October 2013


Last night I attended a discussion at the Schomburg, a research library in Harlem that’s part of the NY Public Library. My favorite Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was headlining the panel along with Siddharta Deb (Indian cultural critic). Romain Bertrand (French historian), and Farah Griffin (African-American historian @ Columbia.) The event was facilitated by the not-so-new Director of the Schomburg, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a historian at Indiana University and a great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad.

Titled “Says Who? Writing from a Global Perspective”, the panel took as its starting point, Adichie’s widely watched Ted talk in 2009 about the danger of a single story. In that talk, she cautions us not to think that a single perspective that is put forward defines a person or a place. Last night Adichie took this point further by highlighting  the power of story – alluding to Mandela’s claim that reading for him helped to bring the prison walls down. She also reminded us that it’s not hard to see how story telling – whose stories are told, when, how, from what angle – is largely shaped by power. Bertrand discussed how his work focuses on recovering the voices of those in Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Java (Indonesia), living at the edge, those who first encountered Europeans – voices that have been largely silenced.  Deb highlighted the complexity of the “single” story emerging from India as an economic powerhouse on the rise. And yet  400 million still live off the land where financial prosperity and well-being is not part of their script. Griffin discussed the process of what she called “erasure”, the marginalization and silencing of 3 African-American women – Pearl Primus, Ann Petry and Mary Lou Williams – that she’s recently studied. While these women were well-regarded in their local communities and known in their time, their scope of influence has been undermined and all but erased within the historical cannon.

Nigerians were well represented in the audience if those who stood to ask questions at the end were any indication. Several young Nigerian-Americans even publicly claimed Adichie as their “Auntie.” She is well loved. One young man, a medical student en route to Nigeria for a month of training, wants to blog about his experiences and asked how he might go about doing so. Adichie, who admitted she’s never blogged in her life (though her character Ifemelu in Americanah is an avid blogger) is a big fan of blogging. She cautioned him not to conclude that what people are doing is “stupid” if its different from the way its done here but to ask lots of questions and be an avid observer.

Sound advice for all of us, whatever context we’re living in.

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Last week my brother Ian was visiting with a childhood friend of his who now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. That gave us a reason to connect with several other friends of Ian’s. We met at Buka, a popular Nigerian restaurant in Bed-Sty, Brooklyn. Ian has known J, an architect based in Red Hook, since they were toddlers (40 years!).   J has known K, whose roots are in Minnesota but who grew up in Jos with us, since they were in grade school.  At Buka, we connected with 3 more guys, 2 of whom were also Nigerian, brothers in fact. One was born in the Bronx and raised in Nigeria; the other was born in Nigeria and raised in the Bronx. I never quite figured out how that came to be. However the more interesting part was that one o f these brothers, C, was married to an Australian and he and his young family live in his wife’s hometown.

I turned out to be the only woman at the table. Still I shared much in common with these brothers.

Between us, 5 had gone to Hillcrest, an American missionary school in Jos, where Ian and I grew up. Educationally speaking we’d been to Baruch, or Columbia or Yale or NYU or King’s College, London.  Five of the 8 of us have master’s degrees; (one has a PhD). We reside in 3 continents and travel to the 4th – Africa – frequently. And we are at ease discussing how Kazakstan is both similar and different from Nigeria as we are talking about innovative strategies to raise and spend funds for the 1 billion people on the planet who don’t yet have access to clean drinking water.  We call New York and Abuja and Adelaide and Lagos and London home, and are comfortable in all of the above.

As we drank Gulder and Perrier and laughed and caught up and experienced “Nigerian time” waiting for our delicious suya, and moi-moi, and egusi and pounded yam, and eba, and ogbono, I couldn’t help but think we were embodying  Taiye Selasi’s coined word: Afropolitans – privileged Africans of the 21st century who can move almost seamlessly through many different cultures and contexts . Check out her 2005 essay “What is an Afropolitan?” http://negotiatingspace.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/what-is-an-afropolitan-by-taiye-selasi/, which caused quite a stir.

And if you want a fictionalized account of Nigerpolitans in particular, pick up a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent and provocative novel Americanah.