"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: March 2009

Friday, March 27, 2009

Of Tribe and Pride: Deconstructing Alibi’s Alibis for Racial Self-Hatred

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I read Mr. Idang Alibi’s response to my article entitled “What’s my Tribe? None” with both amusement and bemusement. I was amused by what seems to me Alibi’s now all-too-predictable predilection to invoke new alibis (no pun intended) to think the worst of Africans and bemused by his cherry-picking and distortion of my arguments to make his case.

Yet I know Mr. Alibi well enough to know that he is a good-natured, well-intentioned and clear-headed reservoir of great intellectual strength who would not deliberately set out to misrepresent my views. So what happened? Well, he was probably undergoing that familiar instinctive reaction that people evince when their settled certainties have been rudely ruptured. They go from disbelief, to denial, to anger, to introspection and possibly to acceptance.

For the benefit of people who have not had the benefit to read my original essay, my basic arguments are these: the word “tribe” is a pejorative label that Europeans reserve to describe non-Western ethnicities. The word is never used to describe Europeans and their descendants, except to advert to their dim and distant past. I argued that the subliminal import of this is: the past of the West is the present of the rest.

I therefore made the case, which has been made for several decades by countless scholars, that we should abandon the use of the word “tribe” to describe our cultural and linguistic formations in preference for more dignifying alternatives like “ethnic group,” “community,” “ethnic nationality,” “nation,” etc.

Now, although my argument encompasses the vast gamut of non-Western peoples who are held prisoner by this odious “naming practice,” Mr. Alibi chose to understand my argument as being limited to Africa. He then proceeded on the basis of this faulty premise to theatrically avow his pride in belonging to some “tribe” in southern Nigeria, although I never argued anywhere in my piece that we should not be proud of who we are. Nor did I argue that we should erase our primordial identities.

So, in a grotesque simplification, he conflated my denunciation of the racist underpinnings of the word “tribe” with a lack of pride in our primordial identities. He failed to realize that it is the word I am rejecting, not the identity that the word incompetently describes at best and denigrates at worst.

If Alibi had read my article carefully, he would have realized that I made my case by first defining my terms. It was the French philosopher Francois Voltaire who once said, “If you want to converse with me, first define your terms.”

I pointed out that even the Oxford dictionary admits that the word “tribe” is “sometimes offensive” and that it is used exclusively to describe peoples of “developing countries.” I also pointed out that other English dictionaries define a “tribe” as a “social division of preliterate people.”

So, even the English who “own” their language and codified it in their dictionaries concede that “tribe” is pejorative and discriminatory. Again, I cited one of several (white) scholars who take issue with the use of the word “tribe” to describe the people of Africa, Latin America, American Indians, etc.

Alibi didn’t contest the accuracy of the dictionary definitions of “tribe,” or engage with my interpretations of the dictionary definitions, or even confront the arguments of scholars who said the word should be trashed.

All Alibi did was to proceed, on the basis of the predetermined self-hating frames of reference he has sadly internalized, to commit what people who make a living by esoteric erudition call “vulgar empiricism” or “naïve pragmatism.” These phrases are often used to describe the predisposition by some people to mistake symptoms for causes, or to “unproblematically” inaugurate surface impressions as substitutes for or representations of the deep structures that underlie these surface impressions.

For instance, when you dip a pen in a bucket of water, it usually looks bent. That is the impression that our sense of sight registers. But the pen is not really bent; its contorted appearance is an optical illusion, in much the same way as the mirage creates an illusion in which atmospheric refraction by a layer of hot air distorts or inverts reflections of distant objects. A vulgar empiricist or a naïve pragmatist would argue that the pen is a bent object or that because he can see a mirage, it must truly exist.

How did Mr. Alibi apply these notions in his analysis? In a variety of ways. He said, for instance, that if we are ashamed of the word “tribe,” we should change our ways. This argument is faulty on many levels. First, it’s not a question of shame or pride. It’s simply a question of laying bare the power dimensions in a “naming practice” that unfairly ridicules a broad swath of humanity.

Second, the deployment of the word “tribe” to describe non-Western peoples is not a function of their state of development; it’s a function of the notion of their “difference.” (The normative descriptors Westerners use to encapsulate notions of slow or inferior “development” are “Third World,” “developing countries,” etc with which I have no problems whatsoever).

That is precisely why the word “detribalize” (or its inflection “detribalization”), which Nigerians misuse to denote freedom from compulsive or irrational ethnic loyalties, means “the act of causing tribal people to abandon their customs and adopt urban ways of living.” In other words, it means Westernization or cultural annihilation.

Third, it’s not only Africans who are pigeonholed as “tribes” by the Western media. Other non-Western peoples who feel violated by the nomenclatural despotism of the word are also resisting it. For instance, it has become customary these days for the Western media to refer to community leaders in Pakistan and the Arab word as “tribal leaders.” Middle East intellectuals now protest these labels too. Similarly, the Native American populations whom white Americans habitually call “tribes,” refer to themselves as “nations.”

But if we go by Mr. Alibi’s logic, more than half of the human family who are invidiously stereotyped as “tribes” by the white power structure should just go and examine themselves and change their ways so that they may some day “evolve” to “nations” or “ethnic groups” like Westerners.

Well, given Mr. Alibi’s well-known fondness for racial self-hatred (recall his notoriously offensive support for James Watson who said Africans are intellectually inferior?), he would probably argue that since Africans occupy the lowest point in the “civilizational” totem pole, only they deserve to be stereotyped as “tribes.” Until we put our house in order, Alibi says, we should learn to be content with being condemned to the worst forms of denigration. It amounts to inferiority complex for us to complain, he says. Hmm. Some logic!

Alibi rightly bemoans the endemic violence in our polity but wrongly invokes it as a reason we deserve to be called “tribes.” Violence is not exclusive to Africa. Yugoslavia was gripped by a long-drawn fratricidal murdering spree. Northern Ireland is also still held hostage by episodic fits of communal violence. They were/are not called “tribes” on account of these facts. Belgium is still torn by the kind of primordial animosities that the West associates with African polities. Yet they are not called “tribes.” Conversely, many parts of the developing world that are catching up “developmentally” with the West and that are not wracked by ethnic violence are still stereotyped as “tribal” societies. How does Alibi reconcile these facts?

This is a fight against the linguistic manifestation of or justification for oppression— and nothing more. By accepting the label “tribe” we legitimize the Western hegemonic consensus that reproduces narratives of our alterity and we therefore unwittingly participate in our own marginalization. As the Italian scholar Alberto Melucci argues, the real domination in contemporary society is the “exclusion from the power of naming.”

My pleasure is that my intervention has already yielded modest results. A week after my intitial article was posted on the Internet I got an email from the Chief Copy Editor of CNN International informing me that he would ban the use of the word “tribe” from CNN scripts. I am reproducing the full email below:

“Hi Farooq: I've been meaning to write-- I really enjoyed your piece on the word "tribe." We've actually puzzled about that with regard to Kenya and were assured by our people there that tribe was the appropriate word. But based on your piece, I'm going to ban the word and have our scripts talk about ethnic groups and not tribes.

By the way, it may interest you to know that Jews, when speaking among themselves, use the word in the same way American blacks use the "N" word. As in, you run into somebody and ask "Are you a member of the tribe?" It would be highly offensive for a non-Jew to say that to a Jew. Language is funny, huh?”

So there you have it. While an African is straining very hard to defend and authorize his lingual denigration and dehumanization, a white American has already been persuaded by my modest efforts to draw attention to the semiotic oppression that inheres in the word “tribe.”

But people who are familiar with Alibi’s antecedents are not the least bit surprised. This is a man who once wrote that he is “so ashamed of” of his blackness that he “sometimes” feels that “I ought to have belonged to another race.” Yet he talks about his pride in his “tribe.” Some pride indeed!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Remembering Martin Luther King

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on January 28, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Last week, I was torn between publishing the emails of readers who took the trouble to respond to my column and writing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the brilliant African-American preacher and civil rights activist whose birthday was celebrated throughout the United States on January 16.

But being the deliberative democrat that I like to fancy myself as being, I settled for the former. I thought Dr. King was already such a larger-than-life figure whose shrill, biting, even if disembodied, voice still stings the conscience of his country and who, even in death, looms so large that it would be superfluous to write about him at the expense of shutting out my readers.

January 16 is a federal holiday in the United States dedicated to honor the memory of the late Dr. King. It is the first and only federal holiday observed in honor of one individual in the entire history of the United States. Not even the first president of this country or, for that matter, any past or living president has a day specially commemorated in his name.

The death (murder is the right word) and life (yes, in that order) of Dr. King are so well-known that it will be trite recounting them here. It suffices to say, however, that Dr. King, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his consistent advocacy of non-violence to dislodge the racism in the United States that cruelly stole the humanity of Black people, captured the imagination of the world when, in 1963, he delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

One of the most memorable quotes from that speech is the portion where he said he had a dream that one day his children would grow up and not be judged by the “color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Over 40 years after this speech, King’s dream is at best in the twilight zone between reality and cloud-cuckoo-land. Even President George Bush admitted this on January 16 when he said, “The reason to honor Martin Luther King is to remember his strength of character and his leadership, but also to remember the remaining work.”

