Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Serena, Winner Even When She Loses

Bernards Book Talk

Before the lunch. The book display table with door prize basket on right!

Before the lunch. The book display table with door prize basket, in cellophane, on right!

At nearly every book talk, I meet interesting people. Often there are one or two people with surprisingly close connections.

At Bernards on Thursday the first woman to raise her hand for a question said, “I was fascinated with your story. I was also accepted for the Peace Corps in Nigeria, a year after you. But I didn’t go. Instead I traded with a friend who went. She met a Frenchman there, married him, and stayed for ten years!”

Salad at Bernards - delicious!

Salad at Bernards – delicious!

She told me her friend’s name, but not her own. So when I came home I looked her friend up in the directory of former Nigeria volunteers and called her! We had a wonderful conversation and hope to meet one of these days. She’s in Vermont, not so far away.

My publicist Aline brought a friend who is German. She came to the U.S. many years ago but during college spent a semester in Rostock, the very town in Germany that my father is from!

Memoir of Zimbabwe

My Baker’s Dozen book group read Peter Godwin’s memoir written in 2007, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, for discussion Wednesday evening. It is both a family story and a story of Zimbabwe under Mugabe.

Zimbabwe in south-eastern Africa

Zimbabwe in south-eastern Africa

It’s because I was rushing to the book group that I forgot to put any pictures in the last post. Did you notice?

Our book group discussions are always lively and thoughtful. Wednesday’s was exceptional. It provoked conversation that has continued until today in email exchanges.

Our group is deliberately and proudly bi-racial. On Wednesday we were three blacks and five whites.

I began by saying how I enjoyed reading the book. “Godwin did an amazing job of mixing his family story with the disastrous rule of Mugabe in Zimbabwe at the beginning of the millenium.”

The woman who followed me said, “I believe it was written with a colonial mentality for a white audience. He did nothing to recognize his position of privilege in Zimbabwe. Why did he not say that the white farmers who were being attacked actually had no right to the land?”

Another said, “The author’s lack of reflection on his position of privilege was very disappointing.”

I wanted to defend Godwin, although I also wished he had reflected on the injustice of white ownership of land in black Africa.

I found a passage where he acknowledged his good fortune in having the money to support his parents. I also read to the others the segment where Godwin commented on his American wife’s perception of Zimbabwean school children compared to his. She sees poverty, he sees promise. “She compares up, to the First world, where privileges are treated as rights. I compare down, to the apocalyptic Africa that presses in around us, where rights are only for the privileged.”

The Kindle edition marks some passages as popular with readers. One says, “Europeans take Africa by the scruff of its neck and shake the bejesus into it, knocking it clear off its cultural fulcrum by doing good things and bad on so many fronts: religion, trade, infrastructure, health.” So Godwin certainly realizes that Africa has been shaken; I wish I knew which he regards as good and which bad.

Peter Godwin's Twitter photo

Peter Godwin’s Twitter photo

I have often thought about Nigeria in this sense of good and harm done by colonialism. What good, if any, came from that time? Would Nigerians be better off if there had been no colonial occupation?

And tonight, as I’m writing, I find Godwin’s account in his memoir of the history of white farmers in Zimbabwe. It’s not pretty. But Mugabe did ask them to stay on after independence, and the economy prospered for blacks and whites.

When I came home that night, I found Peter Godwin’s Twitter account. In an August post he bemoans the fact that it took the death of the lion Cecil to get Zimbabwe into the news!

The book group will read my memoir, Nigeria Revisited My Life and Loves Abroad, in two months. Next month is fiction – we’re reading the novel Paradise, by Toni Morrison.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

And in January we’ll read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, on being black in America. Is there a connection between this and Godwin’s memoir?
A Nigerian reviewer, Chris Ogunlowo, thinks so. He says, “From an African perspective, I could not ignore the semblance of black subjugation from Africa’s colonial experience; related in origin, differing in modern manifestations. One only needs to replace the context of white America with colonialist Africa to see veneers of similarities.”
He continues, “Both dehumanize the African essence physically, psychological, economically, and—though this is not emphasized in the book—spiritually.”

Serena, Her Excellence

Serena from

Serena from fox2now.com

Do you follow tennis? Clem and I like to watch, and occasionally still play. We watched Serena lose the semi-final match to an Italian, who then lost to her country woman in the final.

I felt for her. All the work she puts in, and then to lose to a non-ranked player!

I read The NYTimes Magazine cover article about Serena after having it on my table for two weeks. It was written before her stunning loss. She is still the greatest! And it was written by Claudia Rankine. We discussed reading her work at Baker’s Dozen book group. She’s an award-winning poet from Jamaica.

The article surprised me; I hadn’t noticed the subtitle “On Meaning and Black Excellence.” It talked about the racial slurs, micro-aggressions, and taunts Serena has experienced, and how she has handled these brilliantly.

Claudia Rankine, poet

Claudia Rankine, poet and author of NYTimes Magazine article

Rankine says, “For black people, there is an unspoken script that demands the humble absorption of racist assaults, no matter the scale, because whites need to believe that it’s no big deal.” Serena refuses to play by this script, Rankine says. and lets the audience know when she is offended.

The writer also talks about the disparity in corporate sponsorships between Sharapova, blond, blue-eyed, and Serena, by many counts the best player in the world, who has significantly less. Serena says, “I’m just about winning!”

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.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Catherine, for your bold discussion of racial under currents that we all need to be aware of. In order to begin to address them, we have to acknowledge that they exist – and that’s what you and the book group do.