On the Sunny Side of the Street
Outside my small apartment on the west side of Manhattan, Kansas, the noise is staccato. Fireworks have been designing the evening like the canvas of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Excited American adults and teenagers yip and yap about the greatness of their country both in present and past tense. It is past 6pm, but the sun is out in all its hotness. It is the eve of the Fourth of July celebrations, and a great elation is upon the people. No matter how much I try, their excitement doesn’t infect me, instead I am captivated by the buzz that has engulfed our usually dull and empty street. 1545 International Courtyard lives up to its name, with a congregation of unusual suspects, men and women walking around, some talking animatedly, others dancing, some kids working the sticks from which fireworks shoot out to punctuate the blue sky, so I sit by my window and watch.
The irony of their excitement is not lost on me. Since my arrival in this country, I have listened in on too many conversations that dispute the usefulness of this celebration. How it is a celebration that excludes Black and Native Americans and ignores their various contributions to the American project. But here we are, the Fourth of July celebration of the year 2021, almost two years after the first reporting of the pandemic, everyone with fireworks standing in front of their houses, hotdogs and burgers in hand, smiles and a sense of celebration washing over their many-coloured faces.
There are Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Korean and Chinese faces, standing outside, celebrating this country that sees itself as the big brother to the rest of the world. The image of these people standing together in celebration of a country that holds, for them, a promise of citizenship, reminds me of the quote I heard in passing at the World War 1 Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. “America is a nation of immigrants.” This quote was repeated over and over in the few hours I spent poring over the exhibition that was housed in the Mount-Olympus-like museum. It was attributed to JF Kennedy in his book titled A Nation of Immigrants, published in 1958. The book typified the entirety of his politics in that era. I sometimes wonder who Kennedy meant when he said “immigrants,” and whether the everyday American shared this sentiment at the time. Did he mean the Italians of New York? Or the Germans of Kansas and Missouri, or the Jews who were fleeing the persecution of the Nazis, or the Irish who are scattered all over the United States? Or does this category include Black Americans, former slaves, forced from their homes and realities, displaced, used for labour, seen as nonhuman, only tools for the building of the infamous American dream, fleeing from the Jim Crow south of America in search of a new lease of life elsewhere?
Yet even as I make this mental connection, I am aware of other ways this quote by the great American politician perpetuates a lie. That this country belongs to anyone but Americans. Because as a non-immigrant in this country, I have often heard immigrants say the only thing they own in America is a promise to be American one day if the bureaucrats allow it. Because to become American, according to the American Oath of Allegiance, is to forget everything from your past, to embrace this new identity that allows you to pretend that you weren’t once something or someone – someone you can’t return to being and something other, someone other.
In a conversation between the writer Teju Cole and American podcaster Krista Tippett they talk about Lassana Bathily, a Malian immigrant who helped save the lives of six customers from a terrorist attack at a supermarket where he worked in Paris. The reward for his bravery was the endowment of French citizenship to upgrade him from his immigrant status. The same was the story of Mamoudou Gasssama, another Malian immigrant, who in May 2018 earned the moniker “the spiderman of Paris” for saving a boy dangling from a balcony.
“The superhuman is rewarded with formal status as a human,” Cole says during the talk with Tippett. “The merely human meanwhile remains unhuman, quasi-human, subhuman. The already human, to be granted humanity in this arrangement, must be superhuman. No, not merely superhuman, but visibly, demonstrably superhuman. Gassama crossed the Mediterranean in a tiny boat – that was superhuman, but no one filmed that. He remained subhuman and there was no reward. Such is the Empire’s magnanimity.” So, in the absence of any superhuman ability, the only hope for the immigrant is a promise.
This makes sense to me because most of the immigrants I have met here, the ones who hold tightly onto this promise – especially the ones who are like me, who are not running from a war perpetuated by the imperialism of the American state, who are just searching for the promised pasture that we had been assured was greener on the other side – are here because there is nothing to look back at. Our displacement, our confusion about ourselves, is a result of a farce that was sold to us about the greatness of this country. A farce wrought and packaged like a Christmas present and named the American dream. But once you arrive here, you are smacked with the reality that this dream isn’t for everyone, most especially not people who look like you. And you know then that you are back home again, as if you never left.
