My father didn’t have to see race in a country occupied by tribes, but America made sure she saw him and highlighted the part he couldn’t hide.
I can remember the day my Dad discovered he was Black. It was a gloomy Sunday afternoon, which is standard for the city of Pittsburgh. My mother washed my sister’s hair in the kitchen sink while my younger sisters and I played pretend on a Disney kitchen set in the basement. In the middle of our make-believe, a loud crash startled us all. We raced up the stairs to see what the commotion was, and there we saw my Dad standing in the doorway, coat soaked and covered in dirt and debris. “Goan’ get Mommy,” he said sternly. He slammed the door behind him as we scurried into the kitchen. By then, my mother had also caught wind of the commotion and threw a towel around my sister’s soapy coils. “Mom, something’s wrong with Dad!” we yelled in unison, racing ahead of her to rejoin him in the entryway. “These people!” He began abruptly. “They stop me just as I was walking toward St. Mary for mass. Just grab me, push me down without one word! Held me down like this!” He exclaimed while twisting his arm behind his back. “I yell out, ‘Whas the meaning of this?!?! Whas the meaning of this??!’ They keep doing me this way with no answer!” He continued to bend down with his arm behind his back as we tried to decipher the situation. “What people, Ilo?!” My mother asked anxiously. “Police!”, He yelled. “These Pittsburgh police!”
We all stood stunned. My father literally wouldn’t swat a fly. “Police?!” my mother asked again. “Yes! These police officers with no badge, no uniform. They jump on me and held me there! I never make mass because they held me so long. They press me onto this street with force. I ask them, ‘Whas the meaning of this? What have I done?’ They just keep holding me there, checking my jacket, and disrupting Holy Mother’s messages in my bag. One by one, police cars start to come. They kneel on me, Dorothy. And talk to me while I lay on the ground, I could not believe it. Then one say, ‘Whas ya name? Where are you coming from?’ I yelled to him, ‘IF I MISS THIS MASS, YOU WILL BE SO SORRY!’”
All of our eyes grew wide with fear. “You said what??” My mother asked in disbelief. At this point, we were surprised my father had lived to tell his story, knowing all too well how dangerous police encounters can be. He immigrated from Nigeria, West Africa, many decades ago. And while the Black experience was something he couldn’t avoid seeing, it was an identity he had never accepted as his own. “You’re not from here,” he would remind us, “You’re from Ogui Agu Eke, Enugu, Nigeria, your father’s land and his father’s land.” In Nigeria, where race is rarely up for review, tribal identity is the town’s talk. My father couldn’t comprehend that he now had this overarching identifier that he had no tangible attachment to. And given what he’d been warned about the individuals to whom that identity belonged, it was an identity he had little interest in accepting.
There is an undeniable disconnect between Black Americans and non-Americans belonging to the Black race. This became painfully clear to me as a child, born to a Black American mother, raised in a Black American neighborhood, surrounded by Black Americans who couldn’t help but remind us of the distinction. My last name left little to the imagination. And while the world told me to pick one of the two and stick to it, each side arguing in their favor, I knew it just wasn’t that simple. I was both, Black American and West African, which, where it counted, only meant Black on top of Blacker. But amongst members of my community and under my parents’ roof, the delineation was evident. My father reiterated that we were far from members of this marginalized group, never hiding in front of my mother his dim dislike of the label she couldn’t escape either way. He told us about the classes he attended as an immigrant; how the immigration officials warned him of the dangers of his displaced cousins. “You see them on the streets just wasting life away. Look at your uncles, see how they’ve wasted the wealth of being born in this country. You see?! Our people don’t behave that way. You are Igbo children. Not this Black American business.”
As Africa gained access to Western media, Black communities were made to look like war zones. And American media didn’t make Africa look any better. Just as war-torn, even more impoverished, run-down, and rugged, certainly nothing to boast about. It was the tussle at the tragic totem pole, and neither wanted to be at the bottom. Even grade school children desire to be on the winning side, demonstrating a complete disinterest in being in the loser’s lane, no matter how much it resembles their reality. Occasionally, tempers would flare, and the war of the “fly-infested Africans” and the “lazy black Americans” would ensue under one roof. Leaving my siblings and I stuck between a barrage of insults that applied to us on all sides. If nothing else, we learned that the disconnect between our conjoined identity was far more fiction than fundamental. But the adults didn’t seem to care.
