Everybody loves a white gangster. From Al Capone to the Corleones to Tony Soprano, something about their gun-toting heroism, the blood trails of their unbridled ambitions and their ability to evade the law, through cash, contacts and coercion, appeals to the innate rebel in us all. But there are also the human moments: Tony’s frightened expression when his daughter bluntly asks, “are you in the mafia?” the same expression parents make when their children inquire about the origin of babies; Michael, like a jilted lover, passionately kissing his brother on the lips before uttering “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!” ; the iconic image of Mae Capone, like a still from a classic noir film, luxury fur over mouth, telescopic eyes, terrified like she’d just seen death, telling a legion of reporters that a mentally decomposing Al, now a captive at Alcatraz, was doing well. I guess we are ultimately sympathetic towards these characters because their stories are told with a wide-angle lens. Even when the exaggeration of relative size picks its favorite, the gaping crevice in the back still haunts the shot. This is why we never call them gangstas. We call them Al, we call them Michael and we call them Tony.
During the summer of 2010, I embarked on a backpacking trip across South East Asia. I had just finished an excruciating first semester of grad school in the bleakness of Wichita, Kansas and I was in dire need of a getaway. I would be lying if I said those ubiquitous images of white backpackers, with their messy hair buns, Krishna harem pants, colorful bracelets, sky high backpacks and grimy toes arched over the soles of spent sandals, did not have some influence on my decision. They always seemed so heroic and liberated, venturing into the unknown with nothing but the dog-eared pages of Lonely Planet guides. What I soon discovered in South East Asia, and beyond, was that they were all on some journey of self-discovery; a journey, they often said, to find themselves and figure out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives; journeys infused with the splendor of wonderment and fraternity. Travel far enough, you meet yourself, David Mitchell said. But you see Mr. Mitchell, the truth of my reality is I never had to travel anywhere to discover who I was, who I am.
I left Cameroon out of necessity. I was a child who did not fit in anywhere, not at home, not in school and definitely not in the church. I spoke differently, thought differently and acted differently. I realized very early on that my prescribed “home” was never really going to be my home. I left to be myself, not find myself. And then there’s traveling with an African passport. Unlike my first world counterparts, I cannot simply waltz in and out of countries. I have to queue in front of embassies, submit ten-page applications, present bank statements with multiple zeros to my name and pay hefty visa fees (most of which are non-refundable, regardless of whether your visa is granted or not). When I am done with this process, any iota of wonderment I ever possessed has been completely eradicated. There is gratitude, of course, immense gratitude, because making it through airport immigration often feels like the finish line of an Olympic 10,000 meters race. There is gratitude for having the privilege to marvel at these lush cultures and their otherworldly customs. But if I am being truly honest, I feel more fatigue than gratitude these days.
There is also no expectation of fraternity. Growing up, I was me, I was Nahum. Even as odd as I was in Cameroon, I was still Nahum. When I moved abroad, however, it became apparent that I was never going to be allowed to be me. I was immediately ascribed blackness and I became black, inheriting centuries-old stereotypes, attitudes, causes and biases. I have tried to hold on to Nahum, I really have. But it is hard. It is hard when white Americans have a tendency to compliment on how well you speak English. It is hard when you are verbally attacked by 2 African-Americans at a house party, in the middle of nowhere in Minnesota, for wearing skinny jeans. It is hard when you are the only black person on the crowded beach of Koh Phangan and every drunk British teenager mistakes you for a drug dealer. It is hard when the cool French exchange students welcome you into their inner circle by calling you a nigga. It is hard when you are called a nigger by a drunk Swedish man with hobbit feet because you tried to prevent him from punching your friend.
I was still trying when I left Sweden for Ecuador in 2015. I didn’t leave to find myself and return to Sweden --- there was nothing to return to. I was to be an Instructor at a pioneer tech university, the brainchild of visionary president Rafael Correa, and days before the start of the semester, I had already received a title promotion. My prospects are looking promising, I thought. On inauguration day, the English Department had to pose for portraits. My hair was neatly combed into a high top fade, and I matched my favorite skinny tie with my Zara blazer. It was finally my turn and I chose a simple backdrop. Click! Click! Click! We were done. The Spanish photographer motioned me to come over. He showed me the pictures on his lucid camera lens. Dapper, I thought. Do you want to try again, he asked. Why? I thought. I looked fine. I told him no. Are you sure? He insisted. I said yes. He said I looked like a gangsta and then proceeded to laugh while mimicking gang signs. I don’t remember my initial reaction. I was probably too boggled to have one. Here was a white Spanish photographer whose rugged and round face looked like the creature from Where the Wild Things Are. He had stringy and unkempt hair like those greasy Argentinian backpackers roaming the streets of Latin America, juggling balls at pedestrian crossings. His shoes were caked with layers of dirt and his overused shirt, probably once fitted, now looked like a poncho with pizza stains. I became angry, almost to the point of tears, that this disheveled man, a stranger I would probably never cross paths with again, by virtue of his whiteness, had the power to debase my humanity and make me feel so small. In that moment, I had no choice but to accept that I could never fully be Nahum --- I have to accept that the world would never truly see me as Nahum. But wouldn’t you lose your humanity if you came to terms with your own namelessness or, perhaps, the loss is even greater if you go on pretending? And so I begin a new chapter, the navigation of this dilemma and the spaces in between. Below is the picture of me, the gangsta, the veritable mugshot of Nahum Nyincho Welang.
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