A particular kind of black man
The Nigerian-American writer, Tope Folarin, wrestles with blackness and black immigrant identity in his new novel.
Tope Folarin became, for me, a literary voice to follow after I read his essay, “To Be Where We Are,” in the fall 2015 edition of Transition Magazine. Two years before, in 2013, Folarin won the Caine Prize for African Writing. But, his win was met with much debate, the thrust of which was: Could this man, who was born and raised in America, and has never set foot in Nigeria, claim a Nigerian identity and win a prestigious literary award in the name of said claim?
“To Be Where We Are” reads like a response to that debate. Folarin writes beautifully, that creation is working on itself in him. “What does it mean if I say to you that creation is working on itself inside me?” he continues:
Well, it means that I am made up of the stuff of the universe, like everyone else. Stardust and starlight and words and images and America and Nigeria and Africa and who knows what else. It also means that these familiar components have assumed new forms within me, that to spend some time with me is to glimpse possibilities that have yet to manifest themselves in our shared reality.
It’s a remarkable insight, one that I reach for in mild jest when I encounter Instagram skits of “African parents” that recall little of my childhood, and in desperation when I fear that my Nigerianness, already tenuous in some settings, has been irrevocably eroded by my years in a mostly white, liberal United States. “Preach, Brother Tope! Speak that truth!” my heart yells. This notion—that social categories are not fixed as traditional thinking suggests, but that each of us, in living, come to clarify and reveal the possibilities in them—how liberating!
In a sense Folarin’s debut novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man, is the story of a young man’s difficult journey to this insight. That boy, Tunde Akinola, is born black in the United States to parents who at the time of their arrival are so insufficiently attuned to American realities of race and difference that when they are deciding where to settle, they make the tragically human decision to premise desires for isolation over other considerations, e.g. “Are there other black people there?” or “Is this a sundown town??” They land in predominantly white, small-town Utah.
American race drama ensues. There is a racist neighbor, though her breed of racism is uniquely Mormon. Kids at school don’t understand why the brown won’t come off Tunde’s skin. Tunde himself starts to wonder about the brown won’t come off his skin and about his hair’s natural kinkiness. In the midst of this, mother becomes seriously ill with schizophrenia. Folarin does not explicitly identify the stress of migration and racism as a factor in the emergence of her illness, but one cannot help wondering. He does carefully lay out schizophrenia’s painful effects, the violence and upheaval it unleashes on the family.
Ultimately, Tunde’s mother returns to Nigeria. He is left with his father, a man working through his own relationship with America, as the primary source of love, identity, and a sense of home. (There is also, briefly, an unhappy stepmother, but Tunde never finds her love despite his best efforts). Mr. Akinola does point his son to “a particular kind of black man”—Sidney Poitier, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bryant Gumbel—as model for how to be. Yet, while he studies these men and makes himself in their image, Tunde knows that they “do not match what is on the inside.”
Outside Tunde’s home, the world is in as much disarray. There is no stable definition of black boy, or later, black man for him to inhabit. Depending on where he looks, to Fresh Prince, to his little brother, to his friend AJ, to other black kids in a new school, what it means to be black moves and slips. Tunde moves through these shifts with a longing that is moving to witness, and an unrelenting bewilderment that comes off naïve as he grows older.
By the time he is 18 and at Morehouse, the renowned HBCU, he makes a leap in insight and starts to intuit that he has been putting his energy in the wrong place all this time: “I decided that the problem was that I spent my entire life trying to fit in one box or another; I decided I needed some time to figure myself out.” Folarin’s wisdom about identity shines here, as he reminds us, through Tunde, that the more significant human task is to come to know oneself well, rather than rely on social categories alone for a sense of identity.
At the same time, Tunde has begun suffering from double memories and worries he may have inherited his mother’s schizophrenia. What follows is, for me, one of the most poignant passages in the book, for how it weaves the disorientation of double memories with the disorientation of modern identity tasks:
It’s hard to explain but I’ve always felt like I’m supposed to be somewhere else. I have no idea where that somewhere else is, or how I’d even get there, if it’s some other place or time, but I know it’s not here. I’ve never admitted these things to myself because I always hoped that I’d figure something out, because what’s the alternative? The alternative is the way I feel now: lost, bewildered, terrified.
The double memories, this business of figuring out who he is, it’s all too much for Tunde, so he turns from writing about himself to writing about someone else. Folarin has written about his intent with this perspective change, the gist of which is: Tunde is writing about himself and not himself at all.
I will admit, that as a reader, I may not have the complexity to engage those simultaneous realities. So as I read on, I assumed Tunde is still writing about himself. I do see how switching perspectives perhaps makes room for Tunde (and Folarin) to explore the more unseemly parts of self-making in a world shaped by “identity by negation—we are what they are not.”
For instance, when he arrives a predominantly white college as an exchange student, Tunde-not-Tunde is preoccupied with blending in with the white majority and infiltrating their world for personal advancement. To be clear, this is not especially abominable behavior. It’s the sort of profoundly human thing that happens as people with marginalized identities navigate their lives. In fact, I appreciate Folarin’s integrity in representing these parts of identity negotiation that many of us carry, quiet and ashamed.
But beyond representing them, Folarin doesn’t engage the unseemly parts of identity negotiation that Tunde-not-Tunde reveals. Nor does he present a complex view of Tunde-not-Tunde’s judgment of the black kids that he is lumped with at Bates, clearest in the following passage:
Here, among these black folk, he detects a kind of determined provincialism. It seems the only thing they wish to discuss is home—the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the music they listened to, the stories they created and traded for themselves. The main currency in these conversations—the only currency, perhaps—is nostalgia. He now senses why it might be so difficult for these people to fit in. It seems they are all more interested in lugging their pasts around with them than stepping into the future.
Again, Folarin’s wisdom about identity shines (God knows that I have become the most obsessed with Nigerian cultural products—especially those of my childhood—since I left Nigeria). But, I find it difficult to get over how incomplete this assessment is. Surely, a character who is observant enough to notice “determined provincialism” can also identify the conditions of marginalization from which it emerges. Surely, they can also see the possibilities for true connection that exist within it. So, what’s up with Tunde-not-Tunde? We never come to understand.
It is almost as if Folarin, as author, is disinterested in the ways self-making interacts with community-making amongst the marginalized. Of course, this is not a profound error or any kind of ethical failing. But it is to my mind, a missed opportunity. Another task that is crucial to self-making is figuring out how to be in community with those with whom one shares characteristics that are the basis of exclusion—race, gender, sexuality, etc.
Folarin doesn’t engage with this. Instead, he brings his focus on personal relationships: Tunde-not-Tunde meets and falls in love with a girl, Noelle, who eventually encourages him to reconnect with his mother. The book closes with that reunion, and we imagine that Tunde (he has returned to writing in the first-person) has found a version of the peace/home that he has been looking for all his life.
It’s a fine ending, in the way that it is committed to Tunde’s journey. And isn’t that all that we can ask of a book? To be committed to its characters? I suppose. Still, I find myself wishing that Folarin brought his keen mind to a more circumspect view of modern identity, not only one that identifies the private, intimate relationships where we can be our full selves, but one that is attentive to the challenges of and possibilities for community making in a world circumscribed by marginalization.