In the first of a series of collaborations with Hong Kong’s Peel Street Poetry, Third Culture spoke with Akin Jeje. This Canadian poet has roots in Nigeria and Kenya, and lived in the United States, United Kingdom, Nigeria, Kenya, Japan, and Hong Kong. He is sharing with us his latest poem on police shootings in the U.S.
Do you often write about the fate of Black people in the U.S.?
Lately yes. I’ve always written about injustice, anywhere I see it in the world. I think writing about these topics is important. Writers and musicians are often the only voice for victims of injustice. We are less constrained by censorship or obligations.
I usually identify with the underdog. It’s what happens when you’re part of the minority. Even when I spent time in my father’s home country of Nigeria, I was considered the ‘foreign cousin’, though I always felt at home there. My Kenyan mother is a blend of different tribes, making it very hard for people there to classify me as one or another. So I was considered Nigerian, almost by default.
What do you say when people ask you where you’re from?
I think I say Canadian of African heritage. But you don’t hear that question that often anymore. I think partly because race is such a sensitive issue now, but also because people of colour are a lot more visible now in Canadian culture. If you don’t have an accent, people will just accept you as a Canadian. Same goes for America. Hispanics and Asian Americans do still experience that ‘perpetual foreigner’ mentality. There is still this Black-White paradigm through which America sees itself.
Canada doesn’t have the same racial baggage. That’s largely because of historic circumstances. For one, it’s way too cold there to have plantations, so it wouldn’t have been as profitable to import slaves. Not to say Canada is perfect! They did have slavery, but mostly of Native Americans, so Canada has less of a contentious history with its Black population. In the U.S. however, there is that history. You see it in a lot of literature for instance.
Is that why the U.S. is currently going through such a crisis, and not Canada?
Partly. I think another reason is because of a different approach towards diversity. Notable Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul talked about the difference between Canada’s idea of a confederation and acceptance of a mosaic, versus the American notion of the ‘melting pot’ and the idea of a single American identity. E Pluribus Unum, you know? From the founding fathers right up to 1965, a singular vision. Americans started off as British, Protestant, property holders. Later they started to accept citizenship of other White groups like Germans, Scandinavians, the Irish – reluctantly; but there was still very much this singular notion of what it means to be American. The acceptance of Blacks as citizens is only forced, and even Native Americans weren’t granted citizenship until early in the 20th century. Canada on the other hand, started off by accepting French Canadians. The French could preserve their language and customs and identity, as long as they’d adhere to other aspects of government. This trickled down, so there was at least a tacit acceptance of diversity. Make no mistake, both political entities are still European dominated, it’s just how those groups relate to other ethnicities.
there’s this singular notion of what it means to be American
Another reason – I guess – is that Canadians are polite, not necessarily confrontational. That’s another difference. America has this wholesale acceptance of violence as a means to an end. Whereas Canadians usually lean towards negotiation and cooperation. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” versus “Peace, Order and Good Government”.
Where do you see this going?
The United States has always been a volatile nation. The order has been kept by the powers that be by addressing the situation at the last possible moment. They swept a lot of issues under the rug. Affirmative action – which was supposed to rectify inequalities – has become a point of contention for White working class people, who’ve never really had it much better than minorities. It’s a divide and conquer system. Poor person against poorer person. Some people say it could go into civil war. Who knows, maybe Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is more prophecy than dystopia.
Wasted – by Akin Jeje
This is for those wasted,
Served a searing afterlife, iced by chemical cocktails, pierced by shells,
Or more sinister, a scimitar, a razor flash, a grave unmarked, another body shelved.
Verdicts, edicts seem justified by their crimes,
But decisions seem capricious, influenced by the times, political considerations,
Hypocritical sentences from the mouths of duplicitous nations.
Were but six,
The lifeless are legion worldwide, whose capital offense was the absence of influence against bars and stars of malevolent constellations, unable to evade predestination.
There are those who never make it to the arrest vehicle, spines split, bones broken, dead in custody. Freddie grayed then bleached. Eric Garner only sought to keep the peace. Mike Brown ran, but didn’t reach. Tamir Rice blasted over a toy plastic piece. The innocent also frequently decease.
The AME Charleston Nine were martyred in the house of the Divine. The answer is nine. Nine mm shells, scorching, spent nine lives. Nine angels fit on the head of a firing pin, or through the eye of a cross-haired needle. State Senator Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, a librarian, single mother Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Rev. Middleton-Doctor whose ministrations could not heal the hate of a young white supremacist murderer, Susie Jackson, recent college graduate Tywanza Sanders, pastors, brothers, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. The devil without became the devil within. Community grieving from grievous sin- all wasted.
The night is still. A half-moon is still un-blooded. To ripen into its fullest, most frightening form, it waits with silver cleaver, a camouflaged trigger for the spark of dawn.
This poem was previously published in Issue 53 of the Linden Avenue Literary Journal, October 2016.
Cover image of protesters shouting “hands up, don’t shoot” in Minneapolis, Nov 2015, by Tony Webster