Earlier this year I decided to read Joe Brainard’s cult classic, I Remember. The book had long intrigued me for I had heard that it was widely taught in creative writing courses and was a favorite of many authors, including several well-known authors whose work I admire. I was immediately drawn to Brainard’s style, each line starting with the words “I remember.” As I read it, I found myself jotting down remembrances of my own, complementing Brainard’s memories of America with my memories of Nigeria.
I was enjoying this little book, reading it slowly, taking my time to appreciate the beauty and originality of the writing while remembering and reminiscing. It was a soothing and creative project until I came to this:
I remember feeling sorry for black people, not because I thought they were persecuted, but because I thought they were ugly.
I remember gasping.
I remember thinking, So this is what Zora Neale Hurston meant when she wrote, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
I remember ugly.
I remember not wanting to continue, but continuing all the same.
I remember it got worse several lines later when Brainard writes:
I remember speculating that probably someday science would come up with some sort of miracle cream that could bleach skin, and Negroes could become white.
I remember thinking, “So this is his solution, to make everyone white?”
I remember returning to Auster’s glowing preface.
I remember wondering if Auster felt anything close to my shock and sadness when reading those lines.
I remember not wanting to be disappointed in Auster.
I remember helping myself to some chocolate, and then to more.
I remember not being hungry, but eating as though starved.
I remember wondering if I was over-reacting.
I remember wondering if I was becoming consumed with race.
Thirteen years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Oyinbo,” an autobiographical account of my personal experiences with race and racism. The narrative began with my countries of origin, Nigeria and England, and my parent’s marriage—with my white mother who was disowned by her parents for choosing to marry a black man. The essay then wound its way through other places where I have lived or traveled—France, Zimbabwe, the U.S., and South Africa. I wrote of the social construction of race as found in America and Southern Africa and how these particular societal constructions of race were largely alien to me, having been raised in Nigeria. I also wrote of race in the U.K., which was partially eclipsed by the prevalence of social class, Britain’s preferred mode of social segregation.
Before we were married, my husband asked me if I identified as “black.” I remember thinking this an odd question. I thought it should be obvious that I identified as black even though I was, “technically,” half black and half white. But right there, in the making of the half-black and half-white observation, was, perhaps, where some of my husband’s concerns lay. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was the history behind my husband’s question. He had grown up in apartheid Rhodesia where he experienced segregation and racism very much as African Americans would have experienced it in 1960s America. It was important, therefore, for my husband to feel reassured, especially for the sake of any future children, that they would feel secure in their “race.” I, in contrast, raised in Nigeria during the 1970s and ’80s, did not grow up with race as a defining element of my upbringing or identity. Nigeria has no history of apartheid and no established tradition of societies structured along racial lines.
Twenty years of living in America has cured me of any whimsical notions I once held about the fluidity of racial categorization, and race now presents me with the following dilemma. When talking about race there is always a part of me that feels as though I am perpetuating and legitimizing it, giving it the fixed status that it should never have. But then not to talk about race, or to try to ignore it, is not only impractical but also irresponsible. I therefore try to follow what I feel James Baldwin so wisely advocates in many of his essays: to remain committed to the struggle against racism while trying to keep my heart free of hatred and despair. But with every passing year this has proven more difficult, even for someone who, by virtue of my gender, fair skin, and privileged socio-economic status is frequently cocooned from the nastier manifestations of racial discrimination. It has become increasingly hard to keep my heart free of despair while noticing the effects of discrimination, especially as it pertains to young black men in America. And since the birth of my son it has become increasingly personal. I ended “Oyinbo,” wondering what my son’s experience of race might be like when he became a young man:
My son Julian was pink with bright blue eyes when he was born, but now he has my coffee-and-cream colored complexion and dark brown eyes. Everyone says he, two years old, is cute—Oh, he’s adorable! Oh, he’s darling! What a cutie! He’s such a looker!—It warms my heart but I wonder, when he’s a teenager, tall, gangly, and black, what will people say?
I have long known that my son would encounter racism, for even in the seemingly liberal, tolerant city of San Francisco where we live, we experienced several racial incidents in his early years.
