Why my Nigerian-American Parents Refused to See “Half A Yellow Sun”
Two years ago, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Half of A Yellow Sun. I am a huge fan of Nigerian literature, especially Nigerian literature written to an audience that can draw parallels to their own visual and literal landscapes. Of course, as a Black American with Nigerian parents, some landscapes presented in Nigerian literature seem so distant to me, as does context. But, I have been extremely privileged to visit both of my parents’ homes in the Delta region as well as test my self against the pace of Lagos life. Nevertheless, those memories are slowly fading as it’s been over a decade since I’ve been back on the continent. I try to maintain current as possible with politics and pop culture with resources like Sahara Reporters, Linda Ikedji’s Blog and popular Nollywood films- but there are some cultural things that have not fully translated over to me.
Growing up, I listened to stories about my parent’s Nigerian childhood, many of them laughable- some astounding. No matter the story, both of them seemingly managed to laugh it off, and end the story with some sort of advice. In regards to these stories, my parents referenced “Biafra”, subtly throughout my childhood, so I never realized it was the basis for those experiences. That caused me to not really think about the situation as one that directly affected our lives. Thus, film like “Tears of the Sun” to me served no cultural relevance, as I saw it as a way to use create a desperate backdrop to insinuate the depravity of the environment for the “war hero” played by Bruce Willis. As culturally and academically trained to recognize how sensational the west portrays African life, I just assumed the Biafra War for independence had been sensationalized as well. So, when I asked both of my parents to see “Half A Yellow Sun”, written and directed by Nigerians- their stern sounding “No” startled me into a world full of questions and sincerely unexpected answers.
I learned that the war tore apart my mother’s side of the family, (which was mixed with different ethnic groups, Igbo, Itsekiri ,Urhobo all speaking each other’s language), and the war caused my father to leave school and hide in a remote swamp area so he wouldn’t be forced into the military. My other relatives that were not so lucky became child soldiers. Not to mention, my grandmother (single mother of five), my mother, and her sisters were separated for the duration of the war, not knowing where one another was- searching for somewhere to hide. I doubt that their stories are any less different or less traumatic than other survivors of the Biafra war. But, hearing my father say he hadn’t thought of that time in over thirty years did worry me. As he went further into his tales of the war, the images of national pride and liberation that I imagined from the text, and anticipated from the film were not even close to what my father described. He even ended his account by daring me to ask my dad’s best friend, who fought as a solider for Biafra, to tell his stories- for as they went to University together in the United States, he refused to talk about the experience with anyone, especially his white cohorts and professors who remember the conflict through this memorable photo
. According to my father opinion, the Biafran movement became a liberal cause on many U.S. campuses.
None of these events were taught to me in my African political courses.
As history reveals, the Civil War in Nigeria turned into a master game manipulated by the Cold War. Countless of other Post-Independent African states went through similar trials as Nigeria in Africa. However, the stories from our recent past have been set aside in hopes of creating a better future. Today, as the United States has steadily increased its African Immigrant population from the 1970’s- today with numbers reaching over 3 percent of the population. Many Black immigrants from throughout the Diaspora have similar stories like my parents to share, but very few outlets. From stories of war, to stories of desire for Higher Education, there are various reasons that explain the diversity of African Black Immigrants in the US, yet no reason as to why their children, and children’s children are not aware of it.
Without these stories, many struggles that African Immigrants face become co-opted through the politics of “model-minority” stereotypes. As researched by Sociologist Rebbeca Tesfai, her research has shown that Black immigrants actually earn less than U.S. born Blacks. This, with this notion of self-resiliency, has left civil rights issues such as immigration reform in regards to the Black Immigrant community swept under the rug. Fortunately, there are non-profit organizations such as BAJI, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, that advocate for a Pan-African lens on the movement of Black migration to the U.S. The group is also part of a larger network called the Black Immigration Network, a coalition that caters to the various needs of the Black Immigrant Community. They also provide a strong lobbying presence in Congress. There is also a fantastic effort in Chicago called “Africans in Chicago: An Oral History”. This group caters to the diverse African Immigrant population by collecting Oral histories of their experiences abroad and in the U.S. Still, even with these resources, Black Immigrant voices continue to be marginalized, and distinct histories forgotten as the media and congress consider the Black experience in the United States to be a monolith.
In all, without a salient context to fully understand the cultural impact of the Biafran War for my generation, as well as the lack of conversation about the experience from my parent’s generation, films like “Half of a Yellow Sun” may only successfully serve and entertain the same audiences that “Tears of the Sun” did. So far, it has had limited promotional success in the U.S., and there has been limited information available as to when the film will actually be distributed. However, the popularity of the text in the United States should provide a substantial base of support for the film. With the encouragement of African Immigrant stories being told through the media, films like “Half a Yellow Sun” will flourish and be made by Africans residing throughout the diaspora.
The Baji Reader: The African Diaspora Speaks on Immigration