EARLY LAST YEAR I was sent a copy of Yaa Gyasi's debut novel. A multigenerational epic, tracing half sisters separated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, "Homegoing" recalls the work of Eleanor Catton and Garth Risk Hallberg in its virtuosity. Months later I discovered the artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. Procrastinating on Instagram, as one does, I stumbled upon "Untitled (Dotun. Enugu, Nigeria)." The work, made in 2012, features the artist's signature style: a face rendered in feathery marks, black and white, ballpoint pen on paper. The haunting image seemed to have been created at once in a hurry and with meticulous care: a close-up of a face (her brother's, I'd learn) that radiated might and melancholy.
That these consummate artists were both West African thrilled me to no end. I am a Nigerian-Ghanaian who pursued an unlikely creative career; here were two comrades at the top of their creative fields. The Ghanaian-born Gyasi sold her debut for a reported seven figures when she was 25. At 31, the Nigerian-born Ojih Odutola, whose work is in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, has had numerous solo gallery shows. Even without finding their surnames familiar, I'd have marveled at their accomplishments — and was astounded to learn that they not only knew each other, but had both lived in Huntsville, Ala. How was it, I wondered, that two celebrated young artists came from this one Southern town? And what did it say that these poignant observers of race in America weren't American-born at all?
ASK ANY 30-SOMETHING with African parents what it was like growing up in the States and you'll likely hear a story of unbelonging, an account not of double consciousness but triple. The young African immigrant must locate herself along three divides: the first between blackness and whiteness; the second within blackness, between native and foreign; the third between African and American. For years, despite this complexity of experience, the African immigrant went largely ignored. It seems improbable now. The dashing son of Nigerians has starred in "Star Wars," the dazzling daughter of Kenyans has won an Oscar, the child of an East African has led the free world — but it was not always so. One of the country's most highly educated immigrant groups, Africans were long absent from popular culture.
It was in this representational chasm that Gyasi and Ojih Odutola came of age in Alabama. Theirs is the classic "educated brown immigrant" background: children of professor fathers who, seeking tenure-track positions, move their families to unlikely cities. Gyasi's father is a professor of French, Ojih Odutola's of chemistry; after stints in other states, both found posts in Alabama. There, each family joined the close-knit community of West Africans that seems to exist in every college town: Ojih Odutola's mother was a founding member of the Nigerian Women's Association, Gyasi's equally feminist mother was president of the Ghanaian Association of Huntsville. The artists have known each other since they were children, and have much in common, including being raised as only daughters in families of boys. But their childhoods, rather than mirror images, trace a kind of parabola: two archetypes of the African immigrant narrative.
In 2005 I wrote an essay describing an Afropolitan experience: the decidedly transcultural upbringing of many Africans at home and abroad. How such Afropolitans negotiate that second divide — not between black and white, but between black and African — often depends on where they are raised, whether among or apart from African-Americans. Gyasi and Ojih Odutola typify the distinction. Gyasi, who moved to Huntsville's predominantly white southeast district at 9 years old, wrote in The Times of an early encounter with racism in Tennessee, where she lived prior. Playing with African-American friends, she heard two white boys call out, "Niggers!" One took pains to tell Gyasi, "Not you." She wrote: "I had been brought up to see myself as set apart from what my family called 'black Americans.' ... I believed that the boy had taken the word back as a reward for my good behavior."
Neither story surprises, but the difference between them is telling, suggestive of the ways in which race, gender and class unfailingly entwine. Gyasi, years later, would be informed by a white girl that she would never find a boyfriend, black men being categorically useless. (The exemption she received as a young black woman, for "good behavior," is rarely available to young black men.) Ojih Odutola, harassed by insular white Americans, would be harassed by insular black Americans too, told that she wasn't "really black" or that her father, a Nigerian professor at the historically black Alabama A&M University, had "stolen their jobs." For the brown-skinned immigrant, "black" makes a slippery label, its definition murky, its definers myriad. Perhaps it is inevitable that this immigrant would come to ask, in Gyasi's words, "What does it mean to be black in America?"
