Living in America, Leaving Nigeria Notes on the House that Needs Saving

Living in America as an African is quite different from living somewhere in Africa. If anything, Americans will make you forget your own insignificance on earth.

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When Americans look out on the world, they see nothing but dark and menacing strangers who appear to have no sense of rhythm at all… 

                                                                               —James Baldwin, ‘Notes on the House on Bondage’ 

Disclaimer: The author has altered some characters and locations in this essay. 

Boulder, United States

Instances of racism need not be overt like that of the KKK. The grandeur of racism today, in fact, lies in its subtlety. Listen, I have testimonies. A woman told me it was stupid to blend my vegetables rather than dice them like Americans do. I told her that is how most people do it in Nigeria. In the heat of the moment, the woman snapped, ‘It is just stupid!’ A woman told me it is people like me that make my race look bad because I didn’t hold the door for her to come in. My friend, Kwesi Thomas (University of Toronto), has philosophically demystified what makes such pronouncements racist. But I don’t want to philosophize, I want to give you a narrative! 

‘I expressed my frustration at the lack of a football viewing centre in America.’

It was all normal. It was earlier this year—sometime around January. We made light-hearted jokes about our time in Nigeria. We started with the food. We all agreed that because Nigerian food has more spice in it, Nigerian foods are better than most things you will find in America. Even without the spice effect, that Nigerian foods are better than those of Americans shouldn’t be controversial in a room full of Nigerians in America—and we are not just Nigerians in America, but Nigerians now living in Boulder, a very white progressive and liberal city where all the food are also very white. A group’s national identity anchors their autonomy as much as their preferences. Then we spoke about our best Jackie Chan movies. After that, we started a football banter.  

I expressed my frustration at the lack of a football viewing centre in America, and others stated that they shared the same sentiment. A football viewing centre in Nigeria is not just a place to watch a football game, it is a place where people—or more clearly, viewers—express their frustrations at strangers and speak with authority about how the football club ought to be spending its money. The viewing centre in Nigeria is a place for football fans to perform the ad hominem fallacy without caring about the well-being of their interlocutors and without feeling remorse about the misfortunes of their opponents. But this is not as bad as it might seem. In the viewing centre, no one is a victim—or, more accurately perhaps, everyone is a victim. Demeaning a team, its players, and their fans in a viewing centre is an invitation for your interlocutors to dig into the worst history of your football club and players. One of us said, ‘The banter at the viewing centre is what really makes football sweet, walahi!’ And we all agreed.   

‘Good old days, guys.’ I said to the four other Nigerian PhD students in the living room of my two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of my school’s Graduate Family Housing in Boulder, Colorado. Then we joked about how white Americans smile at us every time we walk past them on the pedestrian side of the road. The roadside white American smile, I strongly believe, is a polite one: a vague but lively bodily disposition that is supposed to remind one that they are nicer than the white people who have been reported to vitiate black bodies—and perhaps not a racist or a mean white person. Or maybe the smile is a subconscious cry to not be victimized, since ‘the people of your kind can be irrationally angry, hungry, and harmful’. We don’t know what it means. But we sit in my living room and mock how the white smile puts us in a position to be psychologically dreadful: Why are you smiling at me? I do not know you, and I saw you when the white boy walked past you. You didn’t smile at him. The smile truly looks like a polite smile. And—indeed—it is. But the smile—despite its politeness—objectifies. 

That boy deserves to be a boy, too.

The glance and the smile all coalesce to remind me—and I believe others too—that I do not belong here, and I have a fixed position in this part of the world to be an ‘Other’—a position that I share with my Chinese, Hispanic, and Black brothers, sisters, and non-binaries. But I wonder though—and I seriously do wonder—if it is irresponsible for me to blame these polite white smilers for how and what their smile makes me feel. If at all I retained any quantum of blameworthiness for myself about how and what the white smile makes me feel, that blame disappeared when I asked TR if white people also smile at him when he is walking. TR is a white South African PhD student in my department and his response to my question was not affirmative. And that shook my dungeon. Despite its politeness, the smile is a confrontation: It aims to remind one that there is a gaze upon you. As Frantz Fanon explicates: ‘…the Other fixes me with his gaze, his gesture, and attitude.’ 

