By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In 2005, I outraged many African immigrants in America on an Internet discussion board when I argued that Africans who become Americans—or who are born in America— can’t legitimately claim to be “African Americans” because doing so would amount to an opportunistic appropriation of a historically contingent term that emerged out of a self-conscious rejection of centuries of appellative violence against a people whose ancestors were brought to America involuntarily, who cannot, with certainty, trace their ancestral roots to any particular country or ethnic group in Africa, but whose racial heritage is unmistakably African nonetheless.
By appellative violence I mean the centuries of odious naming of American blacks as “niggers,” “Negros,” “Coloreds,” etc. by the American power structure. The term “African-American” arose in the 1960s out of a deliberate effort by some Black American leaders to reject the degrading appellations by which they were known and to embrace the identity that is the source of their systematic appellative degradation: their “Africanness.”
In other words, out of all the names by which they have historically been known—Nigger, Negro, Colored, Black—“African-American” is the only name Americans of African ancestry consciously chose for themselves. So my argument was that since the evolution of this term is the product of a specific socio-historic circumstance, it shouldn’t be understood literally to mean an African who is an American. I said African immigrants who have a desire to hyphenate their “Americanness” can always use their country of origin to do so (e.g. “Nigerian-Americans”) and reserve “African-American” exclusively for people whose ancestors built America with hard but free labor.
But I met an absolutely charming and intriguing African-American woman here whose identity and experiences disrupt my settled certainties about who is and who is not an African-American. I am talking about a Mrs. Cecilia Crump Erinne who I mentioned in a piece I did last year titled, “Black Americans in Nigeria.” I met her again a couple of weeks ago when I visited Mississippi and have decided to write about her for my Black History Month articles.
|Mrs Cecilia Crump Erinne|
In more ways than one, she straddles a fascinating spectrum of national identities that defy an easy, simplistic categorization.
Mrs. Erinne was born to an urbane, highly educated, upper-middle-class African American couple in Mississippi in 1952. While studying for her master’s degree in mathematics at Utah State University in 1975, she fell in love with a Nigerian from Anambra State by the name of Mr. Edwin Erinne, who was also studying for a master’s degree in engineering. In 1978, they got married in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Unlike what most Nigerian men would do today, Mr. Erinne refused to stay in America after his wedding. He already had a well-paying job at the National Institute for Freshwater Fisheries Research in New Bussa, a mid-sized town that serves as the headquarters of Borgu Local Government in Niger State. So Mrs. Erinne relocated to rural Nigeria in 1978 and became a math teacher at Borgu Secondary School, the oldest secondary school in that part of Nigeria. She later rose to become the school’s principal, and retired from the Niger State Ministry of Education in 2004 as Director. Thereafter she moved to eastern Nigeria with her husband who had also retired as Deputy Director and was appointed Commissioner of Agriculture in Anambra State. In 2007, she and her husband relocated to the United States, where their 6 children now live and work.
|Mrs. Cecilia Erinne and her husband, Mr. Edwin Erinne|
Although she uprooted herself from the comfort of her place of birth to the chaos that was Nigeria, she loved and still loves Nigeria with a passion and sincerity that is at once touching and humbling.
She told me when she first relocated to Nigeria she had to learn to cook with firewood (before gas cookers became available on a large scale) and to live without the assurance of constant electricity. She also learned to prepare, eat and enjoy Nigerian food. She still cooks and eats Nigerian food even in America. Plus, she gave birth to all her children (except for the last one who was born in the US for medical reasons) in Nigeria. There can be no greater proof of a person’s sincere love and devotion for a place and its people than that.
But it isn’t the material adjustments that Mrs. Erinne learned and perfected with grace and class that fascinates me; it is the complex, multiple, sometimes ambivalent, identities she embodies. Because she lived 29 of her 60 years on earth in Nigeria, she is at once an “outsider” (by virtue of not being born in Nigeria) who is nonetheless intimately familiar with the inside of Nigeria and an “insider” (by virtue of being a natural-born America) who’s considered to be on the outside of America. In Nigeria, her students used to call her a “black Oyinbo,” that is, a black white woman, on account of her American identity and accent. Now, in the high school where she teaches math here in America, she is often called “the African woman” because, in the course of the years she lived in Nigeria, she lost some of her American accent.
I once asked her why she lost her American accent (which now sounds like the “polished” accents of Nigerian TV newscasters). She said she consciously learned to speak as close to Nigerian English accent as she possibly could because she taught math, which is hard enough for students. She said she didn’t want her students to have to deal with a foreign accent in addition to the burdens of learning a difficult subject. How considerate!
Many of my friends who had the privilege to be taught by her never stop to talk of her admirable humility, graciousness, thoughtfulness, kindness, and pedagogical excellence. After meeting her three times (first in Atlanta and twice in Mississippi), I can understand why she is so lavishly adored by her students and by the people of New Bussa.
I also asked her why she hasn’t corrected her American students who call her the “African woman.” She said it’s not necessary because she is indeed legally an “African” since she’s a Nigerian citizen by marriage. Only that she is also American. Doesn’t she give a whole new meaning to the term “African American”?