The question animates both women's work. Raised on different sides of town, they've trod similar creative paths. Both discovered their talent as children; both were encouraged by teachers; both found, in art, a way to describe blackness as they knew it. "Drawing was always my thing," Ojih Odutola says. "I always signed up for competitions. I won a lot of first-place prizes, but I was very traditional in my renderings." Her parents lauded her gift but viewed art as a hobby. It was Dana Bathurst, a high school art teacher, who challenged their assumptions: that good art must approximate European traditions and that pursuing a career in art wasn't possible. Bathurst introduced Ojih Odutola to a new conception of portraiture through the work of African-American artists like Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and fellow Alabamian Kerry James Marshall. Gyasi, similarly, excelled at writing from an early age but couldn't imagine a literary career before AP English. That year, the only black English teacher she would ever have, Janice Vaughn, took her writing seriously. Then, in her senior year, Gyasi discovered Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon." The language was spectacular; the author a brown woman; the sensibility familiar, Southern.
Importantly, both Gyasi and Ojih Odutola identify as Southerners (among other identities); it is part of what bonds Ojih Odutola, for example, to Solange Knowles, an avid collector of her work. Writing about first-generation Americans can tend to overlook this: the role of locality in shaping identity. Even the immigrant who feels only partially American can feel fully Alabamian; locality, with its rich specificity, tends to inspire artists more than nationality. One thinks of Beckett the Parisian, Lahiri the Roman, Teju Cole the New Yorker, observers whose profound sense of place seems both to arise from and render irrelevant their relative foreignness. With their work, Ojih Odutola and Gyasi — Southern, West African, black — express this relativity, this layeredness.
OR RATHER, insist upon it. Both artists embraced a politicized racial identity in college. For Ojih Odutola this meant challenging how art programs teach blackness. "Art professors don't know how to read blackness — as a color, a material, a concept, a tool," she tells me. "We know all about light, contrast, rendition. Why can't we apply that to the black surface?"
Educated at Auburn University, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and California College of the Arts, Ojih Odutola describes her training as "incredibly shortsighted." The lone brown student in most of her classes, she is forthright in naming her anguish. Bravely so: Too often the mental health effects of institutional racism go ignored. In 2004 at Auburn, where she began her undergraduate studies, she was given an assignment "to break up a face into measurable components." She made this face black and these components planes, seeking "to draw what skin feels like." Her professor reacted with perplexity, as if she hadn't understood the assignment. A few years later, at the Yale University School of Art summer fellowship in Norfolk, Conn., white instructors dismissed her work as "illustrative, graphic — code words for not fine art."
But Ojih Odutola persisted. "I used pen and ink," she laughs, "in part because I couldn't afford my art supplies." The pen, she underscores, "is a writing tool first." In West Africa, where the narrative tradition is oral, "the visual bridges the written and the spoken. Yes, I was drawing. But it was, to me, a form of letter-writing too." To whom was she writing? "To people," she says. "For them to see me, people like me. Just look. The epidermis packs so much. Why would you limit it to the flattest blackness possible?"
With a ballpoint pen, Ojih Odutola found a way to express a blackness of vulnerability and complexity. In her sophomore year at Stanford University, Gyasi found the same. Reading "Song of Solomon" in high school, she'd recognized part of herself, but not all. "That feeling," she says, "spurs you to write something that is entirely yours. Something that speaks to all of your identities, all of your experiences."
In 2009 Gyasi traveled to Ghana on a college fellowship. Since emigrating as a toddler, she'd returned only once. Her intention was to research a mother-daughter novel. Instead, during a tour of Cape Coast Castle, one of about 30 slave castles built in Ghana by European traders, "Homegoing" was born. In the suffocating cells where slaves awaited shipment to the Americas, Gyasi felt "a kind of intimacy with both sides, Ghanaians and African-Americans." She knew "in a stroke of inspiration" that she'd found her story: black experience as lived on either side of the Atlantic. "I grew up understanding that there were different realities under the larger umbrella: Ghanaian, Fante, Ashanti. America doesn't attend to these complexities. I wanted this book to open out, to say: These things are all black. You're allowed to create a plurality of identities within one person, within the same black person."
This, perhaps, is the answer to my second query: how two young African artists came to articulate America's racial complexities so beautifully. Gyasi and Ojih Odutola consider themselves black but have not always. In order to feel at home in that identity they've had to study, understand, expand it. Finally, their work insists that we "just look" — and expand our vision too.
-In the absence of greatness, mediocrity thrives.
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