have programmed ourselves to think the worst of each other. The shabbiest treatments I have ever gotten in businesses and institutions have been in the hands of people of color. My wife once sent me to a retail store to return goods she no longer needed – complete with receipt. I went there with my daughters and still dressed in my suit and tie. The manager of the retail store, an African American, accused me of trying to return goods I had previously shoplifted. By the time she found she’d made a horrible mistake, it was too late; many patrons had witnessed her berating me as a shoplifter. In the end, I told her that I hope from now on, whenever she sees a black man in a suit, she will remember that day when she encountered a brother and she saw a loser. Many people of color will tell you privately that they avoid stores in certain neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are not white. This is not all about self-loathing: life is just too short to be miserable.
The new racism is insidious. Like carbon monoxide it has no smell but it is even deadlier than conventional racism because the victim doesn’t see it coming. You learn to feel it and absorb the blows. I look in the eyes of many white folks and their eyes don’t lie. Their eyes say, here comes a dumb nigger. When my drop-dead gorgeous daughter came home from school one day, laughing as she always does when she is stressed, she told me that a white boy in her class had been making monkey noises at her, I died a thousand deaths. There is no reason for this. Our God is a narcissist, a drama queen.
After three decades of living in America, I find that racism lives rent-free in my head. I am always having these conversations with myself—about race and racism. I am wary of authorities and confrontations—indeed, of most interactions. And, like many African American men, I can narrate plenty of anecdotes in which I have endured indignities at the hands of police. And of course each person of color could write a thesis on racism in the workplace, it is deeply felt and personal.
It’s now commonplace in American workplaces to have discussions about race and equity—these are too often one-dimensional, a lot of psychobabble about white and black relationships. Here is the thing though—many of those complaining would not be where we are without the mentoring and support of many white people. In my case, I have often thought it a supreme irony that those white folks who befriended and mentored me when it was not fashionable to do so, are often seated in the room looking sheepish as I join my fellow black victims narrating the ills of racism and their injurious effects on us. It is complicated. Things are not as black and white as they used to be. It is useful to have conversations about race in the workplace, but we need a different mindset, one that doesn’t presume—wittingly or unwittingly—that white folks are atop this pedestal, avuncular and always patronizing and racist. Many times racism and prejudice travel both directions.
It bears repeating: Most conversations about racism I have witnessed tend to proceed with the white person at the head of the table, listening with rapt attention and real or feigned empathy as the brown person goes on and on about racism, white privilege, entitlements. My theory is that it is a comfortable place to be, sitting on this avuncular throne, dispensing favors and muttering apologies.
If I harbor pleasant memories about OLEMISS (I do actually) it is because I was befriended by a white couple who eventually took me in, folks I call my parents to this day. I don’t remember overt conversations about race; they wanted to talk about a lot of things, mostly banal: books, children, their postage stamp collection, train sets and computers. I often wondered about their political affiliation but I never prodded, I was too happy enjoying the generosity and compassion of this nurturing couple. One day in 2008, during the presidential campaign, I was visiting them in the South where they still live and John McCain came on television. My “dad,” in his late seventies at the time, listened intently and muttered to himself, “I guess I’ll be voting for the young man,” got up and went to the bathroom. Maybe Obama reminded him of me, his son. Life is complicated like that.
I am in my middle passage now; the America that I met in 1982 is no longer the same. America is at war now more than ever and brown people and their nations are at the receiving end of that war. We are the butt of America’s anxieties. One takes it in stride. I was coming from San Diego to Washington DC the day after the Boston bombings, the airport on high alert. As I made my way to the boarding gate, along with my white companion, a young warrior in battle fatigues and her dog approached me. The dog reared up and sniffed me aggressively. Me, an aging man in his mid-passage, America sees me and sees a warrior. After all these years, I’ve still got it. Satisfied that I was not a threat, they let me go. Flattered, I swaggered off, proud warrior.