Ecoground Cafe blends into the Science & Technology Building at Fayetteville State University. It is an old rendezvous for lovers’ trysts. Glass-built, so that from outside you can see the bakers in their blue aprons across the counter. Once you enter, the aroma of the Java City roasted coffee takes control of your nose. Some students come for the coffee, others for Kool-Aid and cookies, and a few complete their post-class discussions there, with soft music directing the mood. Students going for lectures meet those who just complete their morning hours, and as paths cross, whoever reaches the door first holds the door for others coming in. It is a small act, an unuttered gesture of kindness that connects your humanity with others.
Kindness is kindness, whether it’s as big as a house gifted from one person to another, or as small as providing a pen to a person in need of one. As someone at school who felt an obligation to answer questions about my country, language, culture, identity, race and continent—even when the harshest and most ridiculous questions arrived before me—I was not given to anger, but tried to filter the moment in ‘kindness’ and to respond in the politest way. Being constantly in touch with the public of the University, where I was fellowshipping as a Fulbright scholar, cracked up the social terrain of America for me. The experience of a new visitor in confronting America’s racial hierarchies is startling—“funny, absurd, infuriating,” as Chimamanda Adichie once said.
“Ọlájídé, where is the racism? I can’t see it,” Houcien said perfunctorily one day, tapping me on the back. Houcien is from Morocco, a Fulbright scholar like me, arrived on the same day. He would be teaching Arabic; I, Yorùbá Language and Culture. Taking an evening stroll with him had become a daily ritual. I was a foot ahead of him when the question popped out. Was racism always tangible, I replied, something to be felt directly every time, bold and explicit enough to see like the stickers pasted on the buses roaming through the length and breadth of Skibo Road. Houcien laughed and pointed to a bird balancing on a nearby pine tree.
We were both staying in the University Place Apartments, across Murchison Road from the sprawling University. That Saturday we had decided to walk through the Rudolph Jones Student Center, branching to the path of interlocked red brick that leads to the Chesnutt Library. I was spruced up in my Àdìrẹ t-shirt, the one with gángan drum motif. Before we reached Chesnutt, I had waved to two white men talking beside a car who were looking at me like a circus freak. Partly because of how I was dressed? I wouldn’t know. I did enjoy decking myself this way most times to provoke curiosity of people on campus about Yorùbá culture and Nigeria, since it was the business that had brought me to America.
When I first arrived at Fayetteville, I worried over whether I could consider myself an African scholar or an expert in African scholarship. I had barely visited two African countries; I understand only the Yorùbá language and a smattering of Hausa, among two hundred and fifty ethnic groups in Nigeria, each with its distinct language and lexis. How could I call myself an expert in Nigerian culture, when I only know the southwestern part of Nigeria where Yorùbá people are dominant? Still I felt a generic duty to reply to questions around the culture, language and politics in Nigeria and Africa as a whole; despite my limitations, someone born in Africa might be able to offer some insights.
My supervisor scheduled me for a workshop session with the students and faculty members a few weeks into my fellowship. When I arrived on the morning of the session, Butler Theatre was filled almost to the brim. I stood in the dazzle of the orange halogen floodlights as my supervisor introduced me as a Yorùbá man from Nigeria. I opened my session with a tutorial of greeting in the Yorùbá language, which they all cacophonically chorused after me. Later I asked if anyone knew anything about Nigeria. A few hands were raised and I pointed to a lady in a brown jacket at the back, who responded with the shibboleth, Yahoo… Nigerians are your dears, but don’t forget to keep your credit card safe.
Fayetteville State University is a Historically Black University, so a huge portion of my audience was Black. By the time I finished addressing the question of cybercrime and the infamous Nigerian identity, there was a fusillade of other questions to deal with. Did Nigeria have an airport? Were there bridges for automobiles to take? Were there skyscrapers, did we know about pizza, did we use Whatsapp? Was I a cousin to the Angolan who spoke last week? Could we twerk?