Yes, a lot of progress has been made over the years, a lot of work still remains to be done to reverse centuries of racial oppression and exclusion of Blacks in the United States.

Black Americans are still largely condemned to the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. While there have been a lot of improvements over the years in the status of Blacks here (they have produced two Secretaries of State in quick succession, and are comparatively the richest and most educated Black people in the world) they are still the lowest common denominators in America.

Last year, for instance, while underscoring the needlessness for Americans to be worried by the massive influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico, the president of that country, Vincent Foxx, was quoted to have said that, after all, most Mexicans who immigrate to the United State illegally take jobs that “not even Blacks will take.”

Many black leaders were outraged by this comment. But invidious as the comment is, it encapsulates a basic truth: Blacks are still at the bottom of the American society.

In the university where I study and teach, all the dirty, menial and lowly jobs are done by Blacks. They get the lowest grades in class and have a disproportionately low enrollment figure in universities and colleges. They also constitute a disproportionate percentage of prison inmates and homeless people in this country. And a large number of them who have homes live in fetid ghettoes.

When I had occasion to visit Harlem in New York in 2003, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It felt as if I was in Ajegunle in Lagos—forlorn, God-forsaken, filthy, foul, and poverty-stricken.

In Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, about eight out of every 10 beggars I came across were Black. In New Orleans, one of the Blackest cities in the United States, Blacks live in conditions that simply defy explanation. Grubby poverty in Black neighborhoods uncannily lives side by side with obscenely stupendous prosperity in white neighborhoods.

When you visit New Orleans as a tourist, it is easy to be misled by the incredible architectural splendor of the city and to go away with the impression that New Orleans, the biggest city in the state of Louisiana, is a prosperous white city.

But if you take the trouble to visit the fringes of the city where Black people who constitute over 60 percent of the population of the city live, you will be confronted by unspeakable poverty.

It was last year’s Hurricane Katrina that exposed this grim reality to the world. Most poor Blacks didn’t have cars to evacuate from their deplorable homes before the hurricane struck. And they perished in their thousands. The pictures of severe deprivation reminiscent of Third World countries that came out of New Orleans shocked many people, including many complacent white people who had deluded themselves into believing that poverty didn’t exist in America.

Again, over 70 percent of Blacks in this country are born outside wedlock, prompting one of my friends here to label the Black community as “a community of bastards.” The word “daddy” has almost gone out of the demotic vocabulary of American Blacks because most of them have no fathers; they are reared by single mothers who mostly get pregnant in their early teens and live on government welfare for the rest of their lives.

Now, not all of these problems are the consequence of racism. Some of them are self-inflicted, but to ignore the context that spawned this state of affairs in the first place will be to do injustice to the Blacks here.

It was only in 1965, for instance, that all Black people in the South had a right to vote. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which formally abolished the enslavement of Black people in this country, Blacks were still regarded as subhuman. In the Constitution of the United States, Blacks were called “three-fifth of a man,” that is, a Black person is only 60 percent of a human being. And this was supposed to represent an improvement on their erstwhile status as non-humans.

With the signing of the civil rights legislation in the 1960s, racism has only been forced to put on an elegant make-up. Blacks are still suppressed and stereotyped. But this is now more subtle than before.

Blacks are no longer legally segregated in schools, restaurants, buses, etc. They are no longer derided openly as “niggers.” In fact, there is a program of affirmative action (the American equivalent of our own federal character principle) that reserves quotas for them in employment and schools, but these are still largely tokenistic. Blacks are still stereotyped as congenitally criminal and mentally subnormal. This breeds pervasive low-self esteem and a negative self-fulfilling prophecy among them.

I have not yet met a white man, especially in the South, who does not despise American Blacks in the sly. Surprisingly, however, whites here seem to have more respect and tolerance for African immigrants than they have for their Black compatriots—or so it seems to me.

Many of my white friends here habitually make snide remarks about African-Americans in my presence, and I wonder why they imagine that I would not be hurt. I discovered that they regard us as very different from African Americans. It is not only that they see us as "freeborn," as opposed to African Americans who are "ex-slaves,"; most African immigrants here excel in whatever they do in ways that explode the myth of innate Black inferiority.

According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, for instance, the African immigrant community in the United States is the most educated immigrant community. It is more educated than the European and Asian immigrant communities.

However, in actual fact, white people can’t tell an African American from an African. The only way they differentiate us is through our accents and our names.

I remember once being accosted by a gang of white police officers (my city is predominantly white) because I was walking near a home. The police thought I was an African American and suspected that I wanted to rob the home. They encircled me menacingly with guns and asked me to surrender. I was at once amused and bemused.

When I asked to know what was going on, my accent betrayed my identity, and they immediately relaxed and became friendly with me. They asked for my ID card and said they were just doing their routine duty.

Racial profiling is still alive and well here. It has only covered its nakedness with deceptively chic garments.

Morality and Religion in America (III)

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria, on January 14, 2006.

Farooq A. Kperogi
The religious expressions of Americans in the public sphere continue to intrigue me deeply. I have lately been learning about the fastest growing sect of Christianity in the United States: the Evangelical Movement.

It is a sect of Christianity that is distinguished from the rest by its extremely fundamentalist, literal interpretation of the Bible, and its intolerance of other religions and, in fact, of other sects of Christianity. This sect not only enjoys phenomenal mass appeal in the United States; it also has huge political clout. Snippet: President Bush is a self-confessed Evangelical Christian.

In the United States, the Religious Right—a group of conservative, often racist, born-again Christians—is powerful particularly in the Republican Party, and is often commonly understood to be the political wing of the Evangelical Movement.

The Bush Administration predicates many of its policy thrusts on what it understands to be core conservative Evangelical values. As a result, criticism of controversial statements by prominent Evangelical leaders habitually falls on the Bush Administration as a whole.

For instance, when a prominent Evangelical Christian and close confidant of the Bush Administration once said that the best strategy to reduce or eliminate crime in the United States is to abort all African-American babies, there was intense pressure on the Bush Administration to dissociate itself from the statement.

Another controversial Evangelical Christian crusader and close friend of the Bush Administration by the name of Pat Robertson last year called for the assassination of the president of Venezuela because, according to him, his government is smoothing the path for communist infiltration and Islamic terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.

The same man this week said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke is God’s punishment for “dividing God’s land” with Palestinians. The statement is still stoking a lot of controversy here. In all these instances, the Bush Administration has felt compelled to dissociate itself from these statements, however tepidly.

The increasing mass appeal of the Christian Right and its success in mobilizing resistance to certain social agendas is often viewed by liberals here as symptomatic of the eerily creeping incursion of Christian theocracy on the country.

While most who consider themselves Evangelicals like to think of themselves as being opposed to theocracy, there is widespread belief among Evangelicals that Christianity should enjoy a privileged and unrivaled place in American public life. Accordingly, those Evangelicals often vigorously resist the expression of other faiths in the American public sphere.

For example, when Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala became the first Hindu priest to offer a prayer before Congress in 2000, the September 21 edition of the online publication operated by the Evangelical Family Research Council raised an objection.

It said, “While it is true that the United States of America was founded on the sacred principle of religious freedom for all, that liberty was never intended to exalt other religions to the level that Christianity holds in our country's heritage. The USA's founders expected that Christianity—and no other religion—would receive support from the government as long as that support did not violate peoples' consciences and their right to worship. They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference.”

But it is not the political conservatism and xenophobia of the Evangelical Movement that piques me; it is its absurd doctrinal formulations, which remind me of Third World religious zealotry.

One of the core doctrinal formulations of the Evangelical Movement is its belief in what is called the rapture. This belief teaches that the end of the world has come and that all the righteous born-again Christians will soon be transported to Heaven, leaving behind non-Evangelical Christians and believers of other faiths to suffer severe damnation on this Earth for some years before the final judgment day. The most popular book series in the United States today is the Left Behind series, which harps on this apocalyptic vision of the world.

And this theological insanity is not a new phenomenon. I have several friends here, some of them professors now, who have confessed to me that these beliefs have been inscribed into their minds from their impressionable ages. They have told me how, as children, they would sometimes go home from school and meet an empty home, perhaps because their parents had gone to visit a neighbor next door.

They would think the rapture had occurred, that their parents had been flown to Heaven and that they had not been found worthy by God to ascend to Heaven with other family members. They would then cry and live in terror of the unspeakable torment that they believed was certain to descend on them in no time. However, after some time, their parents would appear and wonder why they were crying so hysterically.

This mental bondage continues to this day. It is amazing the millions of Americans who subscribe to this obviously backward belief and live in utter, numbing terror of it. I have discovered, to my amazement, that the war in Iraq and other bellicose foreign policies of the Bush Administration are actually the political manifestations of this Evangelical belief.