How my parents ended up together is still a mystery to me. And while I believe that they believed each other to be the exception to their prejudices, they both undoubtedly ascribed to some seriously ingrained ideations. My mother adhered tightly to an American identity. We’re talking an heir of American exceptionalism, a boot-strap mentality, an America first attitude, and a knack for Western assimilation. And in addition to her American identity, her Black identity tied her to even more rigid roles: a sense of self-respect in the struggle, angst with authority, and a general suspicion of white people.
On the other hand, my father carried two very different identities; one being West African and the other being Igbo. With these two identities came a great deal of patrilineal pride, a strong tribal bond, and a belief in the West as a beacon for a better life. Also wrapped in these two titles was a clear-cut white savior complex courtesy of colonialism cloaked in the cross, the pathology that poverty was punishment, and the beliefs that education was the barrier to equality and struggle was shameful. Forty years later, their marriage still a mystery to me because it’s evident they were programmed to be opposition. One seeing the other’s culture as lazy, shiftless, and lacking morality, and the other seeing the opposing culture as too collectively broke to be in any business but their own. That was the dilemma and the divide, but that was by design.
It wasn’t just the influx of American media that painted Black Americans in a low light. The history books are as historically inaccurate in West Africa as they are in West Philadelphia; after all, they intend to smother the same information. The West hadn’t just been painting the Transatlantic Slave Trade as a friendly game of human hopscotch, of which West Africa was complicit; they glossed over all of the infliction thereinafter, making Martin Luther King Jr. sound like a celebrated martyr who won the war on racism. Why, then, couldn’t Black Americans get ahead? My father wouldn’t be the only immigrant to ponder that question even upon arrival, believing that America had changed her wicked ways. Often gaslighting my mother as she ranted and raved about microaggressions she’d endured in the office. “They don’t see you any different!” she’d snap in return. “You think they’re your friends, but they see your people as pets.”
My mother felt alone in her Black American experience, despite very obviously being married to a Black man in America. But my father felt relieved that he couldn’t relate. After all, he was an Igbo man, a West African man from Ogui Agu Eke. No one could tell him any different, he thought. Except they could, and they did. As he recounted being pinned to the ground while the cops searched his helpless body, speaking over walkie talkie’s that they had the Black male suspect in custody. “Black man??!?” he yelled. Were they talking about him? What a shame it had to hit him so hard.
“Sir, we received a call about an armed robbery on Baum Boulevard; the suspect is a Black man in a dark green coat, and you fit that description. Now, if we can get this cleared up, you’re free to go. But if you’re gonna keep fussing and fighting, I’m gonna put you in the squad car.” The realization that race was just that simple enraged my father. This race thing wasn’t just about classification; it was about conduct, cruelty. As much as Blackness is a culture in America, it is also a grouping based solely on physical findings. Racial reasoning is as thin as the skin it describes. In this moment, my father may as well have been one of the lazy Black American men he bashed because the cops saw no separation in their sin.
My father cried into the concrete, “If I miss this mass, you will be so sorry!” he threatened idly one last time. Finally, an officer instructed the others to stand him to his feet. “Where you from, Mr. Al..fo..su-”, “I’m from Nigeria, West Africa!” he snapped as the officer offended him one final time. “Yeah, sorry about that, we were looking for someone else.” “You’re sorry??!” He asked sarcastically. “As I stated, you fit the description, Sir. Have a nice day.” My father snatched his identification and hurried to another bus stop, embarrassed, shaken, struggling with his unwanted identity. He was Black here. None of that other shit mattered. He felt lied to, bamboozled; this couldn’t have been the America he prayed to see. But it was, and of all the things he could’ve become upon arrival, he became a Black man. That, too, was by design. My mother’s energy shifted from empathy to exoneration. “See?” she said smugly. “Didn’t I tell you?” My father was too fired up to feel it, but we felt it all.
Like many immigrants desiring to see America as an equitable land of opportunity, he refused to accept that skin alone could have contributed to the Black community’s condition. What then would that have meant for him? For his children? God forbid that be the case. Shiftlessness made more sense. Or even an aversion to education; that he could comprehend. But Blackness alone, who on earth could make sense of that? My father inherited a form of poverty that no amount of dollars or degrees could escape. This was what my mother had been complaining about, and rightfully so, it’s the unavoidable lens you’re born with as a Black American. He didn’t have to see race in a country occupied by tribes, but America made sure she saw him and highlighted the part he couldn’t hide. Like many immigrants, he gave up everything in search of a sweet land of milk and honey. But he learned with his face in the pavement that the milk was sour, the honey was hard, this American pie was a well-painted piece of plastic, and he’d committed his whole life to taking a bite. His world imploded while Black Americans watched. It was nothing new to them, just the police harassing another Black brother. For him, it meant so much more, the end of his identity as he knew it.