Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Superhuman Black Men?

Are Young Black Men Superhuman?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie several months ago. There's a better picture in the interview recording.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie several months ago. There’s a better picture in the interview recording.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s interview with BBC on January 4 is worth hearing. It’s just under 10 minutes.

First, she says something about perceptions that is no surprise to those of us with close ties to her country. “Many people from outside Africa don’t necessarily understand that Boko Haram is not the only thing happening to us in Nigeria.”

She explains to the interviewer that people from southern Nigeria do not feel the presence of Boko Haram, while northerners in the south may be targeted because they are from the region where Boko Haram is active.

Then the interviewer asks her about her father’s kidnapping. I wrote about her comments on the topic which she included in her commencement speech at Wellesley College. She feels ashamed for Nigeria, she says, when she thinks about the government is too incompetent or too indifferent to deal with kidnappers and Boko Haram.

Finally she speaks about race in America, a major theme of Americanah, her most recent novel.

Adichie's novel Americanah

Adichie’s novel Americanah

“In Nigeria we have many ways of identifying ourselves, ethnicity, religion, and class, . . .  but not race.” The experience of being black is something she first experienced in the U.S. It is, she says, “sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying.”

She says, “I think I was able to laugh at certain things . . which may not be as easy for African-Americans who have grown up here.”

She is absolutely correct. I know from my own children and my husband that their attitude to racism is very different from mine. Even though I’m not a target, I am a white ‘ally,’ and aware of racial incidents that my husband can ignore.

And of course for black people who grow up here the awareness of being black is learned from a young age.

She talks about Black Lives Matter, even though she doesn’t use the term. She says, “there is a way we talk about young black men almost as thought we regard them as superhuman.”

She continues, “We talk about a policeman shooting a black man and the man keeps coming at him.”  She compares the description to the experience of shooting an elephant with a little gun, “as if the target is superhuman in a sub-human way.”

She is puzzled, she says, by “the deep-rooted animosity that seems to be ingrained in mainstream America.”

I like this insightful comment, though it is sad. “The people who were enslaved are now the people who are feared.”

Do Black Lives Matter?

My colleague and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Charles Larson has written on Black Lives in Counterpunch. He heads his piece “Black Lives Do Not Matter!”

Chuck Larson - Black Lives Matter

Prof. Emeritus Charles R. Larson

Chuck is a powerful writer. He says in the December 21 magazine, “If they did, the expression would not be necessary. They never have, beginning with the origins of our country in slavery. Africans were slaves because white people did not consider them human. The Constitution more or less supported that.”

He continues with the history of race in the U.S. “After the Civil War, black people were no longer technically regarded as slaves but they were largely treated the same way. Jim Crow assured that—and most aspects of their lives (in both the South and the North) were designed to keep them subservient: education, housing, jobs, and justice especially.”

The determination of Republicans to prevent changes sought by Obama is a sign, he says, of the fear of change, especially the fear of the loss of power. White men without college degrees are some of the most fearful, he says, as they see educated women of color advancing while they are not.

But he speaks broadly of the U.S. today. “Black lives do not matter but neither does much else, as long as the status quo can be retained and white guys (of all economic and educational levels) can continue to control virtually everything.” Certainly more sad commentary.

Red Cap Chief in Nanka

Emma on Facetime with Beth, from Nanka to Philadelphia

Emma on FaceTime with Beth, from Nanka to Philadelphia

Our younger son Sam went to Clem’s hometown Nanka for New Years. During a wine-carrying ceremony of a clan member, he found great internet access and seized the opportunity to FaceTime with his sister Beth.

Sam was with Clem’s cousin Emma (pronounced E-mah, with the accent on the second syllable, so it doesn’t sound like the girl’s name Emma). Emma has become used to cellphones, but Sam said it took a lot of convincing for him to believe he really was looking at Beth in the U.S. on Sam’s phone.

Clem said that I should tell my readers that Emma is the oldest member of the umunna, or clan, of which we are a part. I said, “Isn’t Ejike’s widow Obele older?”

“She doesn’t count,” Clem said.

“Why doesn’t she count?” I said. Of course I knew the answer! Do you?

Emma is a red cap chief, or nze. Only someone who has been recognized for his contributions to the community is entitled to wear the cap. I found information about its significance, (though I don’t recommend the site). “The red symbolizes fire,” I learned.

I’ll see if I can find more about the meaning of the red cap. If you know, please tell us!

Speaking at Westport Y’s Women

I’m speaking on Monday to the well-respected Y’s Women of Westport. I used to see the group when it met at the YMCA and I was director of development.

Next week they are meeting at Temple Israel. Visitors are welcome, so come if you like – 10:45. You can find details on their website.

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.


  1. Just one observation. Not trying to cause friction or start an argument, but just making an observation regarding the Superhuman comment by Chimamanda Ngozi.

    “We talk about a policeman shooting a black man and the man keeps coming at him.” She compares the description to the experience of shooting an elephant with a little gun, “as if the target is superhuman in a sub-human way.”

    When this happens sometimes the black man has been found to have drugs in his system that could be causing this behavior. The drugs in a sense make them, temporarily superhuman.

    So I don’t think it is necessarily just a way to report the incident to paint the officer in a good light and the black man in a bad light but just something that happens when someone is on drugs.

    I know of a situation many years ago. A storeowner in Covington had been robbed many times and got tired of it. He sat behind his meat counter and waited one night and sure enough two young men came along and broke his window and were attempting to steal cartons of cigarettes. He shot at them hitting both with one bullet. One only lost some fingers, and one lost his life, however both boys started to run away, even the one who was fatally shot. The one who didn’t die turned around and saw his friend running but realized he was probably already dead and he finally dropped. They were white and they were on drugs. Drugs that seemingly gave them superhuman strength even after being shot.

    • I appreciate your observation, Deborah. Yes, you’re right, being on drugs can give people ‘superhuman’ powers.

      And just to illustrate how powerful stereotypes are, I read your account of the incident in Covington. I was surprised when I got to the sentence that told me the men were white. I had expected, and almost assumed, you had said they were black.

      Let’s hope we as a country can begin to treat everyone fairly and not pre-judge anyone, especially not based on the color of his/her skin.