Sometime in 2009, I and my friend Opeoluwa stood at the brink of death in the hands of younger gun totting students of our university. At the time, we were final year students and were on our ways home after a very stressful day in school. At those moments, with the boys barking orders and questions about who we were at us, I considered a number of things, one of which was a phrase I would later come across in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me
“I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like a fog”
I remember thinking about my dad, who for reasons known only to him made sure he visited me at least twice a week in the duration of my time in school. Checking up on me, routinely appearing whenever he heard news of violence by cult students, not caring about the risks of travelling or not. Risks which his drivers always made certain i knew about, so i could appreciate them more. I had seen him that morning. We had spoken about my final year project, he had given me my tuition, the money was in my back pocket. I knew if this boys were to kill me or something like that, they would take the money too, so I prayed for a miracle.
Opeoluwa, who at the time fancied himself to be rugged and crazy was already speaking in some strange tongues with the boys. I had cowered already on the ground in surrender. I had given them the permission to do with my body what the gun in their hands, in which all the power resided to end my journey on the earth, could do. Before their exchange ended, I remember the boys whose mein had been of death and destruction cower to my friend and begin to beg us to give them something, like police officers on our highways. Somehow, despite the fact that I grew up in Nigeria where race and racism has never been a point to worry about, it baffled me to realise how identical these narratives become where the transaction for the continued existence of my body was concerned.
So in more ways than necessary perhaps, I think I have a kind of understanding of what Ta-Nehisi meant whenever he referred to blackbodies in his book. I also understand how he carefully relates the black community’s reaction to these things in the manner with which children are brought up, using my dad’s insistence on coming to check on me and not necessarily allowing me to enjoy the possibilities of a life of endless bickering between what was good and what was permissible in my university experience.
For an outsider, whose sole representation of America was through movies and CNN, Ta-Nehisi paints a different America to me. I have always assumed via the stories of numerous cousins who have won the visa lottery and the ones who could afford to make the journey on their own that America was a migrants dream destination. But through this book, my opinion doesn’t just change, I am taken through many reasons why America doesn’t care about me, why the color of my skin judges me before any crime is committed. I remember Okey Ndibe, a Nigerian/American writer who wrote in his memoir of how he was picked up by the police for fitting the profile of a criminal they had been looking for, simply because of the color of his skin.
I become baffled at once at how different my perceived narrative of America could be so far from the truth. But yet, I see the outrage on social media, every other day about the folks who were losing their bodies to guns, to drugs, to violence perpetuated by those who had sworn oaths to protect them and again I am tempted to make comparisons again, I remember a particular holiday, travelling with my parents and my siblings to our country residence in the hinterlands of Ijebu Ode how we were stopped by police officers who were demanding to know the contents of our boot. I remember my dad, who must have been irritated by the demand, asking them on what authority they were making the demand on us and how one of the officers threatened to shoot him, pointing his colour drained pistol at dad and releasing it’s safety hammer to illustrate his point, if my dad does not cooperate, at which point my mum intervened and begged my dad to think about her and us.
The police officer that day would leave us be after my dad’s cooperation after which he would demand a 50 naira bribe which my dad would not obligenot on the account of his anger, but at this moment, I couldn’t help but consider how different the narrative could have been. We’d heard of such stories before, not just of police brutality but of sheer madness by men of the security forces. It reminds me of a video which was circulated recently on social media of Nigerian army officers beating up a crippled civilian for wearing a camouflaged outfit. It makes me wonder where our humanity is going and for what are we trading it for.
Images from NPR and Cultural Front.