I finally arrived the land of white men and it's a different world altogether, yet it is also ordinary and simple in many other ways. There is a sense of newness that is everywhere and with everything I do. The specter of novelty seems to flutter over every experience and it feels as if in my mid-thirties, I have experienced a rebirth of sorts, a latter-day nativity, occasioned by the contact of two worlds within my being, or rather by being thrust into the bosom of a world that is stable and complete onto itself, but which must now accommodate a being from another world. The attributes embedded in my ethnic cosmology define and differentiate me from the rest of the people I meet, live, study, and work with so much so that each encounter seems to be one of different species. However, in the game of the interface of divergent species, I tend to be the new one, the exotic breed, the specimen that is a rare find and for that reason, the one who intrigues the curiosity of the people towards my otherness. Curiously enough, in the newness that differentiates me from my peers lies my agedness. As a species raised in Africa, I am the product of an old and antiquated continent, the birthplace of humanity, and there are suspicions that I am more mysterious than my being unwesternized might suggest. Legally speaking, though, I am an alien, a legal alien. I am, in the eyes of the law, yet to attain the complete and total fulfillment of my humanity. Whenever I happen to complete the fullness of the humanizing project, I shall be elevated from my alien status to that of a human being, granted the full rights of bleeding red, white, and blue, of trying to live up to my neighbors' expectations of me, and of whining about other people, immigrants especially, the dynamics of nature, machines, systems . . . everything, just like a good American should.
As I await the completion of this anthropomorphic metamorphosis, I have been sensing yet another transformation taking place. It is not in my external aspect, for I look very much the same as always; rather, the change is in the way I perceive myself in light of my relationship with my social environment. It is a gradual, silent, and steady development, yet what the transition is leaving in its wake seems determined, either by sheer stubbornness or by dint of necessity, to become and remain an indelible part of my being for the duration of my life. This change is coloring my vision, my perception, and my reality. I have tried to resist the change, seeking to hold on to the familiarity of what brought me to this point in life, but the transformation persists in its endeavors to become part of me, to redefine me, to remake me. It tells the world what it can and should expect of me and reminds me, ever so constantly, of how I am perceived by those with whom I share this new world. Mama, this change simultaneously frightens and assures me. I am caught between shunning it in disgust at some times and embracing it with pride at other times; yet there are times when, caught between and betwixt shunning and embracing the change, I feel the polarity tearing me asunder as the forces on both ends seem equally matched in their determination to hold sway. Mama, my life is changing; I am becoming a black man.
You must be wondering what your son means by stating that he is becoming a black man. What have I been all my life, if not black? What does a man who was born to two African parents, raised to adulthood in tropical Africa, whose heartbeat harmonizes with the rhythmic throbbings of hand-polished drums and xylophones, whose body has been nourished on tropical greens, roots, grains, fruits and organically raised animal flesh, call himself? What do you call a red-hot blooded, purebred, nappy-haired, thick (luscious)-lipped, curvy-buttocked and dark skinned man from the equatorial belt of Africa? A man, and that is exactly what you, Papa, the family, Bali Nyonga, and Africa raised me to be. A MAN, simply speaking. And it was the man you raised who left Cameroon in 1990 on a mission, a quest to complete his education.
I arrived in the United States of America as a man, believing that the world was mine to discover and conquer. Then I would return home and hand it to Papa, thereby re-enacting the age-old custom of our people by which a young man would dedicate his first fruits, his first catch from a hunt, or his first paycheck to the patriarch of the family in return for family blessing. My encounter with colleagues and professors, I thought, would be that of a man with other men and women with whom I shared a common interest; it was the idea of sharing certain interests with people, regardless of race, that could be the grounds for my sense of belonging. We could all share our love for the written word, for the flare with which some writers, regardless of racial or gender configurations, use language, create memorable images, or evoke pathos in their readers. Shared interests, values, tastes, or religious beliefs, not race or gender, I thought, would serve as matrices for socialization, friendship, and bonding; but that, to my surprise and disappointment, has not been the case.
Before I was a month old into my studies, it became apparent that even to select a topic or area of specialization, the color of my skin as well as my gender would be the key factors. These would constrain my exercise of choice in the "free" society of the United States. My interests in the literature of the western frontier, which made James Fenimore Cooper one of my favorite American writers, or in Transcendentalism, which I had chosen for my masters in Yaounde, were no longer within my purview. Those were topics for white middle-class male scholars, and the idea of a black man from Africa specializing in them was anathema. That correlation between "choice" of specialty and race and gender became apparent as my African American peers were working on African American writers, my Jewish friend focused on the Holocaust, and feminism seemed reserved for women. What then was I to do but look back to Africa as the starting point of my intellectual pursuit? So much for my hope for an intellectual milieu wherein ideas, views, and perspectives were the most important and decisive commodities, and not one's biological makeup. I had been hoping for an environment in which one's race or gender would be immaterial in the determination of the validity and soundness of one's ideas or views, but I was fast waking to the prosaic reality that my ethnic and genetic imprints were central to any and every evaluation of my work. That is called "intellectual freedom," American style.
