- The Black Man's Nod
On State Street, Madison, Wisconsin, across a crowd of white faces, a black man sends a quick sharp nod my way. A few minutes later, a fellow black man with dreadlocks double taps his heart followed by the peace sign by way of greeting. Same thing when a few months later I am in Shaker Heights, OH, or years earlier in Boston MA, Reading, PA, and New Haven, CT. We are strangers somehow unified by our blackness in a backdrop of whiteness—at least in part. The nod does not extend to hippies, bohemians, granolas, or frat boys with blond dreadlocks; rather it has been, in my experience, a black-male affair in predominantly white environments.
I was born in Evanston, Illinois, to Kenyan parents but after six or so months, too short a time to have truly imbibed lessons on race, we moved back to Kenya. In Kenya the question of race was not part of daily discourse. I did not know blackness—not in an American sense anyway. True the principle that under-girds racism—discriminating against another—existed. I came to know virulent hatred especially against the Kenyan Indian and other ethnicities in Kenya. But being part of the majority, the Gikuyu, I did not know what it was like to be a minority. I grew up with the swagger of the majority.
It was in New Haven, Connecticut, that the Black Man's nod first came into my life—and what a stranger it was. The summer of 1990 found my father, writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, in political exile, back in the US and teaching at Yale University. So after finishing high school, it was at Yale where I joined him after an eight year separation. Yale is a bastion of privilege and excess but is surrounded by economically depressed, primarily black neighborhoods, and I remember being informed by a university employee to be careful not to stray too far from the campus. My first lesson in race relations: stay away from them—it is a matter of life and death.
I do not remember the first nod in New Haven, but still strongly fortified by my "Kenyanness" and being a quick learner picking up stereotypical views of African Americans, my response quickly became one of suspicion and skepticism. When a few months into college an African American asked me if we live in trees I was quick to retort that African Americans are drug addicts, obnoxiously loud, and should not be pointing fingers. We almost came to blows. It was not until an African American fellow female student sat us down and told us without mincing words we were both wrong; that we were victims who saw each other through the lens of racism.
She was right then and now. The stereotypes for both African and African Americans are quickly learned because they are all around us—from movies, TV shows, news, comic books, and novels to the history being taught in high schools both the African and the African American do not fare well at all. History binds us, slavery both pulls and repels [End Page 86] us, colonialism and racism makes us familiar to each other but we see each other through a lens full of stereotypes and racism.
Put simply, our relationship is mitigated by white-colored lenses that see the state of black America as loud, poor, drugged, and violent, and the state of Africa as warring, starving, and skeletal kids with runny noses, a continent dying from AIDS victims. The result is a mutual attraction that at the same time repels.
This is not to say that we have not tried to rise up above this. One only needs to mention W. E. B. DuBois or Kwame Ture or largely African American organizations like Trans-Africa Forum which fought against Apartheid in South Africa or Africa Action, which lobbies for Africa related causes in Washington. So Africans in the United States find themselves in a rather complex relationship with African Americans. But when this relationship is not nurtured or consciously steered away from mutual angst and stereotypes it can quickly...