Louis Chude-Sokei has described himself as half-Nigerian, half-Jamaican and half-African American.
“Bad math, but absolutely accurate,” he says.
Chude-Sokei, 53, has spent years struggling with his own sense of identity. Raised in Los Angeles, he traces his roots both to Jamaica, where his mother was born and where he spent a chunk of his childhood, and to his father’s homeland of Nigeria.
“I spent so many years trying to be a member of certain kinds of identities but failing or being rejected that I began to find peace in not doing that at all,” he says. “I abandoned identifying myself a long time ago. I’ve got family here, in Nigeria, in Jamaica. I’m just moving in and around and beyond, and I let other people worry about it.”
An award-winning scholar and director of Boston University’s African American Studies program, he tells his story in a new memoir, “Floating in a Most Peculiar Way.” If that title sounds familiar, it’s because each chapter is named for a David Bowie song, from classics such as “Space Oddity” and “Young Americans” to deep cuts like “We Are the Dead.”
Chude-Sokei’s story is a dramatic one: On the day he was born, his father was helping launch the rebellion to create the independent nation of Biafra. Less than two years later, his father had been killed and not long after Chude-Sokei and his mother fled Biafra. While a refugee in Gabon, he was frequently soothed by an aid worker who sang about a spaceman named Major Tom who floated in space and never returned, and for years after arriving in Jamaica young Louis searched for this song.
Chude-Sokei spoke about writing, race and ethnic identity and Bowie. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Was writing about race and identity trickier in the memoir than in your scholarly work?
I drew from my research on Black immigration and the browning of America post-1965 and the increasing complexity of Black America. I wanted to tell that story for a wider audience as well as express an artistic sensibility you may not get if you read my scholarly work.
But the emotional difficulty in writing the memoir was clear because it was so connected to my mum and my mum’s loss and the loss of my mum. I don’t know that I’ve gotten over that loss, and she passed away in 2005. Writing about it is consistently re-living and she haunts the book from the beginning to the end.
Q. In your memoir, you talk about trying to fit in as an American. How separate are African and West Indian immigrants from African American culture?
My essay called “The Newly Black Americans” is about writers discovering Black identity in America because that identity is not what they came here with. How they negotiate that is central to their work, but a lot of them don’t talk about that explicitly enough, so I wrote my memoir in part because my cohort tiptoes around this issue.
There are some ugly, hard things that need to be engaged and there’s a fear of engaging the elephant in the room, which is American Black culture and politics. That’s not a negative thing at all, but just as we say White America is destined to become less White, I would argue that Black America is going to be less black in the traditional ways, too. That’s why we have tensions in Hollywood when African Americans complain about Black British actors playing Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and British or Nigerian people playing slaves. In the academic world, African Americans say Africans shouldn’t get affirmative action.
People are afraid of having this conversation because it makes people worry about being seen as racist or betraying a presumed solidarity. My goal is to suggest we have these conversations.
Q. Has there been progress since your childhood?
I’m writing about the 1970s and ‘80s. The immigrants in my world stayed away from the debate. Now we have more African and Caribbean folks publicly engaged in conversations about race — not all of us agree, but for a long time it was felt that if you’re not from here you don’t have the right to talk about race. More of us have been born here or assimilated into African American culture or just feel more comfortable having these conversations.
It’s also easier to travel back to West Africa and back then, there was no cell phone or Internet so when you left Nigeria you were very far from its influences. Some African immigrant kids go back all the time and now can establish their own Black ethnicity. There are those who feel more American Black and those who look and sound American Black but in their minds they are something else.
When I became the department director at Boston University, I had to mediate between two student organizations — a Black American one and an African one — who were competing over the right to screen “Black Panther.” The student saying it should be presented by the Africans was Nigerian American — but the student arguing for the African American organization was also Nigerian American.
I proposed they do it together.
Q. Did writing during the George Floyd protests alter the book?
I was editing the section about trying to write a dissertation about the prejudices against African immigrants and the tensions between West Indians and Black Americans when the Rodney King riots happened. It’s very difficult to write about the tensions, and sometimes bitter conflicts within the Black American community. But it’s especially hard to tell a story in which you exult in those bickerings and tensions when everything again suddenly seems to be about White supremacy and Black people.
And as I’m working on that chapter, George Floyd was killed. You think, “Am I wrong to be doing this — should I just suck it up and say the world is binary, black and white, so just deal with it?”
But I concluded that it will never be the “right” time for such stories so you have to tell them anyway. These stories keep getting swept under the rug so the conflict only gets worse.
I’m hoping with this book everybody has a point of entry and that it’ll inspire but also offend everyone.
Q. Were the Bowie songs a conscious point of entry to broaden the audience?
Not for me. Back in the 1990s, I was standing in line for a Brian Eno concert and a friend asked about my book idea. I don’t know if I was trying to impress her, but in the moment I said, “It’s a story about my life and coming to America and the Biafran War, and every chapter has a Bowie song as a title.” Afterward, I thought, “That’s exactly right.” I wrote two chapters soon after, “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars” and then that was it for a long time. I dreamed that one day David Bowie would find out that some refugee kid from West Africa wrote a book inspired by his songs. That was my main goal, but, of course, then Bowie died, too.
The book and chapter titles were important as a point of entry for the editors and publisher.
Q. The idea of feeling alien fits naturally with Bowie’s songs. Did you write a chapter then choose a title or vice versa?
Sometimes I wrote the chapter then read it and said, “Oh, this song works here,” but sometimes I wrote a chapter in a way that fit the song. I wanted it to be a creative tug of war I didn’t want the songs to define the chapters — none are literally linked, some are firmly placed in the song’s ideas and some are just vaguely connected.
Q. Any favorites that didn’t make the cut?
“Rebel Rebel.” And I wrote a chapter called “Big Brother” that didn’t make it into the book. I wanted very badly to have a chapter called “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” but my editors said you can’t have a title longer than the chapter.
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