Black Boy!

Every time I read Richard Wright’s ‘Black Boy’, I wished it was fiction; fiction because ‘Black Boy’ is not a pretty book. This reality told from the eye of a teenage black boy was too disturbing to grasp as real. Perhaps this makes it a very important book especially for us to reflect back on how far we have come with the politics of colour  smearing the wind-shield of our lives, one generation to the other.

Recently, I have tried to map below in the language of the writer, scenes, incidence and thoughts that chiselled Richard Wright from being a victim of racism to being a racist himself. I now wonder; if Richard Wright were to do the book ‘Black Boy’ today, would the fabric of his story be much different?

 At last we were at the railroad station with our bags, waiting for the train that would  take us to Arkansas; and for the first time I noticed there  were two lines of people at the ticket window, a “white” line and a “black” line.  During my visit at Granny’s, a sense of the two races had been born in me with a sharp concreteness that would never die until I died. When I boarded the train, I was aware that we Negroes were in one part of the train and the whites were in another…  

I had begun to notice that my mother became irritated when I questioned her about whites and blacks and I could not understand it. I wanted to understand these two sets of people who lived side by side and never touched it seems, except in violence. When my mother told me that the “white” man was not the father of the “black” boy, was no kin to him at all, I was puzzled. “Then why did the ‘white’ man whip the ‘black’ boy I asked mother…

Uncle Hoskins had simply been plucked from our midst and we , figuratively had fallen on our faces to avoid looking into that white-hot face of terror that we knew loomed somewhere above us…Uncle Hoskins had been killed by whites who had long coveted his flourishing liquor business… A dread of white people now came to live permanently in my feelings and imagination. Nothing challenged the totality of personality so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites…I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynching…

One evening, I heard a tale that rendered me sleepless for nights. It was of a Negro woman whose husband had been seized and killed by a mob. It was claimed that the woman vowed she would avenge her husband’s death and she took a shot gun, wrapped it in a sheet, and went humbly to the whites, pleading that she was granted permission to come to the side of her dead husband while the whites, silent and armed looked on. The woman, so went the story, knelt and prayed, then proceeded to unwrap the sheet; and before the white men realised what was happening, she had taken the gun from the sheet and had slain four of them, shooting at them from her knees….

I had already grown to feel that there existed men against whom I was powerless, men who could violate my life at will. I resolved that I would emulate the black woman if I were faced with a white mob; I would conceal a weapon, pretend that I had been crushed by the wrong done to one of my loved ones; then, just when they thought I had accepted their cruelty as law over my life, I would let go with my gun and kill as many of them as possible before they killed me. The story of the woman’s deception gave form and meaning to confused defensive feelings that had long been sleeping in me.

‘Why are they so many black men wearing stripes?’…

“Man, what makes white folks so mean?”

“Whenever I see one I spit.” Emotional Rejection of whites.

“Man, ain’t they ugly?” Increased emotional rejection.

“Man, you ever get right close to a white man; close enough to smell ‘im?”… “They say we stink. But my Ma says white folks smell like dead folks.” Wishing the enemy was dead.

“Niggers smell of sweat. But white folks smell all the time.” The enemy is an animal to be killed on sight.

‘Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilisation, that they lived somehow in it but not of it.’

‘The white boys and the black boys, began to play our traditional racial roles as though we had been born to them, as though it was in our blood, as though they were guided by instinct. … The roundhouse was the racial boundary of the neighbourhood… whenever we caught a white boy on our side we stoned him; if we strayed to their side, they stoned us. Our battles were really bloody …All the frightful descriptions we had heard about each other, all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the  surface to guide our actions.

Flipping the pages of this harrowing bildungsroman of Richard Wright written in 1945, am checking the similarities and differences between his time and now. In the quickening events of civil unrest in Ferguson, in the unnecessary killing of young black boys, I can’t help but  observe that the similarities of most black boys in America of today are more numerous , more real and more important than any difference there is with this author’s time.  I suppose if Richard were to write today, he will also ask, ‘why was 17yrs old Trayvon Martin shot, why did Michael brown the 18yrs old boy deserve six bullets’?

In the end, racism is not natural; it begins with the social injection of systemic hatred.  As this emotional and intellectually crippling racial war continues to bloom, we must remember that we all, whether white or black, will be casualties.

 

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Is Xenophobia the new Racism?