On my first day as an English Language and Arts Instructor for eager college-bound white high school students during my first summer in the United States, I stood in front of the class and wondered what each of the kids thought of me. Looking into their expectant faces, I wondered if like me at their age, they wondered about my ability to actually impart any sort of knowledge to them. I worried about the way they would test and challenge me, because if there is anything you can trust teenagers for, it is the extent of their queries. The extent of their innocence and possible evil. How pure and unpretentious they could be. But beyond them, I worried about myself. I worried about the things that made America different. I worried about my place in the conversations about gender and pronouns. How hard it was for my brain to acknowledge the many changes that were happening in the world. I worried about mis-gendering my students and using the wrong pronouns. I worried about pronunciations, especially being able to speak the “r” common in Americanese. I worried about the comfort of my students, how they would fare in a class taught by a large-looking Black man, his hair thick and dreaded, his earrings shiny. I wondered if they feared me, if they imagined throwing stones at me on the road and had fantasies of hurling the word “nigga”, as some teenagers I encountered at a church concert had done few weeks into my arrival in Manhattan. I wondered what they thought about my accent, if they too would be shocked like the old lady at the grocery store when I informed her that I had just arrived from Nigeria.
“You mean to tell me they speak English down there?” she said, pointing down as though the floor represented where the aeroplane that brought me had emerged from, a genuine surprise in her age-worn face.
“We don’t only speak English,” I said. “It is our official language too, just as it is for you.”
But most of all, I worried about teaching these kids about a language that once belonged exclusively to people with skin like theirs. A language forced on my ancestors when the colonisers arrived in our country to steal from us and bestowed upon us the Empire’s magnanimity and a democracy that could last for only so long. A language I have paid with my blood to be able to speak and write. But maybe I shouldn’t have worried because the students took it all in. I shared my unsolicited food criticism, my hatred for garlic, cheese, and avocados, and my dismay that almost every American food was burdened with a touch of these abominable ingredients.
They laughed at my lack of taste. They called me a vampire and threatened to unleash sunlight on me. One of them even threatened to “drive a stake through my heart.” They gave me some recommendations about how to fix my irritable taste buds. In the final days, I bonded with them over Nigerian rapper Olamide’s latest single, ‘Rock.’ We did classwork, drafted cover letters and proposals to Olamide’s voice in its sonorous and beautiful cadence as it emerged from the tiny speakers and filled the room like a pleasant smell, singing mi o mọ bọ ṣe n gbe body o. Occasionally, a student would raise their hand and demand a translation of the lyrics, and I would tell them in jest, “If you really want to know, you will have to renounce your American citizenship.”
Louis Armstrong’s trumpet is singing a duet with the occasional noise from the air-condition system in my apartment as he renders his 1967 hit single ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ from my iPhone 7 speakers. It is a super-hot 99-degree day outside. I can still hear the inconsistent cracks of the fireworks outside my window. The first time I listened to this song, I was back home in Nigeria, walking the streets of Lalubu in Oke-Ilewo Abeokuta, a few days after the government sent in soldiers to clear out the streets in the aftermath of the infamous EndSARS protests of October 2020.
The weather was kind that evening. The rains had subsided, so the sun was taking a backseat, and everywhere was sepia. The song had not meant much to me then; it had simply been one of the many songs on my jazz playlist, which had Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and even Frank Sinatra. But the image of soldiers standing at the old Ibara intersection, pointing their guns at passersby and questioning everyone who passed on foot or in a car, their voices angry and threatening – “Where you dey go?” “Who you be?” “Are you one of those troublemakers?” – would never leave me. It would take me to memories buried in time, to my childhood, when Nigeria was still under military dictatorship and riots were rife and the government cracked down on dissent.