As I go about the business of living in this New World, situations and circumstances that I can neither avoid nor control conspire to imprint on my consciousness that I am a black man. That the "black" that precedes the "man" is an attribute that is central and inevitable in any and all dealings, analyses, or understandings of who I am or of what I am capable of doing, being, or becoming. My brain, my mind, my spirit, my heart, and my soul are branded black. And these, true to the breed or color, in turn engender black pain, black joy, black fear, black love, black pride, black shame, black crime, black angst, black threat, black hope, black life, black death, black shit and, according to that logic, my epidermal coloring is not only the external emblem but also the stamp and seal of my black essence. The color of my skin is my label and like all labels, it is an open text that informs ordinary folk of what I am, what I am composed of; it gives directives on how to deal with me, warns people of what not to do with me or of the jeopardy that dealing with me might unleash on those who are careless. Any sighting of me evokes images, feelings, desires, fears, and attitudes that the ordinary people have inherited almost as a matter of course. Their perception of me is something many of them have nothing to do with but they have become unwitting heirs to a way of life and a manner of dealing with black life that is backed and buttressed by four hundred years of history. Their perception of me and the expectations of my vices and virtues, fortes and foibles, have shaped the course of events, modified policies and laws, written and unwritten, all for the sake of the "universal good" and public safety.
When I arrived in the States, I was not a river, a stream, not even a rivulet, no. I was only a little brook that flowed into the mighty torrent of a river that has been cascading and sweeping its path for more than four hundred years. One would think I should be lost, but I'm not. Trickles of my uniqueness, of my origin, my nature are still very much an integral part of my being. My gait, my dress pattern, my gestures, and most importantly, my accent set me apart from the torrent of humanity. Yet events and situations in which I find myself inform me that I am black and I must deal with it or die trying not to be black.
Still, Mama, there are degrees of black. One only has to read magazines published for a black audience to learn that those who have dark skins are considered less beautiful than those with light skins, and are less likely to be employed and promoted than those with light skins. In fact, one of the worst insults to an African American is to allude to his or her darkness especially if he or she is dark. So how do African Americans view Africans and their own blackness? With desire and loathing.
The desire seems to emanate from a need to know more about Africans, our self-confidence, and about their past, and thereby to establish a firm foundation for personal and collective identity. The loathing is engendered by the fact that we are living reminders of a place, a time, a cosmology, and an idea that they would rather forget. How do we deal with the issues of race that affect both groups equally, you might ask? Mama, it is a difficult question. If there is such a thing as a "black" point of view in the United States, depite lack of unanimity on a number of controversial questions, African Americans often assume that Africans should adopt it as well. And in the eyes of ordinary white Americans, black is black and reactions to black people is similar, almost uniform, until they get to talk with us, if they do at all.
Not long after arriving in the states, I found myself waiting for the connecting bus that was supposed to take me from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania back to State College on my way from Silver Spring, Maryland, where I had gone for the Thanksgiving break. With people congregating in areas close to the bus terminals, I found myself surrounded by a group of people also headed for State College, Pennsylvania, and soon engaged in conversation with a woman in her late forties or early fifties. When she learned that I was a student at Penn State University, she proceeded to tell me about her daughter-in-law and one of her sons who had studied there also. This conversation went on for forty minutes when I noticed another woman looking steadily at me.
From her outfit, she must have been a member of one of the orders of the Catholic sisterhood, many of whom are found at Catholic mission parishes all over Cameroon. Middle-aged and trim, she had on navy blue scarf, blouse, and skirt, with a chain and the crucifix as the pedant, just like some of those reverend sisters from Ireland. When my eyes caught hers, I acknowledged her with a grin and a nod. She did not respond, yet she kept staring at me, unblinking. There was no way she could have been an acquaintance, so I concluded that she must have mistaken me for someone else. My conversation with the first woman went on unabated until I took leave of her to go into the station building. In order to enter the building, I had to walk past the reverend sister.
On my way in, I noticed her jitteriness; she clutched her handbag with both arms to her chest, and as I walked past, her eyes almost popped out of her head. She watched the door, then kept her eyes glued on me as I again walked by her back to my bus terminal. At this moment, the film of fogginess that had been clouding my vision of this new world was peeled away. I made a discovery that cut deep into my heart with the sharpness of a razor blade and tore at the essence of tenderness within my bosom. I noticed only at that moment that I was the only black person around and that the uneasiness of the reverend sister could only be explained and understood in light of my blackness.