‘When you call yourself an Indian… a Muslim… a Christian or a European… you are being violent because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind.’ J. Krishnamurti

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En-wikipedia.com

As a tourist with the need to ‘belong’, I sometimes struggle negotiating to make my difference visible or not. In global spaces; airports,I experience mostly the fragility of my identity because I am what my passport says I am. The skin colour, the cloth, the accent, are spaces our identities are negotiated but more so our nationality is becoming even a stronger definer. Stereotypes are being constructed on different nationalities and the national tags automatically determines a persons trait. Some days in the face of perceived discrimination, I am happy to just be an African, allowing my continent shield my nationality but even this shield cannot cover much now as more people now know that Africa is not a country. Beyond our dressing and skin colour, our national identity now tells more of our roots. When made visible, it can sometimes give you a chilling reception as you witness your host burn the welcome mat.

Putting the paths and experiences of my sojourn in words and sketches has been creating an interesting travelogue. If I were to progress with themes, a poignant one will be Xenophobia. Xenophobia is that moment when host countries begin to play with hate for the alien foreigner among them. Little by little, it is no longer the skin colour that triggers intolerance but the fear of s/he who is foreign. In expressing Xenophobia, people vent a deep rooted hatred for foreigners blaming them for everything wrong in their space. They exalt their spaces and identity with presumed purity, hence discriminating others on the bases of an impure, corrupt, criminal stereotype.

In the bubbly city of the promised rainbow nation, Johannesburg, I am driven by a cheerful Afrikaans speaking driver, he was amazingly pleasant with questions about my root, a stack difference from some people I cross path with moving through the city. Earlier on, I had been accosted by an inquisitive airport police officer who in being friendly with barrage of questions, exhibited nothing more than Xenophobia.

Where are you from? Where are the Nigerian Girls, still missing? How is Goodluck or Badluck your President, I heard there was another bomb, I don’t understand it, do you just walk on the street casually and get bombed? Your country men, they are very bad, they claim Christianity and yet engage in all evil. Why do Nigerians talk so loud? Why do they suckle their fingers when they eat? You Nigerians are criminals especially the men, it is hard to befriend you. You pretend a lot!

He further reminds me that almost all the crime in South Africa are committed by Nigerians.  Like many other excuse IMG_4943given by xenophobic people, these crime rate perception of his have no clear documentation to substantiate it, but it has been largely expressed to my hearing by fellow Africans. It is clear that most people may have had a negative physical or emotional experience with some of my fellow comrades, but this is often over-generalized. My new acquaintance minced no words in expressing his hatred for my nationality, gendering his hatred more for my country men and excluding the ‘unmaterialistic Nigerian women’ which he assumes am one of. He allows me a picture with him as he proposed marriage. Hahaha…Marriage perhaps is the neutraliser that will save me from all impurity my nationality has bestowed on me.

Alas, I was free from him, distracted by a limping bird that came near. As I watched the bird fly off, I see a beauty in the fact that though this bird could be tagged deformed, its deformity does not stop it from flying. The things I observe, those things that are spoken or unspoken of, they make me see the lines of difference in the image of the rainbow am shown. Call it Xenophobia or racism; their expressions are deeply rooted in violence expressed in subtle ways. It’s in the sharp words we say; in those gestures we make that compromises a person’s dignity. We adopt such acts in obedience to the fear that locks us in past experiences. This type of violence is not out there, it is inward and each man must explore self and question the root of their violence, it’s our responsibility to uproot it.

A1wBeshmqBL._SL1500_My faith in literary fiction to reflect different social phenomenon never fail me as the difference between fiction and reality is often a thin disguise. If the character of Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s widely successful novel where to be studied within this context, we may learn more. Defoe’s novel makes for an evidence-base for most landmark issues of development like slave trade, power relation, colonialism, cultural imperialism and more. Robinson’s general uneasiness at being a stranger in foreign land gives credence to issues of Xenophobia as has been captured by Rajani Sudan’s book Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850. As observed in Robinson Crusoe’s anxiety on his clothing, his fetishization of skin which he polices to protect  its fairness while rejecting a mulatto skin shade that may come from sun heat makes us realise his constructions of ‘the other’ and the struggle to sustain an exalted identity in a foreign land. Another realistically introspective book ‘Xenophobia’ by Peter Cawdron is set in Africa’s Malawi, projecting a story of first contact gone wrong. This book which I am reading expresses the complexity of man’s inability to manage dialogue with fellow earth inhabitants, yet yearning for communication and contact with the terrestrials.