Bush believes without a doubt that God is using him to fight evil in the last days before the rapture. And a lot of Evangelicals here have told me that what is happening now in the world is a cosmic cataclysm in which God is using Bush to destroy the ruling powers of evil before the Armageddon.

But these fundamentalists are very ordinary and normal Americans. In personal encounters, they are some of the nicest people anybody can ever wish to meet. They go out of their way to help people in need, in ways I have never seen anywhere.

So how do we reconcile the warmth and good nature of these otherwise obliging, kind-hearted and hardworking people with the repressive politics, intolerance, chauvinism and war-making they support? That is what I have still been trying to come to terms with.

Concluded

Morality and Religion in America (II)

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria, on January 7, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Another strange incongruity of the moral question in the United States is that Middle Eastern Muslims like my Iranian friend who felt “duped” by the American cultural industry into believing that America is the sanctuary of unbridled debauchery and hedonistic self-gratification are actually some of the biggest purveyors of harmful social substances.

In many cities and mid-sized towns in the United States, Arab immigrants from the Middle East own and sell alcoholic drinks, drugs and cigarettes to Americans, especially in poverty-stricken, crime-infested African-American neighborhoods. And this is spawning tensions between African-American Muslims and Middle-Eastern, mostly Arab, Muslims.

This fact was brought to light on November 23 last year when a group of African-American Muslims dressed in bow ties and dark suits invaded Arab-owned corner stores in a city called Oakland in the state of California, and smashed all the liquor and wine bottles there with metal pipes. Before destroying the shops, the Black Muslims reportedly queried the shop attendants why they were selling alcohol when it was against the Muslim faith.

One of the stores, in fact, mysteriously went up in flames five days after it was attacked by the Black Muslim youths. Similarly, an attendant in an Arab liquor store was abducted for more than 12 hours in an automobile trunk. He was later found unhurt, but police haven't ascertained if these occurrences have any connection to the vandalism.

Just last month, meanwhile, well-dressed African-American men went into another Arab-owned liquor store in Oakland and, according to news reports, asked the attendant about his Muslim faith. The clerk wasn't threatened, and no incident was recorded.

The immediate trigger of these incidents is that African-American Muslim youths in California are angry that Arab Muslims were exploiting the moral vulnerability of the black community to sell cheap liquor and drugs—things they can neither legally consume nor sell in their own countries. They contend that a surfeit of liquor stores conduces to crime, gang violence, homelessness and other social ailments that plague the Black community here.

It may come across as anomalous to some readers that there are American citizens who are Muslims and are even passionate enough about their faith to want to protect it, even at the expense of flouting the laws. America has a long history of Islam in the black American community, starting with the emergence of the Nation of Islam—a group of militant Black Americans who profess what many mainstream Muslims would consider heretical Islamic religious beliefs.

The group was founded in 1930 by a certain Wallace Fard Muhammad. Upon his death, Elijah Muhammad took over reigns of the organization. Among the many prominent Black American Muslim activists the organization produced was the late Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, the current head of the organization. (I will write a separate article some other time about the Nation of Islam and how its teachings differ from mainstream Islam).

However, it was not followers of the Nation of Islam that broke into Arab liquor stores last November; it was another more mainstream African-American Muslim group that goes by the name of Your Black Muslim Bakery. It is a community institution initiated by a certain Yusuf Bey, a well-known Black Muslim leader who died of cancer in 2003. The bakery sells Islamic books along with baked goods, and has won praise for creating jobs for young men from poor African -American communities.

Bey's 19-year-old son, Yusuf Bey IV, led the group of young African-American Muslims who smashed to smithereens all the alcoholic drinks sold in the Arab shops in Oakland, California. He, along with four others, is now facing charges of hate crime and vandalism. The images of seven others were caught on store security cameras, and are being searched by the police.

What was curious, some would say instructive, in the invasion of the shops, which was caught on tape and shown on national television here, was that no one was kidnapped. (No connection has yet been made between the kidnap of a shop attendant I talked about earlier and this incident). No goods were stolen. The vandals just wanted to make a point: Stop selling alcohol to fellow Muslims.

This event draws attention to a lot of issues, not least the furtive sybaritic lavishness that Arabs in America not only indulge in but “export” to morally susceptible and economically disaffiliated Black neighborhoods. I do not by this suggest, in the least, that all Arabs here are hedonistic and sell alcohol (incidentally the etymology of that word is Arabic!).

However, given that they are Muslims, it is difficult to ignore the oddity of Arab immigrants dominating the liquor-selling business in many towns and cities in America.

Now, were the Arab liquor sellers mortified for being put on the moral defensive by Black Muslims? There is no evidence to think so. President of the Yemeni American Grocers Association, Mohamed Saleh Mohamed, told The Associated Press: “Any Muslim is forbidden to sell alcohol but that doesn't give you the right to vandalize by force and try to impose your view. That's not acceptable in any religion.”

(The grocers association is the umbrella body of the liquor sellers that are in the eye of the storm).

Another shop owner by the name of Saleh told the Associated Press that his decision to sell alcohol is “between me and God.” “We're just coming here to make a living like anyone else,” he was quoted as saying.

To be fair to the Arab traders, their main motivation for selling alcohol is the desire to survive in this merciless, cut-throat, profit-driven capitalist economy. It is one of the few businesses that immigrants here can engage in without having to compete with Americans. What is more, most of them have legal licenses to operate their businesses.

The worry, however, among Black Muslims is, should the Arabs make a living at expense of the Black community? Why don’t they go to other ethnic neighborhoods?

I called my Iranian friend a couple of weeks ago to ask if he could still stand on the moral high ground and claim victimhood of American (im)moral imperialism. “Aren’t your people fertilizing immorality in the Black community here by selling cheap liquor and drugs to people?” I asked him. All he could say was, “It’s a complex problem, Farooq.”

Another problem that this episode has brought to light is the huge disconnect between the Arab immigrant Muslim population here and American-born Muslims, especially Black Muslims. While Black and Middle Eastern Muslims may pray at the same mosques, their worlds hardly intersect beyond that. Arab Muslim store owners tend to live in the suburban areas away from the problems, anxieties and concerns of Black Muslims, who mostly live in cities.

Both groups also nurse negative stereotypes of each other. Arabs, like some white Americans, tend to view Black Americans as a community of criminals, pimps, drug addicts and tramps, while Black Americans view Arabs as a bunch of hypocritical, opportunistic, self-indulgent, sly, even racist, impostors who could also be terrorists. The image of Arabs after 911 has not helped this stereotype.

In urban America, it is customary for poor residents to resent immigrant merchants who sell cigarettes, bread and alcoholic beverages in neighborhood markets, but this is the first time, according to commentators, that religion has been injected into this age-old tension.

Studying in America: What You Need to Know

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on May 20, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
It appears that my series on education in America resonated with a lot of people, especially young people who are desirous of leaving the shores of Nigeria to get advanced degrees. I have received scores of private emails from readers asking for counsel on the steps to take to study in an American university.

Because I cannot respond to all the private inquiries, I have decided to address these concerns in a separate column.

It is amazing how so little a lot of Nigerians know about studying in the United States—at least judging from the emails I receive daily from readers. It is important to note, however, that the tips I am going to give in this page are purely the product of my own personal experiences; expert counsel is available at the American Embassy in Nigeria.

I pointed out earlier that the American educational system is driven by standardized tests. For students wishing to undertake graduate studies in the United States, the standardized test that ALL universities in the United States require from ALL students—whether they are American or international students— in most disciplines in the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences is the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE).

However, students seeking to enroll into MBA and other management-related programs are required to take the GMAT. Prospective graduate students in engineering and the medical field also take a different test.

Most schools require candidates whose native language is not English to write the Test of English as a Second Language (TOEFL). Some other schools, however, waive this requirement for Nigerians (and other Anglophone Africans) because English is the language of instruction at all levels of our education.

The University of Louisiana, for instance, requires all non-native speakers of English to take the TOEFL, even if their language of instruction is English. I had an interesting experience with this.

After I was admitted here and scored A’s in every single class I took, one of my professors—actually the graduate coordinator of the communication program here—told me how inappropriate and “ethnocentric” it was, in retrospect, for them to require me to take TOEFL.

When I was applying for my Ph.D. in another school, which also requires all non-native speakers to submit scores from TOEFL (TOEFL scores are valid for only two years, so mine expired last year) the graduate coordinator here insisted I not take another TOEFL. I asked him what he wanted me to do since he had no control over what other schools require from their prospective students. He simply told me to wait and see what he would do.

While we were discussing, he looked up the phone number of the school to which I applied and called them up. “Am I speaking with the Ph.D. admissions coordinator in communication?” he inquired. The voice at the other end answered in the affirmative.

And he continued: “I am calling in respect of Farooq Kperogi. He has applied to your Ph.D. program, and I understand you require all non-native speakers of English to take TOEFL. Well, even though Farooq is Nigerian, he is a native speaker of the English language.”

