Tennessee made for a good port of entry. His first winter was mild, but legitimated by snow; the autumn was crisp and warranted the purchase of an expensive pea coat. Summer was hot, refreshing, and lethargic, as time off school in America tends to be. The weather was a sample platter, a succession of holiday cards.
He was there for school, sure, but the city whispered his education through the cracks under the doors in dorms. The secrets it kept between itself and its marginal citizens were obvious only to a few like a stain on bright wallpaper. He observed, he listened, he learned his new, black truth.
Tennessee told him.
He was in JFK, and he was meant to be at Nashville International, but at least he had made it to the right country on the first try. Hardly anyone, it seems, can escape entering into dialogue with the Ellis Island narrative, and so here he threw his only penny into history’s copper-bottomed fountain: a hectic 20-minute layover spent running through the airport when he knew he wouldn’t make his next flight.
He had no money—not true, he had some but effectively none; maybe $10 or so, but nothing close to what he’d need to buy another ticket. He started with an apology to the woman behind the desk. “I’m so sorry, ma’am, I’ve missed my connecting flight, is there any way, I don’t have” (say it) “I don’t have…cash, well I can’t afford, I don’t think—”
“Ok, honey, ok. We’re so sorry, we’ll fix that for you.”
He melted a little while she looked up the next flight. She had apologized to him, of all things.
“Ok, that’s fine. The next one’s in two hours. Could I see your passport, hon?”
Did he have—yes. Back pocket, there it was.
She took it, checked it, and double-checked it. It looked real: little green book, eyes, brown, hair, brown, status, citizen, country, Nigeria.
Could she trust him? Who knew what she’d been taught, which countries were on her 1980s pre-check list and which were on the no-fly. Maybe his trip predated profiling, maybe he wouldn’t have been anyway. Maybe she saw his glasses and too- high socks and knew he meant no harm.
She printed his new boarding pass and he smiled a small smile, for a small thing overcome.
He got his American passport when I was eight. That night he’d teased us at dinner, asking whether my mom, my sister and I knew who the 18th president was, or the capital of Kansas, or how to fold the flag over a deceased soldier’s coffin. We didn’t.
“I do,” he bragged, his smile so genuine I knew that he wasn’t just laughing at us, rather, expressing joy at something real. For my dad, “real” and “tangible” are not synonymous. He’s an idealist in a literal sense: he believes in the manifest existence of ideas. Freedom came in a little blue book.
He showed it to me long after dinner, when I was about to go to bed. “Let me show you something. Look,” he said, and handed me the new passport.
It was crisp, the edges of its pages so sharp I thought I’d cut myself. I verified the personal information on the first page. The names were spelled correctly, the date of birth, accurate: brown eyes, yes; brown hair, yes. Then, place of birth: I’d found a trouble spot.
“Alien?” I asked. At that age, I still feared aliens.
Surprised, he looked over my shoulder. “I didn’t tell you? I’m an alien.”
Once, I was humorless and gullible. “What planet are you from?” I asked, wide-eyed.
The statement became a horrifying explanation: his hair so curly, even thicker than mine, and his skin so dark it couldn’t possibly be a tan.
“What about me?” I asked, thinking that logically, I must have half of that.
“You’re from this planet,” he said, taking the passport from my hands and no longer laughing. “You know what it says on your passport.”
It said, CALIFORNIA, USA under place of birth, but then I looked up at my dad’s face and it was foreign to me. His eyes were startlingly bright and his eyebrows arched at an unfamiliar angle. I began to cry.
“I’m your father, for God’s sake,” he said, having noted that my fear was genuine. “We’re from the same planet.”
One night in Tennessee he was walking late along the street, alone. He’d been out, it was too late, probably later than he’d been told to stay out. The dark made him nervous but he kept his head positioned low enough to indicate purpose but high enough that he didn’t make himself a victim.
He heard the car before he saw it; the grumbling engine gave it away. The two men inside were bearded, middle-aged, driving with the windows down. He looked over his shoulder turning his head slightly, hoping they wouldn’t notice him.
The car stopped.
“You’re not from around here, are you, boy?”
The man on the passenger side leaned out of the window. His beard looked wet; his upper lip curled, revealing a small gap between his two front teeth.
My dad looked on and didn’t think to keep walking. He was not from around here; the man was correct. He went to the park every night to try and make himself from around here. He sat at the same table every night and played the same tunes on his saxophone. He was a local. He knew which pockets of the city to avoid. This wasn’t one of them but with men like these and no police cars around, he knew to keep walking. He turned.
The man spat. His friend started driving at the same pace my dad was walking. They followed him to the corner.
His shadow lengthened as he passed the streetlight and he watched it grow, bigger, darker and frailer, and when it was so thin it might snap, the driver accelerated and turned on his high beams, following my dad to the curb. He made as if he’d turn round the corner, swerved, and sped away. The bearded man shouted out the window.
Even now, my dad likes to tell this story at the dinner table when I say that I find our town, Irvine, boring.
“It’s perfect here,” he says. “If you don’t like California, try living in Tennessee.”
He likes to talk about Irvine and its perfection, if only as a point of comparison. His life has clearly delineated eras like high school history. There is home in Ilesa, pretty vignettes of childhood afternoons in summer; his hard times in Tennessee, memories as gray and lightless as rainy-day cement. Then in Irvine, where he has made a home again, beige houses and green grassy parks that he passes through every day biking to work, a snow globe scene of peace and continuity.
When he talks about his life in Nigeria—boarding school or his grandparents’ shaman—my sister, Sofy, and I are rapt. We try not to make obvious our preference for these stories; they comprise a precious-small part of our personhood but we think he wouldn’t let us claim it. “You’re Americans!” he says when we ask why he didn’t teach us Yoruba and we say yes, but actually we’re Nigerian. So we learn half our history across oak panels and vegetables getting cold.
In the sixth grade, Sofy was learning in history class about origin mythology, and she asked my dad to tell us the Yoruba creation story at dinner so she might the next day share it with her class. My dad was raised Christian so traditional religion is second-hand even from him. He wasn’t sure exactly of the plot points, but what he remembered was: “It’s something about a chicken falling from the sky.”
Online, we found out that the chicken was a secondary character. Olorun, the god of gods, asked his many sons and daughters if one of them would descend from heaven to Earth and make the latter habitable. The Brave One said yes, if she could bring a shell full of earth, a chicken, and iron. She climbed down a golden chain and hung above the ocean.
Suspended, she dropped the iron, then the earth, and then the chicken onto the baby planet. The Brave One was smart, too, and familiar with the ways of domestic fowl: she knew the chicken, as per its habit, would fall into the dirt and scratch scratch scratch, and the earth would scatter far and settle into shapes. The landmasses would become the continents. Then the Brave One could make life to inhabit them.
Where the chicken went is a mystery. He must have looked around once dirt was well dispersed and decided where he would make his home. He chose at random: there, it looked like there might be water. The first alien to land on earth, he displaced to create, moved and spread boundaries. Nothing else to do for a little brown chicken on an empty Earth, nothing but to force his own existence; to build, at pains, a nest from nothing. To settle alone, at first in dirt.