I want you to hold out your ears and listen.
Hold my ears?
You are not too old for this, for this is a matter of life and death, and I am not about to sit and watch the only palm nut I have roasting in the fire burn. Besides, I am your mother. I carried you in my womb for nine months, and if I say draw your ears, you should ask me how hard. So, now hold your ears.
Your father and I have taken to watching American news more than we watch Super Story. We want to understand what is happening over there. Our hearts are up to our mouths in worry. We still do not understand most of it and we rely on your Uncle Benji to explain sometimes. He says there is nothing happening now that did not happen when he was there as a student. I cannot imagine what it feels like being so young and finding yourself in a place where you are suddenly black before anything else. Especially in a place where it is the worst thing you can be.
I do not want to say I told you so, but I wish you had listened to me and chosen the scholarship in London. Uncle Benji – always the headmaster – agrees. He says that it is not as though people do not encounter racism over there in London, or anywhere else for that matter, where there are people of different colours, but he says that racism in London is just like their humour – it is not apparent; that you have to be looking for it to see it. Unlike in America, where everything they are serving you is in your face, delivered to your very doorstep like it is mail.
Have your held your ears, are you listening?
I hear you.
No. No, this is not one of those “I hear you” moments, only for you to go on doing what you have been doing. No, this is not one of those times we say things that you listen to with one ear and cast away through the other. Understand that this is life and death for us. Your father and I had gone through hell before we had you. I was then at an age when pregnancy was nothing short of a miracle; you cannot imagine. So you must take this serious.
You worry too much, Ma.
Worry too much? Worry too much? Are you planning to kill your father and I before our time? Eh? Are you?
Do not cry, Ma. I am listening, I promise. I am holding my ears.
On TV, the other day we listened to a man who said that the biggest problem facing young black men in America is getting home after they leave the house. We want to make sure that in four years, you will be back to us safe and sound.
I raised you well. It is unfortunate that I have to instruct you again on some of these things as though you were a small boy. If you were here, among people that look the same as you, these are things you should not have to worry about, but now that you are black in America, they matter a lot.
First of all, you have to know the rules and follow them.
About police. I do not assume that any black person in America is ignorant of how encounters involving black people and police officers end up. It is on TV every day. You must know and follow the rules and do everything right.
How is your little car? I hope all is well with it. Uncle Benji and your father now think it was a mistake to have given you money to buy it in the first place. I only wish we could afford something better, something newer so that it would be less likely that you have one of those dreadful encounters. Although I have now seen on TV that having a newer car is as much reason to have a police encounter as driving a jalopy as long as you are black. So my son, please take good care of your car. Do not do anything to it that will attract undue attention.
Do not decorate it; what your Uncle Benji say they call pimping. It is a car, not a house.
Do not play music too loud in it. It is a car, not a disco parlour.
Do not drive with anything broken or any expired document. I would rather have you go hungry than have anything out of order in your car. Always have your license. Are you still in the habit of forgetting your wallet? If you are, take a picture of your license with your cell phone as that is one thing young people never forget to take with them. I am not quite sure if doing so would help anything, but it is something.
Do not over speed. Stay in your lane. It is better to arrive at your destination late than not to arrive at all. If ever a police officer stops you, be very respectful and use as many “sirs” as possible.
Do not argue.
Do not cuss.
Do not talk back. Keep your hands where anyone can see them. Explain whatever move you are going to make. Say you have to open the door and get out or have to bring out your license or have to unfasten your seat belt.
Do not forget to add “sir” to whatever you say. Speak correct English. Did you lose your accent yet? I hope not. I saw on TV that Americans have an ear for people whose tongues are thick on their words. Your accent could divert attention and show that you are a different kind of black in a place where black has only one shade.
Say you are an only child and that you have an old mother back in Nigeria who would die if anything were to happen to you. Saying that might not mean a lot in that country where human life is trivial and dogs have more dignity than black people. In a nation of the most intelligent people, I find it unfortunate that they do not seem to understand how one person’s untimely death can ruin many lives. They do not see how one life is like a road leading to others and those others leading to much more. It would not just be your father and me who would not survive if anything were to happen to you. It would also be your uncles and aunts who cannot wait for you to do well in your studies, get a fine job and help them with your cousins. So it is not just your life; it is many lives now and generations down the line.