That was false. I made signs to tell him he was being factually inaccurate. I guess the receiver must have also had a hard time coming to terms with a Farooq Kperogi as a native speaker of the English language.

Then he changed. “Look, this guy is the best student we have ever had in our program in a long while. He wrote the best thesis in the department and, I tell you, he speaks and writes better English than me, a native speaker. And I don’t say this lightly. If you insist he takes the TOEFL, you might as well make all Americans take it.”

I blushed. That was too much praise for one person in one minute! Well, the end of the story is that the TOEFL requirement was waived for me. And the moral of the story is that it can be waived for people who make a convincing case that they speak and write as good English as any college-educated American (remember that’s how Americans call university-educated people).

All these tests are administered by the Education Testing Service in the State of New Jersey. As I pointed out earlier, TOEFL has a lifespan of two years, and GRE has a lifespan of five years. It is unusual for any university to waiver the GRE requirement for anybody. For more information on standardized tests for graduate school in the United States, go to www.ets.org.

Now, what is GRE? It is basically an exam, which tests prospective graduate students’ preparedness for graduate studies. (Note that that Americans don’t use the phrase “postgraduate studies” to refer to advanced studies after the bachelor’s degree, unlike us, the UK, Australia, South Africa, and other former British colonies.)

The GRE has three segments. The first segment tests students’ familiarity with verbal reasoning. You need to have an impressive reservoir of intellectually fashionably vocabulary to be successful in this section. The second section is the nightmare of numerophobic journalists like me: quantitative reasoning. As the name suggests, it tests students’ skills in mathematics.

The third segment tests students’ skills in analytical reasoning and writing. Here, test takers are given two tasks: to critique the logical inadequacies of an essay and to write a logically coherent and conceptual response to a subject-matter that will be presented during the test.

The verbal and quantitative sections are worth 800 points each, and are usually combined. The analytical writing segment is a stand-alone section. Different schools have different cut-off points for entry into their programs. However, the minimum requirement to be admitted into graduate programs here is a combined score of 1000 in the verbal and quantitative sections of the test. Competitive programs have higher requirements.

The analytical writing segment is graded differently. The lowest point a candidate can get is 1.0 and the highest grade is 6.0. Most schools require at least a 4.0 score in the segment to consider a candidate for admission, especially in the humanities and the social sciences.

Most Nigerians have fallen victim to ruthless scammers in the writing of these standardized tests. The best place to find out about these tests is the American Embassy in Nigeria. Because of Nigeria’s notoriety as a nation of scammers, (I wrote my thesis on the rhetorical strategies of Nigerian 419 email scams) our credibility is at unbelievably low ebb.

A lot of people distrust and resent Nigerians because of the activities of 419 scam artists. So it is difficult to pay for these tests when you are a Nigerian. Credit cards with a Nigerian billing address, however genuine they are, are rejected here. People who have traveled outside Nigeria can testify to the profound scorn in which we are all held because of a few unscrupulous bastards among us.

In light of this, (Americans don’t say, “in the light of this”!) it is usually better to go through designated agents in Nigeria to pay the fees for these tests. It bears repeating that the best place to get information on this is the American Embassy in Nigeria.

After taking the tests, the next thing to do is to apply to the program you want. Fortunately, most schools now accept online applications. However, unlike in our system, American universities require applicants to pay application fees. This can be as low as $30 and as high as $100. Payment of the application fee does not guarantee admission, but it must be paid before a candidate’s file can be acted upon. The fee is used to process candidates’ application.

American universities also require applicants to submit what is called the statement of purpose. It is a personal essay that outlines the candidate’s reasons for applying to the program—his research goals, his professional aspirations, why he chose the school and the program to which he is applying, and what he expects to achieve with the degree he hopes to acquire.

Doctoral programs require students to identify professors they want to work with, and give reasons why the professors are the best people to provide mentorship to the prospective student’s research. (Americans use “dissertation” for the doctoral treatise and “thesis” for master’s treatise; they reverse our—that is, British—usage of these terms).

Another important requirement for acceptance into graduate programs here is the reference or recommendation letter from people, usually your former university teachers, who are capable of commenting on your academic and professional preparation for your proposed course of study.

So don’t burn your bridges with your teachers just yet! Their opinions are respected in the admission process here.

An area of the requirement for admission that usually presents problems for Nigerians is the GPA. Because we use the British grading system, most American universities are not usually impressed with our transcripts. As I said in an earlier write-up, in the American system, A starts from 90 to 100; B from 80 to 89; C from 70 to 79; D from 60 to 69; and F from 0 to 59.

This means that even our First Class degree can look like a “C” average here—that is, just a step away from the bottom. However, things are improving now, though. Most universities now use the services of educational experts who help institutions compare and contrast transcripts across the different educational systems of the world.

The other good news is that in arriving at a decision whether or not to admit a student into a graduate program, most American universities look at the whole picture: GRE scores, GPA, recommendation letters, and statements of purpose. A weakness in one area can be offset by strength in another area.

I hope this helps, and that it is sufficient to save me from persistent inquiries about studying in America.

Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes (IV)

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on April 29, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi


I will conclude my series on American education this week by dwelling a little more on Ivy League universities, and then discussing my personal experiences of other aspects of American education.

Ivy League schools derive their prestige not so much from their unmatched academic excellence as from social snobbery. They are, to a good degree, beneficiaries of an inbuilt predisposition for what I call a reverence for firsts among human beings—the tendency to reserve respect for things that are steeped in history.

It is for the same reason that first-generation universities in Nigeria generally have more prestige than other universities.

Apart from being some of the first universities to be established in America, Ivy League universities have traditionally been socially exclusive institutions that admit only the children of the rich and powerful. Poor people who find their ways to these schools—and they are few and far between— are almost always sure of acceptance into “higher” social circles.

I met a friend in Austin, Texas, two months ago who shared with me his personal experience of the “magic” of being a Harvard graduate. He is originally from Puerto Rico, a U.S. dependency in the Caribbean. After his bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan, a friend advised him to apply for an MBA at Harvard.

He told me that he was reluctant to apply because he is from a poor background and didn’t think Harvard would consider him. But he finally yielded to his friend’s prodding and applied. He was not only admitted into the school but was given a scholarship that was reserved for racial minorities.

He graduated about three years ago, and now changes high-paying jobs like people change clothes. I met him at the University of Texas where his wife is studying for her master’s degree in communication. He said he had never been to Texas, and was forced to live there only because his newly married wife had been admitted to the University of Texas.

At first, he said, he was worried about leaving his well-paying job in New York to live with his wife in Texas. But he said it occurred to him that he could send an email to the Harvard alumni listserv and ask if anybody could get him a job in Austin, Texas.

The very day he sent the email was the day he got responses from several Harvard alumni in Austin asking him to come over and take jobs that pay as high as his previous job in New York. No interviews were required. Being a Harvard graduate was enough.

He said it was ironic that even though he learned a lot less at Harvard than he did at the University of Michigan, a state university, he is regarded as very qualified only because he is associated with Harvard.

It is a well-known fact here that these prestigious private schools are actually less devoted to academic excellence than many state schools. In the Ivy League schools, it is said that graduate assistants teach about 90 percent of undergraduate classes while full-time professors spend most of their time chasing after multi-million-dollar grants to conduct research.

Yet, in annual university rankings, the Ivy League and other private universities usually lead the pack. Americans have an obsession with rankings. U.S. News and World Report conducts a yearly ranking of the over 3,000 colleges and universities in America.

However, the standards of ranking are usually not based on the academic merit of the programs of universities but on how much money they spend on their programs. In spite of this, graduating from an Ivy League school, even with a very low grade, practically guarantees one bright job prospects in America.

That is probably why the Okonjo-Iwealas feel self-important about having attended Harvard. It’s a big deal here. But I am not aware that el-Rufai attended Harvard other than a few weeks’ refresher on privatization.

Classification of degrees

Another question I was asked last week was for me to compare the degree classifications in America and Nigeria. No one can neatly compare these classifications because of the wide differences in our grading system.

However, in general, a Summa cum Laude (Latin phrase meaning, “with highest honor/praise”) will be the equivalent of our First Class Honors; Magna cum Laude (Latin phrase meaning, “with great honor/ praise”) will be equivalent to our Upper Second Class Honors; and Cum Laude (with honor/ praise) will be the equivalent of our Lower Second Class Honors. Americans do not have the equivalents of our Third Class Honors and Pass degrees.

A major difficulty in this comparison arises from the numerical differences in the value we attach to our letter grades. In the United States, the “A” grade starts from 90 to 100, whereas in our system it starts from 70 to 100. Their “B” grade starts from 80 to 89, and ours starts from 60 to 69. The American “C” starts from 70 to 79, while ours starts from 50 to 59. Their “D” starts from 60 to 69 while ours starts 40 to 49. The “F” grade here starts from 0 to 59. They have no “E.”

So Summa cum Laude is an overall “A” grade, Magna cum Laude an overall “B” grade, and Cum Laude an overall “C” grade--kind of. Americans also use a four-point scale, instead of our five-point scale.