No one said this, but the light-hearted jokes reminded us of how we used to be before coming to America: a tiny atom amid other tiny atoms. Here in America, to be an African PhD student is to be big—a patch that some Americans somehow hope would mend some torn part of their country’s history: ‘See, we have an African student in our department. We are very inclusive.’ I am one of the two only African—and in fact, the only Black—PhD student in my own department, and though I have never felt like I’m part of an inclusive project in my department, other African students complain of feeling this way. Jay, my roommate, complained to me that his department does not send him a personal email during other department gatherings and events, but he receives a personalized email when the department wants to do a diversity programme. And this, itself, is interesting. Jay is not just a PhD student anymore, he is now a part of a project—perhaps, to put it clearly, a part of propaganda. I cannot assert that this is bad, but I know it is not right. That boy deserves to be a boy, too. And when we accord him the status of a boy—as we accord to that white boy, we start seeing clearly why it is not right to make Jay an object of an inclusive project. It is true that this project is a project that aims at building a more just world given the unjust world we live in. But I strongly believe that there should be another way to do it, and that way cannot be that we objectify Jay to make white people feel good about their diversity or inclusive project.  

I wonder what white people see when they see Jay. Did they see a boy pursuing a doctoral degree or a very brilliant African boy they hired to make their department more inclusive? 

Home is the sojourn, the journey towards nothingness.

The light-hearted jokes reminded us of home, of hope, of sadness, of the last kiss a lover shared with their beloved in departures, of a son too shy to hug his mother while leaving home. It reminded us of faith—we did not come here with anything except two boxes and the faith to do great things in America without social capital. The light-hearted jokes reminded us of the ephemerality of home: Though we are forced by our cultures to have a predilection for home, for some of us, home is not a place. Home is the sojourn, the journey towards nothingness. 

All of a sudden, the jabs, pries, football banter, and light-hearted jokes coalesced into a political argument. ‘You cannot say the man is depraved for choosing to vote for a candidate of his choice!’ Samson yells at Modupe during the heated political argument. The discussion had moved from a discourse about home and our experiences in America to a heated debate about the political scene in Nigeria. The discussion at hand is about the 2023 Nigerian presidential election which includes three prominent candidates—the political tycoon, Bola Tinubu, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, and former governor, Peter Obi.  The reason why Samson spoke to Modupe that way was because of a video we saw on Twitter (now X)—a video that started our political debate that evening. The discussion had moved because Tope pulled out that video from Twitter. In the video, a man in his mid-60s talked to his community members. The mid-60s man advised his community members to practice regionalism in the 2023 Nigerian elections by not voting for the two other presidential candidates from other regions but the candidate that is from their region—the Yoruba region. That candidate is the president of Nigeria today. 

Modupe’s argument against Tinubu hinges on a different variety of views. Some of them include that Tinubu is too old; he has been exploiting Lagos State for a very long time; he is the candidate of the ruling party that has led the country to become the capital of poverty in the world; and Tinubu just lies about everything. Even his place of birth as well as his educational background is nebulous. So Modupe’s argument is in fact a solid one. But Modupe’s argument hinges more on the sort of testimonies that people in Nigeria give every day. For instance, it is not unusual for Nigerians to exclaim ‘I’m tired of this country!’; ‘I no even know where tinz dey go!’; ‘Everything just dey expensive and na everyday inflation dey raise!’ Since these expressions of frustration became mundane during the last Buhari administration, Modupe feels like Tinubu is just bound to fail since the party that produced Buhari is also the one Tinubu ran under. The intuition behind Tinubu’s failure is basic: evil begets evil. Opemipo, a 27-year-old philosophy graduate, tells me ‘Since I came to life, life has never been this hard. I strive to make ends meet. I just tire for everytin’. So, I see why Modupe might be right.  

But Samson’s outright dismissal of Modupe is all at once a sad and interesting one. Sad because it seems to be saying that in as much as people fulfil the basic principles of democracy such as voting for the person of their choice, any decision one makes is a justified one that provokes or ought not to provoke any other moral demand or moral duty. So, say there is an idiot and a competent person contesting for the same position, a person will be justified in voting for the idiot. This is a flawed way of thinking about how democracy should work. In fact, I think this way of thinking about fulfilling one’s duties in liberal democracy makes one’s moral failure glaring.  

I have been pessimistic so far, but that does not mean there is no love in this place.

As I have pointed out somewhere else, moral failure occurs in democracies when, in the face of a better alternative, a person chooses to vote for another candidate. This kind of (possible) bad selection is often masked in liberal democracies with the liberal values of ‘individual rights’ and the ‘right to vote for the candidate of my choice.’ This mask is often professed through affirmations like ‘It is my right to vote for anyone I like. And it is equally within my right to canvass for the candidate of my choice.’ But the question of moral responsibility arises when we understand that our political choices are simply not personal; they also affect others as a result of the legitimacy we will give to political leaders when we vote for them. Since political institutions shape not just our interests but our lives and characters, and the actions and inactions of political leaders are what determine our society, we have the moral obligation to be critical about our choices. But we also sit in that room understanding the limitation of our agential power. We cannot vote because Nigeria does not extend voting rights to Nigerians outside the country, and we are broke PhD students who cannot afford the ticket back home. 

