Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Race, White Privilege, and Debt

Race, White Privilege, and Debt

I’ve written several times about my two book groups and my group of “Sister Grandmas.” All three are educational and entertaining, valuable sources of intellectual stimulation and social interaction.

Sometimes a member of a group sends a link to an article she found especially interesting. This time it was Barbara J. She said, “When I told my sister about our White Privilege essay topic, she sent me this article. Worth reading.”

During the next 48 hours Judy, Nancy, Fay, Elizabeth, and Sonja read the article and commented.

  • “Amazing – food for thought and for circulation.”
  • “Thought provoking.”
  • “I’ve never read a more examined treatise on white privilege, very complicated to unpack.”
  • “Worth a second reading.”
  • “I will be sharing this.”
Eula Biss, author of "White Debt"

Eula Biss, author of “White Debt”

I remembered the article, called White Debt, by Eula Biss from two years ago. I wrote about it here. At that time I was just beginning to think about my second book on community.

My book is nearly done. I write about the strong sense of community in an African village where everyone feel a sense of belonging. People face hardships together, support each other, and care for those in need. Through stories of people in my husband’s family I explain how this sense is fostered.

Forgotten White Debt

Biss, who is white, captures the disparity between the races beautifully as she describes her experience of getting a mortgage. “While I was in the bank signing the paperwork that would allow me to spend money I hadn’t yet earned, I thought of Eddie Murphy’s skit in which he goes undercover as a white person and discovers that white people at banks give away money to other white people free.

“It’s true, I thought to myself in awe when I saw the ease with which I was granted a [second] loan.

“After the more than 200 years of using free labor to build wealth, those of us with privilege have continued to benefit. At the same time those who had nothing at the time of emancipation, the freed slaves, have found it more difficult to build any wealth.”

A “forgotten debt” is what she calls this privilege that white people have.

Building community through storytelling by moonlight in the village

Building community through storytelling by moonlight in the village

As I think about her words, I realize how different an Igbo village is. Although there is a hierarchy, it is based on wealth. Anyone can aspire to achieve it. Traditionally wealth was measured by how many cows and wives one had. Today it is based on money.

The advantages the wealthy have are what money can buy. But even then, the ties of community bind the wealthy to the rest of the clan and village.

There is just one group of people who are harmed by historical status. These are the osu who were once slaves. Their descendants carry the stigma for generations.

There are now laws prohibiting discrimination against osu. And many have become successful in business and politics.

Even they do not face the systemic barriers that confront Black people in this country.


I said last time I would tell you about the Igbo tradition of ogbanje.

From Wikimedia, Igbo medicine man, or Dibia

From Wikimedia, Igbo medicine man, or Dibia

An ogbanje is a child who dies and returns in the body of another child, often only to die and return again. The ogbanje is able to come back because he or she is said to have hidden an object, a charm, which allows the return.

My parents-in-law had four children. The fifth, a boy, died as a toddler. My husband remembers that after this death, his father brought a Dibia to examine the children to guard against further deaths.

“Hold out your hands,” the Dibia told the children, lined up in front of their uncle Ejike’s obi. “Show me your palms.”

Clem was the oldest. The Dibia grasped his trembling hands and traced lines with his forefinger. After a minute that felt to the child like a day, he dropped the hands. “You can go,” he said. Clement rushed to his mother’s side.

Clem's mother, perhaps 1950's, after completing her family

Clem’s mother, perhaps 1950’s, after completing her family

The next child was Godwin. The Dibia lifted the child’s hands close to his face. After just a few seconds he shouted, “This child is full of wickedness.”

The Dibia pulled Godwin by the ear. “Tell us where you have hidden your charm,” he said.

“I didn’t hide anything,” Godwin said between tears.

“You must confess. If we don’t find it we will beat you.”

Godwin gestured toward a spot near the yam barn. At the direction of the Dibia, Papa fetched a shovel and handed it to his wife, while he used a machete to loosen the dirt.

After forty-five minutes, Mama held up a crescent-shaped stone. “Godwin played with this when we came to the village for Christmas,” she said. “I asked him where he had put it and he wouldn’t tell me.”

“Do you remember?” she said to her second son. He had stopped sobbing.

He took the stone. “I liked the shape. It reminded me of the biscuits they gave us at church.”

“Give it to me,” the Dibia said. He held it up and prayed to the ancestors to remove the curse, then put it in his tattered leather satchel.

“I will crush the stone. You will not be disturbed again,” he said. Mama cried with relief as she watched him depart.

“We were all frightened, on pins and needles, when Geoffrey was born. Until he was 3, we weren’t sure he was going to survive,” Clem says, concluding the ogbanje tale.

And indeed, Geoffrey and two more healthy children completed the family.

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.

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