The Black Man's Nod

On State Street in Madison, Wisc., across a crowd of white faces, a black man sends a quick, sharp nod my way. A few minutes later, another black man with dreadlocks double taps his heart followed by the peace sign, by way of greeting. Same thing happens a few months later when I am in Shaker Heights, Ohio; or years earlier in Boston, Reading, Penn., and New Haven, Conn. We are strangers somehow unified by our blackness in a backdrop of whiteness -- at least in part. The nod does not extend to hippies, bohemians, granolas or frat boys with blond dread-locks; rather it has been, in my experience, a black male affair in predominantly white environments.

I was born in Evanston, Ill. to Kenyan parents, but after six months or so, too short a time to have truly imbibed lessons on race, we moved back to Kenya. In Kenya, the question of race was not part of daily discourse. I did not know "blackness" -- not in the American sense anyway. True, the principle that undergirds racism -- discrimination -- existed. I came to know virulent hatred especially against the Kenyan Indian and other ethnicities in Kenya. But being part of the majority, the Gikuyu, I did not know what it was like to be a minority. I grew up with the swagger of the majority.

It was in New Haven that the "Black Man's Nod" first came into my life -- and what a stranger it was. The summer of 1990 found my father, writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, in political exile, back in the United States and teaching at Yale University. So, after finishing high school, it was at Yale where I joined him after an eight-year separation. Yale is a bastion of privilege and excess but is surrounded by economically depressed, primarily black neighborhoods. I remember being informed by a university employee to be careful not to stray too far the campus. My first lesson in race relations: Stay away, for it is a matter of life and death.

I do not remember the first nod in New Haven, but still strongly fortified by my "Kenyan-ness," and being a quick learner and picking up stereotypical views of African-Americans, my response quickly became one of suspicion and skepticism. In the streets, I was never sure if the comradely nod was sent my way because the "nodder" thought I was African-American. Incidentally, I can easily recognize Africans who have been in the States for just a few months -- their nods are reluctant, stiff, mechanical and uncomfortable.

When a few months into college an African-American asked me if we live on trees, I was quick to retort that African-Americans are drug addicts, obnoxiously loud and should not be pointing fingers. We almost came to blows. It was not until a fellow female African-American student sat us down and told us, without mincing words, that we were both wrong; that we were victims who saw each other through the lens of racism.

She was right then and now. The stereotypes for both Africans and African-Americans are quickly learned because they are all around us -- from movies, TV shows, news, comic books, novels to the history being taught in high schools. Both the African and the African-American do not fare well at all. History binds us, slavery both pulls and repels us, and colonialism and racism makes us familiar to each other, but we still see each other through a lens full of stereotypes and racism.

Put simply, our relationship is mitigated by white-colored lenses that see the state of Black America as loud, poor, drugged and violent and the state of Africa as warring, starving and skeletal kids with runny noses, a continent dying from AIDS victims. The result is a mutual attraction that at the same time repels.

This is not to say that we have not tried to rise up above this. One only needs to mention W.E.B. DuBois or Kwame Ture; or largely African-American organizations like Trans-Africa Forum which fought against apartheid in South Africa; or Africa Action, which lobbies for Africa-related causes in Washington. So, Africans in the United States find themselves in a rather complex relationship with African-Americans. But when this relationship is not nurtured or consciously steered away from mutual angst and stereotypes it can quickly become ugly.

The year 1992 found us living in Orange, New Jersey, when my father accepted a teaching position at New York University. Shortly after we moved, in a South Orange club called Safari, violence broke out between Africans and African-Americans that was bad enough to leave a few Kenyans hospitalized (the Kenyans lost). Even though I was safely tucked away at Albright College in Pennsylvania for my undergraduate work on that particular night, I had visited this club often enough to know that occasional insults between Kenyan and African-American patrons at the bar or on the dance floor was the extent of the interaction between these two groups.

When it comes, the baptism that reminds Africans and African-Americans of the ties that binds is one of fire. Racism, unless it is the lazy kind of the college professor who applauds the African student as hard-working and castigates the African-American as lazy, rarely has the time to distinguish between Africans and African-Americans. Amadou Diallo was an African immigrant from Guinea, shot 41 times by the NYPD. Abner Louima, from Haiti, was lucky to have escaped with his life. To add, there's Driving While Black, being followed around stores, delayed service in restaurants and the occasional or not-so-occasional "nigger" slur. We can call this overarching racism, and we can call it GALWB -- Going About Life While Black -- a mouthful to be sure, so other suggestions are welcome.

On top of the racism meant for African-Americans, add racism that has been tailored for Africans. Do we live on trees, do we have cities, why are we always starving, at war, genocidal -- and a strange phenomenon where white friends compliment the African as articulate or well-dressed while pointing to an African-American as the opposite. Add both strains of racism and the black man's nod quickly gained significance for me. It became not just an affectation, or a greeting, but rather, a complex social phenomenon which has helped me cope with being a minority.

As far as I can tell, the variations of the black man's nod are as follows:

The "nod of solidarity" means "we are in this together." This one recognizes that we are united by a common struggle no matter how amorphous it may be. It says we are black in a world where power and wealth are actively kept from our hands. This is the kind that followed, say, Hurricane Katrina, or years preceding the Rodney King trial. This fierce nod is a call to action.

The "black power" nod: This is not to be confused with the nod of solidarity. The nod of black power reaffirms our blackness; it is okay to be black in a world where the standard of beauty is increasingly becoming white. It will often come with a smile.

The "I see you even when others do not" nod: In a predominantly white neighborhood or locale, especially after you have been followed around a store or stopped by cops on your way there, it offers relief. This nod simply means, "it's alright, I see/feel you."

The "stay cool/keep-your-cool" nod: Let's say you are ordering a beer in a predominantly white bar and the young white bartender cards you even though you are clearly over 30. If there is a fellow black man across the bar watching the transaction, a quick nod reminding you to be cool will come your way.

The "Rasta greeting" encompasses all-of-the-above in a white crowd -- and then some, when in a black crowd. Having had dreadlocks since 1991, this is the one I find has the most warmth. A nod, a quick tap to the chest, and sometimes a handshake, it moves from just black and white to the Third World, and recalls counter-culture and resistance. We are not just black or beautiful, but we're also social activists. If in a social setting, two dreads will inevitably chat for a few minutes, express warmth and move on. I do not know who originated the Black Man's Nod. I would imagine it has existed from the time of slavery where quick eye contact was used in place of a firm handshake, enduring through the mine-fields of Jim Crow; or from colonial racism, and colonial cities where a quick nod expressed solidarity. I do not know if there is a Black Woman's Nod, though just the other day, a black woman with dreads sent greetings my way. All I know is this: That in 1990, only a few months into the United States, my nod was, at best, skeptical, and 17 years later, I actively seek it out. It has meaning and warmth. It, like love, keeps me going. Perhaps that is the point -- to keep going.

{ exclusive feature}
by Mukoma Wa Ngugi [Cleveland, Ohio:USA]
{The Liberator Magazine 10.1 #25, 2011}
{artwork by Joseph Lamour, The Liberator Magazine}

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