Teju Cole in Interview with Eleanor Wachtel - On Becoming

Nov 06, 2015

And each one of us ... we all have to figure out what is our relationship to this culture. And the great thing is that most of us end up embracing it and try to be responsible to our role, our privileges and our disadvantages within that rather complex system.

I am a big fan of Teju Cole. Today, he reposted this interview he had with Eleanor Wachtel of CBC on his facebook page. I listened, was very moved by his clarity of thought around race and becoming Black in American, so I decided to transcribe some parts of it. His story of very near to my experience as I also grew up in Nigeria and later came to the U.S. as he did. In many ways, he is speaking my truth.

#tbt Just about three years ago, I was interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel on CBC's Writers and Company. It's still to date...

Posted by Teju Cole on Thursday, November 5, 2015

Here are his words:

I think in part that was an exploration for me of what it was like to first arrive in the US and find this society that is obsessed with race and the way that plays out in your relationship with other Black Americans who have had race imposed on them and who then experience their lives primarily in racial terms. But also to experience-but this takes a lot of time-and realize that for non-Black people, particularly the White people that you’re interacting with, are interacting with you on the basis of your race. You might not immediately notice, but that is what is happening. This was initially, quite difficult for me.

Who are this people that are laying various sorts of claims on me? What does it mean?

But you know I came to the US 20 years ago and I have long passed that phase. But it was something I wanted to explore still in the person of Julius [The main character of Open City]. What it might be like for somebody who in the midst of his own alienation, he is still asking himself, “why are people laying claims on me?”

For me, I am much more at home with African-American culture now, and it is part of my experience of life in the city. I am not mixed-race like Julius, and I certainly don’t share that history-i.e., descendant of enslaved persons in America-and I have a kind of skepticism of aspects of claims that are made still, because those things are not my experience.

However, I am also acutely sensitive to how deeply divided the United States is in racial terms. The severe and ongoing injustice that African Americans still face and the very serious importance of having solidarity as a way of sort of moving past these problems.

Not only do I not mind when an African-American calls me brother, in fact I like it because it is true that it is a common cause. And we certainly could do with many more people of all different races regarding each other as siblings regardless of race. So, it is something I like.

There are aspects of African-American culture that are among the most important things in my life, among the most important cultural expressions in which I engage day to day with, literature, jazz and hip hop are things that are very central to me.

But on the other hand you know, also recognizing that I am not descended from American slaves, and even if my skin color is something that occasionally causes me problems in this country, I also recognize that there are certain advantages to having grown up without that burden. Its an advantage that I have, its an advantage that Barack Obama has, and there should be a kind of proper resistance to enfolding ourselves in narratives that are not fully ours.

So in a way, America sorts of gets away with this whole “we have a Black President thing,” indeed we do. But we don’t have a President who is a descendant of slaves. But in the sense of his African-American identified as somebody who is moderately from the African continent like I am. In a way this gives him a particular form of confidence because he is not subject to in the same way to this generational, systematic trauma. And in another way, it also makes his interactions with White Americans and other Americans a little bit easier-this is a slightly complicated thing to get into-but all I would just say is, I know that my interactions with White Americans, because of my background, because of my affects, because of my personal history, there is a way in which they come to me less guilty. Do you understand? So, these are very intricate things.

In fact, I wanted to somewhere in the book, signal the fact that Julius who has an African father who died when he was young, he has a White mother, etcetera, etcetera, actually has more in common with Obama, than he has in common with me.

If you don’t grow up in an African-American household in the U.S., but you are an adult who is Black, you have to at some point ask yourself the question “What is my relationship to this dominant African-American culture and the various ways in which it expresses itself; the various ways in which the larger American culture reacts to it?” So there are situations in which I am trying to get a taxi cab in NYC where it doesn’t stop for me, but it stops half a block later for that White guy over there and you again sort of see what just happened, but I also know that sometimes I walk into a room, and I begin to give a lecture and I can sense that I am not, the way I am being read is not answering to the stereotypes they might have of African-Americans. So there are sort of these two extremes.

And each one of us, this is true of all my Nigerian friends that live in the United States and various other Africans I know or people who are Black but grew up in White households in the United States, and all of which was the case with Obama, we all have to figure out what is our relationship to this culture. And the great thing is that most of us end up embracing it and try to be responsible to our role, our privileges and our disadvantages within that rather complex system.