Stereotype, ignorance and racism blended into a dizzying whole. I spoke of music and of foods; a few of them knew of and enjoyed Nigerian hip-hop, and knew Davido and a host of other Nigerian hip-hop stars. Yet I was also taken aback by some of the questions that came with the undertone of the noble savage who’s witnessing “civilization” for the first time by coming to America. The Caliban.
I felt kindness as a duty in the context of response and listening. Even if the questions came with taunting inflections, I had to convert the tone into usable and corrective knowledge, in order to get rid of stereotypes and assumptions. I was a Nigerian and an African addressing the task of opening my worldview to this audience. I had to tell them that Àdìrẹ is not a “costume” as most of them called it, and my Abetí Ajá is not a hat. It makes me reflect on what some African-Americans think of Africans or blacks from other places; what people, more generally, think of others who seem unfamiliar. I am flipping this page to the other side, to see how kindness operates in the many contexts of racism.
Èyí called me from Edwardsville a couple of weeks later. We were into our usual causerie when she told me that a woman in her Department had asked her where she was from. She is from Nigeria, she said, to which the woman replied that the only thing she knew about Africa is ‘Tiger’.
I asked Èyí, what her reaction had been to this exotic consecration of her identity. She joked, but also remarked that she’d been flustered that such a question would arise in the 21st Century. Putting her anger aside, she’d explained that tigers are not peculiar to Africa, nor are they domesticated. The previous week, she said, she’d had to dispel the “shit-hole” rhetoric of Trump in an awkward interactive session with students.
Later that evening, I got a WhatsApp message from T., inviting me to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina the following day, a long ride. I had been introduced to T. as a great friend of the international students/visitors by a previous Fulbright colleague. The invitation was a kindness, since she would be driving me in her car and using her gas that Saturday.
T. suggested that we stop over for lunch at Calabash. She had also packed some beverages; I had some nuts with me, and when she mentioned she knew I would like bananas and she had brought some for me, I thanked her. But I also read this as a micro-gesture, with the significance it brought. We had had no previous talk on my preferences for fruits. Was this the Eurocentric association of Black people with the primate identity?
We arrived at the Calabash Seafood Hut. Since T. is white, I stood out again in my Àdìrẹ. Two old white women were at an adjoining table: one in a grey gown, the other in a pink polo. It was a fork-clunking atmosphere, with the savory smell of fried seafood pervaded the air. The old lady in the pink polo started stealing some awkward glances at me. The waitress came to take our order. I would go for hushpuppies and fried fish, and the same for T., plus some icy Sprite cup. While we waited for our order, a question came from the woman in pink:
Where are you from?
Eyeballs rolled. She nodded her head and prodded further if I knew Uganda. I replied, Uganda is in the Eastern part of Africa. Then, she brought her phone out, did a few swipes and showed me a photo of a kid with mud-soiled feet. She announced proudly that her daughter, who had a big NGO in Uganda, was enabling Ugandans to walk again, because most Ugandans have no shoes. Her daughter’s NGO was saving them from being barefooted, hungry and marching the scorching earth of Africa. In short, her daughter was doing the white savior job.
I began to try deworming her of her stereotypical white savior narratives; my worry grows regarding the narratives of Western NGO kindness regarding African countries, embroidered and repeated in order to secure loans, favors and largesse. I worry about the campaign of white saviorism that permeates the media, dramatizing and perpetuating the sufferings on the African landscape for gain.
We were done with lunch and T. was fiddling with her phone when the old lady in pink asked me why I’d come to the US. I explained I was a scholar at Fayetteville. She ugh-ed at my reply and asked me when I would be returning to Nigeria. When I am done with my program, I replied, and invited her to join one of my workshops at the university. But from her grimaces, I knew she wouldn’t be coming. All the while, T. minded her phone with occasional cut-ins and superlatives about some of the pictures we’d taken on the way.