I had arrived in Manhattan wrapped in the cold fingers of winter back in January 2021. My travel followed tumultuous weeks of wondering whether my international passport would get seized and my trip cancelled for my part in the protests. In Abeokuta, I was a part of a tiny group of organisers, and since I didn’t have any great social currency to give, I gave what I had. I coordinated donations and assisted with mobilisation efforts, leveraging my small social media following. The events of the preceding weeks and the reports of protesters being harassed by government security officials at different international airports seemed to be the hottest news in town. We were done with the protests, but it didn’t seem like the government was done with us. They wanted us in chains, they wanted us contained, they wanted us silenced.
The protests were sparked by outrage over a video that appeared on social media. The video showed officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, also known as SARS, a unit of the Nigerian Police Force, shooting a young Nigerian and making away with his vehicle. As soon as it appeared on social media, the movement took on a life of its own as young Nigerians shared instances of extortion and police brutality that they had suffered. Like many other young Nigerians, I had my own SARS story. Back in 2015, when I was still a church boy travelling from Abeokuta to Lagos to attend a church service in the Ikeja area, I was dragged down from a cab and beaten blue by members of the squad who insisted that I was a thief they had been profiling for years.
Surviving to tell the story was rare. Those of us who did survive or knew someone who had fallen victim to this rogue unit of the police found our voice under the umbrella of this movement. The protests were one of those events that no one saw coming, not the government and certainly not those of us who participated in it. What we knew, however, and believed in, was that we were tired, and we needed change. In his speech at the formation of the All-Progressive-Congress, the party whose creation was supposed to alter the failing trajectory of the country in 2015, political strategist and leader Asiwaju Bola Tinubu declared that a “Silent Storm” was brewing. We had cheered him on then for his eloquence. But I doubt he knew that we, and not him or his party, were that storm he foretold.
Every day during the protests in Abeokuta, we marched from the city centre at the Ibara intersection down to the governor’s office, yelling, “Sọrọ soke Wérè! ENDSARS! What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” Drenched in our sweat and the unyielding rain, we walked, we screamed, and we hoped that somehow, in some fucked up way, our democratically elected government might listen. If they, in fact, listened, it was to things we didn’t say. Because on that dreary night in October, the government responded by sending soldiers to the protest ground in Lekki, Lagos and elsewhere. The soldiers riddled young bodies with bullets and the next day denied to the world that anything had happened.
While things in Ibara never resulted in the sort of carnage that happened elsewhere, the images of bullet-ridden bodies and protesters singing the Nigerian national anthem to nameless, gun-wielding soldiers in hope of escaping slaughter were enough to send us home. I was sitting amid some area boys when I received the news that soldiers were on their way to the protest ground in Lekki, Lagos. The time was 6pm. As many others did, I wrote a tweet encouraging my followers to head on home if they could.
In Abeokuta, despite being less than two hours from Lekki, we had no such worries about soldiers showing up, so we continued doing what we were doing. In those moments, some people were even dancing. I watched with great admiration as the area boys proved their commitment to the cause: with the smell of weed and cigarettes holding the atmosphere hostage, they walked around the protest ground and tidied up, picking up any item that constituted litter and throwing it into a black duffle. In those moments, I realised that these so-called bad boys of the neighbourhood were only what they were because that was what society required of them. Fifty minutes later, my phone began buzzing with an intensity. My mum. My sister. My brother. All of them were trying to reach me at almost the same time.
“Soldiers are shooting protesters, check twitter,” my brother wrote in his message. I did. At the same time, almost everyone at the protest ground in Ibara did the same. It felt as if we had all been summoned by the gods in our palms. In the following minutes, the protest dispersed without ceremony. Some of us sat on the bare floor, staring at our phones as if they were living, breathing things. We watched with horror as one protester filmed the events live on Instagram. People had been shot. Some were running. Others were sitting. Others were crying. We were watching. We were sitting. We were crying. No soldiers came for us in Ibara. Those of us who stayed looked each other in the eyes, wordless, and wondered how to be again. We had a collective trauma we didn’t know how to articulate.
