By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
This week’s ruminations are a continuation of my celebration of America’s Black History Month. Throughout this month, I will explore different facets of the relationship between continental Africans and Americans of African heritage.
Are there any Black Americans who have taken residence in Nigeria either as a result of marriage or as a result of voluntary geographic displacement? That’s a persistent question that many of my African-American students and friends have asked me.
When a student first asked me this question in 2005, I knew of only one Black American woman who called Nigeria home. By 2006, I learned of another Black American man who married a Nigerian woman and lived with her in Benin City for many years. And just late last year, I learned of a fascinating Black American woman who has lived in New Bussa (which used to be my local government headquarters until it was ceded to Niger State in 1992) for nearly 40 years. So who are they?
The first “Black-American Nigerian” I know or heard of is Mrs. Dianne Oputa, the charming and vivacious wife of maverick Nigerian music star Charles “Charlie Boy” Oputa. She has been married to her husband for over 30 years. The first time I heard her speak on Nigerian national television in the early 1990s, I had not the dimmest clue that she was American; she’d lost all her American accent.
|"Charlie Boy" and Dianne Oputa--married for 33 years and counting|
Then in 2006 I subscribed to a Nigerian-centered Internet discussion group where I encountered a Black American man by the name of Larry Ukali Johnson-Redd who said he’d had cause to relocate to Nigeria for many years after getting married to a Nigerian lady. While in Nigeria, he taught government at Eghosa Grammar School in Benin City, the Edo State capital. Unfortunately, his wife took ill and died. So he returned to the United States, but he still periodically visits Nigeria. (You can read the recollections of his experience living in Nigeria here).
I don’t know if Mr. Johnson-Redd has a Nigerian citizenship, but my understanding is that the Nigerian constitution guarantees him citizenship on account of his marriage to a Nigerian.
|Larry Ukali Johnson-Redd in Nigeria|
The most recent “black-American Nigerian” I discovered is a certain enamoring woman called Mrs. Cecilia Crump Erinne who has been living in Nigeria for nearly 40 years. She is married to a Nigerian engineer by the name of Mr. Edwin Erinne with whom she has six children, one whom is a Ph.D. student at Kennesaw State University where I am an Assistant Professor.
Unlike the two “black-American Nigerians” I mentioned earlier, Mrs. Erinne, originally from the Southern U.S. state of Mississippi, lived in rural Nigeria for most of the time she has lived in Nigeria. It must take exceptional love and dedication to make the transition from America to rural Nigeria. (She now lives in Enugu with her husband after retiring from the Niger State Ministry of Education.)
When I got a chance to speak with her here in America in December last year, she sounded nothing like an American. Her accent and mannerisms were decidedly Nigerian. It turned out that she was a colleague of my dad’s immediate younger, the late J.B. Kperogi, at Borgu Secondary School, one of the oldest and most prestigious secondary schools in my part of Nigeria.
My uncle taught English for many years at the school and was the school’s Vice Principal before he retired to join partisan politics in the 1980s.
Mrs. Erinne taught math and science to generations of Nigerians at the same school and became the school’s principal before she retired in the early 2000s. I had a surreal sensation when I discovered that this delightful “Black-American Nigerian” knew a member of my family.
There are certainly more Black-American Nigerians than the three I’ve mentioned here. But they can’t be that many. There are more Black Americans in other West African countries than there are in Nigeria. When I lived in Louisiana, for instance, I met many Black Americans who had homes in Ghana, the Gambia, Senegal, and Benin Republic. They visited their adopted families in these countries during summers. By contrast, the only Black Americans I know or heard of came to our country by way of marriage.
This is strange. By several accounts, the African ancestral roots of more than 40 percent of American Blacks are traceable to what is now Nigeria. You would expect that the search for “authenticity” and ancestral rootedness, which has historically been a big deal in middle-class Black America, would attract them to Nigeria.
After all, between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, scores of Black Americans immigrated to Ghana both in a symbolic search for identity and in solidarity with Ghana’s independence from British colonialism in 1957. In fact, celebrated Black American scholar WEB Dubois renounced his American citizenship and died a Ghanaian in 1963.
So why do American Blacks shun Nigeria? There are at least two reasons for this. First, “Slave trade tourism,” which draws large swaths of Black Americans to Ghana, the Gambia, Senegal and Benin Republic, is almost absent in Nigeria. This is a shame because Nigeria has more historic claims to the ancestral provenance of African Americans than the countries that have been cashing in on “slave trade tourism.”
Blame this on Nigeria’s backward and shortsighted leadership since independence.
Second, Nigeria’s emergent postcolonial leaders were so beholden to the power structure in Washington that they deliberately avoided any associations with Black-American leaders in the 1960s. For instance, at the instance of the American government, the Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa shunned Malcolm X when he visited Nigeria in the early 1960s; the Ghanaian government, on the other hand, gave him a red-carpet reception.
|Malcolm X in Africa|
Again this is a shame because Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first ceremonial president, was one of the first Africans, if not the first African, to be educated at a Historically Black College and University in America. Azikiwe graduated from Lincoln University, an all-black university in Pennsylvania, in 1930. In fact, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, an icon of pan-Africanism, wrote in his autobiography that it was Azikiwe who inspired—and recommended— him to study at Lincoln University.
A measure of the regard Azikiwe had in Black America was evident in the fact that WEB Dubois personally attended Azikiwe’s inauguration as Nigeria’s first Governor-General in 1960.
But because Ghana had a more progressive and independent-minded leadership, it was to it that many African Americans migrated in the 1960s. Successive Ghanaian governments consciously court and cultivate the friendship of our kith across the Atlantic. Not so in Nigeria.
In 2003, I met the younger brother of Alex Haley (the famous author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family and coauthor of The Autobiography of Malcolm X) who became America’s ambassador to the Gambia. He told me the frustration he had when he tried to persuade Olusegun Obasanjo, then Nigeria's military Head of State, to grant dual citizenship to African Americans in the late 1970s in order to foster a greater bond between Nigeria and Black America. He said instead of giving a thought to his suggestions, Obasanjo peremptorily granted him an honorary Nigerian citizenship and shot down any further discussion on the issue.
This made me sad.
One of the names Malcolm X cherished intensely till his death was the name he was given by students of the University of Ibadan when he visited Nigeria in May 1964. The name was “Omowale,” Yoruba for “the child has returned home.” When will Nigeria officially open its doors and welcome home its estranged children in the Western diaspora?