The Face: Cartography of the Void (Restless Books, 2016) by Chris Abani investigates the role of race, culture and language in fashioning our sense of self. This excerpt comes from the chapter “Face Value” which explores the way physical appearance impacts the way others treat and identify a person.
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When I tell people that my mother was a white Englishwoman and my father Igbo, they look at me skeptically. It’s a pause that really means, “Are you sure? You’re so dark.” It’s a pause that I’ve heard only in the West. In Nigeria most people know upon meeting me that I’m not entirely African. Nigeria has a long history of foreigners coming through — the Portuguese in the fourteenth century, North Africans as far back as the twelfth century, Tuaregs and Fulani to name just a few. In fact, in the late ’80s and early ’90s the civil war in Chad caused the very light-skinned Chadians to pour into Nigeria as refugees. It was a disturbing sight to see hundreds, sometimes thousands, of homeless Arab-looking people begging for food in the streets and markets. The public outcry was so severe that the military government began a program of forced repatriation. Army trucks rolled into markets and soldiers would round up these refugees, separating families without a second thought — after all, they all looked alike — and drive them back to the border. I once found myself being pushed into one such truck, but my fluency in several Nigerian languages saved me. I was often confused for being Lebanese, Indian, Arab, or Fulani. But not in England or America. In these places I am firmly black, of unknown origin.
But people have learned to be polite here, so no one says anything that might offend. They nod and make murmuring noises instead; except the LAPD, whose officers took great offense at my still very English accent when I arrived in LA. They asked me why I was faking it. I never quite figured out why, but whatever the reason, they were always very offended when I was pulled over.
It is interesting that I would be suspected of lying about my mixed-raced heritage. As though I was seeking some privilege, some “betterment” of my black lot, because, well, everyone knows some white in you is better than none, right? Wrong.
When we were kids in London, my mother was often congratulated for adopting us. It still amazes me that she never grew tired of correcting people, and not always kindly. In the ’90s I was standing next to my mother at an ATM in London and we were chatting as she withdrew money. A policeman wandered over and casually asked my mother if she was okay and if I was trying to rob her. And one of my agents, on meeting my mother at an awards ceremony in LA, exclaimed, “Oh my God, she’s as white as day.”
Frantz Fanon has written better than I ever will about this matter: the idea of whiteness, and a visible whiteness, being preferred; the idea that secretly all white people believe that everyone really wants to look like them, to be them.
Face value, an interesting term, has many origins. It refers to the value of money based on the sum printed on its face. There was no need to bite the coin to see if it was gold or weigh it to see if it was an alloy. There was nothing hidden. But what claims to uncover, to reveal, can often obfuscate. If there is face value, a fiat of measure, then the opposite is implied — apparent value; as in, don’t accept promises or claims of face value.
Growing up in Nigeria, my brother Greg was very light-skinned, and of all of us he had the longest, straightest hair. “Mbunu Jesus,” my aunt would say, which loosely translates to “He’s just like Jesus.” The nickname stuck for a long time. When I was out and about with Greg we must have made quite a picture — Greg skinny with long hair and me plump and with kinky hair. In the usual way of people in Afikpo they would ask, “Who claims you?” A way of ascertaining your lineage, determining whether they needed to know more. Only when you had been located in a lineage of repute would the follow-up be “What is your name?” In our case, the next question would be “You are brothers?” Yes. “Same mother, same father?” Yes. Then with a mix of pity and mockery they would ask me, “So, what happened to you?”
In taxicabs in Nigeria, or buses, people would talk about me, referring to me as korawayo, a nickname for foreigners (particularly Lebanese) who exploited and cheated Nigerians. I would sit silently, listening to the badmouthing until I would casually ask in Igbo (fluently), Yoruba (less fluently), or Hausa (even less fluently) what the time was or some such question. The effect was hilarious, the embarrassment and apologies profuse.
When I lived in East Los Angeles, a predominately Chicano/Latino neighborhood, I was assumed to be Dominican or Panamanian. In Miami, where I go regularly for religious reasons, I am confused for a Cuban. In New Zealand I was assumed to be Maori. In Australia, Aborigine. In Egypt, Nubian. In Qatar, Pakistani. In South Africa, Zulu or some other group, depending on who was talking. Other times, because of my accent, which is a mix of Nigerian, British, and now American inflections, I am assumed to be from “one of the islands.” No one accepts my Nigerianness, not without argument. In fact, the two things I have been rarely taken for— Nigerian and white — are the very things that form my DNA.
Agemo, the Yoruba say. Chameleon.
Most of the confusion about who I am is a product of how my face is read. Thus it is perceived to be where it is thought to belong. And how it is supposed to look.
As my father used to say in the heavy Igbo accent he would adopt when particularly disgusted by some new facet of my rebellion, “You are just a disappointment.”
Even my grandfather, who cast kola nuts when I was born and who nicknamed me Erusi (spirit), would shake his head and say, “You don’t belong here or in the land of the spirits. You are a bat, neither bird nor mammal.” I loved that. That meant I could be anything.
Reprinted with permission from The Face: Cartography of the Void by Chris Abani and published by Restless Books, 2016.