This Black Body of Yours
I didn’t know how to be so young
and not belong anywhere, stuck
among so many perplexing melodies.
– Philip Schultz
You don’t want to know how it feels. Trust me, you don’t. The day has hardly begun and you’ve just entered the classroom. You’re a secondary school student, so it’s normal that after the assembly a teacher enters the classroom to give instructions. That day, you’re talking with a friend, a respectable, fair-skinned boy named Victor. He’s just as animated as you while you rush through the details of your respective weekends. You both don’t notice when a teacher walks in; you don’t hear his voice above the din of teenage noise.
Afterwards, you try not to think too much about it. You’re a 15-year-old Nigerian, and real Naija boys don’t cry over a teacher’s spiteful remarks. But they were damn spiteful. You carry your shame like a heavy mask. You tell the story, but you tell it lightly. It jokes its way into conversations you don’t expect it to.
It’s been six years. After that teacher, many people have had something to say about your body. They always have. How many mornings did you dread leaving the house, knowing someone would say something? You’re 13 and the pimples are too much. Have you heard of so-so cream? Have you bathed with that small, green soap? Omo your own serious o. My sister been get pimples; e clear when she use the soap. What of injection – you dun go hospital? Sometimes this thing dey dey blood. Your brothers get am?
You’re 14 and the pimples still won’t go away. It’s even gotten worse. The black and purple spots are everywhere. You start to talk less. You don’t want that look – that look of concern and disgust, the one that precedes the recommendations. Because people are mentioning anti-acne creams everywhere you turn, you begin to check them out.
The first is Nixoderm. You’ve always seen the small, round, green container around the house, but when it becomes your cream, it becomes something more. With a fierce tenderness you guard it. At night you apply it after a bath. It is hot on the skin. On your forehead pores of sweat have formed. It’s so hot, so it must be working, you think. Each morning you hurry to the nearest mirror and gaze hopefully. There’s a little change; this spot’s gone, you think, fingering the circle again and again. Out on the streets, your walk assumes a new, light swagger. You bounce and give, smile and wipe your face as though it were new. The feeling is unique, but you know you’ve got Nixoderm to thank. You think: “If I apply it regularly I’ll be Wizkid fresh forever.”
When it happens – fuck! Nothing ever works Before and After. The wall cracks, and you briefly see the impossibility of wanting to change who you are. The pimples will never be gone. Not now sha. Your elder brothers all had it and they all lost it. All in good time. The world doesn’t know this: there’s no good time for something as irritating as acne. You don’t want to know how it feels when their demon voices rise in laughter as they ask if you’ve stopped using the cream. E dey work nah. Abi e dun finish?
There are a lot of creams after that. The lady at the pharmacy counter knows your face. Not your Pimple Face. Your I’d-Be-Beautiful-If-I-Didn’t-Have-Pimples face. She asks if the previous cream didn’t work, if you applied it correctly, if you bathe before applying it, if you’re assessing other options. What options? Well, you could buy blood tonics. There are cheap ones. Should I bring it? No, madam, you think, I’m a primitive man and I value the things I can touch. You say: Bring the cream for now. So, cream after cream, you edge closer to a 21st-century realisation – no one is ever enough. There’s always some greater beauty to aspire to.
For the longest time, you go without buying any creams. Let the world scream its disgust. Let its mouth gnarl in irritation. Let the girls scamper to safety. Let the boys mock. Let the passersby gaze. Let the uninitiated comment. Let them proffer new creams. Let the breeze splash on your bare face. Let every pore tingle. Let every itch disturb. You’re finally free. There’s no way down from here.
Except…you aren’t much of a free man. As you move through life, swapping the boyish innocence of junior secondary school for the hyper-realised performativity of senior secondary school, more people comment on your body. It’s not just the shorts that have been changed. It’s not just the prestige of wearing long trousers. That prestige features, of course, but it’s the possibility of sex, most of all, which defines this period of your life. Around you there’s a lot happening. Boys and girls your age are doing stuff. There’s no way you don’t see how the politics of desire are playing out. It excites you to play this game too. But, arriving at the arena, you discover you’re insufficient. Again this black body of yours rebels.
