HOW TO MAKE A METAPHOR IN BLACK & WHITE
From a ship in the middle of the Atlantic, headed in what he mistook for the correct direction—towards Africa—my black father panicked. A few days before, he’d received an urgent summons home to Nigeria; 48 hours later, rugby player that he was, he’d sprinted (rugby term) out of Ottawa, Canada, dissertation notes and a printed dashiki abandoned on the floor of his rented room. Now at sea, he scribbled furiously, black plastic frames sliding down his round nose, fountain pen ink smearing in haste. I want you to know that this is not a good-bye, he vowed.
But it was. Both a good-bye and a surprise to my 21-year-old white mother in Seattle, Washington. While I snorted and snuffled on a mattress in the tiny living room, she made three swift cuts with her only knife, unfolded the light blue aerogramme onto the rickety kitchen table that doubled as her desk, skimmed it with those droopy blue eyes, hidden behind similar black plastic frames, and gasped.
The plan, the blurry aerogramme explained, was to attend to urgent family business, assess the job reputedly awaiting him in Nigeria, and come back. He had, after all, unfinished business in North America: the interracial child he’d never met.
They’d split before my birth, and she was raising me in the Seattle Projects, three thousand miles from Ottawa, alongside all the other white and black mothers with their brown and black children. The correspondence begun out of necessity, once my grandparents discovered the relationship and sent my mother to Seattle, now continued for my sake. I shall look forward to our meeting, my father penned with heart-stopping naïveté, so long as we are all alive. I was 19 months old; my mother never saw him again.
One month later, in November 1964, the ship docked in Lagos—then the capitol of Nigeria. My father Magnus shrugged on his suit jacket and did his rugby sprint down the gangplank to a political scrum (rugby term). Four years earlier, the messy British creation called Nigeria had regained a kind of independence. Before agreeing to return to London, however, the architects slyly shackled a Westernized, Christianized colony in the south to a Traditional, Muslim protectorate in the north.
Now, on the brink of elections, the new nation—2 distinct geographic regions, 2 imported colonial religions, 3 major ethnic groups, 4 administrative homelands—chafed. The pace is quick, upsetting and dangerous, as each political party and its supporters are hard put to big fights. Magnus worried: One gets the impression that something is boiling and will soon boil over!
Try to imagine leaving a 19-year-old boy, a British subject, and returning independent, a 32-year-old man educated to rule. His heart, still strong then, swelled at the possibilities: Nigeria is indeed a new place! You have no conception of the degree of change and conflict. What took Britain or the US 100 years to achieve is taking [us] less than five!
The USA, the country that had been providing this education, was barely 4 months into the Civil Rights Act. It had been a deadly summer for college students like my mother Jo. As activists and students poured into Mississippi to help locals teach literacy and register blacks to vote, more than 1,000 were arrested. More than 80 beaten by white mobs or police. More than 67 churches, homes and businesses bombed or burned. More than 35 shootings, critically wounding four.
But it was the 3 missing civil rights workers who kept Jo up nights. “You need interracial models!” she declared throughout my childhood, dragging home Afro-American History board games and Heroes of Civil Rights coloring books. After the 2 Native Americans found the smoldering station wagon on an abandoned logging road, she, along with the rest of the country, waited breathlessly 44 days for news of 21-year-old black southerner James Chaney and white northerners Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20. Jo noted that both northerners were Jewish. My father’s tribe, the Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, were called the “Jews of West Africa.” And if she didn’t know what that meant, she would soon enough.
As she rode the bus in a giant loop from The Projects to the Federal food surplus distribution warehouse to my babysitter’s house to campus, Jo scoured the papers for glimpses of Mickey Schwerner’s wife Rita in her shirtwaist dresses and pointed, steely jaw. She was the same age as my pony-tailed mother and equally fearless at pointing out racism to white men in charge, be it President Johnson or my grandfather: “The slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news,” she famously told reporters. “It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded.” My mother’s best friend was also Rita. Rita who graduated on time and who, after my mother was disowned and my father gone, mailed a monthly check from her teacher’s salary.
The FBI’s 6-week search proved Rita Schwerner right, unearthing the remains of 8 Black “not missing” men in the woods, fields, swamps, and rivers of Mississippi. For weeks Jo alternated between rage and fear, quietly muttering to herself—a tic I imagine she’d picked up in the Home for Unwed Mothers after they forbad her to speak to the others. Finally, on August 4, a tip revealed the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman deep inside an earthen dam. I wasn’t yet one-and-a-half when the Goodman family attorney declared their murder “the first interracial lynching in the history of the United States.” A kind of progress.
In Nigeria, the Muslim North swept the elections, changing the landscape and my father’s plans. I had an attack of yellow fever and was in quarantine for 2 weeks. When I was discharged, I was attacked by dysentery. There is no job in sight and no money to keep body and soul together. After nearly a year, he procured an appointment at the fledgling University of Nigeria and spent his first paycheck on Christmas gifts for us. His cheery letters, addressed to My Sweetest Jo, as if they were still lovers, and Dearest Faye, as if I could understand, expressed a concern that would prove misplaced: I do want to assure you that Faye won’t die of hunger in the USA when her dad is alive.
On January 15, 1966—2 months before my third birthday—a faction of the Nigerian military staged a coup d’etat in a bold bid to reduce corruption and regionalism. I imagine Jo learned the news after class, speeding toward the Nigerian students in the Quad. They clustered as usual around a transistor radio, brilliant in flowered shifts, snow-white dress shirts, and pressed trousers. “The Brits are calling it an Igbo coup,” one warned my mother, sucking his teeth angrily. “No Igbo leaders were killed.”
“Don’t mind him.” A woman sporting oversized sunglasses patted Jo’s arm. “They’re also calling them Young Turks, civic not tribal minded.”
In the Southeast a charismatic lieutenant-colonel named Ojukwu became the new military governor of Igboland. Two weeks later my father wrote to explain:
Well my sweetest and fondest loved ones, I have been thinking very much about you these days. With Jo perhaps still unemployed and Faye growing up and not seeing her dad, oh I feel so so so! Hope you are happy. You are much on my heart. And of course with our country in trouble, one gets the impression of tragedies everywhere. What do you think about it? What kind of news do you have in the States about the revolution? I tell you this: everybody here likes it. The whole country is rejoicing and there is so much support for the military regime. Oh Jo, the amount of corruption, nepotism, graft, dishonesty, complacency, laziness, and pride in the former regime! It was a disgraceful state of affairs. So let not the world blame us too much for the change. It came at the right time. I am sure you would have welcomed it had you been here yourself. We hope this will teach other nations, particularly African nations, some good lesson. For a few to dominate, trample, cheat and maltreat the many, is dangerous. What has happened here is the revolt of the masses, of the common man against oppression.
In May the Revolutionary Council issued a decree to unify administration of the nation and their 6-year recovery plan. Four days later my father wrote congratulating Jo on being the first in her family (albeit one that had disowned her) to graduate college. He apologized for being unable to send money out of the country and described life under military rule. At 7 o’clock the next morning, anti-Igbo violence swept northern cities. It was a Sunday, and Muslims throughout the north invaded churches in the Sabon Garri, Foreigners’ Quarters, where the Southerners lived. They carried stones, clubs, machetes, and in a few hours, 3,000 Igbo had been slaughtered.
It was beginning.