A little under 11 years ago, I was just finding my feet in a new country on another continent, and I was starting to discover a few things that were completely foreign to me, having grown up in Nigeria. A few weeks in for instance, I realised that I was no longer ‘David’ the writer dude who likes to produce music and has an eclectic fashion sense. I was now this thing called a “black guy,” and that societal tag came with negative connotations that I did not like. People shifted their feet nervously and pursed their lips around me. Older women clutched their purses. People spoke to me in a different tone than with each other.
After immersing myself in the UK news cycle, I sensed that a narrative about criminally minded young black males primarily in London was at least partially responsible for this. At the time, there was a big debate about whether police should be allowed to profile young black men wearing hoodies with their hands hidden out of sight. This narrative of course, was your regular old bog-standard Daily Mail racism, but only a few weeks into my UK experience, I did not know that such things existed, or that the Western world has a political spectrum that is pretty much split in half over the question “Should black people have rights?”
I was a Nigerian in every sense of the word – supremely confident in my own omniscience and ability to handle any situation at all, whether or not I knew the first thing about it. In my 18 year-old wisdom, I decided that I had figured out the problem. It wasn’t structural racism, prejudice or a malevolent press using prejudices to sell papers – it was black people’s fault for being a group of dodgy criminals. I, 18 year-old Dave with 6 weeks’ worth of life experience in the Western world, would show these blacks how to live like a model citizen and ‘integrate’ properly into society, rather than being a bunch of whiny victims with a chip on their shoulder.
I posted a lengthy note on Facebook explaining to my 700+ friends list that in order to stop being the subject of a media witch hunt, they simply needed to stop wearing dark coloured hoodies and putting their hands in their pockets – they should wear “plain, non-threatening white” clothing and buy gloves instead, so that white people wouldn’t feel uncomfortable around them. Such a simple and straightforward solution from the mind of a genius!
I had solved racism!
Diagnosing Meritorious Manumission
Needless to say, I had my naïve convictions destroyed very harshly and pointedly when I realised that despite being the all-dressed-in-white, always-smiling-and-looking-friendly guy with a broad southern accent, my experience did not change. The purse-clutchers still clutched their purses. The lip pursers still pursed their lips. The foot shifters shifted their feet some more. The floor security still followed me around Lidl and Topshop. Black cabs still acted weird about stopping to pick me up. My efforts to ‘de-black’ myself and become a sort of human abstraction feared by no one and approved by everyone, had exactly zero effect.
Soon I began to grasp that the problem was in fact with the racists – and not with me for existing while dark skinned. The entire ‘fear’ of dark skin was a completely contrived and historically artificial thing that I – and other black people – did not actually cause. At this point, I was forced to take a long, hard look at myself and figure out why my first reaction to racism when I experienced it was to assume that “other” black people had a problem but I was the special, chosen one who would ‘reinvent’ blackness and make it more appealing to the world. I had no name for it, but I grudgingly admitted that this “my case is different” phenomenon was a product of my cultural earthing from Nigeria.
Four years later, while watching a lecture by one of my most influential mentors Dr. Amos Wilson, I stumbled across a term that describes the goal of setting oneself apart from a shared reality by hiding behind some kind of action or perceived personal virtue. The term is ‘Meritorious Manumission.’
It comes from the Meritorious Manumission Act of 1710 in the United States, which authorized the legal emancipation of slaves or improvement in their status in return for certain “good deeds.” Such deeds could include saving a white person’s life, saving a white person’s property, or snitching on other slaves planning to run away or start a revolution. Meritorious Manumission was held up as the sum and total of a slave’s dreams in 1700’s America – to achieve the personal achievement of escaping individually from the nasty shared experience of blackness.
300 years later, despite the massive societal changes from that era, this mindset has somehow not just persisted, but found its way back across the Atlantic to the land where the majority of African slaves originated from. In modern-day Nigeria, millions of us are looking for different kinds of Meritorious Manumission. Some of us are looking for economic manumission that will supposedly ‘insulate’ us from Nigeria. Some of us are looking for geographical manumission that will elevate us away from the shared experience of Nigeria by emigrating by any and every means, including trekking across the Sahara. Some of us seek intellectual manumission that will apparently elevate us away from the level of mere Nigerians if we just know enough stuff. A large majority seek spiritual manumission that will insulate them from any difficulty whatsoever through the power of the supernatural.
Meritorious Manumission Doesn’t Exist – It Never Did
Let’s say you were a slave in 1715 who saved the life of a master’s beloved lastborn. For this, you were granted your freedom under the Act. Now you have achieved what every slave dreams of – Meritorious Manumission. The problem is that even if you got a bit of money as a thank-you from your former master, you were now in a world that was not designed to accommodate a free black person. Nobody would house or do business with you. The South also had some very strict anti-vagrancy laws so you could not be without gainful employment on the pain of being sentenced to indentured servitude (i.e slavery) on a plantation.
So you either drifted and ended up enslaved/lynched, or you found a master – probably your old one – to hire yourself out to, perhaps on more favourable terms than a regular slave. Instead of being a slave, you were now…an employee – which in the context of that time, was the same thing. Thus even if you avoided the horrors of life as a field slave, you were never truly “free” in the real sense of it, because your status was permanently and inextricably tied to that of the majority of your kind. The day you spoke a word out of turn, society would very quickly remind you that it could take away whatever favour it had bestowed on you. In other words, the dream of Meritorious Manumission was essentially a myth in the 1700s.
