Calabar

When I learn about the homeland for the first time, nobody tells me that I should see home. A teacher pulls down the map of the world, then the map of the continent, and taps with the black tip of her pointer. “Africa,” she says, and like magic the classroom turns a Sahara-sun yellow, something called tribal print bordering the walls, my sister said, pointing through the doorway; and in a few months she is learning to say jambo, we are beating pellet drums against our legs, she is sent home with a letter to give to our parents asking them to bring African food on World Culture Day. I sit on the floor by the stove, my tongue to the hard scratchy surface of the pellet drum, smoky-tasting, hide-flavored, and worriedly watch my mother make a rice that will be served to our classmates at school in the cafeteria, in huge aluminum pans, in front of the teacher who pulls down maps of the world and its continents, who sent home the letter. (Can your family make us some African food?)

On the day my sister is wearing a shirt, lemon-yellow, Africa-yellow, and on the day I am not wearing a yellow shirt but I cannot let my sister be the only one here, I cannot let these people shit on my mother’s cooking. I hover by the station, armpits damp with anxiety over our classmates who cannot eat the rice because it is too spicy—meaning too peppery—which my mother stubbornly dishes out to them with a smile on her face, sweat on her forehead. Nobody knows what Kenyan food looks like. This jollof is full of bay leaves and scotch bonnet so hot it burned my fingers to separate into pieces and dump into the blender the night before in the suffocating warmth of the kitchen. Today my sister and I eat platefuls like dutiful daughters, the insides of our mouths stinging, cumin seeds caught on our tongues. We watch our classmates spear dodo with their forks and nod when they tell us that they like these bananas (because even then we know that no one else eats plantain). Next to the red station, China, I stare out across the cafeteria, where my mother smiles at me from Kenya and wipes her face with the back of her wrist, where I ask myself what color I feel for the homeland, and then I’m not sure that I’ve ever had an answer.

When I see the homeland in color it is ankara glittering from the inside of a red and blue bag, it is the hand cream my mommy-auntie left on the shelf when she went back to the homeland, peach, rosewater. The grimy glass bottles of Fanta in the back of the African market, in a fridge hidden behind shelves of Nido and cornflakes and halal kilishi and black soap. The dust everybody talked about, settling over their feet like beauty powder. I tell myself know dust, sparkling in the air when light comes through and beams across the living room carpet. I know snow, sparkling in the air when light hits it from all sides. I know the grime I swept up from windowsills with one finger, I don’t know anything about the dust. But the smell of it. And how it gets into your mouth. And the red.

My mother hasn’t spoken about the dust since my father came back from the airport one night, auburn lining his luggage. My father has never spoken about the dust. Instead he told us about the color television in his baba’s bedroom which he and his siblings would secretly watch as children, he described the amount of beer his parents bought him for his high school graduation party before he left for America. The day my father started to remember the homeland more than he had ever remembered it before was the day he began to forget us. Twenty-five years and the Texas in his accent made no difference, when he left sometimes none of us knew if, this time, he would ever be back. Once when my father came back he brought us a suitcase full of toilet paper we were not allowed to touch. Too many curses in the homeland, my mother told us. Too much conflict for this house. I saw the nostalgia dry up inside of her, grow inside of me, and then the homeland became so many colors I couldn’t name them all at once. When I looked at a map of the continent I saw a darkness full of purple lights, bouncing; a house bursting with cousins, spilling out aunties and uncles and music and noise; oil-stained linoleum, reeking of meat roasted to oblivion; green Heineken bottles and the caps we collected and held up to our noses, that bitter lemony smell of the metal; praise medleys and Nollywood voices vibrating into our chests. The homeland became the color blue, a Super Blue Omo blue, of the blankets they piled on top of us during the blackout at mommy-auntie’s house in Ekpoma, and of the milk candy my uncles bought us at a kiosk in the middle of nowhere, and of the painted flowers bordering the china plates my grandmother stacked with biscuits and agege bread. I picked sugar crystals off the tops and ate garri with powdered milk and even though I knew the nostalgia had died within my mother, who was only here in Benin City to bury her iye, I would put my fingers to my mouth and taste sand. Sugar. But somehow from the window, from the playground in front of Mr. Bigg’s, in the hallways of the hospital where they brought my sister to take a shot of antimalarial, I could still hear the mourning. The sound of the shovel, dirt over an ancestor, someone disappeared into somewhere: someone finally returned to the sea. I wipe the tears off grown-up cheeks with my hands, my knuckles, and imagine ancestral spirits among the waves, bobbing like lights towards an unknown endlessness.

