I remember Wide Eyed And Beautiful once spoke about her experience of seeing a Black man for the first time, in a television interview. I was so amused at the time; typical case of ‘White privilege meets another category of Human’, I thought. While engaging with race and Black issues I simply seem to have put myself in the same slot. You Black, me Brown, Whiteys see us as shades of the same colour.
The other day while in the bus, the guy behind me woke me up from my reverie to ask if I knew which stop he should get off at. I grudgingly took off my headphones; I was in no mood to have a conversation. I didn’t know where he should get off, but I knew it had to be after my stop so I murmured incoherently along those lines and put my headphones back on. But once disturbed there was no going back, so I began a new story for my daydream. I began to imagine that the guy sitting behind me was Nigerian. Nigeria holds a special space in my fantasy land. Stories of the country from my favourite author had coloured my mind with chin-chin and rice and garri. I could smell Nsukka and dreamt of the university in Lagos. Often I’d find myself trying to hum the ’n’ in Nsukka. If this guy sitting behind me was Nigerian, all of those technicolour dreams could come alive. He’d say haba! and I’d say Kedu to greet him.
As I got up from my seat to get off the bus, he tapped me on my shoulder again, a lot more frantic this time and asked what he should do and where he should get off. As I started explaining that I didn’t really know, he told me where he lived and I realised he had to get off with me. I told him so, much to his relief. Of course, once out of the bus and out of my daydream, I simply put my headphones back on and prepared to walk ahead when he started making conversation.
He presumed I was from India and when I asked him where he was from…well you know what’s coming next. Haba. A Nigerian boy in flesh and blood. The reality of it made it seem completely unreal. You see, up until then Nigeria was a made-up land in a book, the characters fictitious and the brand of human being itself fictitious. I did not expect my fantasy to become reality and when it did I was terribly unprepared for the tastes and smells and sights I’d never experienced before. What was in front of me was not the love interest of my favourite protagonist in a novel. It was a Black guy.
Not the first time I had met a Black man. The first was also an encounter along the same lines, in an alien place and I was caught unawares. The guy took my number and I promptly went on to block his number. Now walking back with this man, I did the same. His offer of friendship and immediately asking for my number made me stutter and stammer and I gave it to him, when I didn’t want to at all. Now I had to seriously rethink what the problem was. Was it just that I was not used to strange men being that forward with me? If a guy from India had asked for my number immediately, I think I’d simply walk away and think the guy was a creep.
But no, there was something else about the discomfort this man caused when I was with him. I thought about my brief fantasies of endless conversations about Lagos(he was from Lagos,can you believe it) and suddenly I couldn’t picture it. Was I able to picture prospective romance only when the man was a blurry dark image and maybe I couldn’t actually see myself with an African?
I thought about all those novels I’d read. White men and White women… at the most it was Indian men and women. This Nigerian author gave me the first romance novel I truly loved that had Black men and women in it and I loved it. But at the end of the day it hadn’t taken away from the fact that however dark the brown on my skin was, Black was a shade darker and a world away. Has the deeply ingrained colourism and racism in India got the better of me or is it that years of reading books and watching television had never looked at the possibility of romance between a Brown girl and Black guy?
When I spoke to a friend of mine about Grey Coat And Garri, she asked me to be careful. About what, I asked; “ You know they’re not the same, they’re aggressive and you don’t know what they may be capable of.” It wasn’t just bad Hollywood movies that had informed her opinion of Black men, it was an acknowledged racism in India about Black exchange students taking over the neighbourhood with drugs and armed gangs. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my sister about how distraught my parents would be if I came back with a White boyfriend. “You know what would be worse? If you came back with a Black guy!”
The Nigerian author I love says something in her novel about the solution to racism: “…real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”. The Brown Indian girl has been raised to keep away from the Black man, just as any good White girl. What do you think Gandhi thought of the kaffirs anyway?
Here’s hoping I will eat fried plantain in Lagos one day without cringing.
And a good read: http://theodysseyonline.com/vassar/racism-and-romance/153067