Uncle Benji is not quite sure you should mention that bit about Nigeria. He says you cannot be sure if the police officer has received one of those emails from a Nigerian prince who has a large inheritance coming and wants help to see it released. If so, then just say you have a mother who would die if anything were to happen to you. Hopefully, the police officer has a mother as well who has trained him well and whom he loves.
Do not get involved in anything illegal.
Do not be at any place where you are not supposed to be.
Do not touch anything you are not supposed to touch, eat or drink anything you are not supposed to.
Make sure to do all you have to do during the day and be back at your hostel before the sun goes down. I always told you that if anything were to happen to anyone in daylight, there are more chances there would be people there to witness and offer help if it is needed.
I forbid you to go out at night.
If it ever became necessary that you go out at night, never wear a hoodie, not even if it is cold enough that your ears are freezing. Remember not to have your hands in your pocket, and walk where there is enough light.
In fact, I forbid it. No going out at night. Even though day or night matters not in the outcome of the incidents that involve black people in America, I want to think that the accusing nakedness of daylight can make a little difference. That it can be for a black man the difference between life and death and the unquestionable source of truth in the case he is the victim of a wrongdoing and demands justice. But seeing the kind of world it is for a black person over there, my faith in the power of daylight is lukewarm.
When you walk, walk upright. Do not lean forward or draw back. I hear they call such senseless way of walking swaggering. I forbid it. Walk like the nineteen-year-old with strong bones that you are and not like one who has shit in his trousers.
If you go to a store, make sure the security cameras capture your face in full. If you have to, walk up to the camera and show your face as clear as possible. You do not want to be another case of mistaken identity. We saw it on TV where this black man spent five years in prison because he looked like someone they saw on a security camera stealing things. They said both men looked alike and I wondered how so. For I saw both men and they looked as different as my arm is from my leg. But Uncle Benji says that all black people look the same in America when there is a crime. Age and height and thickness of bone and other such features which distinguish people do not matter if you are black.
If you are going to buy anything, do not linger in the aisles. You know how people like to caress items before they pick them off the shelves, as though wooing the items to come with them. I forbid you from doing that. Have a list of what you want. Go where they are and get them. Again, never linger. We saw it on TV where one man was wrestled to the ground because he was lingering in a store and someone thought he must be stealing something. A mad cow could not boast of such strength with which they tackled him. He had blood all over his face. I have never seen that much blood in my life. My heart leaped out of its place when I imagined that it could be you.
When you are out and about, do not walk too closely behind anyone. Not behind men so no one will accuse you of picking anyone’s pocket, and not behind girls so they would not say you are sniffing their hair or looking at their buttocks inappropriately. Even the suspicion of those looks very bad on a young black man.
Dress fine. Wear clothes your size. Never wear clothes that look like they could be hiding anything in their extra folds. Any such perception is, for a black man, a disaster waiting to happen. Your father thinks tight clothes make men look queer. It is better for people to think that you are queer than dead. Iron your clothes. Tuck in your shirts and always wear a belt. Never let your trousers sag; it is displeasing to the eyes and very irresponsible.
I forbid a tattoo on your body; it would give me a heart attack.
Never wear an earring; it makes a boy look queer. On TV, the other day, we saw this boy; he had earrings in both his ears, one in his nose, one above his left eye just where the eyebrows end, one in his tongue and another just under his lower lip. Your father and I are still arguing over how he holds the one in his tongue and under his lower lips in place. Uncle Benji says it is some magnet, but we are doubtful. The point is, it is not a good sight on a boy. Tattoos and earrings on men make them look like they are wearing something bad, like a bad odour, or something worse.
I would have added that you should not grow any dreadlocks, but there is no need since you are already going bald like your father. Unless you want to look like a vulture caught in the rain, the way bald men look who leave those hairs that begin halfway on their heads. Cut your hair close to your scalp, not completely shaved. Men who completely shave their hair have a frightening look which is exactly the look no black man in America should want right now. So cut your hair low to the scalp. That way you will still look in order even when you forget to brush it, as I know you would. Avoid whatever makes you appear to anyone like another irresponsible black man.