We headed out toward the sea. The gush of the waves brought me memories of home. The water retained its bluish-green face, emptying its force on the concrete slabs at the banks. No sign of the sharks that had brokered grief a few years back. We returned late from Myrtle Beach, and I sent T. a message of gratitude. It was the pre-pandemic episode of my American experience. I never could have anticipated the grotesque details of the pandemic, so soon to come.
When the pandemic began, the University announced that all the international students and scholars would be moved into another residence on campus. The management of the Hall offered us two free servings of food per day at Chick-Fil-A. It was a highly tense moment because of the virulent number of Covid-19 cases North Carolina was seeing. Most of my days were spent indoors, and the virus stories had already aroused some kind of paranoia in me. By May the University had published an evacuation notice for all of us. School was out.
Since I was unable to return to Nigeria because of the lockdown, my supervisor arranged another place for me at Sydney Drive, outside campus. I would be living with an American retiree until my flight home became available. I arrived on a Friday at the single-family home without much fanfare, with the exception of the barking of my hosts’ three huge dogs at the front of the small veranda.
On our first meeting, my landlady, D., wore no mask. I mumbled some inaudible prayers for me not to get infected. I adjusted my cotton mask and was led into a small room. I’d have my own bathroom, but I would be sharing the kitchen with D.
American politics was boiling up at that time, and election propagandists were firing their missiles from all sides. The death of George Floyd, who who’d been murdered by a white American policeman, had sparked a radical political moment. It was a vulnerable time for me; between the pandemic and rising political tensions, nobody wanted to rent out an apartment or a room to a stranger. So being taken in by D. came with a lot of kindness. She took me to the Mall for shopping, and sometimes insisted that we have dinner together; she would take my clothes into the laundry, and return my things clean and folded.
A couple of days after the Market House in Fayetteville was set aflame by aggrieved individuals as part of their anger against racism, I found myself in the kitchen with D. She inquired if I knew of the Market House fire downtown. I nodded yes. The Market House had been a slave market in the antebellum period, but D. was galled at this attempted erasure of memory and of a monument she felt all should be proud of. I wanted to ask D. what memory this edifice was standing for in the socio-political terrain of America today.
Yet I was a bit reluctant to engage D., because her evenings and nights were always filled with Fox News. She is a votary of Republican ideology. For most of our conversation that day, I sighed, reflecting on the white supremacist undertone of D.’s words. Breonna Taylor had been killed by police shortly before my arrival, and I was astounded one evening when D. attempted to justify Breonna Taylor’s killing; she suggested the cops were defending their own lives, and probably the lady was involved in drug deals herself. D.’s thought seemed to emerge from white-centric orientation and a grand narrative in which the black male figure is the archetypal peddler of drugs, and the carrier of animus against American society.
In the long run, these conversations gave me a sense of awakening in reinterpreting the generosity of D. Was it the form of kindness that Robin diAngelo calls the “reproduction of racist outcomes”? (“If racists are intentionally and openly mean, then it follows that nice people cannot be racist.”) Or was her kindness a recompense for racism? D.’s racism did not stop her purported kind gesture. What pedagogy, I wondered, would work in unschooling her of the corrosive beliefs she had absorbed? How could I make her see that police brutality is systemic, that a particular group is being targeted; a group including myself?
I thought about telling her that when I walked down Murchison Road or cycled around the neighborhood at Sydney Drive, I always had my two eyes at the back of my head. But I considered how she’d boasted about the guns that are in the possession of white people, if America is to enter another civil war. I felt her cruel joke during our last dinner, when she compared my moods to those of her dog. What tools are there for changing the perspectives of someone who has had fifty years of racist instructions? Can kindness address any part of this impasse? To paraphrase Achille Mbembe, in his seminal book on black identity, Critique of Black Reason, being black is at the core of “catastrophe, the cause of extraordinary psychic devastation and of innumerable crimes and massacres,” a thought I came to understand far more deeply in America. The danger that comes with the skin, which you can misrecognize as an act of kindness.