FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Review: Okey Ndibe’s “Never Look an American in the Eye”

by

Never fear. Never Look an American in the Eye, Okey Ndibe’s memoir of living in the United States, is not an angry, anti-American screed as its title perhaps implies. Nor was it Ndibe who initially made the observation but his uncle—before he left for the United States—who made the remark to him, adding, “Americans can’t stand any stranger looking them in the face. They take it as an insult. It’s something they don’t forgive. And every American carries a gun. If they catch you, a stranger, looking them in the face, they will shoot.”

Of course, this worries Ndibe, in his late twenties, about to depart for Amherst to become the editor of a new publication, African Commentary, for Chinua Achebe. It’s 1988, and although his uncle’s warning leads to a number of uncomfortable moments for the newly arrived Nigerian, mostly they are rendered comically (as is much of the memoir). The first night in Amherst, all alone in the house provided for him, he is frightened to death. “Some gunman, I feared, might be prowling in the dark, in absolute anonymity, scouting me out. The fear exasperated me, but I felt powerless to dispel it.” He doesn’t sleep a minute. And four days later, when he’s in downtown Amherst after he has forgotten the warning and looked a policeman in the eyes, he totally panics, convinced that the man will shoot him.

It’s all a crazy mix-up because there’s been a bank robbery, and Ndibe fits the profile of the robber. The policeman asks him, politely, “Sir, do you mind if I frisk you?” That’s even more frightful because Ndibe has never heard the word “frisk.” When asked for identification, Ndibe says his passport is at home. The policeman says he’ll drive him there, which escalates his fear that he will be killed out of everyone’s sight. At the house, two of Achebe’s children have appeared, and when they ask him why he’s come with the policeman, he responds, “I have been arrested for bank robbery,” setting off an entire katzenjammer series of ludicrous misunderstandings. Welcome to America, as Ndibe finally realizes that his uncle’s warning was based solely on watching too many Hollywood westerns. If someone looks you in the eye, you shoot him.

Just as Ndibe came to America with misconceptions about the country, he chronicles the numerous misunderstandings Americans hold about Africa. The most obvious one still persists today: Africa is one country called Africa. “How many times did Americans tell me they had an African friend I must know, their confidence based on neverlookthe fact that their friend’s father was an important man in Africa, a lawyer, say, or a dentist?” Or, “How many times was I asked how it was sleeping in Africa at night, with all that racket from lions, baboons, and monkeys, to say nothing of the slithering venomous snakes and a myriad nameless gnomes and goblins?” Although he makes light of these stereotypes, Ndibe states, “Africa remains in the imagination of some Americans a vortex of disease, an area of vestigial darkness and residual mystery.” Correction: most Americans.

Ndibe has encountered numerous mix-ups because of his given name, pronounced okay. In spite of his brief three-year editorship of African Commentary (with funding for the publication so dire that he often felt he was “working week after week for groceries,”) he stuck it out in the United States, completed an MFA at UMass with the help of John Edgar Wiedman, and became an American citizen in 1996. Numerous times, he writes glowingly of being an American citizen. “Naturalization is not a loss-gain dialectic but a gain-gain proposition. In me, Nigeria and the United States don’t find a battleground. Instead, they find a new momentum, a harmonic hyphenation: I am proudly Nigerian American.” Like numerous other Nigerian writers down through the decades, he has chosen to live in the United States (and seek citizenship) rather than return “home.”

Nowhere is this gifted writer more at home with himself (and in the world he has made for himself) than in his account of his father’s nearly fifty-year correspondence with an Englishman he met when they were both fighting in Burma during World War II. For forty-eight years after both returned to their respective countries, the two men carried on an unlikely correspondence. “Theirs was a friendship that breached several barriers. The most obvious was the ironclad sense of hierarchy in the army, perhaps the most hierarchical institution invented by man. There was also the taboo of race, embodying all the historical distrust between white and black. There was the line of religious affiliation: Tucker an Anglican prelate, my father a Catholic. Then there was the salient fact that, in the late 1940s, Tucker’s country held my father’s in colonial subjugation. Were Tucker to visit Nigeria in those heated postwar years, there were many clubs in which my father would not have been able to drink with the Englishman.”