If you must be friendly with a girl, use a condom.
Shut up and listen and do not Ma me. Having a child when you are yourself barely a child is one of those issues that make black men in America look bad. On TV they say it is how trouble starts for many black people in America. All those babies born to people who are themselves, babies. Boys and girls dropping out of school to care for their children, settling for jobs only people for whom there is no future would do. Low income, frustration arrives, then one bad choice after another. Numerous broken homes. That is exactly how I heard it on the TV.
You are not going to become another unfortunate number of black statistics in America. More than 20 percent dropout rate in both college and secondary school. 12.70 percent are unemployed. More than 50 percent all criminal offenses. More than 40 percent single parent families.
Please, my son, that is one chance you must never take. All the time and money we spent on the best Catholic education you have received was not for you to go and become another black baby daddy in America. If I waited that long to have a child, I am in no hurry for a grandchild. So use a condom. Find a homely girl, one you intend to marry someday. Find a homely black girl, not one of those I see on TV who wear purple and navy blue hair. Good if you can find a Nigerian girl in your school, better if she is a nursing student and from a good home, best if she is an Igbo girl. We do not want you to get involved with a girl who cannot keep a home, or who would not care for us when we are old and have to live with you. She has to be a girl who understands that that is how life works. That when they are old and weary, parents go to live with their children and not in old people’s home where paid strangers take care of them. We see on TV where people past your father’s age and mine are still at work in America. These are men and women so old their bodies are bent in half with the burden of age and infirmities, their skin so coarse it could sand wood, and on their bottoms, you see the wet patches of their incontinence. Your father and I wonder about such people, but your Uncle Benji says that such is the life of people in America. People do not expect anything from others, not even parents from their children on whom they spent their youth and money to train. That most of those we see on TV have lived a life of “live alone and die alone.” And in old age, they who do not have enough to live on or anyone to care for them must work for sustenance. Such is an unfortunate thing in that America, and it is not the way of our people.
So you must only get involved with a girl who will know that we expect to reap of the tree we planted and nurtured with our youth and blood. A good Igbo girl.
Your father just found a friend’s son who is coming to America. I am going to give him some egusi, ogbono, ground crayfish, some dried ukasi and onugbu leaves, and some okporoko. It is nearly six months since you left, and you must be running out. I do not want you to get in the habit of American foods. On TV, they say the worst American foods are those in cans and the chickens they pump with things to make them look ten times their size. As much as I do not want you dead, I do not want you unhealthy.
Be safe. We are praying for you; rosary every day and a candle at the Blessed Sacrament every Sunday. Pray for yourself too. Cover yourself with the blood of Jesus every day before you leave the house. So that when bad things are in front you will be behind; when they are behind you will be in front.
Uncle Benji sends his greetings. Aunt Ijeoma sends her basket of blessings. Uncle Kenneth sends his greetings. Aunt Chi asks when you will send her the American shoes she had shown you before you left. Uncle James wants an American smoking pipe. Uju wants an American baby doll with pink lips and gold hair. Peter wants a toy machine gun. Mama Ejima from the store down the street says to tell you she has not been selling as much bean cake since you left; she sends her blessing.
I will wait a few weeks and send your regards to those who sent their greetings and blessings. Those who just want you to buy them things will have to wait until you finish school and get a good job.
Please, my son, hold your ears and listen. Know the rules and keep them. Take all I have said here to heart. When you finish school and return, you will not have to worry about most of these things again because here you would not be black. You will be just like everyone else.
Your father and I send you our deepest love.
I hear you, Ma.
Emeka Chinagorom was born in Onitsha, Nigeria. He graduated summa cum laude for a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from the Pontifical Urban University Rome. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared on Bellanaija.com and the Hawai’i Review where an earlier version of this story was published and won the 2017 Ian MacMillan Award for Fiction. Currently, Emeka Chinagorom lives in the United States and is at work on his first novel.