But does this mean American standards are higher? No. Generally speaking, what will earn a student a 70 or higher grade in our system will earn the same student a 90 or higher grade here. What is more, the American system has all kinds of ways to make up for bad grades, and they have testing systems that will simply pass for "exam malpractice" in our system.

For instance, they have open-book tests, take-home tests, and "extra-credit" assignments for people who have bad grades but want to improve their scores. They also “curve” grades when there is a general poor performance in the class. This consists of arbitrarily giving additional points to students across the board.

Their system seems to be more concerned with ensuring that students have learned what they are supposed to learn than with grades, while ours seems to be more concerned with grades than with learning. In fact, some Ivy League schools were recently accused of involvement in grade inflation—the act of deliberately inflating the grades of students to make them look “smart.”

HND in America


Another reader asked if Americans have the Higher National Diploma (HND). No, they don’t. The HND is a peculiarly British educational experience, which we inherited because of our history as a former British colony.

However, since 1992, the British have abolished polytechnics which award HNDs. All their former polytechnics have been elevated to universities and now award bachelor’s degrees and postgraduate qualifications. So, in a way, HNDs are now extinct even in their native habitat—Britain. But I digress.

A friend of mine told me the story of an HND graduate from Canada (the Canadian education system is also largely British) who was given a job at the University of New Orleans as a lecturer. She taught upper-division level undergraduate courses in film studies. She even taught some graduate courses, according to my friend!

The confusion about the real worth of her qualification arose from the fact that Americans use the word “diploma” as a generic word for a certificate issued by an educational institution. This can include bachelor’s degree certificates, master’s degree certificates and even Ph.D. certificates.

When the Canadian lady presented her qualifications, the Americans were deceived into thinking that a “higher” diploma is a graduate qualification. So she was hired on the mistaken notion that she must have first acquired a “lower” diploma, which they thought was the Canadian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, and now has a “higher” diploma, which they thought was equivalent to a master’s degree—or higher.

But when the people noticed gaps in her knowledge after many years of teaching, they decided to investigate her qualification, and realized that in the British system, an HND is defined as the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree “without honors.”

In other words, an HND was conceived in Britain and elsewhere to be less than a Third Class degree; it is equivalent to a “pass” degree. (In the British system, first, second and third class degrees are considered degrees with honors). The lady was subsequently fired from her lecturing position.

Of course, Americans do have institutions that bear the name “polytechnic.” Notable examples are the Polytechnic University of New York, the California Polytechnic State University, California State Polytechnic University (not a repetition), and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (one name).

Almost every state in the United States also has institutes of technology or tech universities. However, all of these schools award bachelor’s degrees (including masters and Ph.D.s) mostly in engineering but also in the social sciences and humanities. They don’t award HNDs.

Does that mean that an HND graduate cannot pursue graduate studies here? No. Admission into American universities is often multi-faceted, and deficiency in one area can often be offset by strength in other areas. That’s why Americans have standardized tests.

The standardized test for entry into graduate schools in America is called the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Secondary school graduates write either the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Test (ACT)—the equivalents of our JAMB-administered University Matriculation Examination—before they can be admitted to study for bachelor’s degrees.

If an applicant, for instance, has an HND but has very high scores in the GRE, plus good recommendation from his teachers, universities here will be willing to admit him to study for his master’s degree. I know many Nigerians with HNDs who are pursuing masters and Ph.D. programs in the United States.

Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes (III)

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on April 22, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I have received a number of emails from readers, some of which I have reproduced below. Two of the emails are actually requests for me to explain some things about American education, and to compare the Nigerian and American educational systems.

My responses to these requests will form the kernel of this and next week’s columns. I will be glad to respond to any other concerns from my readers. I actually prefer the interactive approach to column writing than the standoffish authorial narcissism that passes for much of column writing.

But before I answer the questions posed by my readers, I want to conclude my observations on the differences in our use of nomenclature for categories of university teachers. As I said last week, the term “professor” is used generically here to refer to all university teachers who have Ph.D.s.

Most times, however, it is used as a term of respect by students to refer to even university teachers that have no Ph.D.s. I have been called “professor” by my students countless times. It is a good feeling, I tell you! It is equivalent to our use of "lecturer" as a generic term for university teachers.

But what I have found odd is that full professors—people at the highest end of the professorial scale—don’t usually prefix the title “professor” to their names. They simply identify themselves as “Dr.” It is typical for a full professor here to identify himself, for instance, as: “I am Dr. John Smith, Professor of English at University of ….” Or “I am Dr. John Smith, Associate Professor of….” But hardly, “I am Professor John Smith.”

When I asked one of my professor friends here why this is so, she said it is because anybody with a Ph.D. who teaches at a college/university can informally be called a professor. So it is superfluous to self-identify oneself as a professor, she added. It is such a huge contrast with Nigeria where people who attain the rank of professor ("full professor" in America) attach the title to their names even when they longer profess anything or when, like Gerry Gana and his ilk, they actually now profess lies!

I also found it interesting that the term “lecturer” is used here to refer to people who are less in prestige than “professors.” Usually, a lecturer is someone who has no Ph.D., teaches only undergraduate students, hardly conducts research, and receives comparatively lower pay than professors. At other times, it is used to designate a Ph.D. holder who has been denied tenure. He only teaches undergraduate courses, does not conduct research, and lacks the job security and prestige of a professor.

Another term that interchanges with “lecturer” is “instructor.” Lecturers or instructors are only a notch higher than graduate teaching assistants. They may be excluded from attending certain departmental meetings because of their status. The American professoriate (as they call it here) is very class-conscious and intellectually snobbish.

I am now going to reproduce some of the beautiful and encouraging emails I have received from readers. I will respond to those that specifically ask for responses.

Glad you’re back to Weekly Trust
I'm glad that you have come back to the Weekly Trust stable, as it were, by the lucid contributions in your "Notes from Louisiana". As usual, because of my desire never to miss the informative and linguistic relevance embedded in your pieces, I have read virtually all of them.

The most interesting of them, in my estimation, is the illuminating serial, "What it Means to be Black in America." I have always known you to be proud of being a black man and I have seen a potent reaffirmation of that in the serial in question. Do keep the black man’s flag flying.

Your "Danish Cartoons and Holocaust..." is quite interesting. Thanks be to the Almighty that you were not rusticated from school for your innocuous use of the word holocaust. The loss the intellectual world would have suffered by the truncation of your studies would have been colossal.

I am particularly impressed by your summation calling on all concerned to tolerate and respect the rights of one another as the sure way to harmonious living. Nothing can be truer than that.

Your “Baptism and Conversion to American English” made very interesting reading too. Thanks for familiarising some of us with the interesting variations between American and British English.

Keep up the worthy work.

Mohammed Haidara, Gwarinpa, Abuja (mohammedhaidara@yahoo.com)


What are Ivy League Universities?
I have been relishing your interesting columns quietly for the past few weeks, especially your pieces on education in America. I am one of those who requested for such information, though it is obviously a universally interesting topic.

However, I would like to know about the Ivy League universities: what is the meaning of ivy? Which universities constitute the Ivy League? Why? Is it true that a job is waiting for even a third- class graduate of an Ivy League university? In my dictionary I have come across “magna cum laude" and "summa cum laude." What are their equivalents in Nigeria?

How many colleges and universities are there all together in the US? What percentage of high school graduates get admission into universities? Also what makes el-Rufai and Okonjo Iweala make so much fuss about Harvard University to the chagrin of graduates from Nigerian universities? So many questions, but I know you are equal to the task.

Kind regards,
Abdulrahman Muhammad, ABU, Zaria (abbakaka@yahoo.com)


My response
First, “ivy” is simply a kind of flower that climbs buildings. It does not grow in West Africa, so I can’t give a local name for it. I saw it for the first time in my life only when I came here.

I have been told that it is native to America, some parts of Europe, some parts of Asia, and some parts of North Africa. It is a beautiful flower with evergreen foliage that people use to smarten their surroundings.

If ivy is a mere flower, why are some universities here called Ivy League schools? Well, it is perhaps because the schools that are called by that name traditionally used these flowers to beautify their buildings at a time when no other school or institution did so. And they are called a “League” simply because they formed an association for the purpose of inter-university athletic competition, much like a smaller version of our Nigerian Universities Games Association (NUGA).

So, shorn of all pretensions, Ivy League simply means the games association of the first eight American universities that were distinguished by their habit of growing ivies to beautify their buildings.

However, the social meaning of the term is now much deeper than that. Ivy League is now synonymous with academic elitism. The universities that constitute the Ivy League are: Harvard University, in the state of Massachusetts; Yale University, in the state of Connecticut; Princeton University, in the state of New Jersey; Columbia University, in the state of New York; Brown University, in the state of Rhode Island (the tiniest state in the United States); University of Pennsylvania, in the state of Pennsylvania; Dartmouth College, in the state of New Hampshire; and Cornell University, in the state of New York.

