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The Long Car Ride Back to Duke

Tosin Agbabiaka

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As we speed along the interstate on the way back to Durham from a spring break trip, I try to fall asleep, but I just can’t. Spring break with my a cappella group has been an incredible experience, but I’ve been bothered by something that a fellow member of my group said. On several instances during the trip, Chris, a close friend, stated that he “hates Africans.” I can’t help but question my identity and feel self-conscious in response. What did Chris mean by his comment? Comparing myself to Chris, I find it almost impossible to distinguish our degrees of “Africanness” based on how we look--am I that much more African? I toss and turn, but I can’t go to sleep. Instead, I ponder the meaning of Chris’s comment and think about what makes me African.

My name is Oluwatosin Bolanle Agbabiaka, as Yoruba as any name could be, and in my mind, I will always be Nigerian. This is not going to change: no matter where I go, I will always have been born in Havana Specialist Hospital, Lagos state. I will always remember running across the front lawn of St. Savior’s primary school in Surulere, Lagos, my uniform a white shirt and blue trousers as I chased my peers around during a game of armed robbers vs. police. I will never forget routinely sticking my 20 naira bill out of the car window to a street hawker in exchange for a delicious helping of okara, fried corn and coconuts. I will always call a person an idiot out loud, but call the person an oloshi in my head. I cannot help it. This is not going to change: I am a Nigerian, and I will always be one.

But in America, I am not just Nigerian: I am black primarily and Nigerian secondly. I am black not by choice but because America says so. In Nigeria, I was never black; “they” were the oyinbos, white people. This changed as soon as I stepped off the plane. Here, I am the black person, but it is not because I live in the inner city, “hustlin’” and “pushing” contraband drugs from street corners in an effort to put food on the table. I am blessed to live in suburban Katy, Texas, and as we Katy residents profess, “We are all middle class.” I am not black because my ancestors endured years of enslavement. I am a first generation American who landed in the sprawling Houston airport on August 8th, 2000 at the age of 11. I am not black because I wear baggy jeans that hang precipitously from my buttocks, or because I only keep Fifty Cent, T-pain, or Kanye West bumping from my iPod speakers. I am not black because of how I act or what I say. I am black because of what I look like. I am black because of my deep ebony skin. I am black because my hair does not naturally flow; it ‘fros. That is what the racial ideology of this land dictates, and I, as a resident, am subject to this profiling.

I never fought against this classification. In fact, as I assimilated into American society, I began to call myself black; I became accustomed to my new identity. In my predominately white middle school, I was quite the novelty: my teachers ignorantly showered praises upon me for being “the smart, black guy,” as if I had defeated a genetic tendency of being a degenerate. I was, to them, the proverbial diamond in the rough. Since society said that I was black, I was directly compared to other black children whose backgrounds and lifestyles differed significantly from mine. At first I did not understand this. On every standardized test, I searched in vain for the bubble on the scantron that identified me as “African,” but over time, I eventually became accustomed to filling in the “Black” bubble. To some extent I even enjoyed the extra attention that my “blackness” garnered. By the time I stepped into Duke University, I believed that I was indeed black.

As we continue our way back to Duke, I still can’t go to sleep. Was Chris’s comment a personal attack, or was it an effort to spark conversation between us? His remark plays over and over again in my mind, until I cannot stand it anymore. I have to confront him.

Leaning over to Chris, who is driving the car, I ask him a simple question: “Chris, why do you hate Africans?” I joke, “Is it because I’m prettier than you are? You don’t have to take your anger out on a whole continent because of that.” Beginning on a light note is probably the best way to attack this topic. I don’t want to make Chris feel defensive.

He laughs. “You wish that you could compare yourself to me. You’re only half the man I am, Tosin--literally. Besides, I don’t necessarily hate Africans, little guy.” I force myself not to laugh too much as I think about his previous statement: Chris’s 6 foot 3 inch frame towers over my 5 foot 6 inch frame.

“Then what do you mean when you say you hate Africans?” I ask. “I mean, I know you quite well, Chris, so I would never take offense to that comment, but I’m sure that someone else who might overhear you could get offended.” In truth, I am the one who is hurt when Chris says he hates Africans, but I know that I would only seem too sensitive if I reveal this to him.

“Tosin, if most people compared both of us, they would merely see one and a half black men.” I scowl in disapproval of his joke. “Ok, two black men. And that’s a problem. You know that we are two completely different people with two completely different backgrounds. Yet to the person that compares us, we’re both black. That just doesn’t make sense.” Chris’s voice remains surprisingly calm. “You’re African and I’m black, and that means two completely different things--but no one seems to care. When I say that I hate Africans, what I mean is that I hate the fact that everyone thinks that Africans in America and black people in America are the same people.”

He turns back from the driver’s seat to look at me. “‘Cause we’re not, little man.”

I readjust myself in my seat in preparation for a heated debate. “It irks me that Africans and Black people are viewed as the same thing in our society, Chris, but it doesn’t necessarily change anything. What is so different about the two groups if they are both treated the same way throughout their lifetimes? I mean, come on Chris, you and I both took similar routes to get to Duke. We aren’t as different as you claim that we are. So what if I was an African kid in Texas and you were a Black-American kid living in Illinois? We were treated the same way, and we still are, right?”

Chris again turns around from his driving position. “My father and mother were the first to be college-educated and successful in their families. Of all my cousins and relatives who are about as old as I am, and there are quite a lot of them too, I am the only person who does not already have a kid and who has not dropped out of school. Sorry to burst your bubble, Tosin, but we aren’t as similar as you might think.”