My case study South Africa makes me think that subconsciously we often give what we receive. Though violence of difference may have been expected to reduce after democracy was instituted in this rainbow country, xenophobia is on the rise. I believe that the deeply entrenched xenophobic records of South Africa stems from the influence of institutionalized racism; apartheid.

However its worthy of note that South Africa has no monopoly to Xenophobic acts. Many nations including Nigeria cannot be exempted. While South Africa expressed it in the ‘buyelekhaya’ ‘go back home’ campaign, Nigeria once expressed theirs in ‘Ghana must go’; both are campaigns of mass expulsion of the alien foreigners who are perceived to be milking the land of scarce milk of employment and other benefits.

For correctives, Paragraph 20 in the part two of the June 1993 VDPA (Vienna Declaration and  Programme of Action) advocates the need for penal measures by state parties  to combat all forms of xenophobia, racism or related intolerance. But like most United Nations declaration, it is only a paper tiger. In the realities of today’s emerging issues, it is wise that international organisations like UN should take issues of discrimination and intolerance seriously.

The politics of difference has been triggered even more by the gripping realities of the Ebola disease being from West African countries with a potential to spread globally.  At such time, we need not dim the spotlight on Xenophobia as the stigma of Ebola will surely excite more intolerance among nations who may in wanting to build fortress against this disease, make unwanted foreigners the punching bag of stigma.  This is a perspective that should not be ignored as it has high implications for tourism and overall global economic development.

Like a Giant Panda…

Panda-WWF-ball.WebversionWhen I think of the football, I always remember the Giant Panda. It may be because of its widespread adoption as a mascot for football games, but then again, no! I also remember the Orca killer whale which I call the sea Panda. These two animals have a symbolic relationship with the football. They are sociable with long standing heritage, and most importantly, they share distinct colours with black and white sides and patches on their body.

But the relative harmony the Panda and the Orca whale has going with these two colours has not been shared with the football, especially in recent times. For football players and their fans, they have been torn between black and white.killer-whale_591_600x450

At the peak of a sizzling football match, Footballer Kevin-Prince Boateng, took a walk off the pitch, it was a walk to remember, a racially motivated walk. In like manner, Didier Zokora ignores a courtesy handshake from Emre  Belözoğlu  following a racist slur dished on him by Emre. Mario Balotelli the AC Milan striker,  Emmanuel Adebayor, amongst others have been at the receiving end of racially motivated slurs and chants.  Like invasive bees, criticisms have followed their actions. Subsequent to the above cases, racism in football can no longer be denied, it could not be ignored either.

boateng,pillay and Viera against racismLike most development issues, racism remains a history that has refused to go away. While I think of the many intersections like fiction and development, I always appreciate the power of sports to transform and catalyze social change. The passion that drives fans and players of different sports, most especially football can be tapped into right at its peak for transformative change.

Boateng’s reaction was received differently; many supported it while others detested it. The United Nation’s incorporation of FIFA in the last the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination may have endorsed his reaction as appropriate.

As institutions continue to discourage racism in our society, I think that there is no stronger vaccine for racism than football itself. We live in very interesting times, and it may fall on our generation to make this change possible. Never in history have fans been crazier about football matches be it a friendly or competitive game. Football has got the excitement, the emotion, the commitment; the dedication of fans world over and depositphotos_2069878-Soccer-football-ball-World-globemost importantly, generates a passion like no other game. It speaks a language that is globally understood by the 11 team members and the global 12th man (the fans).

I imagine the champion’s league final match between Chelsea and Manchester or a world cup final between Brazil and the USA. The fans are wild with sticker,375x360.u2excitement in the stadium with others glued to their TV screens all over the world. The exotic feeling of vuvuzuela sound fills the air, and everyone is in high spirit with winning expectations. The Referee’s whistle goes off and the game begins with a gentle touch of the ball by a footballer. This is followed by series of gaining and losing possession of the ball by each team with cheering fans loosening and hardening their muscles. Just at the peak of the intense game with no team winning yet, the players stop the game, calling off the match and walking off the pitch as a way of advocating against racism. Hmmnnn, I feel this can have more impact and provoke behaviour change than many other strategies.

Can fans and players of football be in harmony refusing to break colours like a pander? As a less passionate 12th man, I think they can.

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                                                                                                                  -Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye