“What, I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?” (Cole 97).
Anytime we read something my students have questions. Yesterday, they questioned me about the reason they can’t stand up and yell something in class because of the first amendment that we had just gone over. What do Facebook comments have to do with free speech. Why is it that the school can have a Christmas tree if the idea of the Christmas tree comes somehow from Christ and we have separation of church and state. Sometimes I have answers, and sometimes I have to send them out into the world to discover the answers for themselves because I still don’t have them yet. Some, I’m not sure I ever will.
Teaching literature through the historical context is one of my favorite things to do in my class. I’m teaching Of Mice and Men through the historical context of the Great Depression with connections to immigrantion (not that Lennie and George are immigrants, but migrant workers and immigrants have great ties in my student’s knowledge of what is an immigrant today. In their eyes, and the eyes of many southerners I would think, – immigrants living in the ride along mower state of North Carolina are picked up by farmers at Lowes Hardware, paid under the table, and can be kicked off the truck if they complain. My students are also from a very high poverty county, they understand not planning for the future when you only have enough for today. The American Dream themes of migrant workers and immigrants are very similar to the way my students see success and their own goals and dreams.
I’m getting off track though.
One of the biggest things I like to teach my students is that you can only in very few cases teach history through race. Right now, in a school that is truly the mosaic that America is, they are very in tune to the racial barriers set before them and around them. They simultaneously try to break these barriers and keep them up, when it’s convenient or they’re pushed. However, history is not viewed through the lens of race. There is no collective “white history.” We couldn’t teach “white history” if we wanted to. Someone would always be an outlier. There is no collective “black history.” There is no story that fits all the people that were born with and without pigment.
It is difficult for my students to grasp this because they want to put all their eggs in the African American history basket. This history is and is still not quite grasping the total history although it is getting closer to history as geographical which is how we study it today. The label “African American History Museum” (opening in July of 2015 in Washington DC) not only furthers the barriers between our collective American history, but it eliminates the idea that people should understand and acknowledge all of their mixed histories, American, African, Dominican Republic, Mexican, Puerto Rican, European (and that’s a butt load of histories in itself), Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Native American by tribe, etc. I understand this is how history labels us, there must be a label for every questionnaire, every time someone asks, “So, where are you from?” some sort of answer.
It’s a complicated spectrum, made even more complicated by Teju Cole’s new book, Every Day is for the Thief. In his book, which is more diary travelogue of life in Nigeria then it is fictional story (in fact there’s not much story at all other than the story of escape, or the story of corruption), Cole paints a picture of Nigeria that would cause Italian trained pickpockets to avoid the place. Now I’m no expert on Nigeria, in fact, my knowledge of Nigeria is very limited, but the unveiling in this book, even fiction, made me disappointed.
I don’t care what anyone says, when there’s a work of fiction about a specific country, people still believe there’s truth in bits of the fiction even when they’re told otherwise. My best friend Seth stayed on the Southern coast of Africa (where I’m not sure anymore) for a summer and he lived in a house where he had to barricade his host family into their section of the house and then barricade himself in the other section so that if thieves did target that house, they would only be able to get through to the kitchen and all else was guarded by metal latch and key.
This is the Nigeria that Cole writes about.
Police stand guard on roundabouts looking for reasons to stop motorists and be bribed from taking them in. Teenage purse snatchers are burned alive in the market place. Everyone is out for that extra dollar. Gangs both serve the government and are killed in rounds by the government. The face of Nigeria is a smile with a Jafar (Aladdin reference) rubbing his chin hair evilly behind it. How can they make the fastest dime. How can they swindle and sell. What words do they put in the subject of an email to get someone’s uncle to wire money. How much do the corruption signs cost that will never be looked in the eye. This Nigeria is terrifying. The people are no better, and around every corner is a thief who is serving a higher thief until the chain of command meets a man with fat pockets at the top with no need of the starving children snatching purses in the market. Lose a finger in the third world, burned alive in a car tire in Nigeria.
I can tell as I write this that I was moved while reading the book, but only due to subject matter, not due to voice, plot structure, or writing style. Cole did not let the reader in. Everything was at a distance. This is a book about a man that walked around a country he knew he was allowed to leave and looked at the people who were not and wrote down his observations. I could go to a mall and write this story. I couldn’t photograph the moving black and white pictures that close out chapters, but I could people-watch in order to find the lack of sincerity in the faces of everyday American people, the same way Cole put out a book judging the country where he was raised with a facade of fiction attached by a colon to the title.
This is no redemption story for Nigeria. If this is the truth, it baffles me that this book has been out in Africa since 2007 and is just now reaching the US. Wouldn’t a US citizen who likes to think of Africa as a hot bet of mischief be more inclined to read a book that proves it so, rather than a literate Nigeria who is facing his country everyday with hope at a new type of freedom. If the people of Nigeria are shopping at bookstores where the collection of King James is the most sought section, why would they choose to read about the scarred face of their own country. This is the perception of a New Yorker, sizzling with his idea of what a good museum should hold only to find the ones in his home of Lagos are bad replicas of state visitor’s centers on the way through Virginia. That’s what this book was, the way through, in all ways.
It was the way this man’s life took him through to a new world where everything glimmers (like we have no corruption in America or something).
It was the way through Nigeria in the eyes of a person who obviously is no longer attached to the people, the sights, or the ways of life.
It was the way through a market, a public transport station, a town without running water, a police barricaded roundabout.
It was the way through (and a cop out) to not writing a beautiful memoir that actually gripped the reader’s t-shirt at their chest and made them look at the non-bloody massacre that Nigeria has become. If you’re going to bash the country you were raised, do it through the truth, not through something masked as fiction and put on shelves for Americans to believe even though that dirty f-word is on the front.
If you’re going to teach me some history, teach it without guise, and without the informative tone of a textbook. Tell me a story. Make me curl up on the outside of your voice with my crossed legs and just listen. History is after all just the story we tell ourselves, no matter what we label it or how that label defines us. Maybe next year, I’ll get to teach history through the perspective of all the losers, and I’ll try to include Nigeria in that list since Teju Cole made it abundantly clear that this country of flaws and humanity has very few redeeming qualities. Let me clear that I am not upset that there might be some truth about Nigeria in this book, I am upset that it was sold to me as fiction and not as truth if that’s the case. I am upset that this collection will define how Americans see Nigeria if it is all the discovery we try to make. This truly makes me want to go interview the people myself and pass down their stories.