The two men never saw one another a second time. But then one day in 1994, Ndibe made the wise decision that he should arrange a conference call for the three of them (father in Nigeria, his son in the United States, and Tucker in England). What a loving gesture, especially since his father would die two years later. And still later, when Ndibe was in England, he visited Tucker and his wife. “What moved me…was to see how two ordinary men had done extraordinary things; how they had salvaged something beautiful from the ravages of history; how, transcending their own narrow biographies, they enacted a friendship that could not be quenched neither by distance, time, war, nor for that matter, by death.”

Ndibe comes across as a real mensch. I’ve men him briefly twice and regret that our frantic lives—with emails replacing letters—have become only one symptom of our impersonal times. His memoir could not be more enjoyable.

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

May 22, 2017
Diana Johnstone
All Power to the Banks! The Winners-Take-All Regime of Emmanuel Macron
Robert Fisk
Hypocrisy and Condescension: Trump’s Speech to the Middle East
John Grant
Jeff Sessions, Jesus Christ and the Return of Reefer Madness
Nozomi Hayase
Trump and the Resurgence of Colonial Racism
Rev. William Alberts
The Normalizing of Authoritarianism in America
Frank Stricker
Getting Full Employment: the Fake Way and the Right Way 
Jamie Davidson
Red Terror: Anti-Corbynism and Double Standards
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange, Sweden, and Continuing Battles
Robert Jensen
Beyond Liberal Pieties: the Radical Challenge for Journalism
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Extravagant Saudi Trip Distracts from His Crisis at Home
Angie Beeman
Gig Economy or Odd Jobs: What May Seem Trendy to Privileged City Dwellers and Suburbanites is as Old as Poverty
Colin Todhunter
The Public Or The Agrochemical Industry: Who Does The European Chemicals Agency Serve?
Jerrod A. Laber
Somalia’s Worsening Drought: Blowback From US Policy
Michael J. Sainato
Police Claimed Black Man Who Died in Custody Was Faking It
Clancy Sigal
I’m a Trump Guy, So What?
Gerry Condon
In Defense of Tulsi Gabbard
Weekend Edition
May 19, 2017
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Getting Assange: the Untold Story
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Secret Sharer
Charles Pierson
Trump’s First Hundred Days of War Crimes
Paul Street
How Russia Became “Our Adversary” Again
Andrew Levine
Legitimation Crises
Mike Whitney
Seth Rich, Craig Murray and the Sinister Stewards of the National Security State 
Robert Hunziker
Early-Stage Antarctica Death Rattle Sparks NY Times Journalists Trip
Ken Levy
Why – How – Do They Still Love Trump?
Bruce E. Levine
“Hegemony How-To”: Rethinking Activism and Embracing Power
Robert Fisk
The Real Aim of Trump’s Trip to Saudi Arabia
Christiane Saliba
Slavery Now: Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia
Chris Gilbert
The Chávez Hypothesis: Vicissitudes of a Strategic Project
Howard Lisnoff
Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain
Brian Cloughley
Propaganda Feeds Fear and Loathing
Stephen Cooper
Is Alabama Hiding Evidence It Tortured Two of Its Citizens?
Sheldon Richman
The Real Danger From Trump is Ignored
Jay Moore
Learning from History: Resistance in the 1850s and Today
Matthew Stevenson
Down and Out in London and Paris With Macron, May, Trump and Gatsby
David Jaffee
Rolling Back Democracy
Fred Gardner
Irrefutable Proof: Russian Election Meddling Documented!
Jess Guh
Neurology Study Reveals What We Already Know: People of Color Get Worse Healthcare
Joseph Natoli
A Culture of Narcissism, a Politics of Personality
David Rosen
Politics and the Agent of Social Change
Ian Almond
The Secret Joke of Our Democracy: Britain’s Elephant in the Boardroom
Andre Vltchek
Revolution Vs Passivity
Erik Rydberg
Stop the Jordan Cove LNG Project #NoLNG
Vijay Prashad
When Israeli Fighter Jets Almost Killed Nehru
Christopher Brauchli
The Certified Trump
Chuck Collins
Congress Wants to Cut Your Health Care — And Billionaires’ Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail