Damilola Ogunrinde: What It Means To Be ‘Black’





I went grocery shopping on Saturday, because that’s what you do at the weekend; you buy food to stock up your consistently empty student fridge. There I was pushing my trolley through the biscuit aisle, when a boy just about five years old, points at me with his mouth wide open aghast about something. I rapidly carry out an ‘is my weave intact’ check and the boy’s father rapidly pulled his son’s hands down and gave me a look that’s said; ‘I am sorry but I can’t exactly say anything, can I?’ as I walked down the aisle I could still fell his eyes boring through the back of my head.
As I moved on bobbing my head to the music playing in my earphones, I paused for a minute to analyse what had happened. Was there something on my face? Was my weave in fact messed up? Did he see a biscuit that caught his eye? Or am I just black?
Yes, I know; I went there! I have been the one amongst my friends who absolutely hates that argument. Like the downward spiral argument in ethics, I feel that blaming your skin colour for someone’s bad behaviour towards you is really taking the road of least resistance. But my weave was fine, and my face was clean. So it was either the biscuits or it was me. I have never seen a child look that displeased because of biscuits on the opposite end of a supermarket aisle. However, if you have, please educate me; as I am about to enter an ‘I am black, so what’ argument with myself.
Just like the Caucasian sitting next to me in the library right now, I don’t know what it means to be black. My best friend prefers the term ‘chocolate’; because, according to her black means burnt. But I don’t get what that means either. I grew up in Nigeria, everyone is black. I wasn’t special or different because everyone was tinted the same way I was so the colour of my skin was not an issue. And then I step out of the mother continent and everyone wants to know what ‘Nigerian’ sounds like. Note I did not say what ‘a Nigerian sounds like’. I said what ‘Nigerian’ sounds like, because I have been asked that question consistently over the past 6 years, apparently someone who is very well educated somewhere has taught some naïve little angles, that Nigerians speak Nigerian.


I am plagued with these questions from unassuming creatures who know Sub-Saharan Africa to be the ‘country’ plagued with AIDS, Malaria, TB, poverty and children on the television who only ever seem to be drinking brown water. And then someone says to me; how come you speak English so well, you speak it better than we do? “I do? Of course I do; because your forefathers came to my country with gunpowder in hand, because they were too lazy to work on the sugar plantations themselves. Thereby ensuring that I never learn my mother tongue, and speak Queens English instead. So it is not my fault that you have resorted to saying ‘in it’ instead of ‘is that not so’; as a result of laziness another 200 years later.”
Or; why don’t you have an afro like Michael Jackson? “Are you kidding me? You actually remember Michael Jackson with an afro? Well I do have an afro, you just can’t see it. Because I have chemical straightened it to the point of no return, then I braided it, tied it to my scalp, and then had someone else’s less angry hair sewn onto it. Sounds brutal? It is, I know. But as Raven Simone aptly said “relaxed hair keeps the white folks relaxed”, couldn’t have said it better myself.”
But my anger does not arise due to the unwavering absurdity of the ignorant people around me. It comes from my own sense of identity, as my own existential crisis confronts me each time I have to smile and say something politically correct. I ask myself; are you really black? Are you really African? You speak Yoruba like a foreigner. Are you sure you will return to Nigeria? You almost had a heat stroke the last time you went home? How much of a Nigerian are you?
I ask myself these questions because, although, I am not as much of an ‘ajebutter’ as some of my friends are; and I will not dare to suggest that I am an ‘ajepako’. I did grow up eating French fries and ice cream, and poured coffee for my dad instead of palm wine. Because I have never seen a child with kwashiorkor and if I keep going this way I probably never will. Because my heart never wept for Nigeria until I left home to live elsewhere. Because I know that sitting on my derriere saying “Naija go better” does not in any way make it better. Because I wish I had been taught about love for country when I was in school. Because I wish I had read more books about African youths growing up. Because that boy today pointed at me and was shocked to see a black person and his father was embarrassed because of it.
But just like that little boy, I haven’t the faintest idea what it means to be black


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