A month later, in the aftermath of the protests, when everything had calmed a bit, the government’s propaganda machinery was in full gear, with spokespersons of the administration denying everything we had witnessed. Protesters were being picked at random, thrown in jail, shot, and others had their international passports seized. The government did everything with an efficiency we didn’t know it possessed.
Earlier that year, I had been accepted into a university in Kansas, United States for graduate studies. It was time for me to travel, but the activities of the government scared the shit out of me. My brother suggested that I sneak out of Nigeria and reroute my flight out of the country through Port Novo, Benin Republic or Accra, Ghana. But as easy as that idea seemed, I was worried about what it would mean to make that trip. Smuggling myself out of the country would mean that when I wanted to return, if the day ever came, it would be a chore. A week before my trip, I said goodbye to my mum and dad, packed my things, and headed for my friend’s place in Lagos. It was a practical idea, to be closer to the airport and to be able to travel at a moment’s notice without having to worry about the possibility of being delayed by traffic on the hour-long trip from Abeokuta.
Those final days with my friend, Socrates Mbamalu, a journalist, would reveal to me several heartbreaking stories about the Nigerian government’s role in cracking down on innocent protesters. I would learn of a boy who got hit by a bullet that strayed to his spine and rendered his limbs lifeless. I would learn of massacres carried out by the Nigerian police in the guise of cracking down on dissenting protesters who disobeyed the curfew. Two days before my departure, I called the airline to confirm my flight and they assured me that everything was in order.
My flight from Lagos to Istanbul was eventless, except for the moments right after I said goodbye to my family and friends. When my older brother, who had travelled from Abeokuta to the airport, held me in a hug, it felt weird. The sort of weird one couldn’t really explain. In my family, physical touch was never our forte. In fact, a week earlier, when I had said goodbye to my dad, he had refused to hug me, saying that he didn’t know his Covid-19 status and didn’t want to jeopardise my trip. I had dived into the hug without his permission, knowing full well that it was possible I wouldn’t see him for a few years. When I pulled away, he wouldn’t look at me, I wasn’t sure what emotions were coursing through him at that moment. Much later, he would tell me that the news of my plans to leave the country had shocked him so much that he had refused to believe it and that that moment when I was finally leaving had been quite difficult for him to accept.
So, this time with my brother, I wondered what was going through his mind. We had been living together for about eight years after we both left our parents’ house. We had been responsible for each other, learnt to be comfortable in each other’s silences and noise. He had endured my many eccentric moments of artistic excesses, my many heartbreaks, my many problems with bosses and colleagues at work, and worst of all, my culinary feats. I felt him cry, or maybe I imagined or hoped for it. My younger sister was there also, the absolute love of my life. We were seeing each other for the first time in about a year. The last time I had seen her, she had come to my office in tears, so shaken that she hadn’t been able to hold the tears until we got into the privacy of my office. Her big, bulgy eyes shook me, and her frail posture scared me as I collected her into an embrace, the only one in memory. Some good-for-nothing dude who had claimed to love her had dumped her on the eve of their third-year anniversary. I felt a murderous kind of rage as she relayed the events. But on the day of my trip, she was back to her usual colourful self, beautiful and bubbly, with so much life. She would be off to the United Kingdom for grad school a few weeks after my trip. As she hugged me, she reminded me of the dreams we both had as kids, of travelling to European cities, of living better lives than the ones that moulded us. I said goodbye to my friend Socrates, who had escorted me to the airport as well.
I left them and walked through the lobby to check in. I felt lightheaded and beads of sweat appeared on my forehead. I wiped them off with my handkerchief. I paid no heed to the numerous porters at the airport who wanted me to patronise them. After I finished checking in, I turned back and watched my family and friend wave at me, and I waved back. I had a tiny jolt of electricity run through me at that moment. Though I had dreamt of the moment for so long, I had not imagined what it would actually feel like. I stood there as though I was in a trance. A woman in a uniform I couldn’t identify walked up to me; I had not even been aware that anyone else noticed me. The mask on her face sat at an improper angle under her massive lips.