You don’t know when you return to the creams. There have been a number of people who’ve respectfully offered their own recommendations. You don’t tell them they’re all familiar brands. You smile a shy, small smile. At the pharmacy you make small talk with the lady at the counter. More and more you’ve been seeing her outside, and you’ve shuffled past, awkwardly, without any greeting. You ask for Funbact-A. Finally, you’re buying this brand because someone you trust has had good things to say about it. E go even bring out your colour.
At home, you open a tube from the yellow and blue packet. You make a show of reading the accompanying leaflet, where you find percentages alongside words like Clotrimazole and Betamethasone. The first time you apply it, you go for a face wash rather than a bath. The feeling is the opposite of Nixoderm’s. A spread of air settles on your nose and rubs your forehead and cheeks. A week later the results are visible. There are fewer pimples, and your skin is rubbery light, as though scrubbed and scrubbed to near perfection. And yes, your colour comes out – a very Nigerian expression that couches the fact that you’re really bleaching.
Yes, you’re getting lighter, and your nose shines brighter than the rest of your face. Yes, the spots are fading, and people smile when they talk to you now. They say you’re being wise by taking care of the issue. You don’t thank them, but your heart is full of gratitude. Perhaps a normal life is now possible. Satisfied with the results, you make the exception for Funbact-A, using it intermittently.
Eventually you leave secondary school. You haven’t explored the heights of erotic pleasure, but you’re young. You’ll have more sex than you can imagine. You’ll meet women who’ll run their fingers over your scarred face, tracing the world of your past insecurities. You’ll forget these classrooms and their histories of shame. You’ll be enough. Like 2Pac said, life will go on.
And it does. You start working with a man who knows all about struggle. He sells bags of sachet water from a big, blue truck. Along with another worker, you’re responsible for delivering bags to customers. You’re a motor boy. You hang onto the rear of the truck as the man, Steven, moves from street to the next, covering the length of the local government. You meet people who don’t mention your acne. But they talk about how you look so much like an Aboki, a northerner. They are visibly shocked when Steven laughs and says you’re Igbo. Your colleague, who’s actually Hausa, is mistaken for Igbo. It’s a tightly woven fabric of confusion, and you don the outfit proudly. The customers point out how tall you are. How mature your physique looks. Their bewildered eyes show they’re utterly convinced you’ve lived some fast, dangerous life.
It’s always been like this. People have often projected their assumptions onto you. Because you talk smart and look mature, your secondary school teachers relished picking you apart. One used to mock you: Old Man, won’t you play with your mates? Aren’t you ashamed you’re in this class with small kids? It used to hurt, but soon you learn that small people always want to make others seem smaller.
When, during work one day, your colleague gets into a fight, you ask him to quiet down. What’s the sense in fighting where one works? He sees the logic, and somehow, the tension is quelled. Then some weeks later, the other boy emerges, not yet having had his fill of wahala. He holds your colleague hostage far away and someone brings the news to your truck. That’s when you act the part. You surrender to the anger and, in one sweet, dramatic dash, you reach for a motor part that is iron but fits in the hand like a dried femur. Conflict rises and rises, bodies crowd in, people ask you to please drop the weapon, and in the midst of all that commotion, that teacher’s words come back in haunting fashion.
That black body of yours shrinks.
You hadn’t read James Baldwin. You hadn’t seen how the idea of the body dominates thought across his novels and essays. It was years after you began writing that you read Giovanni’s Room. When you read the last word, the emotions that flooded over you transcended mere literary love. You’d think of Giovanni and that scene where he confronts David, his love interest, bawling, begging, trying to understand why he couldn’t love him. You made a note of the metaphor, “You come covered in soap and think you’re gonna leave covered in soap.”
Purity: what does this mean? In what webs of history is desire entangled?
You read that novel again. This time, you find fault with David even though you have no business judging fictional characters. But something has begun to happen in your own life. When a girl expresses all the fondness reserved for the most intimate of lovers, you recoil. You’re an undergraduate and a writer. There’s an unending thread of thought you’re always unpacking, and so you don’t pay attention in class. With the girls you’re everywhere and nowhere. Your collection of phone numbers is growing, but you remain as chaste as a reverend father (not of your own choice). There’s some pressure from friends to commit to the girl who obviously loves you; the girl who says you have small, weird, beautiful eyes; the girl who runs her fingers over your face and says she has a thing for huge guys, guys like you.