The same holds true today.
Whatever type of manumission we chase in this part of the world, we all agree on one central tenet: “My case is different.” That unproven belief, which lies somewhere between optimism and narcissism underpins some of the most destructive and dangerous aspects of the cultural disease afflicting Nigeria. Belief in personal exceptionalism is what motivates kidnappers, organ traffickers, drug counterfeiters, armed robbers, internet fraudsters, religious extremists and other people whose existence makes our lives that bit more difficult. To a man, they all believe that what they do is justified because they are trying to achieve one type of freedom or the other. Whether it is a naira amount or a visa or a miracle that is the desired manumission, a large part of Nigerian culture is the strong belief that a particular individual achievement will make our dreams come true – no matter what it takes to make it happen.
Narcissistic Selfishness is Dangerous
In my little example at the outset, I was ready to throw black people as a collective under the bus so that the majority white population around me would recognise me as David the fully-formed human being with talents and humour and personality, not the ‘threatening,’ nuance-free entity called “black man.” In addition to developing a pitch-perfect Essex accent to answer “I’m from London” to the inevitable Where are you from? question, I even allowed people to mispronounce or Anglicise my surname – “Hùn-déy-ín” became “Hun-djun.” Other Nigerians/Africans would not be so obliging about having their names butchered, and I wasn’t helping these folks understand that other people like me would not approve. All I wanted was acceptance by any means.
This is analogous to how Nigerians are culturally taught to seek personal advantage at any and every cost.
We believe strongly that our interests as individuals come before collective interests. This belief manifests itself in everything from how we run damaging and needlessly divisive election campaigns to how we use power for reckless self-enrichment without thinking about the bigger picture. It is all about the immediate result we are seeking – the Meritorious Manumission. If we just get the keys to government coffers, we will be made for life. If we just get into this position, we can enrich our 3rd generation. If we just get into that country, we can remain there permanently and better our lives even if we are overstaying on 2-week tourist visa and making it harder for Nigerians to get visas in future. As long as we get ours, we’re fine.
You could call it culturally embedded pathological selfishness. My theory is that we can trace it back to the abominable slave trade era. After all, if we could cheerfully mistreat human beings that looked and sounded just like us to such absurd extents for the sake of cannons, rifles, gin, umbrellas, red cloth and corrugated roofing sheets, what can’t we do in pursuit of personal interests?
Overtime, we have developed something called “slave ship consciousness.”
The desperate, individualistic drive to survive in spite of (perhaps at the expense of) everyone else has found its way to the very base of our culture. Among other things, it makes us vicious, untrustworthy individuals. It also makes us notorious escapists. Incidentally, these are the two qualities needed by a slave looking for manumission – a willingness to backstab and sell out his/her fellow slaves in exchange for a shot at freedom, and a strong capacity to ignore immediate conditions and daydream or visualize a picture of what freedom would look like.
Nigeria’s crime statistics tell the story of our vicious and duplicitous side, and its churches and mosques tell the story of our escapist side. Some of us have even taken the escapism to another level by inviting ourselves to the internal discussions of other countries on social media, while ignoring our own. Nigeria is brutish and depressing, but America represents manumission – so we spend hours debating whether this person who doesn’t know that we exist is preferable to that person who doesn’t care that we exist.
Lose The Ship Mentality
As I mentioned at the outset, my little attempt to escape from being a “black man” by becoming “Dave Hundjin,” wearer of “plain, non-threatening white” clothing and non-keeper-of-semi-frozen-hands-in-pockets, failed miserably. I gave up and decided to focus on finding my own approval within myself. Eventually I had to admit that the entire idea of escaping from a shared racial experience by being individually “virtuous” was not only daft but also self-centred and narcissistic.
Years later, back home in Nigeria when I witnessed my dad die a painful, avoidable death for lack of a simple ambulance, I also came to understand that economic manumission does not exist in Nigeria’s context.
The only comforts and extravagances he did not have during his life were those he did not aspire to. By Nigerian standards, he was a very successful man – some would say a billionaire. Yet all of that could not save him from the simple fact of Nigeria’s dysfunctional public healthcare system when he had a stroke and he needed an ambulance.
My takeaway from the personal tragedy was that any attempt to achieve individual manumission from Nigeria’s woes without taking into account the wider context of the country and our associated identity is unsustainable. The only realistic option is for us to take the approach of some of the captives on slave ships who banded together and took over the ships. Instead of fighting each other to survive and maybe someday become a little less enslaved than the other, they took the fight to their captors and won the only kind of emancipation that is sustainable – that which comes as part of a group.
Even for those whose desired manumission is to escape Nigeria and start afresh somewhere else, it should be noted that Opal Tometi, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter is a 2nd generation Nigerian-American. For all the freedom that America represented to her immigrant parents, it came with its own negative shared experiences that she could not get away from, hence the need to start that organisation. The fact is wherever we go, our context will follow us whether we like it or not.
At some point, we will all have to stop running from our shadow and try to fix a bad situation.