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What does it mean to be black? A new novel satirises America's expectations of the African immigrant

When is solidarity phoney? Credit: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty

When is solidarity phoney? Credit: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty


October 27, 2021   6 mins

Fin de siĂšcle Europe was big on human zoos. From the 1870s to the 1920s, Antwerp, Paris, Barcelona, London and Milan all featured at least one. In 1900, the Austrian poet and heartthrob Rainer Maria Rilke visited a human zoo in ZĂŒrich and was sorely disappointed. The West Africans trafficked and put on exhibition were not savage enough for his taste.

Rilke’s poem “Die Aschanti,” about his visit to the exhibition, is characterised by sadness. In the exhibition, he writes, there are “no brown girls who stretched out / velvety in tropical exhaustion,” “no eyes which blaze like weapons” and no mouths “broad with laughter”. What a bummer. Rilke has to settle for ordinary, human and fundamentally inauthentic Africans: “O how much truer are the animals / that pace up and down in steel grids”.

The Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole studies Rilke’s attitude to human zoos in his essay “The Blackness of Panther.” Its title is partly annexed from a more famous Rilke poem, “The Panther”, about big cats behind bars in Paris. Cole draws a parallel between the panther, or the captured African in a human zoo, and the way the African is perceived more generally amongst a segment of Western society. Like the new collection it is part of, Black Paper (released last week), it examines what it means to be an African person in a world shaped by white people’s cultural norms.

Cole finds the codes associated with it to be restrictive. “Was I African?” he asks in one passage, about growing up in Nigeria, because “I didn’t feel it. What I felt was that I was a Lagos boy, a speaker of Yoruba, a citizen of Nigeria”.

“The Africans were those other people,” he writes, “some of whom I read about in books, or had seen wearing tribal costumes in magazines, or encountered in weird fictional form in movies”. He does not see his reflection in them. The label, then, is a fiction imposed on him by western culture.

Cole is more sympathetic to the general term “Black”, but even here he acknowledges how rooted it is in one singular definition. The label “Black” was not “about every Black person in the world”, he writes, but “it was localized to the American situation. To be Black in America, that localized tenor of ‘Black’ had to be learned”. Having a “Black skin (sometimes just a shade or two off-white) was the admission to the classroom, but Black American cultural codes were the lesson”. Cole writes that he has learned to love the codes, since moving to America over twenty years ago, while acknowledging that “it wasn’t the only Black” that he knew.

These are quandaries that have recently been explored by another, perhaps less well-known, novelist who grew up in Nigeria and later studied in America. Timothy Ogene’s new novel Seesaw (out next week), set in the very recent past, is a playful and lacerating satire on the codes the black immigrant needs to satisfy in order to curry favour with a self-styled progressive institution in America.

Frank Jasper, the protagonist and narrator, is a failed novelist from the fictional southern Nigerian city of Port Jumbo, based on Ogene’s home town Port Harcourt. Ogene’s first novel, The Day Ends Like Any Day, has a similar title with Jasper’s first novel The Day They Came for Dan. But unlike Ogene’s novel, which won the Book of the Year award with the African Literary Association, Jasper’s novel does so badly that he decides to write a review of it under a pseudonym for an obscure website entitled The Ganges Review of Books. Very soon after this appreciative review goes up, the website completely disappears in favour of a screen selling viagra.

Jasper’s big break comes in the form of the William Blake Program for Emerging Writers, which allows him to travel to a New England college town and get mentored by other writers. When he arrives, he is bemused by protests he encounters on campus. They don’t fit with his conception of American radicalism. “My idea of an American radical protest,” he writes, “was ossified and romantic, involving pictures of people in long hair smoking marijuanna, playing drums and banjos”. What he witnesses instead are protestors that “might as well have been business executives, clear-eyed with state-of-the-art digital equipment”. In other words, the self-styled revolutionary vanguard of progressive institutions have become much like the old-school establishment of old.

On campus, Jasper also meets a fellow African writer Barongo Akello Kabumba, who is from Uganda. And a British-Indian academic called Sara Chakraborty, who grew “up in Surrey as the grandchild of Afro-Asian immigrants”. He takes a strong dislike to the pair:

“partly because I didn’t understand the depth of their moral authority, the immutable authority with which they said things about the world and people and identity and the ‘post-colonial world’ in a few days than in all the years I lived in it”.

Their conception of the “post-colonial” world, and the position of Africans within it, is sterile and monolithic: Jasper’s post-colonial world “was nothing like the fully formed and footnoted gunfire sentences I heard from Sara Chakraborty, nothing like the costumed performers of the Ugandan writer”. Instead, it “was just another tired world of complicated people trudging along, like anywhere else, mostly oblivious of life beyond their neighbourhood, full of pain or courting happiness, vile or honest”.

Underpinning that passage is a plea for moral universalism: for seeing that, despite their differences, the post-colonial world is fundamentally as emotionally rich and also as boring as the Western world. And Ogene demonstrates this very combination in the novel itself. Apart from the zestful humour in the narrative, there is also tedium. In the passages set in Nigeria, for instance, Jasper is a slacker par excellence, who spends much of his recreational time taking drugs and watching pornography. The novel reminds me not only of post-colonial novels, or campus novels, but also of the decadent novels of Michel Houellebecq, in which a buoyantly satirical attitude to twentieth-century Western society is combined with hardened cynicism.   

And Jasper is a thoroughly cynical character. While acknowledging the silliness of race experts, those who tell guilt-ridden white people what they want to hear, he occupies the position of black expert to his advantage. He was “still in the US when” his agent

“sold me to the Montana-based group as an ‘understanding expert on all matters black and ethnic’. He had played up my background as a ‘son of the black Atlantic whose maternal ancestors were descendants of slaves who came back to West Africa’”.

He adds with acidic scorn: “if Americans were going to devour themselves, he said to me afterwards, someone might as well hide under the table for crumbs”. This cheerfully parasitic attitude is not one that Cole explicitly argues for in his essays, which are scrupulously analytical. But it does demonstrate that the analogy of the human zoo, while powerful, fails to capture the symbiotic relationship between the patronising white person and the African. To put it bluntly: it’s a grift that seems to satisfy both parties. The Africans at the zoo were forcibly captured; the African novelist freely moves to the West.

Jasper’s relationship to his status as a race expert is, however, ambivalent: while it materially enriches him, it also deforms his humanity. “I wasn’t advancing any single ideology,” he considers, “or worldview or notion of progress, and wasn’t trying to attack anyone”. Rather,

“I just wanted to exist and cry and laugh and fuck and live and die without prefixing or suffixing my actions with any universal idea of blackness or Africaness or whatever thing out there I was supposedly tied to as a POC or BAME or warped extension of someone else’s imagination”.

This warped tendency doesn’t just apply to black people. Other ethnicities feel it too. In an interview with Lauren Oyler, the Argentinian novelist Pola Oloixarac talks about the inspiration for her latest novel, Mona, which is out in the UK next year. “I was a person of colour when I was in the US,” she says, but “if I took a plane and went anywhere else, or if I crossed the border I wasn’t a person of colour anymore. So it wasn’t an essential trait. It was more of a particular fiction that was imposed on me”.

The titular protagonist of the novel is Peruvian and, like Jasper, is already the author of one novel and living in an American college campus:

“Mona had arrived at Stanford not long after the waves she made with her debut novel tossed her onto the beach of a certain impetuous prestige — and at a time when being a ‘woman of colour’” began to “confer a chic sort of cultural capital”.

The narrator of Oloixarac’s deliciously acerbic novel adds that, again invoking our opening analogy, “American universities shared certain essential values with historic zoos, where diversity was a mark of attraction and distinction”.

When Mona is nominated for a prestigious literary prize in Europe, she travels to Sweden, where she meets a diverse range of writers, whose background she anatomises like a modern-day Carl Linnaeus (the pioneering Swedish taxonomist). There is the obnoxious French male writer, the pious Israeli female author, the sexy Scandinavian writers. There is a sense that she is trapped by the instinct to perceive these characters solely through the prism of their identity. And a part of the narrative tension is this tendency against a countervailing emphasis on a person’s particular experiences. She chafes at being seen as the “Latin writer”: “The phony solidarity of having a ‘Latin’ culture in common with other writers was something that always repulsed her”.

She recognises, like Jasper and Cole, that such labels do not reflect the humanity of an individual. While they can breed important forms of solidarity, and can be useful in analysing prejudice and discrimination, we shouldn’t cling to them too tightly. It is ironic that many self-styled progressives, many of them well-intentioned, do so. It illustrates the comfort, under a progressive guise, that comes with being attached to racial essentialism: the comfort of expecting people from other racial or ethnic backgrounds to fulfil a role.

Labels should be used, if they are to be used, as the start of someone’s identity, not the full definition of it. They should be used to open the doors to a deeper understanding of who that person is, rather than perceived as the only thing that matters. The alternative is race representatives, people who are exhibited, or exhibit themselves, to a white audience, to be gawked at and cuddled, and are expected to possess a morality befitting a child.


Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which is out in paperback in May.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

This is the second outstanding article I’ve read on Unherd today. The good stuff seems to arrive in waves.
Probably my favorite passage from this article was:
“I was a person of colour when I was in the US,” she says, but “if I took a plane and went anywhere else, or if I crossed the border I wasn’t a person of colour anymore. So it wasn’t an essential trait. It was more of a particular fiction that was imposed on me”.
Identity politics really is a Liberal American obsession. If it washes up on non-American shores I urge you to resist. Resist with all your might.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Unless you happen to want a job on TV when you should emphasise the identity politics as much as possible.

In the article on journalism it was clearer to me. Thousands of students in the UK take Media Studies degrees but what do they do afterwards? They are only young so they start a blog or even get a job on a newspaper. At that point they have to go with the flow and say the same things as everyone else. But to be able to sell their words for the most money they have to be more extreme – black people become blacker and poor people become poorer, etc. It sells.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You are quite right that this whole “person of colour” is a US originated obsession arising from the fact that until the late 1960s large sections of the US did not simply operate Jim Crow restrictions but actually had anti-miscegenation statutes in something like 18 States. It was effectively an apartheid country.
That is not the UK experience. I listened last night to the TV episode of “Who do you think you are?” Involving the mixed race footballer Alex Scott. On her mother’s side she had a mixture of English, Irish and Jewish roots. On her fathers side the family originated in Portland, Jamaica. The family was traced back in one line, to her visible surprise and discomfort, to a great great great grandfather who was coloured and owned 26 black slaves. He received compensation for them and left money for his “wives” and children. One of whose lines led to Alex Scott and the other involved children born to a slave woman he owned. She met a cousin who came from one of those lines who explained there were many descendants in the area.
Most people probably regard Alex as black simply because her skin is relatively dark and she had a “Black Jamaican” father. Her expectation was that she might find that her ancestors were slaves but she was wholly unprepared to discover that one was in fact a slave owner. The fact that free black people in Jamaica and other Caribbean colonies could and did own slaves is never mentioned. The pretence that it was only racist white men who owned slaves is the popular narrative. I have a white great great grandmother who inherited slaves in Jamaica from her first husband and rooting about her relatives by marriage I discovered several who had children by free black women one of whom was a slave owner.
In the TV program it was suggested that it was unusual that the women concerned were left provided for by Will provisions but in fact judging from my research that appears to have been the norm.
Even in British colonies where slavery operated ( and it never did in the UK itself) there was no bar to black and coloured people owning slaves. This is not to excuse slavery but simply to emphasise that US history is not UK history. There were coloured professional football players in England and Scotland in the 1880s. The US professional baseball colour line was not crossed until 1947 in the States.
UK academics and other UK woke folk need to educate themselves and wake up to the different history of the two countries, and stop assuming that the UK is the same as the US as far as race relations are concerned.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Thanks for flouting the woke prohibition against saying “coloured”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I wasn’t flouting any woke prohibition merely quoting his description in contemporary records which were read out in the program.
His son was described as a “Sambo” in another census document quoted that puzzled Alex Scott. It was explained as being a derogatory reference to a mixed race person whereas it had a rather more precise meaning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If one of your parents was a mulatto/coloured (i.e. of one white and one black parent) and the other was black you were classified as a Sambo, whereas if one of your parents was a mulatto and the other white you would be a quadroon.
The fact that few (who have not studied colonial Caribbean records) have any idea of these ancient classifications is a testament to the fact that we are no longer as hung up on fine racial classifications as the officials of that era clearly were.