“Why you dey do like woman? You go miss your flight as you dey do so,” she said. Her grating voice yanked me back to the moment. I swung my backpack to my back and moved towards the waiting area to join the other passengers waiting for their flights. Each step felt like forever.
“You no go find your sister something?” the woman said. I stopped for a moment to observe her. Her face had no evidence of shame. I removed my wallet and riffled through the naira notes that were left and handed her one. As soon as she left, another lady in a similar uniform appeared and asked the same question. I realised then that these women must be those airport officers I had read so much about. The ones without a definite job description but could easily be found anywhere in the airport. This was what they did: harass passengers for money. I ignored the woman and kept walking, keeping an eye out for a glimpse of my brother, sister, and friend. When I finally found a place to sit, there was no way to see them again and all the tears that had bottled themselves up inside me burst forth.
A few hours after my arrival at the humongous airport in Istanbul, a South African man tried to proposition me into making an investment with him. He had the most weird, unpleasant face; his nose was scrunched as though there was a nasty smell about him. As he walked closer, he covered his lips and nose with a carton-coloured facemask, twinning his trench coat.
“You are into Yahoo Yahoo, are you not?”
His words were neither accusatory nor a question. It came off matter-of-factly, as if he had done a background check on me before he approached. I turned my head in a gesture that only seemed to encourage him to say something even more offensive. “You are too well-dressed not to be. Everything you are wearing is new and flashy.”
I had heard this before, back in Nigeria. It had been a police officer who said it. I had been in the company of a colleague from the office. We were out for lunch and were heading back when the officers stopped us. The officer and his colleagues had not been dressed in the usual black police uniform. They had looked rough, rugged, and dangerous – a stereotypical description of armed robbers. They had waylaid us at the Agbeloba Intersection of Quarry Road and commanded us out of the vehicle. While I panicked and fidgeted, expecting the usual beatings that came with being stopped by these men, my colleague, whose father worked with one of the topmost security agencies in the country, had calmly gotten out of the vehicle, talked with the men, and asked them for their supervisor – a move that had rattled them into letting us go. But leaving Nigeria, I had not expected to encounter those words ever again.
“And that is a sign for being into yahoo?” I hoped the way the words emerged from my mouth didn’t reveal the irrational fear that was beginning to creep into my spine.
“I hope you are not irritated, my friend,” the man said. He spoke casually and touched my elbow. I flinched and he withdrew his hands before tucking them back into his large pockets.
“Why would I be?”
“What I am saying is that if you were into Yahoo, I don’t judge, I won’t judge. I am a businessman myself. You see, I am from Soweto, but I spent some years in Lagos, you see? I know how shitty Buhari has made the country for young men like you.”
“Shit happens. That doesn’t mean I would go into crime. Yahoo-yahoo is a crime, isn’t it?”
“Well, it depends on how you see it.” He adjusted his coat. Something about the way he was dressed didn’t inspire enough confidence to believe he wasn’t some security agent that was up to no good. “I help young men like yourself re-invest their money. That is what I do. I can help you with that, you know.”
Our conversation had started with him asking if I had a cigarette he could borrow. It had been a funny conversation starter, and although as a first-time traveller to that part of the world I probably shouldn’t have replied, I was only too glad to finally meet a person who looked like me and was able to speak English. So I told him, “In my experience, smokers are givers; we don’t borrow.” He laughed as he took a cigarette from me and lit it. We were standing on one of the balconies of the airport. There were other smokers around us, each busy with their drags, no one maintaining eye contact except me because I had been at the airport for too long, about 13 hours already and still had another five to go before my flight to Chicago.