The features that these schools share in common are: (1) they are private universities, (2) they are some of the first universities in the United States, having been established between the 1600s and the 1700s, except for Cornell University, which was established in the 1800s, (3) they are all located in the northeast of the United States, the most urban and sophisticated part of the country (I will talk about the north/south dichotomy in this country some day), and (4) they are extremely expensive and selective.

My space is up. More on this next week.

Do Americans have HND?
Dear Farooq,

I must start by appreciating your insightful and well-thought articles on education in America. Folks like us in Nigeria got to know about education system in America through your column.

Farooq, the purpose of this mail is to inquire from you how American education is similar to that of Nigeria. For example, I hold a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Estate Management. How can I fit into the system? Please your kind information will be very helpful to many of us desirous to pursue education in America.

May Allah make it easy for each and every one of us.

Thanks,
Ahmed Usman Abuja (ahmadusman04@yahoo.co.uk)

Ahmed, I will respond to this next week.

Appreciation
I have been following your column since the first write-up and find it educating and enlightening, especially "My Baptism of and Conversion to American English.” Keep up the good work.

Kamaludin Bala M (kamaludden@yahoo.com)

Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes (II)

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on April 15, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
One of the commonest misconceptions about American education, which I also nursed before coming here, is that it is narrow and insular. I have since found out that this is incorrect. On the contrary, American education is overly broad at all levels-- in more ways than any educational system I am familiar with.

From their secondary schools (which they call high school here), to the first two years of university (what they prefer to call college), students take an almost equal number of courses in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

The traditional distinction between “science students” and “art students” that we are accustomed to in Nigeria is non-existent here. Every student is at once an “art” student and a “science” student until the second year of study at the university. (Brown University is the only exception. It allows students to specialize from the first year of study).

This does not, however, mean that students are often directionless. Most students often have have a sense of what they want to study, and often apply for a specific course in a university.

However, because the first two years of university education involve taking courses in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, students can often change their majors (that’s what Americans call courses of study) across a wide spectrum of the disciplinary landscape. I have a friend who had applied to study for pharmacy degree but ended up reading English. I also know somebody who was admitted to read history but ended up getting a degree in chemistry! And they didn’t lose any year as a result of the change in their majors.

This robust breadth in the educational exposure of Americans prepares them to have a more varied disciplinary orientation than their counterparts all over the world. The downside, however, is that they lack the depth that people from our kind of educational orientation have.

Even at the graduate level—or postgraduate level, if you will—there is a lot of emphasis on what they call “multi-disciplinarity,” which is a big word for taking electives in courses other than one’s main area of specialization.

The first year of study in the American university system is called the “freshman year,” the second is called the “sophomore year,” the third is called the “junior year,” and the final year is called the “senior year.” So a first-year university student is called a freshman (it doesn’t matter if the student is a woman), a second-year student is called a sophomore, a third-year student a junior, and a final-year student is called a senior.

In the freshman and sophomore years, as I pointed out earlier, students take a wide variety of courses, often in mutually exclusive disciplines. They begin taking specialized courses only in the junior and senior years, also called the upper division.

Ownership of universities
Unlike in Nigeria, in the United States, the federal government does not own universities; only state governments and private institutions do. Private universities are the earliest universities established in the United States. State universities, often called public universities, followed long after. Private universities are invariably more expensive than public universities.

Student-teacher relations

Another major distinction I have found between American education and ours is in the relationship between students and teachers. I have been particularly intrigued by the democratic spirit of the education here reflected in the relationship between professors and students.

There is, for instance, what is called student evaluations of teachers. At the end of every semester, students are given the opportunity to evaluate their teachers. These evaluations can affect a teacher’s promotion.

Students also have a hugely popular Web site (www.rateMyProfessors.com) where they freely rate the effectiveness or otherwise of their teachers. This site is a nightmare for my university teachers here. It can contain slanderous information about hardworking professors who work hard to do their jobs. Interestingly, many professors visit the site periodically to view comments about them from anonymous students.

While the democratic spirit embodied in the idea of giving students the latitude to evaluate their professor is praiseworthy and useful, it is also open to abuse. Many good professors who are rigorous and who demand very high standards from their students can often get badly rated by students, while lazy ones who give easy grades get favorable evaluations.

Tenure system
However, there is a limit to which these evaluations affect professors here in research universities. There is what is called the tenure system in American universities, which basically gives professors job security and insulates them from dismissal from their jobs except on rare occasions where there is compelling evidence of the commission of a heinous crime by a professor.

Once a professor is tenured, student evaluation cease to have any effect on his standing. But tenure is not automatic. I will come to that shortly.

Tenure is often justified because it is said that the job security it guarantees professors disposes them to produce high-quality research, and frees them from the pressure to conform to the preset expectations of employers. In many ways, it is akin to “confirmation” of appointment in the Nigerian public service system, except that it takes a more rigorous standard to get tenured here.

Academic ranks
In the United States, a fresh Ph.D. is usually hired as an assistant professor. This can either be an adjunct assistant professor position, which is just a cute name for a part-time university teacher; a visiting assistant professor, which is also another nice name for a professor hired for a specific period of time, usually one year, after which the contract is renewed or revoked; or a tenure-track assistant professor.

A tenure track assistant professor is one who bids for a permanent employment with a university. Typically, a professor employed in a tenure-eligible position works for approximately six years before a formal decision is made on whether or not he will be granted tenure.

The requirement for tenure in most universities is the publication of at least a book with a reputable academic press and a number of articles in peer-reviewed journals. This is often a difficult requirement, and conduces to the famous “publish-or- perish” environment in most American universities.

Many assistant professors never get tenure because they have been unable to publish a book and write scholarly journal articles in competitive peer-reviewed journals within the six-year grace period they are given. It is a tough world for academics here.

Being denied tenure is often a polite way of telling a professor that he has been dismissed. However, employment is often guaranteed for a year after tenure is denied, so that the professor denied tenure can conduct an extended search for new employment. Also, some prestigious universities and departments in the US award tenure so rarely that being denied it is scarcely an insult.

Those who are awarded tenure become associate professors (sometimes called tenured associates). At this stage, not publishing does not earn a professor dismissal; it merely stagnates him. The last stage in the professorial ladder is what they call here “full professor.”

Equivalents with Nigeria

An assistant professor would be the equivalent of a senior lecturer, an associate professor the equivalent of a reader, and a “full professor” the equivalent of a professor.

However, in Nigeria it is usual for people to prefer “associate professor” to “reader.” It is noteworthy, too, that in America every university teacher with a Ph.D. is called a professor. More on this next week.

Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes (I)

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust, Abuja, Nigeria on April 8, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Two days ago, I was invited to give a talk at a school here on the Nigerian educational system. I was at once honored and flattered by the invitation.

First, I didn’t think that there was anything about the Nigerian educational system that Americans would like to know about. Second, I didn’t know what qualified me to speak on Nigerian educational system.

Well, the invitation was only the latest addition to the string of recognitions I have been receiving in this very warm and lovely city since I came here. Two city newsmagazines, for instance, had interviewed me and written two-page profiles on me.

At first, it was a very discomforting experience for me because I have spent the greater part of my professional career interviewing people and aggressively ferreting out information from them without any thought that I would also some day be interviewed by a journalist for a story. Talk of the hunter being hunted. But I deviate.

My lecture was well-received. I was pleasantly surprised that both the students and the teachers at the school found many things useful that I shared with them about Nigeria’s educational system.

I have been intrigued by the differences between the educational systems of Nigeria—which is a mishmash of British and American systems—and that of the United States.

Many of my friends and readers of my column have asked me to share with them my experiences of the American educational system.

What I find interesting is that while Americans are curious about our system, and even think it’s more rigorous than theirs, many Nigerians think the worst of what they have.

In the next few weeks, I will be chronicling my experiences of the fascinating vistas of the American educational landscape.

A Question about Ebonics and My Response

This first appeared in my column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on April 8, 2006.

What about American neologisms and Ebonics?

I greatly enjoyed your educative columns on American English. Wallahi, your column alone is worth the cover price. It’s a form of learning by correspondence, and the stuff (and the delivery) is of high quality, the type of which one can hardly find in the Nigerian educational system (on the verge of total collapse).

As you rightly said, [your examples on American English usage are] not exhaustive. For example, I would have expected you to say something on neologisms--how they are churned out in American English. What about "Ebonics” among blacks?

Meanwhile I have already started benefiting from your write-ups on Americanisms. When Obasanjo visited the US recently, Bush talked about visiting "with" Liberian president (the Guardian, 30 March, 2006).I instantly remembered your column. By the way, we are pleading with Zainab, through you (her husband) to renege on her decision to stop her column, "Femme Point" in a few weeks’ time. Thanks.

Iliya Musa, ilyamusa@yahoo.com

My Response
Thank you, Iliya, for your mail, and for the kind comments you made about my column. I actually had a lot more things to write about American English, but I was afraid that I was going to bore my readers after writing about it in three installments. I am relieved to know that somebody enjoyed it enough to want more of it.