Frederick B
Frederick B
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Never knew that “Sambo” described an individual who was/is three quarters black, one quarter white (which would seem to very roughly describe the average black American or West Indian), but I do know that “Zambo” means a person who is half black, half native American.

Dr Anne Kelley
Dr Anne Kelley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

You are so right to say that US and U.K. woke people need to educate themselves. That is what is missing in this whole incendiary identity politics debate.
There is a tendency these days – encouraged by the use of social media – to polarise and oversimplify. Very often, the devil is in the detail.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Malcolm X observed something very similar (if you haven’t read it his autobiography is excellent). Unfortunately American racial politics has been exported and is infecting everywhere else.

Aleksandra Kovacevic
Aleksandra Kovacevic
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I came here to say what you said, word by word, including the favourite passage!

Identity politics got me doubting myself sometimes – as a white woman, do I have the right to reject racial classifications and insist that colour-blindness is the only morally justified attitude? These few, simple sentences, provide the answer. I shall be reading the full novel.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

By opening his piece with an example of white attitudes from over 100 years ago, the author perfectly typifies how utterly backward so many black people’s attitude to whites is, especially those from Africa.
The ‘white audience’ he refers to at the end is the kind of audience that holidays in Tuscany and writes op-Eds for the Guardian, I.e about 0.005% of the white population. Class of course never comes into it. Maybe he should get out more.
I for one am sick as a white person of being co-opted into this group of flagellants. If you don’t want a label, write a novel about something other than being a black immigrant in a white majority country. Write a sci-fi novel instead.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Exactly. The more ‘post identity’ these people seek to become ideally the more narrowly identity based their ideas are. Of course it’s all about some ideal ultimate fairness as if there’s some ideal state somewhere- not the appalling West which is where, strangely, people want to flee to from theocracies or other regimes.

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

I thought that historical example was interesting and relevant to the article. Also to me the writer does identify the class as the white, university educated progressives. Maybe they are 0.005% of the global white population? Unfortunately they are far more prevalent in the west and run pretty much every major institution.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Actually I think immigrants from Nigeria tend to have a lot more sane attitudes to race than many liberal whites or blacks growing up in the US and UK. Growing up in Nigeria they become acutely aware that living in a country where the majority are not white does not result in an earthly paradise for blacks, and that tribal and religious conflicts can result in precisely the sort of prejudice that blacks complain of elsewhere. if you want a sane black voice in UK politics then listen to Kemi Badenoch who comes from Nigeria.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

That’s a very good point. As ever ordinary people the world over are much the same.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

I am as viscerally anti-woke as they come, and don’t resent his description of white guilt-trippers at all. In fact I think it’s a very good article.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I don’t resent his description either. But his idea of a ‘white’ audience is so skewed that it does not really include the vast majority of white people, at least in my experience.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

I think identity is something one should be able to choose oneself and not have foisted upon one; I have seen the damage that comes about by others deciding that one should be put into a particular box. My nephew is mixed race and the kids at school decided that he was black and therefore should be into particular types of music and sports, he was (and is) not a sporty person, he loved Mozart and heavy metal (I know a strange combination), but he is mainly a computer nerd and now works in that field, but this did make his school years very difficult. His sister is more laid back, and simply said to those who said she was not black enough that she didn’t care as she didn’t identify as black, she identified as English.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

I dunno. Mozart was the metal of his day.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

Mozart and metal really isn’t a strange combination. I reckon there are loads of closet metal heads at the Proms

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

There have actually been studies that show metal fans commonly lean towards classical music.

If I remember rightly, it was thought to be because of the similar drama in the styles: the sturm und drang.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

I do find the idea that if you’re black you must be into ‘x’, it’s highly insulting and prescriptive. A few months ago ‘Luther’ was criticised because his character didn’t eat Jamaican food ffs. How about Luther was born and raised in London, probably in the 70s, probably went to a majority white school so his experience of culture might have been fish and chips, Sunday Roast, playing footie in the park and watching the Two Ronnies.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

