Tag Archives: race

#10 ~ Being beautifully rooted in the Diaspora


I have a friend who’s from my mothers home state in south eastern Nigeria. I think he finds me intriguing in a you’re-interesting-but-kinda-weird-way. Sometimes when we’re talking , I can tell that he humours me, he doesn’t necessarily ‘get’ me, but he listens and he finds it interesting. Sometimes I imagine that in his eyes I look like a lost sheep, slightly homeless and befuddled, but fuelled with a sense of directionless purpose. I feel this most often when i talk about my identity, my sense of belonging. He speaks Igbo, lived (if only for a short while) in Nigeria and knows the point at which he migrated to the UK. It was something he was contextually conscious of. He tells me if I went back i’d be welcomed home as a returnee daughter. Sure, for a period i’d be called oyinbo  or ‘just-come’, but in time I would settle, I would be accepted. He doesn’t, I feel, quite understand that diasporics never fully settle in already established homelands. He is rooted in a context, I, as I see it now, am rooted in rootlessness. 

My sister has never had an issue with this. Growing up my Dad’s pet name for her was ‘the Rock’, because she was solid. Some of this had to do with her physical build, which my Mum gave my Dad an earful about, but I think a lot of it had to do with her character. T is solid. When she sets her feet on something, it’s because she’s sure, and when she’s sure she stands her ground. She weighs her words carefully and speaks sparingly, often the quiet one in conversations. I used to think it was because she was shy, or didn’t always ‘get’ what was going on. Time told me it was because most of the time she had already worked out the answer, and found all us babbling self-proclaimed young ‘intellectuals’ wallowing in our existential crises at best irritating, at worst stupid and self indulgent. T is a firm foundation. She is rooted. And I think she’s rooted, because she is secure in what she is, and she’s made peace with that. In that sense we make a perfect team. I used to be called feet-on-the-ground-head-in-the-clouds and my mother’s nickname for me was spitfire, because I would flare and burn and run full steam ahead before burning out, sometimes with the job, passion or vision left unfinished.

These are crass and simplistic distinctions, but for a generalistic musing they’ll work for now. Whereas I pined for ‘home’, T was comfortable from the get-go with being British and Nigerian, being a Londoner and  from Anambra and from Ilesha – it wasn’t really a thing, it was just her, whereas I flitted from British, to English, to Nigerian, to British Nigerian, to Nigerian British, to Igbo, Yourba and Bristolian – I was very lost, and frustrated by this perceived loss.

I think part of it was to do with a strong racial conception of self from a very young age. I might regret saying this, but then Piaf had a more messed up life and managed to declare she had no regrets, so hey-ho. Growing up my mum was very fair. She’s never seen herself as anything less than Nigerian, never thought of herself as white but as the whole biracial discourse became more politically correct, when pushed she’ll say she’s mixed raced, but she was always secure in her Nigerianness,as though English was an historical technicality but had little cultural or even personal bearing. Yet when I looked around I was very aware that Mummy looked like the other parents, and the other parents were ‘right’. I was embarrassed by what the connotations of being black were, and growing up around non-Nigerians I didn’t quite get Caribbean culture, because that wasn’t home-life, and the Nigerian culture I saw was foreign (I’ve later realised that class has a lot to do with culture in the UK and ethnicity, but that’s for a later post). So, to be like Mum was to be better. If T was the chocolate baby, I was the yellow baby. But T had ‘fine features’ and I had the ‘African nose’ the ‘thick lips’, the things that made me more ‘Nigerian’ than her, the ‘coarse’ features.

Firstly I want to call Bullshit on such a distinction. That’s right, I call BULL-SHIT on the whole fine/coarse features thing. What it implies is that there is something refined and noble about caucasian features and something rough and ungainly about ‘traditional’ African features (read Aphra Behn’s Oronooko to see what I mean). Basically it means white pretty black ugly. So even though I had lighter skin I was still more ‘African’ than my sister – and people remarked on that shit. Ah Kehinde you have such coarse/strong/striking/Nigerian features. Ah Taiwo, you have such fine/european/english/pretty features. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t told I was beautiful, but it was a different type of beauty – so I went to find that type. I went to discover where that beauty came from. I wanted to go ‘home’ to an imaginary Africa, an imaginary Nigeria where my features were the norm.

Now the issue with such a distinction is that it creates a contrast. What if caucasian features were classed as ‘undefined, less-defined’ in stead of ‘fine’,as though they were delicate, fragile, precious. Think about it, if generic african features ( which really are generic, because if you look at the variety in African features from the Fulani to Ethiopians, Khoisan to the Sudanese you’d realise African features encompass ALL types of facial features, but, I digress) if things such as wide noses, thick lips, strong jaw-lines, big thighs etc etc were the norm, then anything other would be less, right? But I grew up in the UK, so it wasn’t the norm, and it sent me looking for it, it sent me towards this idyllic fairyland called the ‘home’ of black-consciousness and self-worth, it sent me back to ‘Mother Africa’.

A Diaspora is a ‘scattered population with a common origin in a smaller geographic area, or a movement of people from their homeland’. It implies that there is a ‘real’ place that you ‘truly’ come from, but for some reason or other you are not there.

And it’s  definitely true. There are plenty of diaspora’s the world over. Some of them have settled and are no longer viewed as diasporas (white people in America), others are less stable (Jewish diaspora, Turks in Germany), but they exist. The issue I have with diaspora as a definition is that I think it belongs to 1st generation migrants. The one’s that have ‘just-come’, the ‘freshies’. I think it applies to second-gen migrants who go back to that country of ‘ethnic origin’ regularly, speak the language, can flit easily between the two.

But for many children of African migrants who don’t go back, who have settled in e.g. the UK but still exist within their parents culture, we have another homeland emerging. See, I’m beginning to see things like my sister, to realise there isn’t one place that I ‘truly’ come from, or rather there is, it just isn’t a recognised nation-state. See, I come from the diaspora. I am a child of the diaspora, born and raised. I speak the language, I understand the culture, I breathe the history. I have that beautiful ability to morph regularly, to be at ease with Nigerians, with Africans in general, with whites, with Indians, with Far East Asians. I speak slang, I speak Received, and not just in English. When I go abroad I know how to adapt my body language, how to blend in and stick out at the same time. I understand cultural symbols, I understand how to act with elders, even if its elders from another culture. My straight up immigrant friends don’t know how to deal with that drunk roommate, or the friend who calls their aunts by their first name. The kids who tell their parents to fuck off in the supermarket cause they can’t get a Fanta and they’re not even in year 2! They think – He dey craze oooh. My homegrown friends don’t understand to call their ‘immigrant’ friends parents Aunty and Uncle, not Femi and Gbemisola, or Raj and Amina. But I do, because I am a child of the diaspora.

That doesn’t mean i’m totally secure in me (me is a fluid thing constantly evolving), but it means I am not diagramme_de_vennhomeless. I have a home. I’m not a global citizen (that phrase is so daft, cause we all know citizenship rights are NOT accorded to how many passports you have, citizenship is more than legalities), I am a disaporic national – and that can be ok. My home can be like a ven-diagram with Nigeria and the UK as the far circles that overlap to make ‘My Home’ in the middle. I can be rooted in that, and in being rooted in it, I can find a freedom that other people before haven’t had.

I can also begin to understand that human history is one of migration. Even those who’ve ‘been here for generations’ aren’t people of the soil. As one of my best supervisors once said (at least in regards to recent World History but it certainly goes back to the beginning of time)

Indigenous people were just the people who were there when the Europeans (read any kind of coloniser/invader) turned up. 

So yeah, i’m beginning to find my home -and i think i might just like it.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

#231 ~ One Nation

When one enters a country such as South Africa, a country whose recent history has been so unceremoniously marred with racial prejudice, it is difficult to ensure one doesn’t impose their own expectations of racial discrimination onto individuals. Growing up in London I have always been aware of my race, and there have been times when I, along with my short hair, have been mistakenly ‘racially profiled’ by the police as a young black boy who may ‘potentially be carrying a knife.’ The officers who asked to search me and walk me through a metal detector at my local train station were evidently surprised and embarrassed when they realized I was a young girl, who had passed through the station earlier that day from school, was on my way to a music lesson and also happened to be carrying a Christian book. Awkward silence ensued.
Yet within London, the city of my birth, I have always felt a part of it, a member of the ‘multi-racial melting pot’ which made it such an attractive Olympic venue, and foreign refuge.

Any progressive country that has undergone some form of colonization will today, more than likely, still embody the remnants of its colonial history in a racially stratified class system. London has one and so does Durban. Although countries such as America, the UK and South Africa are all, to varying degrees, implementing programs of positive affirmation towards ‘ethnic minorities’ (although in some cases, such as South Africa, the dispossessed minorities are in fact the majority), one cannot escape financially racialised areas.

Spending my opening weekend in the beauty of Durban’s Marina Beach where the sea doesn’t roar, but growls, its howling voice overlapping and clawing at the sand, just as the roiling mass of Indian Ocean waves clamber over one another to the weather beaten rocks that dot its low tide shore, it was evident that I was a fish drowning in an eroded rock pool. The only other black people I saw were workers at the beach restaurant, and though to some I may appear to look like a Zulu, I knew I wasn’t even from this geographical area, and so did they.

It’s not to say that those who inhabited the area were racist, but rather, it was a snap shot moment for me, from the initially unguarded mildly hostile stares of strangers, that I was out of place. It felt, and I use that term emphatically, because it was a wholly subjective appraisal; it was my emotional radar that, combined with my little understanding of the country’s turbulent recent history, led me to quickly assume that race was still a challenging issue, it felt as though the question on everyone’s lips was – why and how is she here, mixing with them (an incredible family of white South African’s whom I’m friends with.)

It was the second time this year when the question of identity and assimilation crawled through my mind. Meeting other ‘real’ Nigerians at University made me realize how ‘un’ Nigerian, by virtue of my birth place and mother tongue, I was. How, as someone almost put it, un ‘African’, I was. Yet, surrounded by friends who are British, I was conscious of how those nationalistic prejudices were also prevalent. How ‘un’ British I was.

In a country that is striving to become one nation of rainbow people, whilst simultaneously desiring to preserve individual ethnic identities, the tensions between race, nationality, ethnicity and social harmony could barely contain themselves under the surface of the cresting heads of a foaming sea.

It will be interesting to see how the Zulu people of Mpumuza view me, when it becomes evident I am not ‘one of them’, hailing, even, from another part of Africa. Will there also be the mild hint of hostile reproach, will I also be classed as a ‘non’ Africa and rather a western European, or in fact, are these personal fears and questions that I am projecting onto perfectly carefree non discriminatory individuals who just happen to live in a rainbow nation?

Tagged , , , , , , ,

#186 ~ A rebel for the Future

Paul Simon’s Graceland  was probably one of the most definitive albums to have shaped my life. Produced during the last days of South Africa’s apartheid, it consisted of Simon, formerly of Simon and Garfunkel, collaborating in the true spirit of ‘Art’ with black South African artists such as the world-famous, all male Zulu acappella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The ‘African essence’ which so organically and vividly characterizes the monumental album, was created through Simon’s incessant accumulation of authentic, traditional South African folk-songs, pop riffs and indigenous sounds, which grew into a seamless collection of tracks over which the songwriter placed his uniquely quirky folktale-esque lyrics. The apathetic archangel Fat Charlie flies from the craziness of love, whilst by the bodegas and lights on Upper Broadway a young girl with diamond soled shoes and a poor boy smelling of after-shave fall asleep on a doorstep. A magic existed in Simon’s voice and lyrics which captivated myself and siblings as we listened to our Mother’s Graceland tape on many cross-country car journeys throughout our childhood. The opening to Diamonds on the Souls of her Shoes, with the hauntingly rich call of Joseph Shabalala and the Mambazo men always set our car a-rocking, as the acapella introduction faded away to be gently followed by the  tinny guitar riff enticing you into the track before being abruptly cut off by the syncopated drum crash. The rhythm of dancing feet pulsates throughout Gumboots and set our car a-grooving to the incredulous and at times disapproving faces of other mothers doing the ritualistic school-morning dash. Yet we had no opinion about them, we only knew that good music is synonymous to powerful hydraulics, and away we would go, all singing at the tops of our lungs, all smiling, all alive.

The wandering child of African descent sang alongside the British child of a slightly darker pigment

Yet in the beauty of that album, Simon gave not only a face to, what he calls, the victims of Apartheid, he not only challenged the racial stereotypes that blacks were untalented, animalistic creatures only fit for manual labour,  a maxim which pervaded not only South Africa, but all nations that contained multi-racial societies, but he ingeniously created a musical blending and harmonization of identities.

