Finding the Space to Mourn Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in a Post-Colonial Nigeria
by Chi-Chi Okonkwo
The first and only person to contact me about Alton Sterling’s death was my younger sister. “They killed another black guy,” her Facebook message read with a sense of dread and urgency. “I’m so angry. This is too much! Write about it.” I knew that if my younger sister was this riled up, there must be a video and she felt as if she had perceived the violence — to some degree — first-hand. I asked if she was all right and she confirmed my suspicion: There is a video, and the video is as violent as ever.
Flashback four years, to the moment I sat in my living room working on a project about the Nigerian civil war. The research navigated me through one of the worst atrocities committed in human history, an atrocity inherently linked to my ethnic Igbo identity. Somehow I found myself researching videos about the war, voyeuristically — yet with so much hurt and pain — consuming images of the violence the Biafrans (or Igbo people) were subjected to as a direct result of British colonialism. Coincidentally, I happened upon another video set in 2012 Port Harcourt, Nigeria (which had been part of Biafra) wherein three young boys are stripped of their clothes, beaten down by an angry mob, brandished with tires and fuel and subsequently lit on fire. The scene was horrific and there was no way I could un-see it. I wept, and in such a way akin to our modern society, closed my eyes and went to sleep.
Fast forward to the scene after I read my sister’s message. I scanned the internet to find articles about Sterling’s death, intent on avoiding the video as much as possible. I’d been scarred by the violence from the atrocity in Nigeria. God forbid I watch yet another video of violence against a black man. Instead, I read up on the incident and found out what transpired between the cops and Alton, learned how another black man was unjustly shot point-black in the chest several times. He had already been tasered and subdued before trigger-happy and racist white officers murdered him. His death was senseless, as the death of most black people in America are.
I read out a part of the article I found on Sterling’s murder in the car to my husband, my brother-in-law’s girlfriend and my brother-in-law as he drove through the warm night in the Eastern part of Nigeria, the region previously known as Biafra. In response, they all hissed, but that’s where the conversation ended. I wanted an ear to scream to, to vent about the injustice, but this was the wrong crowd. My husband alone has been shot at by armed robbers and has witnessed murders. He’s found silence and ignoring the pain conducive to navigate the violence he’s been exposed to. And I can’t blame them for not wanting to discuss yet another instance of the black man’s oppression. I sat silently until we arrived home, where I spoke to a friend on Faceboook and found the space to cry.
A day (or was it even up to a day?) later, a woman live-streamed a cop as he murdered her boyfriend, Philando Castile, who was in the process of revealing his driver’s license. I initially thought that the news was falsified. It had to be. The murder of two black men in two days — how? Why? Then it occurred to me that the only thing new in this narrative of violence is the ability to capture the murder on video and just as instantly disseminate it via the web.
I draw attention to the violence in Nigeria to emphasize the oppressive condition of Black people — not as a symptom of our inherent disposition, but instead as a result of white supremacy. Colonialism alone was violent and traumatic. The Nigerian civil war, for example, was manipulated and funded by British intervention; hence the current condition of ethnic violence in Nigeria can’t be decontextualized from the history of colonialist participation in ethno-politics. Likewise, the Black American condition is part and parcel to Black people’s continued marginalization, racialization and oppression in the United States.
White supremacist violence has its history in subjugation, most specifically in Black subjugation, both colonialist and its continued neo-imperialist ventures. The reality of White privilege exists in the context of Black victimhood, so much so that one can’t go on without the other. As I write this, I’m well aware of the white supremacist logic to blame black people for their realities, which many readers will succumb to. After all, modern scientists still occupy themselves with finding a biological answer to Black social inferiority. But this morally and intellectually bankrupt attempt at justifying racial and social inequality doesn’t warrant a response.
Every day, I battle with making sense of the Black condition. I try to learn to navigate the continued trauma, the pain and the hurt. It’s everywhere. From my hometown of Ottawa, Canada, where my male friends and relatives have a sour history and relationship with the white supremacist legal system, to my home country of Nigeria, where my husband and my male relatives encounter the racist and violent colonial legacy in nuanced ways. When I left Canada on my trip to Nigeria, I convinced myself that I’d escape racist realities. But, the truth is, I’m in the thick of it in Nigeria. I can’t even find the space to mourn for my black American brothers since my mourning has been co-opted by the violent conditions of black people in a post-colonial Africa.
Right now, my heart and stomach are twisted into knots, tangled up painfully in the understanding of our condition as the universally oppressed, and somewhere deep down the anger continues to fester in an all-consuming rage.
What hurts more is the knowledge that, alone, I am virtually powerless to change my condition and the condition of the black folks closest to me in Nigeria and in the greater Black Diaspora.
But I get consolation from the knowledge that we are all sick and tired of this bullshit, and we can only take so much more until our subversive tactics turn to weapons for which we’ll utilize in deconstructing these racist structures for good.
Chi-Chi Okonkwo is a writer with a BA in literature and a strong admiration for the written word. Moreover, she is a daughter of the Nigerian diaspora with the conviction that mainstream media disregards narratives similar to her own. For this reason and more, she takes to political and feminist writing to include her voice in the black feminist cipher, to resist, to educate, and to incite change. Her work has appeared on The Feminist Wire, Blavity, and xoJane. She runs a blog, That Feminist, on social commentary and on her experiences with racism and sexism while living within the Diaspora and in Nigeria.