This man would badger me for another 20 minutes about doing business with him till we finished smoking all the cigarettes in my pack. By then, although I was curious about why he had singled me out despite the fact that he must have seen other well-dressed black passengers over the time he had been at the airport, I was tired of talking and just wanted to sit down and have some coffee. The man would disappear the same way he appeared, and though the airport was huge and filled with people, it still surprised me that I couldn’t find him easily when I tried to immediately after I said goodbye.
At the coffee shop where I settled afterwards, a woman of Sudanese origin walked up to me. She had the face of someone who had once believed themselves beautiful but had given up on trying.
“Is there anyone sitting here?” she asked, pointing to the seat in front of me.
“No,” I replied.
“I want to wait here for my daughter. She is in the bathroom,” she said, pointing to the big ‘restroom’ sign on the other side of the room. I nodded.
“It’s good to find someone else who can speak English here.”
“That is true,” I said and smiled, but seconds later, my paranoia kicked in. How did she know I could speak English? How did she know to speak to me specifically?
“I heard you ordering your coffee,” she said, as if reading my mind, and smiled. She had an American accent.
“Sorry, if my face revealed anything embarrassing,” I said. “I have had some funny encounters in my little time here.”
“No, you are good. Funny encounters are basically part of the terrain when you travel Black.”
“This I am finding out,” I said and laughed, remembering how we, the Black travellers, had been singled out to be patted down on our arrival from Nigeria by the Turkish immigration.
“It doesn’t get better, so brace yourself,” she said. Seconds later, she stood up and swung her small backpack on her behind and started walking away. “I am Nikky.”
I watched as she reached where a little girl was standing. The girl could have been about 10 . I sipped my coffee, hoping to pass the remainder of my time at the airport with no other funny incident
Armstrong’s song was about to end. I could already hear the tenor of his trumpet tearing into the calm that his vocals had initially established. So, I grabbed my phone to put it on replay. I wanted to hear the cadence of his riff on the American national anthem, which represented the interlude of the song. It had become my favourite part of the song after several listens. I had once heard a version of the song that was performed by American bassist Esperanza Spalding to the audience of former American president Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2016 on YouTube. Spalding explained how the song was sung at the crescendo of the Great Depression and the First World War, when there was no hope in sight. This small history made it a song of refuge for me when I arrived in the United States in January. Because while the end of the coronavirus pandemic was in sight, it still looked bleak as fuck for many people. For me, this bleakness was accentuated by the sense of aloneness that stuck to me from the moment I said goodbye to my friend and siblings at the airport.
As I struggled to adapt to the time difference and settle into my new apartment, I was held hostage by a guilt. My small one-bedroom apartment, one of several of its kind, was located south of the Manhattan campus of Kansas State University. It was owned and run by the university. It reminded me of some of the ridiculously expensive serviced apartments in Lekki, Lagos. As the winter days dragged by and the biting cold seeped into my bones, I wondered what it would be like to have either of my parents come to this country and have this same experience. My dad, who is well travelled, might not have been very impressed, but I was certain my mum would be. She would want to feel and see everything. She might even want to play in the snow like a child. She has always been this way – endowed with a childlike innocence that allows her to enjoy things with fresh eyes. I remembered the last time I saw my dad in Nigeria, the day I said goodbye to him. He had emerged from his room in a sweat, complaining of the heat and the fact that the house had not seen electricity in about two weeks. So, every moment of abundance in this new place, whether it was the electricity or the food fed into that guilt.
While lost in my reverie, I heard a very loud knock. It was Sam. Sam knocks on the door the same way he is built, all muscles and no chill. He is a big, muscled man with an unrepentant love for booze and women. His accent is a blend of the Ugandan brand of Swahili and the Americanese he has been speaking since his arrival in the United States for school. He is in the final year of his PhD in Food Science. Hearing his voice by my door reminded me of the commitment I had made to hang out with him and his friends.
“Are you ready?” he asked as I let him into my apartment.
