When I first picked up Americanah over a year ago, I put it back down after page 10. It was yet another African turning on Black Americans by pretending to both know and despise Black America. When my book club picked it last month, I was more curious this time around. As a Black American in Africa, maybe I wanted to find hints for how to navigate the reverse world. Alas, I found no hints. And I really didn’t find many bursts of wisdom, just a strong sense that Ngozi was telling us all that where we are from is truly where we belong – no matter how many lives we wreck in the going and coming. I disagree with that sense (which may be more strongly felt because I absolutely disagree with extramarital affairs). But, when I picked up Autobiography of an ex-Colored Man, I realized that becoming what you aren’t to become who you think you deserve to be is a timeless human challenge.
The 1912 book by James Weldon Johnson focuses on a mulatto who spends his whole life wondering which color is more advantageous to him – Black or White. When it is in his best interest, he code switches. He plays that part and lives that side of life’s dream, until it no longer becomes the winning card. He trades all that Blackness has to offer, by using remnants of Black music to make a living entertaining Whites all over the world. He eventually marries a White woman who, after some shock and horror, accepts that he is of Black heritage. While I was pretty disgusted with the book’s content, it took me back to an America that’s only 100 years gone from today. It was an America where the popularity of the Cotton Club co-existed with the highest rates of lynching of Black men in history.
It brought me back to the counterintuitive-ness of today, where similar extremes seem to be so ever-present. Where our Black president ground-breakingly declares immigration reform and gives us December 26th off AND a laundry list of young Black males are gunned down with impunity by police. There is no ‘but’ here… this is not abnormal and this is not an aberration. These things co-exist and make code-switching both necessary and useless. Our times have always been odd. And that oddity has always made me seek the shores of elsewhere, where the odd isn’t for lack of giving a damn about another person’s life. But, it’s deeper. It’s older.
Difference and hatred can be a colonial and aristocratic being. That being is a being I understand. I can see how centuries of human chattel and land grab combine to create indivisible barriers between people. And I can also see how those who experience it in vastly different places can be brought together by the similarity of that experience. So, when I grabbed Half A Life, by V.S. Naipul, it was finally a text I could understand. The code switching Indian who traveled the world reinventing himself to escape his farce of a family, finds himself in a new country. This unnamed place must be the country in which I reside today. He speaks of living someone else’s life – the life of his wife who was born in what is clearly Mozambique. Their initial attraction was born out of recognizing the code-switching in one another and finding relief in no longer having to pretend. Better yet, they don’t even feel the burden of admitting which parts of themselves are lies – old and new. This brings them together and it is what tears them apart decades later. One day he wakes up and feels that he hasn’t really been living a life of his choosing. But, if not his, then whose?
These three texts brought me full circle to wondering what wandering is all about. Has my life been a long tale of serial code switching – becoming someone who everyone believes you already are? And if so, why? For me, it’s about finding a place where I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. There are situations of discomfort that we can tolerate and others that we can’t. I’ve never been able to tolerate code switching close to home. It’s why I don’t take photographs of New York City and very rarely, if ever, in my hometown. It’s why I don’t stop cursing when I go work. It’s why I wore a kurta in India for all of 5 times in 2 years. Take me far, far away from what matters to me and I’ll be whomever I must, but get within 10 feet of something that matters to me and I must be myself. It is an automatic and involuntary reality.
Code switching is a survival tool, not a way of life. It isn’t sustainable over the long-term. In fact, over the long-term, it is parasitic. It eats away at the soul, casting doubt and promoting amnesia. What being in Mozambique has brought me is an undying sense of self. So far from what I know, I find the familiar in me – even when I am not looking for it. The routines come back. The fish and grits on weekends. And the soul music on Saturdays. They say you can run, but you can’t hide. I disagree. I think that’s only true if who you’re running from is you.
From others, you can live a series of lifetimes playing the part that curries the most favor.
Whether it be a Nigerian woman in 2013, an African-American man in 1912, or an Indo-Trinidadian in 2001, great writers seem to cling to that conundrum. They do more than explore it, they dissect it – as if trying write an obituary for someone who they met a lifetime ago and only now realize that they’ve never really known.
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