Graceland, for a young, dislocated Nigerian girl, whose only connection with her parents history, culture and identity was through the high-life music of Fela Kuti, Osibisa and King Sunny Ade, the brash yet seductive timbre of Hugh Masekela’s trumpet, the raw, sultry, empowering voice of Mama Miriam Makeba, and the few Yoruba and Igbo songs that fell mispronounced from her lips, created an aesthetic marriage in which collaboration, the mixing of races and cultures, was beautiful. The wandering child of African descent sang alongside the British child of a slightly darker pigment, each borrowing and learning from the other, creating music, sounds, ideas which permeated beyond her immediate sphere.

Though the creation of Graceland was in breach of UN sanctions, (at the time no collaboration between South Africa was allowed in order to physically show the Apartheid Government how much the ‘world’ condemned it), what Simon did was itself a pro-active form of criticism. Simon showed the world the talent the lay hidden in the folds of a brutal regime. He showed the world, which itself was still struggling with racism, racialization and institutional prejudice, that ‘we can work it out,’ and that there is a beauty and a potency in harmony. As New York, London, Toronto, Paris, Berlin and Madrid were swaying to the Boy in the Bubble, and dreaming Under African Skies, the voice of Black South Africa was permanently ringing in their ears.

Graceland became, to me at least, both a euphonic and utopic image of what South Africa, and what the world, could be like. The disagreements and political debates which raged within the ANC against Simon have disappeared into the murkiness of history, yet that funky, grooved bass riff of U can Call Me Al, still brings the roof down as aged parents drop to the floor, shaking their hips, kicking their legs before slowly swaying back upright, a smile beaming over the wrinkled skin of their faces, which are proudly as black as the night, whilst the pale yellow moon which gleams in their teeth and eyes calls for more.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

#58 ~ EAT ME

It’s all about you. If the world was condensed into a hazelnut that you could hold in the palm of your hand, it would be looking to you for sunshine and moonlight. Day and Night. It wouldn’t even have to revolve, just being connected to you is enough to sustain it. Though there is no I in TEAM, there is ME, and so we regularly take a concerted group effort and scale it down to the individual. It’s about how hard I push, how well I can breathe. I’m the one who makes or breaks it. Without ME there would be no TEAM.

As self-indulgent and pervasive as that idea is, it falters on the slim premise of confidence. The confidence of being the best, and therefore fearless. Yet when you do fear, when the mountain of your inadequacy confronts you, how do you survive and still race the race? How do you still put on the power, pull in the finishes and bring the cup home?

An asthmatic, I often tell my friends, if someone was chasing me to mug me, after 200m’s I would turn, hold up my hands, and say in a panting-snot-dripping-phlegm-hacked voice “Take me now. I surrender. Just let me use my Inhaler.”

You EAT ME, you TAME ME and eventually turn it into WE. I of my own strength can do nothing. An asthmatic, I often tell my friends, if someone was chasing me to mug me, after 200m’s I would turn, hold up my hands, and say in a panting-snot-dripping-phlegm-hacked voice “Take me now. I surrender. Just let me use my Inhaler.” I have no shame in admitting it. It’s not even that my asthma is that bad. To be honest, I have no idea where I stand on the breathless scale, but in terms of mental strength, that ‘illness’ is a weakness i gladly exploit when the going gets tough.

It stems from a fear of failure. The fear, that if I don’t perform I need an excuse. It’s not that I inherently am bad, only handicapped, disadvantaged in someway. You may judge me, but we all have our vices. Be it our appearance, the quality of our grades, our marital/relationship status, our gender, ethnicity, height, weight, beauty or lack of, we disable ourselves when we think it is to our benefit, and helps to retain some respect in the eyes of others.

We view the world externally. What do they think of me? The truth is they aren’t thinking of you. It’s time I turned my eyes inwards, saw the strength and potential within and exercised it to the best of my abilities. It’s time I took every breath as an act of thanksgiving. I’m not dead yet so I must have a bit more to give, so now let me give it.

Trying to make every second count as an act of worship.

To do that you can’t be staring at your own reflection. You have to remember, giving thanks, is a gesture towards someone else. It is an external acknowledgement of something greater, which should remind us of the greatness within.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,