Yes, Americans indeed have a robust imagination for coinages, what you call neologisms. As you can imagine, their repertoire of coinages is literally inexhaustible, and I can never do justice to them in a column. Most of the new coinages in American English result from Americans’ obsession with the short forms of words. Over time, these short forms take a life of their own and get weaned from the longer versions of the words from which they were derived.

The most prominent example of this is “gas,” the American word for petrol. At first, I thought it was singularly illogical to use gas as an alternative name for petrol, because while gas is air, petrol is liquid. But I soon found out that gas is actually the shortened form of gasoline, which is a scarcely used alternative word for petrol in old British English.

Now, Americans go to “gas stations” instead of petrol stations to fill their tanks which we sell to them as petrol from Nigeria!.

Another common culinary neologism especially in the South is “combo,” which simply means the full complement of a meal. Koko, doya da dankali, (i.e. pap, fried yam, and fried sweet potato) for instance, will qualify as a combo. I was surprised to find out that the word is actually only a shortened form of “combination.” When I was an undergraduate at Bayero University, Kano, we used to call that kind of food “combined honors.”

Other popular shortened forms of words that have grown into full words are “peds” for pedestrians, “condo” for condominium (a huge building that consists of several self-contained apartments that are individually owned), “legit” for legitimate or walk (the latter sense derived from “leg it), “max” for maximum, and so on. In fact, “max” is now often used in a verb form. It is not unusual to hear Americans say, “I've maxed out the gas in my car,” meaning I have used up all the petrol in my car.

Because Americans are such incredibly busy people, they have contempt for elaborate and long forms in their conversational language. Just a couple of days ago, one of my professors called me and said, “Hey, Farooq, your recs are on my table. Go pick them up.” Well, I found out after a day that he was telling me to pick up the recommendation letters he wrote for me.

There are, of course, regional variations in American English. Louisiana English, for instance, has heavy tinctures of French and African influences. The word “lagniappe,” for instance, is an exclusively Louisiana invention, even though it is now usual to hear many people in the South use it. (It is pronounced LANYAP).

It means a small gift, especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase. But this definition does not adequately capture the cultural meaning of the word. Its exact socio-linguistic equivalent is “jaara” in Hausa (now incorporated into Nigerian Pidgin English).

It is also used to indicate any kind of addition, or extras. While the word sounds French, its semantic content is decidedly African. I once wrote about the intriguing convergence of French, Spanish and African influences in Louisiana’s racial, cultural and gastronomic landscape. This convergence also manifests in the socio-linguistic experience of the people in many ways. It is conceivable that the “jaara” culture was brought to Louisiana by former African slaves.

Ebonics is another kettle of fish altogether. I also once said here that I am usually incapable of getting even the faintest tenor of a conversation with Black Americans when they speak in Ebonics. Originally called Negro Nonstandard English (NNE), Ebonics emerged as a result of the deliberate policy if white slave owners to deny Blacks access to education. The language sounds like a hotchpotch of mutilated English syntax, garbled and ungainly English structure, and an unnaturally fast speech pattern.

However, many people have said that it is a legitimate, semantically self-sufficient language that does not need the approval of Standard English to exist. And I agree. But what I detest about Ebonics is its proneness to profanity. It is usually riddled with many swearwords and sexually explicit expressions. The men call themselves “nigga” (not a spelling error) and their women are called and call themselves “bitches.” Of course, these are broad strokes that ignore many subtleties.

Well, because Black Americans now dominate the American cultural scene and are therefore the cultural icons for many young people, including white people, many expressions that were exclusive to Ebonics have now crept into demotic American speech.

For instance, when Americans say something is “bad” with a stress that makes the word sound like baaad, it means it’s really very good! It’s Ebonics’ contribution to American English. Inflections like badder and baddest, instead of the standard worse and worst, are also common in American colloquial English—another influence of Ebonics.

But perhaps my greatest surprise about American English is that many of the expressions that starry-eyed linguistic idealists in Nigeria label as “Nigerian English” are actually American expressions, like “senior brother,” instead of the standard elder brother; “junior brother,” instead of younger brother (it is often said that senior and junior indicate social relationships while elder and younger indicate biological relationships); and many other too numerous to mention here, are as common in America as they are in Nigeria. So are expressions like “often times,” “of recent” (instead of “of late”), and so on.

When next these supercilious grammar columnists in Nigerian newspapers tell you not write or speak these expressions, tell them to first stop Americans from using them!

Monday, March 23, 2009

North/South Rivalries in America (I)

This first appeared on May 6, 2006 in the Weekly Trust

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Yes, the United States, too, has a North/South dichotomy. But it is all too easy to look at the country and be led to suppose that it is impervious to internal divisions because it prefixes the adjective “united” to its name.

Many people think it is immune from the regional rivalries that we associate with our interminably feuding societies. Even though the regional divide in America is decidedly less contentious than ours, there are nonetheless strong, if subdued, provincial jealousies between the American North and the American South.

The more I get to know about this, the more I find parallels between America and Nigeria. The first indication I got of how the North and the South perceive each other as two separate nations within a country was when, in 2005, I informed an American friend I met at Columbia University in New York, sometime in 2003, that I was now in Louisiana.

He asked how I was adjusting to life in Louisiana. I told him I was still learning to come to terms with many culture shocks.

His response took me by surprise. He said, “I understand how you feel. I also suffer from culture shocks each time I visit Louisiana.” He said he finds the people in Louisiana and the South “weird,” and that they all “talk funny.”

This didn’t make much sense to me. The notion of America I had come here with was of a country that had no noticeable internal differences. I had a concept of America as a country where sub-national identities were so fluid and so flexible that a New Yorker could go to Texas, for instance, and not only be a citizen, but stand the chance of being elected governor of the state, and vice versa. In short, I had thought that in America, there were no “natives” or, as we say it in Nigeria, no indigenes; only citizens.

Why would an American, a white American at that, speak so disdainfully of another part of his country, and even go so as far as to say that he experiences culture shocks when he visits it? I wondered in silence. I soon found out that he was echoing the mutual contempt and distrust in which Northerners and Southerners in the United States hold each other.

One day, one of my professors invited me to his house to watch a basketball competition between his alma mater and another university. After the game was over, the sports station began to show other plays. But my friend took a hard look at the names of the teams that were playing and suddenly changed the station. As he was changing the channel, he murmured, “It’s just a bunch of northern teams! I have no time watching fu****g Yankees.”

That outburst also caught me off guard. First, I used to associate the word “Yankee” with Americans in general. In fact, non-Americans usually interchange “American” with “Yankee” without the slightest hint that they are wrong. At first, it didn’t make any sense to me for an American—again, a white American— to deride another American as a “fu****g Yankee.” I emphasize the racial identity of Americans because Blacks generally tend to be less enthusiastic about their American citizenship than Whites.

Well, I learned that day that “Yankee” actually refers only to an American Northerner. American Southerners don’t call themselves Yankees; in fact, some of them take serious exceptions to, sometimes outright umbrage at, being called Yankees. However, the Northerners proudly wear that label. The word usually associated with the South is “Dixie.”

But what states constitute the South and North of the United States? Well, this is a tricky question. There is no universally accepted delineation of the South and the North. It is a shifty identity. However, it is usual to define the South to include 16 states: Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Oklahoma.

The 19 states usually considered Northern states are: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

In reality, however, such states as Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri, and Kansas don’t easily fit into the North/South divide. Citizens of these states sometimes identify themselves in mutually exclusive regional labels. I have, for instance, two friends from Maryland, and while one calls himself a Southerner, the other calls himself a Northerner. Similarly, people in southern Virginia call themselves Southerners, but it is not unusual for people in northern Virginia to regard themselves as Northerners.

The reason for this ambiguity is that, like in Nigeria, regional identity is not just a cold cartographic expression; it is also a socio-cultural, historical, and geo-political identity that sometimes mocks geography. Just like the Rivers Niger and Benue appear to be the dividing lines between the North and the South in Nigeria, the American North and South are divided by what is called the Mason-Dixon Line. It was, still is, the symbolic dividing line between the North and the South around Virginia and Pennsylvania before the American Civil War.

In many ways, it is like Rivers Niger and Benue in terms of symbolic significance. Such states as Benue, Taraba, etc, for instance, would be regarded as eastern by a cartographer’s unaided imagination, just like Kwara, Kogi and parts of Niger would be considered western. However, these states are both notionally and geo-politically in the North.

The equivalents of that in the United States are states like Maryland and Virginia, which are geographically in the North but are geo-politically in the South. In fact, Virginia used to be the political and military headquarters of the South during the American Civil War.

In many significant respects, the American South reminds me of Northern Nigeria (with a few obvious exceptions) while the American North reminds me of the Nigerian South. In size, the American South, like Northern Nigeria, is a geographical behemoth, while the North, also called New England states, is a comparatively small geographical space. (I have heard the joke several times here that a ranch in Texas is many times bigger than the state of Rhode Island).