I remember there was the woman at the playground who whispered to her white child not to touch my son because he was “dirty.”
I remember our babysitter from Mexico, as she recalled this episode, crying and repeating, “He wasn’t even sandy!”
I remember, on other occasions, biting my tongue—not because what I overheard of third-graders’ fantasy play was meant to wound, but because it suggested that school or parents were neglecting to teach something essential about the history and legacy of race in America. “I’ll be President Washington,” announced my son’s friend, placing a neck cushion on top of his straight brown hair to imitate a wig. “And you,” he said, pointing to my son, “shall be my slave.”
But even as I expected my son to encounter yet other forms of racism, I would never have predicted that he would come of age during a spate of highly publicized police killings of black men. Nor would I have thought that the words of civil rights activist Ella Baker would remain as relevant and urgent today as they were fifty years ago: “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons—we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” When I wrote “Oyinbo,” I had hoped for progress, not regression, around issues of race, but instead, in the intervening years, economic inequalities between blacks and whites have risen, as have incarceration rates for black men and reports of police brutality against them.
It was in the context of the recent shootings of young black men that my family had the following conversation: We were walking home from dinner on a cold San Francisco night when my husband turned to our teenage son and said:
“I hope you don’t wear your hoodie up at night, not when it’s dark, and if we’re not with you.”
“No,” our son replied. “Only if I’m alone. Or if I’m cold.”
“But you shouldn’t wear it at all,” my husband insisted.
Our son sighed, unable to conceal his impatience.
“I’m serious about this one,” his father repeated. “Okay?”
I sensed that if I could peek around the edge of our son’s hoodie, I would have found him rolling his eyes in frustration. He was annoyed, and I didn’t blame him. It is annoying to have to be so careful about how one dresses when other young people don’t have to practice the same vigilance. Yet the tragic reality for young black men in this country is that the color of their skin marks them as threatening. The statistics are frightening—young black men in America are shot dead by police at twenty-one times the rate of young white men. There is nothing we can do to make our fifteen-year-old son any shorter than his current height of six foot three, but we can encourage him to dress in such a way that will, hopefully, make him appear less “threatening.”
“It’s just one of those sad things,” said father to son.
In December, around the time of the grand jury decision not to indict the white officer in the choking death of Eric Garner, I remember talking to fellow black mothers about the ease with which others seemed able to go about the business of the holidays, without giving much thought to the pain and fear that gripped us. One friend of a friend, so afraid of what might happen to her teenage sons after a string of burglaries caused her neighbors to start warning against “anyone who looks out of place,” decided to send photographs to all the neighbors so they would take note and really see her boys: so that they would know what her boys looked like: so that one day, should they be tempted to call the police on perceiving the threat of another “black male,” they would instead see her sons for who they were—young men with names. I feel shocked when white friends are surprised to hear that one of my greatest fears for our son is that he will be stabbed or shot to death. Why, given all the statistics for young black males in America, do people continue to be surprised?
I sometimes hear friends complaining that it’s too difficult to have an honest conversation about race in America, and from others I occasionally hear attempts to justify their fears of young black males. Recently, someone was brave enough to tell me that because she was once mugged by an African American man, in an elevator, she’s now too scared to get into any elevator with a black man. She confessed she’s fearful of black men. I told her I was sorry for what happened and empathized, for I too have experienced the terror of being attacked—but I did not tell her how profoundly her confession affected me. After all, it was white men who attacked me in broad daylight in the south of France, at a bus stop, where no passerby stopped to help me, yet I do not single out white men as the object of my fear. I couldn’t bring myself to tell this woman how her confession had caused me to fall deeper into despair. I have known countless black men and boys in my life—my father, my husband, my brother, my son, my uncles, my godsons, my neighbors. Countless kind, responsible, flawed, ordinary, and extraordinary black men who have committed no acts of violence. And yet it felt somehow acceptable, even commonplace, for a white person to confess a fear of black men. I do not deny the fact that young black males have higher crime and incarceration rates, but the conversation cannot simply stop there. As this person went on detailing her fears, I could not help but think of Claudia Rankine’s poem Citizen: An American Lyric. Line after line she writes “in memory” of young black men, concluding:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
As a parent of a young black man, I worry not only about my child’s physical safety, but also about his emotional and mental well-being. Having grown up in Nigeria, I know what it’s like to be free of the mental burden of race.
