Then, The White Man Called Us “Niggers”

I must warn you. This is not one of those “as a black person, I experience racism in America” accounts. Millions of those already exist. This is an account of my encounter with The Volunteer and The Truck Guy, two interesting characters I met during my first two weeks in the United States. 

I am compelled to explain why I’ve chosen that adjective – “interesting” – to describe The Volunteer and The Truck Guy because of the popularity of online articles instructing people to not use the word because ” ‘interesting’ is a non-word. Be specific.”

The two events I narrate in this post happened when I was 21 years old. At the time, I had spent all my 21 years of existence – but for those two weeks in the United States –  in Nigeria, a country where everyone looks like me. So, instead of The Volunteer and The Truck Guy (and my encounters with them) making me feel othered, they aroused curiosity or interest in me. They were interesting.

The Volunteer

It was our second week in the United States, so when we secured an apartment, my new roommates and I had no mattresses, no chairs, and no couch – nothing but an empty apartment with four boxes that couldn’t stop the apartment from emitting loud echoes even when we breathed. At that time, we still converted every dollar amount to naira to judge whether a purchase was worth the money. “I can’t spend X dollars on that. I can get fifty of those for 10% of that amount in Nigeria!” We said that a lot those days. So, even if we had the money for furniture (which we didn’t), we wouldn’t spend it. 

Fortunately, every Nigerian student we knew at the time was talking about a certain organization that gifts international students at Bowling Green State University furniture at a program they organize before the start of every academic session. So, my roommates and I found the date the program would hold that year, and we cleared our schedule for that day.

At the program, we got enough furniture for our apartment. I even got one of those revolving chairs for my room. The organization had provided us with a 26-foot U-Haul truck and The Volunteer. With The Volunteer’s help, we hurriedly moved our new furniture into the truck, just in case people suddenly changed their minds and wanted their stuff back. We were all so happy. We had gotten a bunch of expensive and important pieces of furniture without emptying our pockets. After we had finished loading up the truck, we jumped onto the front seat, cracking easy jokes and giggling like rich kids on Christmas Eve as we waited for The Volunteer to drive us to our apartment and help us move in our new furniture. 

When The Volunteer finally joined us, he greeted us with a smile that showed that he was happy to be helping us. We reciprocated and thanked him for helping us, and the joyous atmosphere remained as we merged onto the road to our apartment.

Immediately The Volunteer had got the truck on the road, he glanced at us and asked, “so, where are you niggers from?” with the innocent excitement of a baby plastered on his face.

“Oh, we’re from Nigeria,” one of my roommates and I answered simultaneously.  

Then, The Volunteer started his version of the  “you’re from Nigeria? My cousin went to Kenya” story which, at the time, had become a common feature of our first conversations with Americans.

As the four of us in the U-Haul truck talked about Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Africa, Bowling Green, and the United States, I was having another conversation – the quiet type of conversation you have with your friend when someone is acting a fool at a dinner party – with my other roommate, the one who had been quiet when the white man asked where we “niggers” were from. 

“I heard it too.”

“Why would he say that?” the roommate asked.

I shrugged because I didn’t know why the white man had called the three black men he was having a friendly conversation with “niggers.” The roommate was suddenly quiet. I glanced at him and noticed confusion sitting comfortably on his face, and I don’t think that confusion ever left even after we had discussed the incident later that night. 

It was a tricky situation. Unlike African Americans, my roommates and I, at the time, had a certain immunity to the word for a few reasons. First, the word, when compared to the creative devastating insults we had received (and served others) back in Nigeria, was like a water gun in an arsenal of nuclear bombs. Second, for many Nigerians our age, the British colonization of Nigeria which ended in 1960 seemed like an event that happened in a faraway land a thousand years ago. Plus, we had no emotional connection to the history of American slavery and the other devastating brands of discrimination that followed. 

Still, we knew what the word meant, and we understood the American racial climate enough to know the man must have known he shouldn’t have used that word (at least, not in our presence). I had taken an African American Literature class as an undergraduate student, and I was so passionate about African American history and struggle that I considered a study of two rap albums and their examination of America’s racist history and her current systemic racism for my B.A. thesis (until my supervisor commanded that I focus on Nigerian literature instead). So, I understood the pain behind that word. Still…

I’m not sure why I didn’t feel that pain when the man called us that word. I only have theories, and I’ve presented them in the paragraph preceding the above paragraph.

I started to ruminate on the situation after I had noticed the confusion on the face of my quiet roommate. I thought that the only question that mattered was, “how do we judge this guy?” My answer to that was: “This man has used his time and energy to help us load this truck. He is using his time and skill to drive us to our apartment. And when we get to our apartment, he will carry our heavy pieces of furniture into our apartment, and we will pay him nothing. If he’s a bigot, he’s a bad one.” 

Maybe I was just so happy about all the free furniture that the word didn’t stand a chance. I don’t know. What do you think?

The Truck Guy

My roommates, some other Nigerian students, and I encountered The Truck Guy a few days before we met The Volunteer. Before we secured our apartment, we had been staying with some generous Nigerian students. None of us had a car, so we often whined about our transportation problems. Fortunately,  Bowling Green, Ohio, is so small that you can get anywhere on a bicycle, so we considered getting bicycles. It was a fun – and the cheapest – solution to our problem. 

