We were thrilled to welcome our friend and contributor Chris Abani to New York this weekend to participate in Lit Crawl NYC. Chris came to discuss his forthcoming contribution to our series, The Face, and to read from his work-in-progress. The book will be out in September, but we got such an enthusiastic response to Chris' reading that we decided to share a small preview on the blog:
When I tell people that my mother was a white English woman and my father Igbo, they look at me skeptically. It’s a pause that really means; are you sure? You’re so dark. It’s a pause that I’ve heard only in the West. In Nigeria most people know on meeting me that I’m not entirely African. Nigeria has a long history of foreigners coming through—the Portuguese in the 14th century, North Africans as far back as the 12th century, Tuaregs and Fulani to name just a few. In fact in the late 80’s and early 90’s the civil war in Chad caused the very light skinned Chadians to pour into Nigeria as refugees. It was a disturbing sight to see hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of homeless Arab looking people begging for food in the streets and markets. The public outcry was so severe that the military government began a program of forced repatriation. Army tucks rolled into markets and soldiers would round up these refugees an, with no thought of separating families, after all they all looked alike, and drive them back to the border. I once found myself being pushed into one such truck but my fluency in several Nigerian languages saved me. I was often confused for being Lebanese, Indian, Arab, or Fulani. But not in England or America. In these places I am firmly black, of unknown origin.
But people have learned to be polite here, so no one says anything that might offend. They nod and make murmuring noises instead; except the LAPD, whose officers took great offense at my still very English accent when I arrived in LA. They asked me why I was faking it. I never quite figured out why, but whatever the reason, they were always very offended when I was pulled over.
It is interesting that I would be thought to be lying about my mixed-raced heritage. As though I was seeking some privilege, some “betterment” of my black lot, because well, everyone knows some white in you is better than none, right? Wrong.
When we were kids in London, my mother was often congratulated for adopting us. It still amazes me that she never grew tired of correcting people and not so kindly. In the 90s I was standing next to my mother by an ATM in London and we were chatting as she withdrew money. A policeman wandered over and casually asked my mother if she was okay and if I was trying to rob her. And one of my agents, on meeting my mother at an award ceremony in LA, exclaimed: Oh my God, she’s as white as day.