You don’t commit. You don’t hold her hand when walking in the street. You’re sometimes conscious of the great difference in height. You’re always aware of your face, always thinking about yourself in the third person, always searching the gazes of people for the approval to love. Eventually the girl leaves. You’re heartbroken for several months. During the pandemic, again and again, you think of how differently everything could have turned out, if only you were normal. How dangerously has your black body played you?
There’s a new desire for normal. You want to untangle those threads, and self-reflection takes you far back. The truths you unravel threaten to make the ground crumble from beneath you. Somehow you don’t totally lose your shit, which is to your credit. You’re 21 and you’re smoking a lot of the time and your chest is heavy with ashy jewels. Frizzled, hard-to-grow, and dusty, your hair tells the story of the pandemic. It’s hard to explain this to people: when you win, you win really hard. Your lows too are the lowliest of lows, the growling memory of one’s failures and inadequacies. Nobody understands this but you. They don’t pretend to try anymore; they leave you to the gongs of whatever hellish music plagues you. The girl’s face appears in the distance, a shivering cloud of powder, gone with the wind. Minutes become hours, and still you don’t send the message on WhatsApp. Many times you compare yourself to the sulky protagonists of a Junot Diaz story.
You write uninspired verses of poetry. In between thinking of the eternal angst of being Nigerian and feeling sickened from a slackening sense of purpose, you quit your job at an entertainment platform – one of the country’s most influential. That day, you visit a friend whose house isn’t far away. There’s a pulsing bird in your chest, but your words won’t betray. You rightly say you’re burned out. You’ll most likely write for the platform again, probably as a freelancer. It is all good vibes and all that.
In between that mass of slowed existence, you read books. You can’t kill yourself, and grief is a bitter pill no one wants to swallow forever. When the End SARS protests begin around the nation, you throw yourself onto the frontline of the online army. You write an opinion editorial that is well received on Twitter. Later you volunteer to share daily information about the protests. The night of 20 October 2020, you sleep over at a friend’s house. Network is terrible throughout the night, and when you wake up, 2am or 3am the next morning, the Twitter timeline is desecrated with the images of bloodied Nigerian flags, the repeated sound of gunshots bringing Lekki and Nigeria to a standstill, the words “shoot, shoot,” passed casually, another day at the office. In the days that follow, as curfew leads to more curfews, you face the harsh, stinging truth: your black body is in danger.
What does visibility mean? As a youngster, whenever you played football your mates called you Ibro – after the Swedish attacker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – or Drogba, the Chelsea FC legend. Both were famed for their combination of power and skill, but the allusion almost always means power. At the Onitsha Park a bus conductor calls you A Big, like most male service providers do. Visibility means that people see you, even when you’re not looking.
By now you’re familiar with the raised brows when people enter an enclosed space and facing them is a big, black boy who looks like no boy at all. You’re familiar with the lowered tones when they speak around you. Sometimes you try to be friendly and joke your way into the conversation, but everyone shrugs you off. And, funniest of all, you’re familiar with the hesitant look when they’re about to board a bus and inside is you – big, black, and unsmiling.
What haven’t you been called? Beast? Monster? Dragon Eyes?
You see that look again when you park into a new house. It is morning and you have lugged some property by yourself. There’s the need for an electrician, and so you ask the first person you meet on the staircase if he knows one. He’s momentarily dazed but responds in regular time. Apparently he’s close friends with one and he’ll help. He does. Months later, you’re cool friends. Chilling, one evening, he admits he was surprised when he first saw you. I just dey wonder…where this one come from? But I just compose omo, na we dey here. Anything wey wan happen make e happen. He bursts out laughing and so do you.
This black body of yours will learn to heal.
Emmanuel Esomnofu is a Nigerian writer and culture journalist. He’s a staff writer at Open Country Mag.
*Image by Sam Burriss on Unsplash