I hear the homeland like it’s trying to reach out through the speakers at a backyard wedding party and touch me, slip into my skin, nestle into my stomach. Somebody from the soil once said, “The place of remembrance.” Somebody newer said, “The center of love.” When, shaded in orange from a faraway streetlight, my cousins and I sit on an uncle’s front porch holding bottles of malta against our bottom lips and swaying reluctantly to P Square the summer of “1er Gaou”, I can maybe imagine that the stories are not so far away. That the language lives between my teeth, silently, tucked into the left sides of my cheek like baba dudu waiting to slip, to be swallowed whole. That when the time comes to speak, it filters out into the air like the red dust of the homeland. Its perfume. But our aunties say, “Sweet, like chalk,” and I do not know what on earth that means—chalk? A sweetness?—I think of a loss in translation, I think despair, I think of the sand, mixing in with the sugar. What I know how to translate is thank you. Good morning. I’ll see you later. I pronounced my name and all the aunties and uncles laughed at me. Then saddened for me. They said, “The name. What we gave to you from the homeland, the only thing we thought you could keep.”

When I speak homeland I speak something else. My parents call me baby-baby and sweetie pie, they kiss my forehead with lips pursed into an English Honey I love you, our language of intimacy. Their language of love. Even when they are very angry they are angry in English. I asked them, “How many times do you dream in homeland?” (But I cannot remember what on earth they had answered). When my parents speak homeland together it is their language of secrecy, and when my sister and I sit on the stairs trying to listen for our names in their dense conversations it almost feels like a constant defeat. Africa, a traitor. When I speak homeland it means I’m speaking English, which is not “my native language”, which cannot be; although it is the only thing I really speak, it is the language my mother used to sing to me at night as a baby, it is there when I love somebody, when I can’t find the words, when all I have between my teeth and inside of my stomach are shooting stars and feeling. I call my mother and ask her about her day, and the language comes out like gravel. She does not like the America in my accent, the softness of the syllables, the mismatched tones; she says, in English, “Just speak English. ”

I think that maybe she found English a liberation. She cannot speak homeland without bringing it to life with English. She was younger than I am when she arrived at LaGuardia, Jheri-curled hair and a suitcase full of Austen and Shakespeare, she could not tell you who the current president of Nigeria isand so we can almost forget that there’s something missing. We throw I love yous out into the world like confetti. There is no word for love in homeland. Still I kept notebooks full of words, wahala and mumu and na wa o, and when I wanted to learn something beyond the heartbeat of the nation she said, “No, you are from the heartbeat of the nation.” When I tried to learn homeland she said, “Stop, stop speaking.” I wrote down more words. She couldn’t understand them.

The homeland on paper is silent. Too small now. Too gone. I am obsessed with the ruins, I read all the stories about the kingdom and realize many of them end in a bloodshed that makes the baba dudu taste sour in my mouth. Yet relentlessly I search for art history papers about religious ceremonies and chalk thrown into rivers; I put together documents about spirituality and title them mysticism. I look at the shirts my sister and I were made to wear as children, photos of stolen artwork printed on the front and underneath, a caption urging the British to bring our iyoba home. Realize so much has been stolen that my foreign hands are never enough to salvage, no matter how bare, or determined. When I learn about the homeland my professor turns on the projector to flash us an image of the continent and then switches the slide to an overview of South Africa. One tribal system is Africa’s system. One people’s religion is African religion. We sit in lecture romanticizing Africa, they tell us, “Let’s think of a new Africa,” erase the old Africa—first the Kenya-yellow Africa, then the homeland of bouncing purple lights. “Let’s invest in Africa,” because Africa should be our next real-life endeavor, Africa has all this real-world potential, Africa just needs somebody to believe in it. They say everything I have is not my own, not my liberation love-language English, not my grandfather’s Catholic church, not my grandmother’s European name. They say everything I have is adulteration. My family does not care when I call after class to describe all the Wole Soyinka I have studied. All they know about the history of the homeland is that it was a very large and very ancient kingdom, and for this reason my sister and I were named very ancient things. The first woman born to the world was Adesuwa. The second, our namesake. My mind dreams her up in a deep red wrapper, shining, coral beads clinking together around her neck and ankles. Black hair gathered into a crown. My mind dreams up a woman from the homeland and I do not think she looks like me. My aunties, wrapping fufu in aluminum foil, sometimes stare as one of us passes through the doorway, lamenting our faces (features full of America). How much America has drawn homeland out of their children. How they cannot give us a single piece of our ancestors, no matter how hard they try. But instead bequeathed a nostalgia so heavy it is all of the old country weighing us down. We say we would like to someday visit the homeland; they ask us what we think we are trying to find.