The decision to get bicycles posed a relevant question. We hadn’t ridden bicycles in more than a decade. I hadn’t been on a bicycle since the one my dad got me when I was seven years old broke down. The murmurs and waves of nervous laughter that followed when an acquaintance that had been watching us discuss bicycles asked, “can you guys even ride a bicycle?” told us one thing – we needed to find out if we could ride bicycles. It was on the day we discovered one of us needed to relearn cycling we met The Truck Guy.

We were with a few other Nigerian students at our hosts’ apartment building’s unusually large and empty parking lot, trading shifts on the bicycle I had borrowed for this purpose. We made fun of those who struggled to balance on the bicycle, we made fun of those who were too scared to even try, and we made fun of those who tried too hard. A middle-aged white man in blue shorts and a white T-shirt sat outside one of the adjacent apartment buildings, watching us and laughing with us. It was a fun Sunday afternoon, and the summer weather was perfect. 

Here’s a video of one of my roommates struggling to ride the bicycle. I’m the videographer laughing hard in the background. Like I said, it was a fun Sunday afternoon. By the way, keep the truck in the parking lot in mind.

Besides the people-watcher, another feature of that Sunday afternoon was The Truck Guy who drove in and out of the parking lot about four times. The first time The Truck Guy – who looked like he was in his late twenties – stepped out of his truck and walked into our hosts’ apartment building, we greeted him, but we didn’t get a reaction. After about ten minutes, we noticed him walking towards his truck, and, this time, only a few of us greeted him. They got no reply. So, when we saw him afterward, everyone ignored him. It was a fun Sunday afternoon.

After a few hours, The Truck Guy was walking into the apartment building for the fourth time, and I was getting on the bicycle for the third time that afternoon. Most of those who couldn’t balance on the bicycle earlier that afternoon had had enough practice that they could ride perfectly, and like every newbie, they were obsessed – they wouldn’t give up the bicycle unless we forced them. So, as I got on the bicycle, I chuckled to myself because I was about to execute the selfish plan I had concocted during the long wait for my turn on the bicycle.

“No, Yinka! No!” Everyone protested behind me as I rode the bicycle off the parking lot into the road.

“Yes, yes, suckers!” I yelled back, and I followed it with an impression of The Joker’s maniacal laughter. 

An already fun Sunday afternoon was about to be more fun for me because of my plan. Riding in the parking lot gave others the power to decide when I must give up the bicycle. By riding on the road, I denied them that power, and they knew this. I could ride for miles, and they couldn’t stop me. 

I only rode for two blocks before I returned to the parking lot. Business at the parking lot was as I had left it except for the police car and the police officer talking to my Nigerian brothers.

Apparently, someone had called the police and reported that some black guys were damaging his truck. The only truck in the parking lot belonged to The Truck Guy, and it had no visible damage. So, the officer called The Truck Guy and asked him to come to the parking lot and show her the damage we had allegedly done to his car.

As we waited for the guy, we – but for the police officer – repeatedly glanced at each other and chuckled. Although we didn’t say it, I think we all knew the situation would get more ridiculous and funny when The Truck Guy arrived.

“Why are you disturbing these guys? They’re not causing any trouble. I’ve been watching them have fun all afternoon. Why are you disturbing them?”

It was the middle-aged white man who had been people-watching shouting at the top of his lungs. The man, who I had forgotten about until I heard the sounds coming from his direction, was walking towards us, and the police officer walked up to him. She was still explaining the situation to the man when they got to the truck which we were all inspecting like a bunch of car enthusiasts at a car show.

“What? Tell him to come down and show you the damage then,” the man commanded. 

“I guess I’ll call him again.”

The police officer went inside her car, and, after what seemed like a minute, she got out of the car. 

“He said he doesn’t wanna come,” she announced.

Before the officer drove off, she apologized on behalf of The Truck Guy, but I was laughing way too hard to pay attention. We were all laughing, except the people-watcher. To the people-watcher, The Truck Guy was something more than the cowardly fool we thought he was.

“He should have, at least, driven the truck off the parking lot, done some visible damage to it, then, return the truck to the parking lot before he called the police on us. Why didn’t he just do that? Then, he would have had a case.” I said, thinking out loud as I rode the bicycle in circles.

“Hey! Hey!” One of the newbie cyclists yelled as he walked toward me.

“What?”

He didn’t answer. As soon as he got to me, he grabbed the bicycle’s handlebar, pressing down the brake as hard as he could.

“It’s my turn, alaye!” he finally said.

The Truck Guy and I were not the only people scheming that afternoon.

1 Comment

  1. This is really an “interesting” read, Olayinka. You should do more of memoir-like writing like this. It’s simply the best of a very few of yours I have read.

    Well, even though you wouldn’t want it to be read as one of those “bitching” about racial treatment of the black/black migrant by White America, this prose, while not specifically exerting its intent on race politics, does exactly highlight same.

    We could be assertive in continuing to call the deep-seated American racism what it is. We may as well just illuminate on micro/macro practices, incidences that suggest (rightly or wrongly) racist treatment of the black body, like this piece did (my mediocre reading). One good is certain, we are talking about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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