The story is told of a young elephant that was tied to a giant oak tree. The chains were thin, but firm, firm enough that anytime the elephant tried to break free, it would meet a resistance impossible to overcome by its young frame.
On and on it tried, pulling hard, trying to yank off the chain but quite unable to overcome the limiting force that held it down.
Not to worry though, the elephant had a sumptuous daily supply of food- varieties in fact. And so the elephant remained there and ate, held down by the same chain.
When enough time had passed for the elephant to gain a few tons, nature would expect that this elephant, now strong enough, would pull free from the tree and walk right into the lush grasses of the wild.
But only a sad tragedy ensued. The elephant never tried to break free again. Believing that it was forever incapable, it remained rooted to the spot, glued, supressed by its own thinking until it finally passed on to be with its ancestors in The Great Beyond.
“Elephants never forget.”
Those last words ended the story.
I heard that story when I was seven, young and impressionable and for some reason, more than twelve years later and I have still not forgotten.
For weeks on end, I thought about this story. I tweaked it. Reinvented it. Lived it in my mind.
It would come to change the way I think about freedom.
I used to think that freedom meant an undoing of chains, a breaking of shackles. But was it possible that after the shackles had been broken, you could still remain enslaved, for a long time? This was my thought process.
I have come to realize that indeed, it is possible. I imagined that even if the chains had been loosened from the elephant’s foot, it still wouldn’t have tried to leave.
It is easy to think that when the shackles are peeled off from one’s hands, when the doors of the cages are unlocked, one has become free, but is that really the truth?
I am a black man from Nigeria and even though my country has been free for over 60 years, a part of me still feels enslaved.
No! Not physical ropes and shackles that keep one in the same spot. Not the feeling of being locked down in a cell or made to work long hours on a wealthy neighbour’s farm.
I’m talking about the limitations that exist in the mind. Post Slavery Syndromes.
I was raised to idolize the white skin tone. Whenever the white man visits, he should be made king in my country. He should be treated to a suite. He should become the manager on Construction Projects, the coach of my country’s national team. I’ve been taught to always listen to a man fairer than me because he always has something brilliant to say.
These are of course great courtesies, impeccable gestures- if I did not do them at the detriment of my own confidence and capabilities.
Should I be second best because a white man is on the same team? Should I be okay with taking the step back to embrace my role as a backup vocalist instead of claiming the spotlight when I am the better singer?
Maybe I should be. Isn’t white better and black outright wrong?
Every time I think these thoughts, I realize I am still enslaved by my own thinking. I have classed myself as a minority.
Every time I think that someone with a lighter skin tone would do a job better, I feel the chains wriggling around my mind’s wrist.
Even among my own people, the thoughts hunt my confidence.
Why else do I think I cannot be recognized among my own people if I have not at some point travelled to the diaspora. After all, it exists as some form of validation.
I think about those that have gained worldwide recognition with literature, people who their works have appealed to a global audience. Names like Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Wole Soyinka might sound a bit familiar to you.
Had they not, at some point, being in the diaspora and studied with the white man?
Perhaps, I think, if I never get this opportunity myself, this exposure, I am doomed to live a trivial life.
These are things I consciously and subconsciously deal with.
I know that the only way forward is to let go of all of these insecurities and embrace all of my essence. To not forget my past but to keep trying despite obvious limitations.
One day, like the elephant, I would grow strong enough to break free. But I won’t remain rooted to the spot. I will pull my mind away from these limitations and embrace the adventures that lie ahead.
Maybe that day will be today.
The day I fully embrace myself as black. I am an honest man trying to make an honest living. The colour of my skin bears no taint on my soul.
I am black and beautiful at heart. I can overcome whatever obstacles are thrust in my path.
I am black. I will not forget my history, but rather, I will embrace it yet find the courage to live a balanced and fulfilled life. I am not a minority. I am not second best.
I am black.