Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Malcolm without an X

(an inverted performance in Njakiriology)


Obododimma Oha

As children growing up in a society torn between a fairly familiar African world and a strange but alluring western world packaged and circulated through films, my friends and I had a little problem in deciding who would become our heroes. We needed heroes very badly. The heroes of the African world were not particularly attractive. There was Lance Spearman of Drum magazine. Lance was doing heroic things, fighting with criminals and surviving miraculously, and so had the right credentials. One could remake oneself in his image and command respect as the invincible. But his skin was same as ours – familiarly black! He also wore a hat that was unique, same as James Bond. But local chiefs also wore that hat! So, that uniqueness suffered. The environment in which he operated was also familiar: same bushes we knew; same quaint parks; same houses… How could anything familiar produce sound heroism?

One needed a rare, foreign hero, operating in a foreign location. And we found these heroes in the films we watched, films that we literalized and located in everyday experience. There was James Bond. Oh, James, always taking risks, chasing criminals, outgunning them, and having free sex with ladies he has rescued or has converted through his chivalry. So, someone among us went for a James Bond identity. He took the name and patented it, which means that no other boy would answer it. Once a hero’s name was taken, it was taken. There was only one special guy at a time; others had to migrate to other celebrated identities, or keep searching. We took all kinds of names, some derived from these film heroes, some made-up. But those taken from known film heroes had greater impact and respect, as the original attributes of the film heroes could be copied to the adopters. An invented identity raised a difficulty for its bearer who had to work hard to define the fictive heroes’ attributes, uniqueness, and framework of respect.

My elder brother liked Westerns, mainly because of the gunfights. He had been shopping for a name for a while and was lucky one day when the Federal Ministry of Information came to our community to show a film at the primary school playground. The jeep carrying the ministry staff came early enough and drove through the town playing some ikwokrikwo music, their megaphones blaring loud and bringing a sense of some-real-thing’s-gonna-happen into the little community. The announcement that there would be a free film show at the primary school playground was such exciting news. People hurried the rest of the day’s activities, to make sure they got to the venue early and secured good viewing positions.

That evening, my elder brother got a name: Captain Idea Murphy. He said that was what the best gunfighter in the film was called. Years later when I became familiar with the name Eddie Murphy, I started suspecting that my elder brother probably refurbished the name, changing “Eddie” to “Idea” and also adding “Captain” so as to underline some commanding aura in answering the name. A captain was in charge and there were never two captains in one boat.

I didn’t have a name, so someone suggested Malcolm X. At first, I didn’t like the name, because it was very strange. I even thought it was incomplete. What was that X? None of my friends knew. They said that was what the fellow was called in the film. They said he was fearless and tried to challenge White people. How could a Black man have challenged White people? And in the Whiteman’s country for that matter! How could anyone in his right senses have challenged the White people who made the cars, the planes, and, as we were told by our teacher, had even gone outside this Earth and had come back alive! My friends said that made the name worth taking, the name of a fearless challenger. I was worried: didn’t that mean that I would be regarded as a trouble maker? Malcolm X? What was that X?

My elder brother, now Captain, said I should take it, after all I was a trouble maker, always challenging his authority. He said if I didn’t like the X, he could keep it for me. I could just be Malcolm. But one of my friends said the power of the name would be gone without its X. How could I be a hero without the X? So, I became Malcolm X, but with great concern for the stranded X.

Forty years later, I have found myself in the Whiteman’s country, enjoying his hospitality, his dollars, his well-kept environment, his Internet, in short his technology. I am glad that I looked at that X with great suspicion. How could I have managed if I lost all these opportunities and ended up with the kind of messy life that my not-so-lucky friends live back home now? Imagine being a classroom teacher in one primary school and riding a bicycle to school and praying for your salary to be increased! Imagine standing in front of those noisy children with a cane in your hand and your hungry stomach asking you to transfer aggression to those urchins! Imagine using the break period to do some okada runs to augment your salary! How could I have been a hero in such circumstances?

Certainly, I am a hero. I don't have to ballot-or-bullet back home to be one! Imagine the number of mails and phone calls I receive from home. Everyone at home thinks I am a millionaire and wants some dollars. They think dollars grow like grass over here! Maybe I am partly responsible for this, for I once announced in a mail that I am a big time professor over here, and that I direct several programmes. They really believed me! Or is it the popularity I have won as an Internet warrior and the courage I have shown in using abusive rhetoric, flogging this imagined adversary and clubbing that vulnerable debater? Boy, this Malcolm really has no X! They must think I am a very important person, for me to have the courage to write all those offensive posts. And there’s that stupid Obododimma, stupid to the bone! Local teacher! Sorry, local teacher-farmer, who measures the merit of intellectual arguments in terms of tubers of yam! He thinks he is more patriotic than I am, simply because he is unfortunately trapped in that kingdom-gone. Those guys back home must be dead dumb!

I am a Malcolm without an X and I am not going to fall for any local fool who wants to tag on to my name and steal my heroism.

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