“Yes,” I lied and rushed into my room to pick up a shirt and wear my sneakers. We drove in the unforgiving Manhattan evening sun till we arrived at a very suburban district. The houses were very similar to each other, unlike the ones at International Courtyard. There were more people walking up and down the streets and the sky was an endless sequence of colours. Neighbourhood dogs yelped at each bang of the fireworks and tried to escape their leashes.
Our arrival at Sam’s friend’s place completed the United Nations of peoples in the backyard. Each of us represented a different country and a different continent. There was an all-American white couple (our hosts), a Korean couple, and two other women of Asian origin. Sam and I completed the odd group. Sam would later tell me how this had been his crew since his arrival in Manhattan. I couldn’t help but be jealous of him, considering how hard it had been for me to find people I could call my crew since I arrived.
We sat down for beer and games. Our hosts served us ribs and turkey and some pork chops. I became the subject of ridicule when Sam informed our host about my irritable taste buds and my lack of interest in the variety of cheese spreads they offered. From there, our conversations shifted to sports, the Super Bowl, and the American obsession with games no other country cared for. As the evening wore on, we arrived at the issue of policing in America and the rest of the world.
Sam and I shared stories about police brutality from our respective countries, which had interestingly similar endings. We pointed out the differences between the racialised occurrences in America and the cases of brutality back home.
After listening to us talk about instances of meeting policemen in America and looking for the nearest exit,, one of the other guests, Ben, who was born in Seoul, South Korea before his family migrated to the United States, told us that we didn’t know what we were talking about. “I have been to Seoul, London, and Madrid, and I can assure you that the United States has the best police,” he said without much emotion in his voice.
“No one is arguing that. At least, if by ‘best’ you mean best equipped and best funded,” I said and laughed.
“No, I am talking about relationships with the people. You are safer when you see an American police officer more than anything else.”
I looked at Sam, who looked back at me. It felt as if we had planned the exchange. Then we burst into laughter. Earlier that week, a video had surfaced online of some policemen in New York City beating up an elderly lady as their colleagues stood by watching.
“Even you don’t believe that,” Riley, one of our hosts said, her striking blue eyes trained on Ben.
“A lot of you don’t understand what it means to be a police officer,” Ben replied, his face red. He would later reveal to us that he was once a deputy.
“I don’t know bro, and I don’t think I ever want to find out,” I said.
Later as Sam and I were driving home, he would tell me, “The problem with police in America is not that they are not good or great or have a great relationship with the people as Ben was insinuating. The problem is that the so-called good policemen never out their bad colleagues. At least in Uganda and probably Nigeria too, we never kid ourselves that the police are good or bad. We know they are bad, and we run when we see them.”
Driving home a few weeks later with another friend whom I called to pick me up after having a margarita at a small Mexican bar in Aggieville, Manhattan, we turned on Claflin to begin the final lap of our trip towards International Courtyard and found that we were being tailed by a lone police vehicle. I asked my friend, another student from Nigeria who was pursuing his PhD in Chemistry, if he had any idea why the police could be following us. He replied that he wasn’t sure.
Between the time we pulled the car over and the moment the policeman walked over to speak with us, I was overcome by anxiety. I tried to mask it with humour, but no jokes would come out of my mouth. Social media in the last few years had warned me of this moment, of something like this possibly happening to me as a black person in America. Briefly, an image of George Floyd lying on the ground, the knees of a policeman on his neck, begging for his life flashed in my head. Others followed: 21-year-old Dreajson Reed, 27-year-old Malcolm Williams, 32-year-old Brent Andrews, 21-year-old William Lamont Debose, 21-year-old Demontre Bruner – all black boys of about the same build as my friend and I, all shot and killed after minor traffic infractions.
I thought about Josh Begley, an American digital artist and his ‘Officer Involved’ project that he showed to me and other participants at a writing workshop in Lagos back in 2019. This project, he explained, was meant to help visualise these dispersed locations where police incidents happened, thereby creating an ever-evolving portrait of death with each site represented by a Google Maps screen grab or by a Google Street View still image. I remembered thinking then how interesting it was that Begley’s project was shifting focus from the victims to the sky they witnessed in that final moment, before they passed on. It reminded me of something an older friend once said to me, that we share the same skies, both the living and the dead, yet some of us think we are better than others.
