YELF Book Club Review for the Month of June 2020
Introduction: In line with the current reality of blacks in America and the world at large, we picked Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Essay, ‘Between the World and Me’ for this edition of our book club meeting. At first when I read the book, what I felt was a surge of anger; that for over 300 years, fellow blacks were subjugated, tramped and abused. When I read it the second time, I was saddened by the reality of our lives. The reality of what a black person undergoes whether in America, Iraq or Africa; slavery in all its forms: colonization and marginalization, leaving many with generational trauma occasioned by police brutality, violent abuse and many other social vices. Like the author, I find myself caught in between the past and future.
The past with its shimmers and heroes like Jaja of Oshobo, Dan Fodio, the Oba’s and Kong’s that built pyramids, in which civilization erupted and the bleak future of our race, where Africa is still heavily dependent on the Western world.
Moderator: What was your initial reaction to the essay? What do you think of the black race and what do you think is at stake for the next generation of black in the world?
Najib kazaure: Thank you for such a thorough assessment. I felt the same way too. Ta-Nehisi Coates gives such a detailed outlook of what it means to be a black person in a “free world” – being in a state of constant fear, rebuke, and forced to accept inequality. I just saw a quote that says “Africa’s history did not start with slavery; it was interrupted by slavery”. And I think that captures the essence of what the black race has been going through. The next generation of black people need to educate themselves and thoroughly unsubscribe to the thinking that the whites are superior to blacks.
Moderator: Slavery and subjugation in all ramifications are believed to be for economic reasons. Indeed, capitalism thrives with inequality and by way of contextualization, one may ask: ‘do you think the government does not have the capacity to bring insecurity to an end in this country?’ The answer is simple; government has all it takes, but the political will is not there.
Adeiza Umar: Well after reading the article, I feel that this whole dilemma faced by black people is something that has been in the past, present and will likely remain the same in the future.
Moderator: Can you please expatiate?
Adeiza Umar: Well, that is because, this problem started with our ancestors and is currently the issue we are all facing. Even though some have taken the right steps in bringing an end to these inhuman acts, it is still the cankerworm eating deep the fabrics of human dignity.
Moderator: There was a time in the history of the world that the black man was at the top of the hierarchy. There is no doubt, Africa is the birth place of some civilization as we know it today. Unfortunately, a lot of things have gone wrong.
Why does it look as if black lives do not matter? What can be done to change the narrative and bring about respect for every human person?
Malik katsina: While I was reading this text, I momentarily placed myself in the mind of the white man and it occurred to me that they (whites) see the black people as minorities, and we are indeed minorities in the world. We are less than 20% in the entire world population. The realization that we are small in number, makes me feel small.
I always associate myself with my religion, state or region where I belong. This makes me feel big and confident. But thinking of my skin colour in relation to the world’s population, I feel inferior. I had to quickly remind myself about the danger of racial categorization and I moved on. This was the first step the author took towards the realization of freedom as captured in the essay; “… their whole notion of race was wrong. And apprehending that, I felt my first measure of freedom.”
Moderator: I didn’t view it from that perspective. And we who are of African descent will never understand the impact of racism in totality, because we didn’t inherit the trauma associated with the fear of being different or being killed. Some years back, they didn’t regard us as humans. Quite recently, I saw a picture circulating on the social media of a black man kept in a zoo for the viewing pleasure of the whites.
Peter Chukwu: First, I like the writing – the art of it. It feels like I’m the one talking to myself. I had to personally meditate on it. It speaks to the plight of the black person as much as it addresses the question of racism.
Perhaps, we are not doing enough; because this channelling of anger lets us feel we are making proper use of our emotions but it shouldn’t end there since the same anger has not been paid any attention. So, it looks like it’s almost impossible to solve the problem.
Najib kazaure: The reason why black people are seen to be easily dispensable is by design. I love the point you made about capitalism. It is a vicious economic philosophy that thrives on exploitation; someone benefitting from the loss of others. Black people have been exploited for donkey years and upending that system is going to take years of economic restructuring, re-orientation, and possibly a revolution. As long as capitalism exists there will be someone at the bottom of the food chain, being fed with crumbs and even killed. We can start by uniting; putting black people on top of that chain by encouraging innovation and reducing dependence on others.
Moderator: I agree with your point Peter, and as usual, I will like to bring it back home. It is a truism that art, either in the form of fiction or non-fiction is a mirror that reflects or addresses certain concerns in the society. We don’t face racism here in Nigeria, but every day, we experience one form of injustice or the other. Although, I hate the fact that we keep putting some of the blame on colonization, but to a large extent, the problem is still colonization. We have to unlearn the notion of borders that were created just to divide and rule us.
The essay is good but it doesn’t inspire hope. Coates only attempted to present a picture of what is happening and the plight of the black person with the urge to continue with the struggle for change.
The author uses several instances to buttress how blacks are marginalized: police brutality, slavery, racism, white privilege, etc. In what way does this relate to us as Nigerians?
