NIGERIAN, AND TRAVELING TO AMERICA WITH SUSPECT MATERIAL
“And what have we got here?” asked the customs officer at Gatwick Airport, triumphantly poking my thigh with his finger. “Oh, that’s you, is it?” he then asked, surprised and apparently disappointed that I didn’t have—as he had suspected—drugs strapped onto my body beneath my tight jeans. That was one morning back in 1980, when I was returning to school in England after my Christmas holidays at home in Lagos. Memories of that incident returned in the wake of the recent Christmas Day terrorist attempt by a young Nigerian on a flight into Detroit.
Nigerians are now filled with dread at the prospect of traveling to America now, and I feel I have more reason than many to be uneasy. Not only have those thighs not reduced in size with age, despite my triple-jumping days (the reason for the expansion of my adolescent thighs) being long over, but just days before that attempted bombing, I booked my flights: Liverpool – Lagos – Seattle, via Amsterdam! Not only that, I will be traveling with some pretty unusual items of baggage – the set for a play which I will be performing in Lagos and then on tour in America.
To make matters worse, the subject of my play, Paul Robeson, was himself tailed in the 1940s and 50s as he traveled around the world, because he was suspected of being part of a conspiracy to bring down the American government. Quite an interesting personal journey, as he had been his country’s most popular recording artist in his time. Born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey the youngest son of an escaped slave, he gave up a career in law to become an actor and singer, becoming most famous for his rendition of Ol’ Man River in the stage musical and movie Showboat. He went on to become a superstar on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1930s, selling hundreds of thousands of records all over the world.
So, how did he go from that to being considered such a dangerous threat to his country? His career took him to Eastern Europe in 1934, where he found himself treated “like a full human being” for the first time in his life - “like a Man, with a capital M”. This apparent absence of the racism he was used to contributed to him believing that socialism was a much better system than the capitalism of America and Western Europe.
When he started speaking out publicly against the injustices he saw perpetrated against ordinary people of all colours in his country and around the world, his popularity began to decline. In a speech in Madison Square Garden in 1946 for example, he said, “A day or two ago, the British Foreign Minister said, and I quote, ‘If we do not want to have total war, we must have total peace.’ For once, I agree with him. But Mr. Bevin must be totally blind if he cannot see that the absence of peace in the world today is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American and other imperialist powers to retain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.” What was even more unforgivable was that he made speeches like that outside America too. In Paris in 1949, he told an audience at the World Peace Congress that it was unthinkable that black Americans would go to war on behalf of the American Establishment (which had oppressed them for generations) against a country [the Soviet Union] which had raised his people to full human dignity in one generation.
His love for the Soviet Union explains why one item that I use on stage, that I will be taking with me to America - via Amsterdam, is – erm– a Soviet flag! What am I to do if they find it in my luggage? Would they understand if I say that Robeson was someone who would anticipate by decades the quote by the Brazilian, Bishop Camara who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”? What if I argue that Robeson would have supported President Obama’s attempt to reform the American health system so that even the poor had access to free health care - like in Cuba? No, not a good idea…
I’ll just have to take the Soviet flag (and the American one) to the “goods to declare” section at customs and hope for the best. Anything to stop them poking my thighs. I’m too old for that now.
Nigerian-born Tayo Aluko now resides in Liverpool, England, and is touring his play in the US during February and March.