But I feel as though I have now become so burdened by race in America that I have acquired what the actor David Oyelowo refers to as a “minority mentality,” a mentality that puts a damper on one’s ambitions and outlook on life. Gone are the starry-eyed days of innocence. Now I see race in many things. The way black people are routinely called to one side at airports. The way that workers in fancy hotels, restaurants, and retail stores keep a wary eye on black people. Even the way that a white man the other day pulled up behind my car and started swearing at me and honking louder than I suspect he would have if I were not black, protesting that I was “stealing” the parking space that he had just done an illegal U turn for.
I see race where others do not, where race indeed might not be a factor, and I do not want this to be my son’s experience. In my attempts not to overwhelm him with desperation, I find myself not wanting to dwell too much on all the news of racial violence and discrimination against black men. I want my son to be aware of racial prejudice, but not so much that he loses faith in the human race. There’s a balance between mindfulness and despair that I’m not always sure I get right as a parent.
“What are your thoughts on race?” I asked my son one afternoon while writing this essay. I was trying to pitch the words just right, hoping that he wouldn’t dismiss this as another annoying adult question. “How do you feel as a young black man in America?”
“That’s too general,” he replied.
“Do you worry about racism?”
“Um hmm,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
When I pushed him to explain what “um hmm” meant, he said he doesn’t find that people are racist “on purpose” but “unconsciously,” and that people’s unconscious racism is what makes him a little bit “uneasy.”
I probed further, “Does it feel burdensome being black?”
“In a joking way, for basketball,” he smiled, and then, turning serious, he added that if he came from a lower-income family it would be different.
He left me with my thoughts, in the kitchen, but then called back:
“But yeah, on first instincts, the sound of the police is uneasy.”
“The sound of what?” I asked, my heart lurching.
“The sound of police sirens,” he called back. “It makes me feel uneasy.”
My son’s “unease” makes me uneasy. I know that for now, with nothing having happened to him directly, or anyone close to him, he remains philosophical and is even able to joke about racial stereotyping. But how long does this “relative innocence” last? “By the time you hear the next pop, the funk shall be within you,” flows Kendrick Lamar in “King Kunta,” one of my son’s favorite songs.
A few months ago my son drew a self-portrait for his high school art class. He worked studiously on it for several days and when he showed it to me, I saw a confident young man at home in his skin. It took me back to a recent family vacation, where I stood in the Museu Picasso with my son, both of us admiring Picasso’s self-portrait of 1896, drawn when he was roughly the same age my son is now. Filled with a mother’s pride, I emailed a copy of my son’s art to my parents. While I did not expect anyone else to see the Picasso, the Elizabeth Catlett, or the Bruce Onobrakpeya that I could see in my son’s self-portrait, I was not expecting the first line of my mother’s email response to be, “Don't let the police get this!” Her response reminded me of how others might see my son, a hall-of-mirrors angle reinforced by the constant display of police sketches of young black suspects. This was the view I didn’t normally see, that I didn’t want to see. Like Brainard’s “ugly,” it made me gasp. Made me ache. I went back to my son’s self-portrait and stared at it for a long time.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell my mother how her response had affected me until I had written this essay—more proof of how difficult it is to talk about race even with those closest and dearest. My mother meant no harm by what she wrote. I knew this, but what she had presumed I would understand as her dry Yorkshire humor was completely lost to me in the context of race in America.
Another book that I picked up at the beginning of the year was Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know. This gem, written by a white, Jewish woman who grew up in South Africa and England, is a thoughtful, feminist response to George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write.”
I remember Levy asking, “What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we do not want to know?”
I remember her implied response—one writes about them.
I remember this as young black men across America are killing each other and being killed by police officers that are supposed to protect them.
I remember this as society fails to address wealth and class inequalities and thereby returns the vast majority of black people in America to a new form of servitude.
These are things I don’t want to know, but they are there. Pulling at me.
And my little boy is becoming a man.
And I worry.