Peter Chukwu: I see racism as a metaphor for whatever plight we are facing. It represents corruption, tribalism, ethnic violence, inept government, insecurity, fear, stereotypes, rape, kidnapping, lack of power, bad roads, poorly equipped hospitals and so on. We can’t fight these things if we don’t own them. We can’t do anything about them if we don’t realise that the other end is a mirror of what we have here.
My worry simply is: when will our anger about what is happening elsewhere become monuments, or if you like, institutions of liberation here?
Najib kazaure: More like cousins, I don’t think we can necessarily equate tribalism with racism. Racism is much more intense and the effects of it, like the author says, can be fatal, and can also be systematic. While the blacks can tone down or hide the colour of their skin in order to shy away from the reality of their race, tribalism shares the same fate. Though, there are some safeguards that can lessen its effects and make it much more subdued; both are discriminatory and the effects are devastating.
Peter Chukwu: We do. Racism has nuances. It is local as it is universal. It must not be the American or European brand.
Moderator: I will argue that what we have in Nigeria is colorism. We prefer the light skinned. You can see this clearly in the author’s choice of a light skinned girl as his protagonist.
Najib: I think for me, the part where his father uses the belt to correct him, can be related to the disciplinary measures often used by many Nigerian parents on their children.
This position of mine is anchored on the author’s description of ‘white privilege’, especially when he talks of “people that believe they are white”. Though he didn’t consider it worthy of a detailed discourse, it will not be out of place to say Nigerians are facing an onslaught of white privilege which undermines our values thereby, reducing them to ‘traditional’ and ‘archaic’. Through the mass media, I see acculturation taking place in a systematic way leaving many to suffer a crisis of identity.
Moderator: It still brings us back to the theme of inherent generational trauma. Our parents also passed through the same disciplinary measures and they think transmitting same to their kids is the best approach towards correcting the erring child.
Adeiza: Well, on the contrary, while using the rod on a child has proven to be useful in some instances, it is grossly insufficient for the purpose of correction.
Peter: Well, I think the context in which this is applied is of great importance. You can’t really say categorically, that using the rod on a child is necessarily bad.
Moderator: The white people are smart. They did not only colonize our countries; they also colonized our minds. And now, the global beauty standard is determined by the same colonial masters.
Najib: This quote captures it explicitly: “when you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary” (The Miseducation of the Negro).
Namse: The essay only re-echoed what people have been saying for ages. However, I feel it’s more of wailing. Some blacks expect the whites to just wake up and give everything back to them. Blacks need to be more alive and proactive.
Indians, Jews and Arabs are also discriminated against. They have gone on to build industries and support each other. But what about the Blacks? What are they doing to salvage the situation?
Moderator: Are Americans or humans in general truly free? What does the concept of freedom mean to you as a Nigerian?
Najib kazaure: I will like to reiterate the economic aspect of this. Arabs, Indians and other nations were able to gain some level of freedom using their economic power and the drive for innovation. Ours is just to sit down, engage in corrupt practices and copy things from other nations. Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, while other countries have been trying to find a cure, Nigeria is depending on Madagascar. We have to revive the spirit of innovation and value it.
Namse: Freedom is relative. To begin with, what is freedom? The first stanza of the American anthem ends with the phrase “land of the free and home of the brave”. But then, is man ever truly free?
Najib: I don’t know what the true definition of freedom is but I know it’s not what the white people sold to us. It’s not doing anything without consequences or redefining what morality is. I think freedom has limitations. Freedom should be the scope where a person can balance his aspirations and the progress of his community. I see it from a utilitarian viewpoint. People cannot do what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt others. The scope of freedom should accommodate the implications and the value of the system in a community. Personally, I find freedom in Islam struggling to submit to the will of my creator and not be enslaved by my caprice.
Namse: Nobody is truly free. We are all captives to an ideology or prejudice. I understand your point Najib but it will be a bit clearer to me if you explain what you mean by “truly free”. If it is to do what you want, when you want, how you want then, only the supreme being has such freedom.
Peter: As a word, freedom is vague. But practically, it’s the ability to live. At least, to meet the demands of your being, to meet basic needs of life materially and otherwise. That’s the starting point.
Najib: Thank you, freedom is a myth to humans, and I believe the closest they can get to it is by striving for nearness to the one who has it – that’s my point.
Malik: Freedom in the American context means no leader or authority should impose their beliefs on the citizens, like what the Kings do in Europe. They dictate religious beliefs, impose taxes and so on. Nigeria is a secular state just like America. The difference is that we claim to be too religious. And so, government officials and politicians use beliefs as basis for passage or rejection of certain laws in the legislative chambers.
Namse: I like this perspective. We have failed to separate religion from the state in Nigeria.
Najib: True! American freedom is dictated by their creed; liberty, individualism, self-reliance and equality. But what is our creed? What is the Nigerian creed that determines the definition of freedom for us? Unfortunately, there seems to be none.
Moderator: Ladies and Gentlemen, this is really exciting. I have seen your points and all of them are valid. Racism, tribalism, insecurity and subjugation are all problems humanity face collectively. Although, at this point everything seems bleak. If we are conscious of change and desirous of it, we can make it happen; by striving to be good people and holding people close to us accountable for their actions.
This brings us to the end of this session. Many thanks for actively participating.