Opinion

Pius Adesanmi: A Race Through Race In Missouri

Contrary to popular opinion, race is not always the elephant in the room in America. Sometimes, it is just a three hundred-pound gorilla in a car. Dateline: Spring 2008. Professor Abdulrasheed Na’Allah, now Vice Chancellor of Kwara State University, was convener and host of that year’s annual meeting of the African Literature Association in his former base at Western Illinois University, Macomb. America is famous for her middle-of-nowhere backyard villages where the local who makes a rare thirty-mile road trip to the next village to buy Budweiser at a cheaper rate claims to have travelled to the end of the world. Throw a University into one such out-of-civilization American backwater and it acquires the chieftaincy title of “College Town”. Macomb is one such village, sorry, college town.

How to get to Macomb? No problem, said the poet, Obi Nwakanma, who was then based in Saint Louis, Missouri. You just fly to Saint Louis. Remi Raji will join us from Ibadan and we will have a grand reunion before driving out to Macomb. Overestimating his knowledge of the geography of the area like every self-respecting US-based Nigerian writer of my generation, Ogbuefi Nwakanma boasted that Macomb was just a two or three-hour drive from Saint Louis. We would rent a car and all three of us would drive to Macomb. Cakewalk!

I flew happily from Ottawa to Saint Louis for the grand reunion with Obi and Remi Raji. Two Nigerian writers under Obi Nwakanma’s roof in Missouri – all from the Lagos-Ibadan 1980s-1990s axis of Nigerian letters! The reunion was Nigerianly riotous! We got our beering right. Poundo, egusi, orisirisi. More beering. The day wore on. More beering. Stories and stories and stories of our Ibadan years. More beering, more peppersoup. The day wore on. Obi kept reassuring us that the trip was nothing. We would be in Macomb in no time.

We finally set out around 4 pm in the evening, hoping to be in Macomb by 7 pm or thereabouts. For the trip, Obi had rented a capitalist car befitting our status. After all, we were three University lecturers. The capitalism of the car, however, excluded GPS. And we did not do mapquest because Obi was certain he knew the way to Macomb. One hour into the journey, it started to look like we were lost. Two hours into the journey, it started to feel like we were lost.

Getting lost was not a problem. There were three of us with plenty of reunion stories and we didn’t mind the drive. Where we got lost was the problem. I still don’t know how, without really saying it, all three of us quietly crept into consciousness of where we were lost; consciousness of that part of America where were three black males appearing lost in town could be bad news. We were driving through very small villages. Your one church, one post office, one pub, one elementary school, one grocery store, one gas station, one local mechanic shop village where there are more American flags than there are people. The only police station in such a village is manned by that avuncular sheriff who descends from generations of law enforcement. The type whose great grandfather was the village’s first police officer and whose grandfather was the second police officer and whose father was the third police officer. He is now helped by a second uniformed officer in his twenties. If you bet that folks looking like us don’t usually pass through such villages, you probably won’t lose the bet.

I stand at six feet and two inches tall, all black male of me. Remi Raji is also a six footer. Obi Nwakanma, our driver, was in his dreadlock days. One Igbotic accent, two Yoru-amala accents. That was a very bad combination driving a very nice car through that type of America. What if a cop pulled us over as was bound to happen at some point?

By now, we had a fourth uninvited passenger in that car that was making us so self-conscious: the gorilla, America’s three hundred-pound gorilla. At some point, we were going to have to get gas. The girl at the gas station convenience store couldn’t have been more than 20 years-old. It was now past 8 pm. We weighed our options: now you got your gas but does it make sense for all three of you to crowd in on her in the store at this hour of the evening in this middle-of-nowhere village?

Well, we needed to pick up beef jerky, chewing gum, coffee. We needed to pee badly. We entered the store, all three of us, wearing exaggerated smiles and greeting her very warmly. The Nigerian accents disappeared, magically replaced by melodious Americana slithering out beautifully through our noses. As we shopped, we maintained the charm, dropping unnecessary and unsolicited information that we were writers and University people on our way to a prestigious conference in Illinois. It was obvious that we were trying a little too hard not to look the type, not to sound the type, not to be the type. The type? Oh, the dangerous, threatening black male that has been constructed to haunt white imagination in America for more than three hundred years. If this gas station attendant felt threatened just by our presence in this American village and called the cops, what would they see? Would they see the poetry, the literature, the University in us? Or would they see three threats in a car too nice for them?

I think we decided unconsciously that poetry, literature, and the University are no match for police guns wielded by prejudice. Hence, we behaved. We kept the girl laughing with banter and conversation unconsciously designed to make us sound non-threatening. We charmed her till we finished our business and drove off. Somehow, we were never stopped, never pulled over… in Missouri.

It was almost 11 pm when we finally made it to Macomb. As we swished past a gas station, trying to make our way to our hotel, blue and red lights finally flashed behind us

Obi pulled over. And we waited.

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Pius Adesanmi, PhD (UBC, Vancouver)
Professor
African Literatures and Cultures
Department of English Language & Literature
Carleton University
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6, Canada.

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