My acquaintance and I finally boarded the same bus but sat in different places as we began what ended up being one of the longest two-hour bus rides of my life. As the bus wound its way out of city streets onto the state route 322 W, my mind went back to the incident at the station. It had occurred quietly, with no words spoken, no muscles moved, and no one besides the reverend sister and myself having known what had happened, but it had had such a profound impact on me that in its wake, I was no longer the same person. She and I had played roles in the line dance that others had practiced for centuries. The reverend sister did not know me as a person, a man, or as an individual with a life and a story of my own, but in her mind, the color of my skin told her that she knew me, the way she and others thought they know black people. A sense of guilt enveloped me, but I had difficulty pinpointing the crime or sin I had committed to be so burdened.
Later that night, my mind rushed back to Bali during my primary school days when, in my capacity as an alter boy, I had served mass with priests, most of them white, and I took a second look at my relationship with them. Mama, you can recall the special connection I had with Reverend Father Remo, the Italian priest who served our parish for six years. My friendship with him was something special and it had developed rather quickly after he took over from Reverend Fr. Hogenberg, who had returned home, to retire. Now I started wondering if there was something about him that I had missed -- some fear or spite toward black people -- but I could not recall any such negative energy from him. That respect for blacks was not true of all priests, of course, but Father Remo was beyond reproach on that score. There he was in the heart of Africa, away from the material comfort of Italy, taking on his pastoral duties, and it did not matter to him that he was attending to black people. Then my thoughts crossed the Atlantic again and settled on the reverend sister and I wondered what attitude she would have if she were to go to Africa? Would she ever leave her handbag even in her sleep? She would probably die of anxiety.
There were times in the early days in the United States when, after being subjected to a humiliating experience such as the one with the reverend sister, I would go home fatigued and weary about life. I felt my heart beating with the pulse of a frail eighty-year-old, my twenty five-year-old muscles would ache and my ability to focus would take leave of me. The question was always this: What did I do wrong this time? How could I avoid or prevent being the target of such emotionally piercing arrows? There was no way I could leave home without my blackness or keep others from incriminating my person on the basis of my skin color. What then was I to do? Waking up in the morning lost some of its luster whenever I contemplated undergoing any of those debilitating experiences but that could not continue. I had not traveled this far to come and coil up in my bed for fear of being too visible or too invisible on matters I could not change. My dreams and aspirations were stronger than my concern for acceptance and appreciation; I had to earn that degree in the "white" university and, if possible, become a professor at a "white" university, all the while bringing my blackness, my Africanness, and my alienness along.
As far as the gentle woman with whom I had had the conversation was concerned, her simple act of civility, politeness, and warmth stood in such stark contrast with the silent accusatory attitude of the reverend sister that she became almost saint-like in my mind. Although she was every bit as white as the reverend sister, she had recognized the humanity in me and had not been hampered by my blackness. Yet the reverend sister, dressed in an outfit that told the world of her religious calling, had been yoked by fear and ignorance, and in assuming the accusatory and defensive posture toward me, she had failed both as a human being and as a servant of God. Can you imagine the words of her prayer that night, Mama? She might have thanked God for protecting her from a thug, and that was me! I was also reminded of what many Africans, especially Catholics have experienced in this country. Many of them would tell you that they have stopped attending church because they do not want to be stared at or be avoided like a plague. How would it feel to have nobody share your pew or acknowledge you after church? Recently, I have been attending other churches, yes, non-Catholic churches. This is a shock to you, I know, to consider that your son, who had seriously considered becoming a member of the priesthood, is now attending churches other than Catholic. That comes from my experiences of living in this country, Mama. Blending in with the rest of the people is difficult when one stands out because of one's skin color; it is even more difficult when one's consciousness begins to be molded by those experiences. Besides, my interest in experiencing the diversity of the United States includes religious aspects too, but I have found something I was not looking for. That will be the subject of another letter.
Mama, these are issues you cannot easily fathom because we have always associated white people with goodness, intelligence, and holiness, having had nothing but priests as our frame of reference. But believe me, Mama, when I say that they are just people like us in every way. There are good, bad, smart, stupid, ignorant, wicked, kind, and generous white people. However, the issue that is inconsistent with their material development is this matter of race. Coming to America, one reaches a land at the cutting edge of scientific and technological advancement; however, as far as race relations are concerned, it is pre-medieval. The United States of America has taken me hundreds of years back into European past. It has been imposed on my consciousness that I am a black man and I consciously or unconsciously find myself filtering my view of the world through my blackness. There are moments when I lose this self-awareness and go about life like an ordinary person but then something happens: a comment is made or a news item awakens me to my otherness. There are moments when being special has its appeal, when one is content with standing out of the amorphous masses and being recognized singularly for some meritorious accomplishment, or when a person finds one pleasing to his fancies and elevates the person to lofty heights in his mind. When, however, this uniqueness is based on something I had no part in bringing about but engenders the negation of my humanity in ways that I have no power to change, it becomes a burden.