Again, like Northern Nigeria, the American South is noticeably religious, culturally conservative, and emotionally attached to its socio-historical identity. The North, on the other hand, like the Nigerian South, is more urban, culturally liberal and less attached to prefixed cultural values.

In the American South, the weather and the people tend to be warm—literally and figuratively. The North, on the other hand, is the opposite. Not only is the weather cold; the people are also cold.

Politically, the South is savvier than the North. It has produced more presidents than any region, including nine of the first 12 presidents of the United States.

However, after enmeshing itself in a four-year devastating Civil War, which pitted it against the North (the next series will address this), it did not produce a president for nearly 100 years until 1976. The rest of the country was reluctant to trust a Southerner with the presidency of the country after the Civil War. This reminds me of the fate of the Igbos. And that is where the American South’s main difference with Northern Nigerian comes in.

In Nigeria, it is the South, or a part of it, that lost a Civil War. It is noteworthy, however, that since 1976, the region has regained status as the “presidential” region of the country.

Next week, I will discuss how regional jealousies manifest in the relations between Americans, and find analogues to Nigeria.

Danish Cartoons and Holocaust: What the World Isn’t Discussing

This first appeared on September 10, 2006 in the Weekly Trust.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

On February 20, the Associated Press flashed a news story about a 67-year-old British professor of history called David Irving who was sentenced to prison in Austria for denying the Holocaust!

He didn’t kill anybody. He merely used his “freedom of speech” to call into question the veracity of the Holocaust. And now he is in prison for that. Curiously, there has been no mass outrage from the patron saints of freedom of speech in the West, not even from Britain, his home country.

And this is happening at the same time that the sacrilegious cartoons against Islam in a Danish newspaper are provoking debates about “freedom of speech” in the West. The apparent contradiction in protesting the right to free speech where the “Other” is concerned and muzzling it where “Jews” are concerned seems to be lost on Europe and America.

Well, I have an experiential encounter with the word “Holocaust” that never fails to amuse me when I look back in retrospect, which I will like to share with my readers.

Sometime ago, when I was a second-year undergraduate student at the Bayero University, Kano, I nearly got expelled from school for using the word “holocaust” in an editorial commentary I wrote for the Parakeet, a publication of the Bayero (University) Literary Society, of which I was editor.

There was a bloody clash between liberal and conservative students in the school over the right of female students to visit male hostels. In B.U.K parlance, it was a clash of “comrades” and “Ustazia”—loose terms to differentiate between chartered libertines and cultural preservationists.

Well, after the clash, the school authority, which had been uneasy with the radical student union government at the time, rusticated most of the vocal student union leaders and banned all student union activities. I was a representative (well, we called ourselves “senators”) of my faculty at the Students’ Representative Assembly. And I was only just beginning to savor the excitement of student politics when this high-handed ban was imposed by the authorities. That was unacceptable to me—and to a lot of students as well.

When we had our literary meeting during this period, I suggested that since our publication was coming out at that period, we write a strongly-worded editorial condemning the rustication of student union leaders and the banning of student union activities since there was no evidence that there was any link between student union activities and the clash.

Nobody opposed me. So I wrote a strong denunciation of the actions of the school authority, with all the intellectual energy and verbal exuberance of a second-year university student. But the sentence that appeared to rile the university administration the most was in the last paragraph of the editorial.

After a long, verbose attack on the administration for its action, and after proffering a long list of suggestions to the senate committee handling the crisis on ways to contain the tension on campus, I wrote: “Any solution short of these, in our considered opinion, would be counterproductive and, what is more, an appealing invitation to chaos, unrest and, Allah forbid, bloodshed and carnage. The Senate should toe the line of least resistance by effortlessly averting an impending holocaust NOW!”

Holocaust? The university was outraged—and understandably so, with the benefit of hindsight.

I would have been expelled outright along with other student union leaders in the executive branch for inflaming passions through my editorial, I was told. But I was given the benefit to appear before the University’s senate committee to defend myself because many of the professors in the committee didn’t believe that an undergraduate student wrote the editorial. They were convinced that it was ghost-written by one of the radical professors in the university—and I was quite close to not a few of them.

But they were completely wrong. No so-called radical professor had any input into what I wrote. When I appeared before the committee to defend myself, I had the good fortune of being able to convince them that I was the author of the article. They said my spoken English had the stylistic imprints of the editorial. But then, they asked me, “What is Holocaust? What do you understand by it?”

At that time, I didn’t know anything about the historic Holocaust other than its metaphoric extension as “an act of great destruction and loss of life.” I didn’t know it was associated with Jews, had never read of gas chambers in Austria, nor did I have any intimate knowledge of Nazi Germany. I was just an innocent, ebullient sophomore (the American word for a second-year university student) who wanted to call attention to himself through linguistic mystification.

The committee members were at once amused and disarmed by my innocence—and ignorance. And I was forgiven. Of course, I was asked to write and circulate a written apology widely—and hope that my editorial would not cause a “holocaust” before the end of the semester!

What has this little anecdote got to do with anything? Well, my encounter with the university senate committee members provoked my curiosity about the historic Holocaust, whose allegorical shadow I ignorantly used to make my case for the need for authorities in my alma mater to avert student unrest. Each time the word holocaust is mentioned, I never fail to experience a giddy throwback to my verbal misadventure at Bayero University, Kano.

Several years after, I am still asking myself why the word Holocaust provokes such deep passions. Why are the people who call themselves Jews (in my over one year stay in the United States, I have not been able to tell a Jew from other white Americans) today so incredibly thin-skinned about the Holocaust?

Why should the prophet of a religion who is revered by billions of people across all the races of the world be caricatured in the most irreverent manner in the press at the same time that a professor is sent to prison for merely denying the historical accuracy of a comparatively recent event? And why is the world not crying out loud against this onslaught on academic freedom?

Professor Irving is the author of nearly 30 books, including Hitler's War. In 1992, a judge in Germany also fined him the equivalent of N840,000 for saying that Nazi gas chambers at Auschwitz were a figment of the imagination designed to swing popular sentiments in favor of Jews.

He is reported to have also written in his books that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust has been grossly exaggerated (Americans would say “sexed up”), and that, in fact, there is "not one shred of evidence" that the Nazis carried out their "Final Solution" to exterminate the Jewish population as is often cracked up in popular accounts. He argued that deaths at concentration camps were traceable to diseases such as typhus fever rather than mass murders.

I am not concerned about the accuracy or otherwise of the professor’s assertions. (In fact, if he is indeed the right-wing intellectual that the media say he is, he is probably also an Afrophobic white supremacist). My worry is the odiousness of the double standards that are so nakedly evident in the protection of “free speech” in the West.

For instance, in 2000, this same Professor Irving had occasion to sue American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt for libel in a British court. But the merit of his case was not even considered. The presiding judge in the case, a certain Charles Gray, was reported to have written that Irving was "an active Holocaust denier ... anti-Semitic and racist." And that charge justified the summary dismissal of his case.

In November last year, while giving a guest lecture to university students in Austria, Irving was arrested and charged for what he said back in 1989 under an Austrian law that states: "Whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media" shall be prosecuted.

Note that this professor is a British, not an Austrian, citizen. So it means anybody who denies, ridicules, or downplays the Holocaust in any part of the world (such as Iran’s president recently) is liable to be prosecuted if he finds himself in Austria or Germany.

There may be more European countries with this kind of law. In fact, emerging facts indicate that the Danish newspaper that originated the cartoons, which have provoked mass revulsion in the Muslim world, actually turned down publishing cartoons that were considered “anti-Semitic”—that convenient phrase usually invoked to blackmail everybody into standing in uncomprehending awe before “Jews.”

However, there are no laws to protect other groups on the cultural fringes of mainstream Europe from the perpetually impudent strictures and xenophobia of their press. Freedom of speech is protected only where “other people” are at the receiving end. The hypocrisy of it riles deeply.

But the truth is that freedom has never been absolute anywhere in the world, not even in America, which prides itself on being the leader of “the civilized world.” Here, the media are, for instance, forbidden from publishing or broadcasting pictures of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

Similarly, two journalists were jailed last year for refusing to disclose their sources. While on this topic with one of my colleagues, I was also told of a Black American historian by the name of George G. M. James who wrote a persuasive book titled, Stolen Legacy: How Greek History is Stolen African History. Shortly after the publication of his book, he didn’t even have the “dignity” of being imprisoned like Professor Irving. He was found murdered in the state of Arkansas; his tongue cut out, and his body dumped carelessly by the road side.

In all this, the American legal maxim that states, “One man’s right to swing his arms stops where another man’s right to defend his nose begins,” appears singularly appropriate.

But this holds true as much for others as it does for Muslim demonstrations condemning the cartoons, especially in Nigeria. One man’s right to demonstrate against the caricature of his way of life stops where another man’s right to preserve his life begins. Nothing justifies the mindless murders of innocent Christians in Maiduguri because of an offending cartoon in far-flung Denmark.

The reprisals in Onitsha are just as condemnable. The debate about what constitutes freedom will continue to be a delicate and emotionally-charged one.

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