I was born five years after the death of James Baldwin. My father, Dr. Tanko Benson, a university don, had worshipped James to the point of idolatry. He taught James Baldwin’s essays, poems, and novels to his students, and made references to the man’s statements at every point he could. To everything he did, he found an allusion to James Baldwin, however loosely it fitted. On the day James Baldwin died, mother would always tell me that father had cried out in a loud wail. The end of that exercise was a rechristening. As the only child and son of my father, I was renamed, James. James Baldwin decorated my father’s writings, too, and Dr. Tanko Benson would write in deep flowery words about how James Baldwin was the truest black American that had ever lived. He would pit together James Baldwin and James Brown whom he thought had been a sheer disgrace to Africanism, what with his “crazy songs and wild dances.” My father was, by rule, a man of peace, and so he naturally hated Malcolm X whose being he summed up in one word, “rascal.”
“James should be the president of Africa!” he would exclaim in discussions with his friends who made it a ritual to come around from the campus to our house on the high-rise to drink white wine and eat mother’s special Abacha and Ugba every Sunday. Professor Agwu was one of father’s best friends and a regular Sunday visitor to our home. Then, I saw him as a black mountain of a man who kept his beard and moustache unshaven and “everywhere.” Later on, I would learn he had once been the head of father’s History department. Mother would say scornfully when the men could not hear that he was lucky to still be teaching at the university, that he had been doing things with students which he should not have been doing, things which brought a definite slap to the face of the school.
Fifteen years later, when by father’s influence, I became a student in the Department of History and Strategic Studies, I would understand that professor Agwu liked boys and had been caught in a scandal he couldn’t deny or get away from. He was stripped of his position as HOD but, helped by top-tier political maneuvers, left in the system to keep teaching. Dr. Agwu had a large voice. He and father agreed on everything except father’s stance that James Baldwin was greater than Nelson Mandela.
“Man, you know they are two different people,” professor Agwu would say, sipping white wine, the shiny liquid leaving a stain on his beard. “James Baldwin is an intellectual, yes, but Mandela is a great politician. One of the greatest to ever touch Africa’s soil. He’s a blessing to Africa.”
“Stop talking like a bloody Malcolm X. Accept my stand the way it is. James Baldwin,” he said, stroking my head as I sat beside him in the large sitting room, as though I was the deified Negro writer himself, “is my president. Take it or leave it.” He won the argument. Father always won arguments from the sheer force of his belief and the bragging rights that he was fighting on home soil. I guess mother’s Abacha would have been too big a meal to miss if they kept arguing, and so they naturally agreed. In the end, James Baldwin always ended up the president of Africa, and, depending on the angle of my father’s emotions, oftentimes of the world, too.
In only three hours into my hold up of the university with other student union leaders, I got word that fourteen students and one lecturer who I didn’t know had been confirmed dead or trampled underfoot already. The air was thick with juvenile carnage, and the rain would not stop falling. It fell heavily, testifying its presence to what was going on, to our battle with the corrupt university. In the place of placards in hands were now cutlasses and sharp sticks. We were not criminals, I thought to myself as I held the school gate, my shirt bloodied. Was it my blood? I couldn’t tell. We were only active visionaries proving our point against what we thought was a system built on lies. Adrenaline pumped through me. We are not criminals. But the world wouldn’t listen to us after this. We had passed the lines. We couldn’t go back. I could feel myself collapsing under the weight of the moment. No, we could not go back. Aluta continua!
James. I could hear my name from a distance. I looked forward and saw him in the crowd. He was held airborne by a group of students. The first impulse was to tell them, “this is my father. Let him go.” I was the student’s supreme leader. They would have obeyed, quickly, with no word of protest. Rather, I felt my wet hands grip the gate tightly as I saw my father mouth the old words. He was wrong this time. I could never be the president of Africa.
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