What makes Samson’s dismissal of Modupe interesting is that that sort of dismissal is what we occasionally encounter as African students in America. Samson closed his dialogue by telling Modupe that she’s a woman and her opinion does not really count in political matters anyway. In classes—even though the dismissiveness is not as glaring as Samson’s dismissal of Modupe’s epistemic credibility—professors would often not pay attention to what their African students have to say. One factor could be the accent. But I suspect it is the subconscious lack of admiration. I find it interesting that we can sit and joke about what white people do to us and also do it to ourselves—or to put it clearly, I find it interesting that we can sit and joke about what white people do to us just to do the same thing to our women. And that is interesting because it shows how much we want to be saved without wanting to save others—a testament to our lack of gracious love. 

I have been pessimistic so far, but that does not mean there is no love in this place. A professor decided to pick me up at the airport. He texted me if I was feeling lonely during Christmas and he took me to a fancy restaurant. He takes his time to read my papers and he gives me critical comments that I do feel makes me a better philosopher. I have never been in love, but I also found love in this place—in fact, the sweetest person I have ever met, and I do not say this to be flirtatious or pretentious. A professor offered me coffee in her office, and I said that I loved it, two weeks later she came to class with a box of coffee and offered it to me.  

There is a lot of love in this place and in fact, I have never felt such an abundance of love outside my nuclear family. But there is love and there is also hostility—benign or malign, I don’t know. But I feel what I feel. My first landlord in America told me the food that I was cooking was stupid because I blended the vegetables rather than dice them like Americans do. The landlord told me I would never flourish in philosophy because my accent makes it hard for people to hear me (hi, but I now have a paper in a top philosophy journal in my 1st year of a 5-years PhD programme. A feat that most struggle to achieve even in their final year of the programme!). But I don’t have a thick accent, so the landlord’s judgment is false, and I just felt it was their way of making me feel lesser of myself. The landlord said it was an injustice for me to pronounce ‘apples’ as ‘ah-pple’. The landlord said that I’m brilliant and I’m doing it on purpose to hurt Americans. I told them the Yoruba people have an H-factor, and the landlord said they don’t care and that I’m in America now and I should develop myself to meet the American English standard. I told them I had lived in Nigeria for 22 years and I could not become American overnight. They said maybe Nigeria is my place then and I should go back. A woman during dinner said I smile like her dog. A professor told her students ‘Africans don’t swim’. A white PhD student came to me on my first day in the department and asked me ‘If you come from Nigeria, how come your English is so good?’  

Americans—at least, in my experience—don’t just believe they don’t need saving.

In my first semester leading a recitation class, I was assigned by my department to be the teaching assistant for a class on ‘Poverty, Power, and Patriotism’. During one of my recitation classes, a student—a blonde, white boy—asked me ‘How did you people survive in such an unjust socio-economic system?’ That question came up when I was explaining that despite that reparations might be justified for African states that were colonized, it remains a huge problem if African leaders won’t loot the money paid to repair the past harm that is colonialism. The question didn’t surprise me. This is America. I am an African and I’m in the eyes of most Americans I’m here to seek a greener pasture. Since Africa is the world capital of poverty, any African here is here because he lacks what Americans have. Indeed, that might be true, but the assumption is not just false but a bad doxastic attitude.  

How do I tell this kid—as well as Americans that feel the same way, the Americans that use the word ‘you’ when they’re giving a response to your third-person narrative—that I am 23 years old and I had no student debt that I will have to pay for the largest part of the rest of my existence? How do I let him know that I had some money without defrauding anyone? How do I tell him that I am 23 years old, and I have turned ‘some money’ into a 4-bedroom bungalow in my state of residency? Or to put it more clearly, how do I tell him that I am 23 years old, I am an African, and I am a homeowner? How do I tell him that I have all these things without taking from America? How do I tell him that it is true that I’m probably the only 23-years-old in my state that has achieved this but the fact that he already assumed the African person is a striving person puts him in a racist position he truly hates every time he hears about how the world treats a black boy? How do I tell him that assumption is the root of all lesser evil? How do I tell him that I truly just want to be a brilliant professor of philosophy and I feel only the American standard can afford me that? How do I let him know that I’m not here to be saved? How do I let him know I’m here to do just the same thing he is doing: living—and not that I’m merely trying to survive?  

A girl asked me to catsit her cat while she went to visit her mom in another state, and I wondered if she truly believed I needed the fifty dollars she paid me badly or if I only accepted the offer because I needed to be in a place far away from my apartment. But you cannot tell people what they don’t want to hear, just the same way you cannot save people who do not believe they need saving. Nigerians have a lot of problems, but at least Nigerians know that they need saving. Americans—at least, in my experience—don’t just believe they don’t need saving. They also believe that you are the one who needs saving

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