Emeka Chinagorom was born in Onitsha, Nigeria. His fiction and non-fiction has been published on Bellanajia.com and the Hawai’i Review. An earlier version of his short story, “Now that your are black in America” appeared in the Hawai’i Review and won the 2017 Ian MacMillan Award for Fiction. Chinagorom currently lives in the United States and is working on his first novel.
An excerpt from “Now that you are black in America”, by Eneka Chinagorom:
I want you to hold out your ears and listen.
Hold my ears?
You are not too old for this, for this is a matter of life and death, and I am not about to sit and watch the only palm nut I have roasting in the fire burn. Besides, I am your mother. I carried you in my womb for nine months, and if I say draw your ears, you should ask me how hard. So, now hold your ears.
Your father and I have taken to watching American news more than we watch Super Story. We want to understand what is happening over there. Our hearts are up to our mouths in worry. We still do not understand most of it and we rely on your Uncle Benji to explain sometimes. He says there is nothing happening now that did not happen when he was there as a student. I cannot imagine what it feels like being so young and finding yourself in a place where you are suddenly black before anything else. Especially in a place where it is the worst thing you can be.
I do not want to say I told you so, but I wish you had listened to me and chosen the scholarship in London. Uncle Benji – always the headmaster – agrees. He says that it is not as though people do not encounter racism over there in London, or anywhere else for that matter, where there are people of different colours, but he says that racism in London is just like their humour – it is not apparent; that you have to be looking for it to see it. Unlike in America, where everything they are serving you is in your face, delivered to your very doorstep like it is mail.
Have your held your ears, are you listening?
I hear you.
No. No, this is not one of those “I hear you” moments, only for you to go on doing what you have been doing. No, this is not one of those times we say things that you listen to with one ear and cast away through the other. Understand that this is life and death for us. Your father and I had gone through hell before we had you. I was then at an age when pregnancy was nothing short of a miracle; you cannot imagine. So you must take this serious.
You worry too much, Ma.
Worry too much? Worry too much? Are you planning to kill your father and I before our time? Eh? Are you?
Do not cry, Ma. I am listening, I promise. I am holding my ears.
On TV, the other day we listened to a man who said that the biggest problem facing young black men in America is getting home after they leave the house. We want to make sure that in four years, you will be back to us safe and sound.
I raised you well. It is unfortunate that I have to instruct you again on some of these things as though you were a small boy. If you were here, among people that look the same as you, these are things you should not have to worry about, but now that you are black in America, they matter a lot.
First of all, you have to know the rules and follow them.
About police. I do not assume that any black person in America is ignorant of how encounters involving black people and police officers end up. It is on TV every day. You must know and follow the rules and do everything right.
How is your little car? I hope all is well with it. Uncle Benji and your father now think it was a mistake to have given you money to buy it in the first place. I only wish we could afford something better, something newer so that it would be less likely that you have one of those dreadful encounters. Although I have now seen on TV that having a newer car is as much reason to have a police encounter as driving a jalopy as long as you are black. So my son, please take good care of your car. Do not do anything to it that will attract undue attention.
Do not decorate it; what your Uncle Benji say they call pimping. It is a car, not a house.
Do not play music too loud in it. It is a car, not a disco parlour.
Do not drive with anything broken or any expired document. I would rather have you go hungry than have anything out of order in your car. Always have your license. Are you still in the habit of forgetting your wallet? If you are, take a picture of your license with your cell phone as that is one thing young people never forget to take with them. I am not quite sure if doing so would help anything, but it is something.
Do not over speed. Stay in your lane. It is better to arrive at your destination late than not to arrive at all. If ever a police officer stops you, be very respectful and use as many “sirs” as possible.
Do not argue.
Do not cuss.
Do not talk back. Keep your hands where anyone can see them. Explain whatever move you are going to make. Say you have to open the door and get out or have to bring out your license or have to unfasten your seat belt.
Do not forget to add “sir” to whatever you say. Speak correct English. Did you lose your accent yet? I hope not. I saw on TV that Americans have an ear for people whose tongues are thick on their words. Your accent could divert attention and show that you are a different kind of black in a place where black has only one shade.
Say you are an only child and that you have an old mother back in Nigeria who would die if anything were to happen to you. Saying that might not mean a lot in that country where human life is trivial and dogs have more dignity than black people. In a nation of the most intelligent people, I find it unfortunate that they do not seem to understand how one person’s untimely death can ruin many lives. They do not see how one life is like a road leading to others and those others leading to much more. It would not just be your father and me who would not survive if anything were to happen to you. It would also be your uncles and aunts who cannot wait for you to do well in your studies, get a fine job and help them with your cousins. So it is not just your life; it is many lives now and generations down the line.
Uncle Benji is not quite sure you should mention that bit about Nigeria. He says you cannot be sure if the police officer has received one of those emails from a Nigerian prince who has a large inheritance coming and wants help to see it released. If so, then just say you have a mother who would die if anything were to happen to you. Hopefully, the police officer has a mother as well who has trained him well and whom he loves.
Do not get involved in anything illegal.
Do not be at any place where you are not supposed to be.
Do not touch anything you are not supposed to touch, eat or drink anything you are not supposed to.
Make sure to do all you have to do during the day and be back at your hostel before the sun goes down. I always told you that if anything were to happen to anyone in daylight, there are more chances there would be people there to witness and offer help if it is needed.
I forbid you to go out at night.
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