Mama, this conspicuousness that highlights my presence everywhere I go, that heralds my approach with tense alertness in stores and on the streets, that casts a thick nimbus on the countenances of waiters in restaurants, that reminds police officers of the sacred and solemn mission of their office, that grants judges with opportunities of reassuring the ordinary people about the safety of their persons and property, that confers teachers a chance to prove Hegel and Hume right, that evokes in the gentle souls the import of the white man's burden -- these are my extraordinary portion in the land of the white man. So you can see that I am not lost in the United States of America, Mama. No, not at all. On the contrary, I am visible and special. I am a special case, a special being. I am not a nonentity. I am not nothing or just anybody. I carry my badge of specialness everywhere, all the time.
The European-centered academic curricula in our schools back home had started the process of whitewashing over my blackness, transforming me into a sycophant of Eurocentrism and had I continued schooling in that system, I would have inevitably gotten lost in terms of my place as a black man in the world. Thanks to the United States of America, I have awoken to my own consciousness as a black man; I embrace the blackness of my being with pride and joy because I now know that it is a treasure I can lose. Thanks to the United States of America, I have found myself -- I have become a black man. Now that I have become aware of my blackness, its nobility, its strength, its promise, and its value, I can more truly love the white man as my brother. He may like or fear me, but I can be the best friend to him only when I have an assured and unwavering sense of whom I am as a man, a black man. Now that I know more about my past, my history, my inventions, my discoveries, my creations, from Ancient Abbysinia, Nubia, Kush, Meroe and Egypt in the northeast, to Monomopata and Zimbabwe in the south, to Mali, Songhay, Asante in the west, and Carthage and the Moors in the north, I can stand tall, knowing that I existed and lived and was a good teacher to the Greeks. And what price I have had to pay for that lesson. Having been taught that Africa had no history, culture, or civilization until white men discovered Africa and brought light into the dark continent, my new awareness has told me something not just about myself but about whites as well. Yet I do not regret having learned so much about the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Napoleon, and European History for that knowledge makes me versatile, difficult to pigeonhole. Most importantly, it subverts the idea of my skin color being reduced to a badge, a way of thinking and being.
I can now tell my white friends that I am not a problem for them to solve any more than I am a burden for them to bear. My history undermines any logic that can be used to explain the need for the continued perception of me as problem that cannot be solved by me or by others like myself. The world is not a better place for white men or any other "major" group if it needs any Manichean dichotomy in defining itself. A strong black man does not equate to a threat for a strong or weak white man and so my self-confidence is not about being "uppity." Nevertheless, there are times when I am tired of the spotlight that highlights my being a threat and the shadows that shade my brilliance. At such moments I crave anonymity and ordinariness. I yearn for a life unlike the one that I have been privileged to enjoy here. For once, I want to escape basking in the conspicuousness of my blackness and become ordinary. Yes, ordinary.
I want to be an ordinary man and I want what I do or do not do, and how I do what I do, to be no more different than an ordinary white man's deeds. I wonder what it would be like to walk the streets, shop, or dine and not be perceived as special. I want that ordinariness. I want my mistakes, my faux pas, my failings, and my missteps to be perceived as ordinary; they should not eclipse my successes and they should not blind anyone to the potentials and strengths I possess. I want my sins to be forgiven and my errors forgotten the way ordinary people in similar circumstances are treated. My mistakes should not be perceived as the fulfillment of the prophecy of my specialness. I am not my failing. My errors do not define me. Knowing my errors does not equate with knowing who I am. I want to be ordinary. Yes, ordinary. My success should not be downplayed or ignored. My accomplishments are not flukes that defy reason or logic. I want to worry about ordinary problems only; the same way ordinary people worry about them -- the economy, job security, the neighborhood, my boss, retirement, my car, rent, my health, and tuition for my kids. But besides these, I also have the extra problems that are attendant with my special status. If I am not entertaining or bemusing people, if I'm not wearing a smile, I want people not to fear me, and think I'm up to no good. If I laugh and rock, and rock and laugh, I want people not to think I am a simpleton. I want to be ordinary. But Mama, being ordinary in the United States of America means being white.