On the Blackness of the Panther
‘In my wildest dreams, there is no king. I killed the king. The king is dead. All power to the people.’
I began to become African a little over twenty-five years ago. That was when I left Nigeria and moved to the US. I had been born in the US in the summer of 1975 and had been taken to Nigeria in the fall of the same year. For the next seventeen years, Nigeria was home. But I also knew I was American, that the US was a kind of home too, because I had been born there. But was I African? I didn’t feel it. What I felt was that I was a Lagos boy, a speaker of Yoruba, a citizen of Nigeria. The Africans were those other people, some of whom I read about in books, or had seen wearing tribal costumes in magazines, or encountered in weird fictional form in movies.
In the summer of 1992, that began to change. The US provided a contrast to my latent Africanness. “What are you?” “I’m Nigerian.” “Where are you from, man?” “Lagos.” “Leggo my Eggo?” No one had heard of Lagos. I was African, that was the kind of “other” I was. It was news to me, but I didn’t fight back for long. I fell in with others who were in a similar predicament, and began to learn African.
I sometimes feel in my body a paradoxical loss: the loss of forgetting. I find myself longing for an earlier time when what I knew was contingent and was always sheltered by what I didn’t know. Knowledge, in the days before instantaneous electronic recall, was full of potential energy. It was attended by a guesswork that fostered a different way of knowing, one that allowed for ranges rather than insisting on points.
Here is an attempt to struggle to remember: I know, or knew, a few things about the big cats. Lions are found on the Serengeti, tigers in South Asia. Both are enormous. Cheetahs are the fastest, obviously, leopards good climbers, dragging their prey up a tree. Both are African (animals can be African, but only people can be Africans). I think the scientific names of the big cats contain “Panthera,” though I can’t be sure. Panthera leo. That’s lions, I think. Jaguars look like leopards but are of stockier and more compact build. They’re…