You know, back in the Eighties, the Nineteen Eighties, things were heading in the right direction. For example, rock and pop bands comprising a bunch of white musicians, performing on a TV show or to a live audience, may well have had a trio of black backing singers — but it never felt to the viewer or punter attendee at the time as if some kind of statement was being thrown into the bargain by that. The love of creating a sound was paramount. Each to his own.
Forty years later, we have the ‘“fully formed and footnoted gunfire sentences”’ types who are charting high over the airwaves, with, off to the side now, their innumerable trios of companionable white backing singers singing their high praises. But each is not to his or her own. Lyrics are not written on the back of an envelope. Only the right notes are sung. It’s a creative dull end.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

In the 80s the mix of black and white music was great. Especially when you could have ‘white’ reggae and ‘black’ rock and every mixture in between. Music is a great unifier

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Yes, indeed it is. The rise of the internet has unfortunately made popular music less influential in spreading good feeling all around, however. Music was the connectivity a long time ago. But it’s overlooked now as a great unifier. Politics always gets in the way.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

Skewers the inanities of our current SNAFU with delicious aplomb. I look forward to seeking out Cole and Oloixarac, who look to be offering fresh and fertile perspectives. Another fine article from Mr Owolade: I’m looking forward to more of them, too.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

All this skin colour business is like a murky pond that mad people insist on swimming round and round in.
What is the point ? Status, power, publishing deals, attention, money, ie, for corrupt reasons.
I’m reading Pushkin’s short stories at the moment, his grandfather was black. Did he swim in the murky pond ? No, he did not.
https://britannica.com/biography/Aleksandr-Sergeyevich-Pushkin

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

In the U.S., at least, the point is for the elite class to keep the common people hating each other while they pillage for themselves. A red herring.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

Yes. Modern identity politics is a Human Zoo. So if you are one of the exhibited identities — complete with wall text — you have a choice: submit or rebel.

Firat M H
Firat M H
2 years ago

Brilliant! Identities have become “cages” in a world where experiences that underlie these identities have become so exceedingly mobile and complex that any such category does not do justice anymore to who we are…

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago

Labelling people is unavoidable, unfortunately, and will always be done. The problem to address is the profiting from those labels: whether it’s racists preventing people participating in activities because of their race and so raising their own status, or whether its anti-racists gaining status from combatting racism, as has been the greater problem in the West for some time now.

William Cameron
William Cameron
2 years ago

Or Pseudo anti racists earning a good living from exploiting the lot of the socially dysfunctional.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago

Indeed.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago

Interestingly, I suspect the self flagellating white wokists would volunteer themselves as exhibits for a human zoo.

Personally I identify as a human. My upbringing and experiences are what have shaped me and my skin is nothing more than a protective layer that stops my insides from falling out. I view everyone else equally.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago

“… such labels do not reflect the humanity of an individual. While they can breed important forms of solidarity and can be useful in analysing prejudice and discrimination, we shouldn’t cling to them too tightly.”
– Amen.

Su Mac
Su Mac
2 years ago

I always think back to a visit to the Museum of Lincolnville – a pioneering early black neighbourhood of St Augustine, FLA – few years ago. The motto writ large on one wall was “The first Africans in America were not slaves. The first slaves in America were not Africans” Beware of believing the cliches.
Some quality articles popping up again here. I am cheered to hear that despite cancel culture writers are publishing more intelligent and nuanced fiction about the wonderful puzzle that is race/culture/identity.
Hopefully the obscuring dogma of BLM, CRT will fade away and we can relate to the surprising discoveries about each other without this interpolation.

Dr Anne Kelley
Dr Anne Kelley
2 years ago

This is a superb article, beautifully and lucidly expressed. The final paragraph says it all ‘Labels should be used 
as the start of someone’s identity, not the full definition of it’.
I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know about human zoos. How abhorrent and insensitive, even into the twentieth century. I’m appalled to think people were taken by force and forced to undergo such humiliation.

Corin Levick
Corin Levick
2 years ago
Reply to  Dr Anne Kelley

Corin Levick
Black people chose black as a label, and put on this handle a list of demands, and definitions of a culture. The reality is defining black activism as excusable as a kind of psychotic trance of the oppressed (murder, theft, arson). Accompanied by fetid cultural appropriation (Lamy says he is English). I am English, Caucasian and proud. Fentanyl Flloyd?

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
2 years ago
Reply to  Dr Anne Kelley

I’m not defending human zoos, but the participants weren’t taken by force; they were volunteers, and paid a reasonable amount (by the standards of the time).