Dear God — or Frisk,
I finally saw Chris Ofili’s Iscariot Blues in the artist’s Blue Devils exhibition at Tate Britain. Did I interpret it as mainly ‘policing’ of black bodies by institutions not black?
No. Judas’ kiss.
In the painting (oil and charcoal on canvas), two Black bodies are playing musical instruments while a third Black body hangs by a rope.
It terrifies me that a Trinidadian folklore allowing socially unacceptable things to happen during a festival, inspired Ofili.
A society that allows a black body the luxury of seeing another black body suffer does so because it has targets — already figured out who the victims would be, and thus, approved it.
Ofili has given visuals to phenomena that contemporary black societies do not want to acknowledge, even though they exist.
This is why, in the 1934 movie adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s book, Imitation of Life, Peola, the light-skinned daughter of a black woman, Delilah, reveals to her mother the desire to be white.
‘I want to be white, like I look,’ she says. ‘You wouldn’t understand that, would you?’
This is against the backdrop of segregated America, where it was a crime to be black. White skin flourished while the black perished. This disgusts Peola, and since she passes for ‘white’ because of her light skin, she rejects her black heritage, denouncing her mother and scaling through white society, getting the jobs she wants which no black person can get.
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye highlights much of the same idea — the thing that passes for beauty. However, whereas Peola hates her black mother and every other person that reminds her of blackness, Pecola disdains herself and wishes she had, like whites, the bluest set of eyes.
These two works, generations apart, explore what would be among the earliest known instances of colourism as we know it today.
Colourism, like racism, I always thought, as a teenager, belonged to television. Surely, there was no way someone of my kind would ever discriminate against me, I believed.
Yet the Sunday school teacher wouldn’t let me play Jesus. Christ had to be light-skinned. But at twelve, this was not a thing. I accepted the judgement because it is the Bible, and Jesus is not Nigerian.
But when Mr. Orji, my lecturer, referred to me as ‘charcoal’ – and said I looked like ‘a monkey’, in front of a cheerful class, I went home trying to understand — to crack this thing that makes someone black think well of themselves while belittling another black person.
That day, I understood that if I wasn’t light-skinned enough I was not supposed to bother the peace of the class; I was not supposed to protest certain policies – or worse, declare my interest in being any kind of model.
‘You have to bleach up to make it in this life,’ a lover said. ‘I can’t even marry someone as “dark” as you.’
They laughed. It was meant to be a joke, they said. I laughed from the emptiness within me, hoping that in so doing, the ugliness I exuded would be hidden from sight.
According to a 2011 report of the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 76 million Nigerians, mostly women, use skin-lightening products regularly.
The skin-lightening epidemic is associated to notions of beauty. The whiter the prettier, the lovelier, the greater likelihood of a better life.
Some classmates offered me advice about bleaching. There was this lotion to choose, or I could go with Carol White, SinClaire or BeWhite. They just wanted to help. Many were concerned that I was withdrawing from regular activities. I was becoming less visible.
I lost my confidence. I would never appear in a picture where someone I perceived was lighter than me also featured, because my ugliness would be spotted immediately. I had lost the strength I once channelled in explaining that beauty wasn’t about skin colour.
It was evident I was wrong. Beauty is about skin colour, and I am black, ugly.
In an essay that appears in her 1983 book, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker defines colourism as ‘prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour.’
Racism is a thing. Of course, we have seen what evil it is and how it has claimed innocent lives. In the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, one would be surprised that colourism is that brother who would gladly kick you off the ‘March for Inclusion’ because you look much blacker.
Today, I have been arrested by Nigerian Immigration Commission officers at Ikom, Cross River State.
The officers claim I am Cameroonian. They manacle my hands, lead me to their van, where they initiate a quasi-visa interview.
I explain in detail who I am, where I come from and where am headed, speaking myself out of trouble – from English language to Igbo language, to Pidgin, to dialects – and erringly – my bad, out of confusion French.
That moment French escapes my mouth becomes their moment of triumph. They are all smiling. Argh-ing and carrying their shoulders high as if they’re congratulating one another for a job well done.
They order the driver of the bus I boarded from Abakaliki to leave at once. The driver, begging my forgiveness for his inability to stand up for me, prays I get on well; saying in Igbo to his other passengers, some distance away from me, that I should have told him I was Cameroonian and he’d have known how to ‘settle’ with these officers.
I watch the bus drive off. I am sweating.
‘Did I not tell you all? I know a Cameroonian when I see one,’ says the officer whose surname has given me hope from the beginning of this encounter. He is Igbo, my kinsman. Paying no attention to the others, I keep calling him ‘nwannem,’ urging him to believe me.
He is the first to slap me.
‘No Igbo person is as black as you,’ he fumes, cocking his gun. ‘Let’s send this animal to where he belongs.’
This cruelty unleashed on me is because someone has profiled me too black for my race, Igbo.
They put me next to an actual Cameroonian who keeps shaking his head. I do not infer from this that the shaking of the head is intended to alert my countrymen that I am being wrongly detained.
‘Etes-vous du sud ou nord?’
‘Aucun. Je suis Nigérian.’
‘Je suis désolé que vous soyez traité comme nous le sommes.’
‘Je suis désolé, aussi.’
Whenever the officers point their guns in our direction, I start crying. I think of America, Britain, Australia and other predominantly white spaces where black bodies are often denied their right to exist. My mind pictures Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Diallo, and those black boys on a moped. Victims of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence – including killings – of black bodies. I think of this now. No more a fatherland but something present that I am facing, as a black person on black soil.
My mother has lost me once, has mourned me once, when my heart failed.
I was told she sat through her days gazing at the clouds without touching her food. During the entire period she bathed once, and only when reminded. She dressed shabbily. Sometimes she wore her clothes inside-out, wearing her flip-flops the wrong way.
She lost me once, perhaps, she is going to lose me again. The thought terrifies me. The idea of being shot terrifies me.
I start begging the officers to go through my luggage and look closely at all my identification. I implore them to look closely. They accuse me of falsifying the ID of a Nigerian school. Double offence.
I think of all that could go wrong because of my ‘darker’ complexion. I could be sent to Cameroon where I know no one; abandoned at the borders with no access to funds.
I realise what Ofili’s Blue Devils show was about. It was about me — what came before and what might be an aftermath of this ordeal of mistaken identity (especially if, eventually, I am wrongfully detained).
We do not come to art to take away from it only the promises of beauty it offers. Rather, we come hoping to understand who we are and what we might be.
What Ofili achieved with No Woman, No Cry is in its depiction of black grief as universal. The painting, a tribute to Stephen Lawrence’s family (the black British teenager was the victim of a racist murder in 1993 and never got justice until 2012, when two people were convicted of the crime) renders Doreen Lawrence, the mother, grief-stricken.
Her eyes are lowered, dripping tears that are stamped with Stephen’s face. Her necklace has an elephant dung pendant affixed with map pins – all behind a wire mesh formed with Ofili’s signature dots. At once, one understands that grief is a cage, that black bodies are aliens behind border wires without a hope of getting out.
Such is the pain of the casualties. The pain of being black — of being betrayed.
Ofili would later reveal in an interview that: ‘This kid had been killed by white racists. The police had fucked up the investigation, and the image that stuck in my mind was not just his mother but sorrow —deep sorrow for someone who will never come back. I remember finishing the painting and covering it up, because it was just too strong.’
My mother has lost me once, has mourned me once. Will she lose me again? Mourn me again? Panic attacks keep me up all night.
God, if you let my brothers hurt me this much, what wouldn’t happen in the hands of someone not black?