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My father has always said we’re not Americans. Americans have presidents. We don’t. We were carted over here from a land far away and don’t know the way back, but we’re not Americans. Americans are white people or Red Indians or Hispanics. And only white people have a president in the White House.
And my father would talk of the struggle. He would chastise me for taking life too easy, for not realizing what they had to endure in the day. Have you been told to sit at the back of the bus? Have you ever been denied the right to a free education? Have you ever been looked down upon? Have you ever been called ‘boy’?
No, I reply. I explain to him that that was a long time ago, before and during the struggle. America is different now. This is our home now. We are Black Americans.
But he won’t have it. There are Americans and there are black people. Black people come from Africa.
Are there any white Africans? he asked, then answered, I shall hope not.
I didn’t want to tell him about the white settlers of South Africa who are proud to call themselves South Africans. That would only provoke a lengthy debate I’m afraid his mind can’t handle.
My father is old and senile. Alzheimer’s is wrecking his mind as the years take their toll. But he still thinks he knows it all. He still goes on about the struggle and the civil rights movement of the sixties like it was yesterday. In his confused mind there is still segregation, racism and inequality.
He goes on. So can you drink in the Whiteman’s bar or go out with his daughter? Doesn’t the Whiteman pass you over for promotion at work or hold you back? Does the Whiteman make black peoples films in Hollywood? Does the Whiteman let you make laws to govern America?
My father, in his confused state, would argue and argue. We were not Americans, he would say. We were just unwanted guests. We were brought here against our will and now they can’t get rid of us. As a token of their hospitality they have labelled us ‘Black Americans’ but we’re not. Only white people are Americans.
So what will it take for us to be American?
My father looked at me with his good eye, the other had long succumbed to glaucoma and he can’t see out of it. He mustered up all his concentration, as much as the Alzheimer’s would let him do. His lips mumbled as he formed the words.
The day we have a black boy in the White House, he began, is the day we become American.
He laughed, a laugh that brought a throaty cough from the depths of his chest. It hurt him. Even though it caused him much pain to laugh he must have thought it was worth it. A black boy in the White House? Impossible!
I let him finish. I watched him take a sip of water to soothe his cough. I waited till he was quiet and calm. I waited until he was attentive and focused.
Father, I began, there’s one there right now.
Tony Ogunlowo is a London-based award winning writer. He's currently the author of ten books incorporating poetry collections, novels,novellas, plays and short story collections and has had numerous short stories and articles published in various anthologies, in print and online over the years.