I thought about Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant who was immortalised by Haitian American singer Wyclef Jean, after being killed by New York City Police officers. I wondered what would be said of me, what memorial or projects my imminent death would elicit, how the death would be reported, whether I would become a martyr or be forgotten. I imagined my friends talking about me. How I never published a book, how I left a good job in Nigeria to chase a dream. I thought about my father and his unbelief in the greenness of the grass on this side of the world. I thought about my mother and her insistence on calling almost every day to check on me, and our last conversation before that night when I yelled and reminded her that I was a fully-grown man who could take care of himself. I wondered what my death, should I die at that moment, would do to them.
I looked beside me to the street where we pulled over. The old World-War I memorial stadium sat idly by our side as though it was watching and waiting for what was about to happen. The night was hot as most summer nights were. The sound of tires in conversation with asphalt and car horns were the only other witness. My friend touched my hands slightly, a move that snapped me out of my reverie. He instructed me to put my hands on the dashboard and remember to not make any sudden movement when the policeman approached.
“Guy, no worry. If them go get problem with person, na me, no be you.” The words emerged from his mouth with the intent of comfort but instead they intensified my anxiety. When the policeman approached our car, it was as if he could read my thoughts. His first words to us were, “Please be calm, this will be brief,” but as assuring as the words were, they didn’t instil any sense of calm in me.
He asked us if we had been drinking, my friend said no, I said yes and explained that I was in the car with my friend because I didn’t want to walk. The policeman wasn’t satisfied; he asked for my friend’s licence and registration and went back to his car for about 20 minutes. When he returned, he was with another police officer. He asked my friend to exit the vehicle and started conducting a series of tests on him. Whether my friend passed or failed those tests didn’t matter because there were more tests to be conducted. I sat in the car, whipping out my iPhone to record what was happening. The other policeman walked over to me.
“Your friend says he is from Nigeria and English is the official language there. Can you confirm that for me?” He sounded warm and friendly. Briefly, I couldn’t speak because suddenly I couldn’t find my voice. I felt as though the car had no oxygen, even though the windows were down.
“Yes,” I said finally. “We were colonised by the British, so English is our official language.” The words stumbled out of my mouth as though they were apologies.
“I didn’t know,” the policeman said. “I am Dylan. I always assumed Nigeria was a French-speaking country.”
I wanted to tell him that he was probably confusing Nigeria with the Republic of Niger, but I didn’t.
He was clothed in gadget. I wondered how he was able to move in all that gadget. Instead, I repeated what I said to the other policeman about why we were out at that time of the night and added how his colleague didn’t believe me for emphasis.
Dylan listened to me for a moment, then shrugged and repeated the same thing the other guy had said after he asked my friend to exit the car, “He is just following standard procedure.”
I wanted to tell him how standard procedure had killed so many people, but I didn’t.
Later that night, after I was allowed to go home; after Dylan stayed by the roadside with me while I searched my phone for someone else to drive my friend’s car back to his place; after I asked Dylan to be honest with himself about the reason his colleague really stopped us; after he told me that he doesn’t see colour, and neither did his colleague; after I watched his colleague slam the metal cuffs on my friend’s wrists while placing him under arrest because according to him, he failed one test out of many, and more tests needed to be conducted at the police station; after I spent over two-hours agonising and waiting for my friend to call so that we could go pick him up from the police station, I would wonder what it was about me that attracted uniforms.
Tolu Daniel is a Nigerian writer and editor. He is the curator of Ellipsis, a newsletter featuring diasporic voices on culture, migration, displacement, and literature via personal essays and interviews. His essays have appeared in Catapult, Olongo Africa, Barren Magazine, Panorama Journal and elsewhere.
*Image by Ayanfe Olarinde on Unsplash