I can’t deny this. My parents’ siblings all graduated with college degrees and work successful jobs around the world; my mother was a microbiologist and my father is still a practicing attorney. I am different from Chris because my excellence in school has almost always been expected of me from my family. Chris is right, but I can’t concede that easily.

“No matter the difference, we’re all here at Duke, Chris. We’re just two black students at Duke, which makes us almost the same person,” I say, trying to ignore Chris’s previous comments.

“Wrong. Have you looked around at all the ‘black’ students at Duke? About 70% of these black kids are of direct African descent. Sometimes, I almost feel like a member of a minority within a minority.” He pauses. “Do you know why I turned down Stanford for Duke?”

This question seems out of place, but I play along. “Why did you turn down Stanford for Duke, Chris? Scholarships? Distance from home? Tell me, Chris. I’m dying to know.”

He ignores my sarcasm. “Of all the ‘black’ kids I met during my college visit to Stanford, only two of them were not directly of African descent. Everywhere I looked, there was an African clique congregating. If I didn’t stumble into the group of Kenyans, I stumbled into the Nigerians or the Ethiopians. The first question I was always asked was, ‘Where are you from?’ The funny thing is that no one believed me when I said I am from America. They constantly commented about how my complexion was so ‘characteristically African,’ or how my hair was ‘as nappy as the typical African man’s hair is.’” Chris begins to raise his voice. “Are you kidding me? The whole school, that professed to have a substantial black population, actually had a tiny black population and a huge African population. I felt like I would never find a place in the social circles of Stanford. So I sent them a big fat ‘No’ and packed my bags for Duke.”

I remain speechless as Chris continues. “Even at Duke, there are a very small percentage of black students who are not of direct African descent. Everyone says that more and more black kids are attending prestigious colleges, and that blacks in America are progressing in terms of education. But when you actually go to these colleges, all you see are black students with African backgrounds. Good luck trying to find a black kid from the inner-city at Harvard or Princeton, Tosin. This ‘black progress’ that we all claim exists is a result of skilled middle class immigrants achieving great things in society while the real black people remain impoverished and uneducated. It’s such a skewed perception. The correct measures aren’t taken to create opportunities in education for actual black people because, due to the success of immigrants, everyone thinks that blacks are achieving tremendous levels of progress.”

“But you cannot blame people who move here and take advantage of the opportunities available to them,” I replied. “From the day I was born, my parents have stressed the importance of excellence in education. When I came here, I just transferred that same mentality to my school work here and, with some luck and divine favor, I landed at Duke.” I focus my attention towards Chris, who has turned his attention back to driving. “Pointing a finger at the African population in the U.S. is the wrong approach to remedying the problem. Saying that ‘you hate Africans’ only makes you sound racist, Chris. Come on, man.”

Leaning back from the steering wheel, Chris laughs. “Calm down, Tosin. You know I don’t really hate Africans, even though they can be a bit snobbish and elitist at times. I actually just hate short people, like you.” The atmosphere becomes less tense. We realize that we are not arguing against each other after all.

“Do you know what, Chris? You don’t hate Africans at all. You might hate the fact that society does not recognize Africans and Black-Americans as two different groups, but you don’t legitimately hate Africans. You should focus your efforts on enlightening members of society about the differences between both groups so that progress for blacks is not judged based on the progress of Africans immigrants in America. That’s where your battle begins. You’re just preaching to the choir.”

Reaching across to the passenger seat, Chris steals a pillow from Benjamin, another member of my a cappella group. “No, Tosin, my battle begins with you!” Upon saying this, Chris turns around and smacks me across the head with the pillow. I laugh as I wrestle the pillow out of Chris’ hands, and the conversation ends as quickly as it began.

After moving to America, I became convinced that I was just black. Influenced by others around me, I identified myself as black solely based on what I looked like. That was my first mistake. My second mistake was believing that everyone with this classification shared similar life experiences, similar struggles and similar attitudes towards each other.

My conversation with Chris finally made me “get it”. There is a distinct difference between a 1st generation Nigerian-American and a Black-American. The background of the immigrant differs significantly from the native. As Chris pointed out, within the black community there is a rift that separates recent immigrants from native black people; we are not all the same. If I do not accept this, I will continue to fool myself.

But although Chris believes that I am in a privileged position, I still feel that being an African at Duke, or in American society, is not a win-win situation. As a 1st generation Nigerian-American, I only feel a sense of true belonging when I am amidst fellow 1st generation Nigerian-Americans. In the typical racial categories of the United States, I have no place: the black community professes that I am not black, yet no other racial group in America will claim me as its own. I similarly cannot claim any group as my own. If I am successful, I am rebuked for contributing to the misrepresentation of African-American progress. If I am a failure, I am an anomaly amongst my fellow Nigerian-Americans. In America, I am always a foreigner.

To some, I am black. Even when society labels me as an African-American, I do not usually benefit from this identity. On a regular basis, I am confronted by accusatory eyes, peering at me as I walk across the campus with my Native American girlfriend. I must be as “black” as possible for some black people view interracial dating as taboo. If I dare wear tighter pants, I am mocked for being “too white.”

I do not beg to be perceived as a “black” man, but I have no choice. My skin color, in the eyes of society, is my identity. If my name did not hint at my African background, my identity would be virtually indistinguishable from that of any other black man. When I step my foot into the corporate world, if I am faced with racial discrimination, it will be because the color of my skin. To those people, I would be just another “black” guy. I am often a victim of society’s confusion.

Laying my head on the window, I close my eyes. Nevertheless, I have been right all along. Wherever I go, I might assume an additional identity as a result of the racial and social structure of that society. I do not know if a person will perceive me as “Black,” “Nigerian” or some other category; that is not in my power. But I have the power to define myself. To me, my core identity will remain the same. I am a Nigerian man, and this is not going to change.