• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

We are inching along, but not as quickly as we (or you) would like. If you have already donated, thank you so much. If you haven’t had a chance, consider skipping the coffee this week and drop CounterPunch $5 or more. We provide our content for free, but it costs us a lot to do so. Every dollar counts.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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

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.

 

More articles by:

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

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 23, 2019
Kenneth Surin
Western China and the New Silk Road
W. T. Whitney
Stirrings of Basic Change Accompany Protests in Haiti
Louisa Willcox
Inviting the Chief of the Grizzlies to Our Feast
Jonathan Cook
The Democrats Helped Cultivate the Barbarism of ISIS
Dave Lindorff
Military Spending’s Out of Control While Slashing It Could Easily Fund Medicare for All
John Kendall Hawkins
With 2020 Hindsight, the Buffoonery Ahead
Jesse Hagopian
The Chicago Teachers Strike: “Until We Get What Our Students Deserve”
Saad Hafiz
America’s Mission to Remake Afghanistan Has Failed
Victor Grossman
Thoughts on the Impeachment of Donald Trump
Binoy Kampmark
Celebrity Protesters and Extinction Rebellion
John Horning
Spotted Owls and the National Christmas Tree
October 22, 2019
Gary Leupp
The Kurds as U.S. Sacrificial Lambs
Robert Fisk
Trump and the Retreat of the American Empire
John Feffer
Trump’s Endless Wars
Marshall Auerback
Will the GOP Become the Party of Blue-Collar Conservatism?
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
Trump’s Fake Withdrawal From Endless War
Dean Baker
Trump Declares Victory in China Trade War
Patrick Bond
Bretton Woods Institutions’ Neoliberal Over-Reach Leaves Global Governance in the Gutter
Robert Hunziker
XR Co-Founder Discusses Climate Emergency
John W. Whitehead
Terrorized, Traumatized and Killed: The Police State’s Deadly Toll on America’s Children
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A World Partnership for Ecopolitical Health and Security
Binoy Kampmark
The Decent Protester: a Down Under Creation
Frances Madeson
Pro-Democracy Movement in Haiti Swells Despite Police Violence
Mike Garrity
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Challenges Logging and Burning Project in Methow Valley
Chelli Stanley
Change the Nation You Live In
Elliot Sperber
Humane War 
October 21, 2019
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Wolf at the Door: Adventures in Fundraising With Cockburn
Rev. William Alberts
Myopic Morality: The Rehabilitation of George W. Bush
Sheldon Richman
Let’s Make Sure the Nazis Killed in Vain
Horace G. Campbell
Chinese Revolution at 70: Twists and Turns, to What?
Jim Kavanagh
The Empire Steps Back
Ralph Nader
Where are the Influentials Who Find Trump Despicable?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Poll Projection: Left-Leaning Jagmeet Singh to Share Power with Trudeau in Canada
Thomas Knapp
Excuses, Excuses: Now Hillary Clinton’s Attacking Her Own Party’s Candidates
Brian Terrell
The United States Air Force at Incirlik, Our National “Black Eye”
Paul Bentley
A Plea for More Cynicism, Not Less: Election Day in Canada
Walter Clemens
No Limits to Evil?
Robert Koehler
The Collusion of Church and State
Kathy Kelly
Taking Next Steps Toward Nuclear Abolition
Charlie Simmons
How the Tax System Rewards Polluters
Chuck Collins
Who is Buying Seattle? The Perils of the Luxury Real Estate Boom
Weekend Edition
October 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Trump as the “Anti-War” President: on Misinformation in American Political Discourse
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Where’s the Beef With Billionaires?
Rob Urie
Capitalism and the Violence of Environmental Decline
Paul Street
Bernie in the Deep Shit: Dismal Dem Debate Reflections
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail