Read Part 1 Here
Photo of a young Yoruba Nigerian boy heading to a church service with his family.
In my last article, I shared a series of interesting facts and figures about Nigeria to highlight how the country is so significant at this moment in history. But, my interest in Nigeria runs much deeper than statistics and headlines. My connection to this African nation is a very personal one.
During my freshman year of college, I was granted the much-coveted permission from the Dean to live off-campus, which was located in Illinois farm country. My father called the African-American Episcopal Church nearest to the college and got a lead on rooms being let out in a big old house. The owner was an elderly African-American woman. Her son, who was the de facto manager but did not live in the house, was the only Black police officer on the college campus. A more constant authority figure in the house was a grumpy, late-middle-aged, Black chef, who worked at one of the few upscale restaurants in the town. He was so secretive about his craft that he would season the food he cooked in our shared kitchen only when he was alone behind the closed kitchen door. So, we ended up with a Black grandma and a Black cop as the landlords and a curmudgeon cook as an informal RA.
The remaining non-student in the house was a thirty-something Viet Nam veteran, who was earning beaucoup cash working overtime by “scabbing” as a dishwasher on campus. This required his walking through picket lines twice a day, where he might be spat on, pushed, or jabbed. He would spend his nights drinking until he passed out in the corridor or on the couch in the communal TV room. In either location he would spend the night in flashbacks and nightmares, fitfully fighting the Viet Cong. It was in dealing with our resident Viet Nam Vet that the owner’s son had to occasionally employ his police training, but he did this unfailingly without an injury or an arrest.
The student residents ended up being quite a motley crew. All but one of the crew was Black. There was an Indian student who was darker than most of us, for which we awarded him an honorary BS, that is Honorary Black Status. We were mocking the honorary White status that was then officially granted by apartheid South Africa to some East Asians and, more rarely, to diplomates from other countries in Africa. Our honorary BS had smelled and seen meat cooking for the first time in his life during a lay-over in London. He had imagined himself to be happily on his way to a college located in a farming area, which was the land of milk, honey, corn and soybeans, the perfect place for a vegetarian. The sights and smells at the airport caused him to almost pass out from nausea. He had no idea that by choosing our particular rooming house he was consigning himself to a two-semester purgatory redolent of fried pork chops, vaporized bacon grease, and a constant background effluvium of charred ground beef.
Another student had no hope of earning an honorary BS. He was an extroverted, athletic American boy, the kind of brawny White kid we used to call “corn fed” because of their bull-like physique and mental attitude. He had probably found his way to this house like the rest of us, by looking for the cheapest place close to campus that had hot water and a kitchen. He was well-liked, because he never seemed to notice that he was the outlier, and he never broke off his constant stream of talk about sports and sexy women, even when someone (and it was often enough him) said something racially or ethnically offensive. He washed his own dishes and pans, which added to his being held in good standing as a Dear Brother.
Of course I was there too, a born again, adolescent conversion Pentecostal, still sizzling with prophesy and the gift of tongues, and fighting hard to knock down the baby fat that was now late-teen fat. The only other identified Christian in the house was a Nigerian. He was excruciatingly polite and unassertive and had a sad and soulful countenance. We became close companions, largely due to the other house members satirizing our piety far more beyond its merit–at least in my case—and their incessant volleys of temptations aimed at causing us to break one or more of our many prohibitions.
It was the fall of 1969, only four months from the endgame of the Nigerian Civil War. Nigeria was a place I had known about before only through magazine photographs and TV news clips of the war, most of them showing emaciated, starving Biafran children. At that time I met my Nigerian housemate, I couldn’t differentiate these Biafran children, who were victims of a man-made famine, from starving Ethiopian children, who were victims of famine brought on by drought. Like most African-Americans, my ideas about Africans consisted of legends about Africa’s glorious past, which brought on pride; contrasting images of the cruel capture of slaves, which brought on anger and shame; and the very frequent irritations and resentments caused by racist depictions of Africans in popular media–like Tarzan movies and Disney cartoons–which were only slightly more slanderous than the views I was very soon to be subjected to in lectures by my Western Civilization professor.
My Nigerian housemate introduced me to most of the Nigerians on campus, including several from the renegade Biafra tribe that had suffered so much and were so enterprising that they were sometimes called the Jews of Nigeria. At the start of my junior year, one of these Nigerian friends, who also happened to be the president of the African Students Association, offered to share an apartment with me. So it ended up that three-quarters of my undergraduate college years was something of semi-immersion learning experience with Nigerians and other Africans. I soon learned that Africa and Africans were very different from the ideas fostered by my ethnic romanticism and feelings of racial solidarity. I also found out that Nigerians were amazingly diverse, and their country was one of profound complexity and sharp contrasts.
A year after my graduation, I traveled to Nigeria to observe and write. Specifically I was intrigued by Africanisms, the term coined by anthropologist Melville Herskovits for African cultural traits that have translated to the Americas. Herskovits book “The Myth of the Negro Past” (1941) was one of the first among White academics to reject the idea that African-Americans had lost all significant African cultural characteristics and social practices during slavery and subsequent life in the United States. By the early 1970’s, Africanisms in cultural and social practices were well understood by anyone who cared to read the history and anthropology. I was interested more specifically in what Africans and African-Americans shared or could share in the areas of literature and intellectual productions more generally. I lived in Nigeria for nine months, mostly in the area of Biafra, working on this project, which required that I also develop and discover more of myself.
My next post presents the idea that Africa generally, and Nigeria specifically should be of importance to African-Americans and to anyone following the direction of global culture and the impact it is having on the viability of humanity and our shared environment.