They do not know that when we are not learning about the homeland, the homeland does not exist. There are no black children in America whose parents got off planes here in 1984 or 1991. The grandmothers I venerate were Freedom Riders, were women who lit the lamps along the underground railroad, grandmothers who did not know I would come but did all these things so that I could come. Their blackness is the only blackness that holds me in its arms and makes me feel like a daughter. The homeland is a birthplace I romanticize through their eyes. When I learn about black people for the first time I remember my teacher in that empty classroom, sunlight filtering through the window and illuminating the colors on each shiny page of the book, Ruby Bridges lit up like royalty. My teacher followed my eyes, wanting me to read the words and breathe in the story, the courage! The revolutionary! But I kept looking down at the illustration of her, Ruby Bridges in a pink dress, six years old and brown like me, I wanted her curls and her white socks and her cardigan. Wanted the baubles tying up her hair. At home I have big flat picture books about Sojourner Truth and John Henry but my grandmother is a woman I speak to once every seven years. My grandmothers are all dead. The last time the homeland buried an iye I was not four years old eating garri out of a ceramic bowl, sitting on the window seat and trying to hear the bright music of church bells piercing through the gray gray sky. The last time, I was facing my house, in the middle of the road, another place I’d started calling home. That last time, I cried. A loss so vast it was all of those souls, lights drifting through the ocean, tired of waiting for me to find them.

When I dream of the homeland I dream mythology. Everything I have is not my own. How many times have I learned about the homeland and hoped I could feel some kind of connection or some kind of beauty in a history no one records anymore? Do I still press my palms against the glass at the Met and close my eyes in front of the ivories, wishing some kind of forebear magic would filter in and fuse with my very Western soul? I had a mommy-auntie who would carry me on her back until I fell asleep on her shoulder and feed me beans with the tips of her fingers, who would press her cheek against my forehead when I was sick and sweating in her arms and once walked a mile in the snow to buy medicine for my fever.

“What’s the matter?” my mother would ask me when I was very little, and my mommy-auntie would explain, “She doesn’t like crowds.” Or, “The TV’s too loud.” Or, “She only drinks chocolate Nesquik, you’ve bought her strawberry.”

Sometimes we’d go out to feed bread to the birds after it rained, and then she would poke my stomach and ask me questions in homeland. (Sometimes I answered correctly and when this happened she would take both my hands and shake them, overjoyed). When she went back everyone says I sat by the front door and cried for weeks. When I speak to her on the phone now she cannot understand me. Eventually someone explains that mommy-auntie isn’t used to my accent anymore, the American noise of my words so thick and heavy that she never calls to speak to me again. But there was a time I dreamed of her when I dreamed of the homeland, I conjured her smell when other people’s planes landed in from West Africa at JFK, I slept with her scarf around my neck and listened to people talk to her on the phone and wished she would ask to speak to me again. So that maybe I could just try again.

When I learn about the homeland I draw a map in my head that looks like an expanse of silk-linked constellations. Trails of lights intersecting across the sea, a warm clear water and something returned. A map that sounds like highlife guitar, collecting dollar bills on a shoe-scuffed dance floor, Asa above the sizzling of onions, like cymbals edited into her rustic strumming as my friend’s mother cooks a golden shito behind us. A map that has all the wrinkles of fabric crumpled up at the back of my clothes drawer, glitter from the gele still rigid with pins, sequins from the skirt our grandmother sent us from a tailor in Ibadan. Iye-nokhua, drinking her morning milk and tea and eating her buttered bread at the table, then an apparition of woman towering over me while I squinted at the crystals on the biscuits, the flowers on the plates. Later an illumination of a buoy shifting towards the final star, the homeland, the center of the world. The two-piece she sent was green-black-orange, and when I tried to put it on I realized I couldn’t sit, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe in it. Instead put it to my nose and inhaled deep the Africa. Was this, I wondered, a thing I felt I knew by heart? (“No,” my parents would later say. “No, you don’t know Nigeria.”)

Still, how it smelled like my father when he comes back from the homeland, sad to return to remembering us again, jetlagged and sentimental for days—how it felt like falling asleep as a five-year old with my pinkies stuck in the lace of his white-lavender agbada. The time he would look at me like he was looking at me, instead of something stopping him from making that final trip back home. One day when my sister and I were small he told us that there is truly not much homeland in us but just look through the window—we were in the car, I rolled down the glass and put my hand out towards the traffic—just look through the window, this place should be home. So maybe every day I do the remembering. And maybe every time we’re a little more found.