My Father Is an African Immigrant and My Mother Is a White Girl from Kansas and I Am Not the President of the United States
Or, How to Disappoint Your Absent Father in 20 Words or Less
The men in my family love drugs. They love their meths and their cocaines (both cracked and uncracked), they love their pots and their heroins. They have deep and committed relationships with their drugs. I have always had a deep, committed, and loving relationship with my teeth, so I took a decidedly different route. My mother (never known for her eloquence) will call me and shout through the telephone: "Can you believe it!? Your cousin Kurt burgled again! Burgled!"
"Yes, Mother, I can, in fact, believe it."
Asking whether you can believe that one of the men in my family committed a crime is like asking whether you can believe a member of the American Family Association has a "secret gay life." It's a classic story repeated through the ages, and only the most insignificant details change with each incarnation.
I have always been the overachiever in my family—the one who NOT ONLY got his GED, but also finished an ENTIRE YEAR of college. "He has his very own basement apartment!" my grandma proudly explains to her neighbor. "And he's never stabbed anyone."
Gaining the approval of my family has never been a concern of mine. In fact, it was not an idea I had given much thought to until one weekday morning when I was 16 years old and I spoke to my father for the first time in my life.
My father moved back to Nigeria one month after I was born. Neither I nor my sister Ijeoma, who is a year and a half my elder, have any recollection of him. Over the course of the next 16 years, we did not receive so much as a phone call from him, until one day in the spring of 1999, when a crinkled envelope bearing unfamiliar postage stamps showed up in the mailbox of Ijeoma's first apartment. Enclosed was a brief letter from our father in which he explained the strange coincidence that had led to him "finding" us.* It was a convoluted story involving his niece marrying the brother of one of our mother's close friends from years ago. As a postscript to the letter, he expressed his desire to speak to us and included his telephone number.
Roughly a week later, Ijeoma and I found ourselves, late at night, sitting on the floor of her sparely furnished apartment. We shared a pizza, sipped on a couple of beers bought for us by one of her 21-year-old coworkers, and talked about our childhood and our single mother who had no choice but to leave us home alone every night at the ages of 8 and 9 while she worked two jobs to support us.**
Ijeoma and I talked about all the years we'd wondered about our father and what it would have been like if he had come back from Nigeria in 1982 like he promised our mother. What would it have been like to grow up with a dad? Would I still have been so shitty at sports? Would I still have been so effeminate? Would I have still been called a faggot every day in middle school? Would I have known how to be a man? After we'd exhausted ourselves with thoughts of what might have been, we turned our attention to the more pressing matter of what was to happen tomorrow morning, when we would push 14 buttons on a telephone, wait a moment, and then, for the first time, hear the voice that we had only been able to imagine for 16 years.
The Honorable Chief Dr. Samuel Oluo spoke to Ijeoma first. She told him of her plans to study political science (just as he had), about her excitement for starting college in the coming months, and about her job at the bookstore. They spoke for about 20 minutes before it was my turn. My hand shook as I clutched the large black cordless telephone. "Hello..." I said, my voice projecting with all the conviction of a dying lamb. "Ahamefule!" he shouted in return, overblown and distorted by the terrible connection. "It is so great to hear your voice! I have missed you so very much."
Being that I was one month old when he left, I wondered whether it was the pissing, shitting, or crying that he missed so much. If I had made such a lasting impression with some basic bodily functions, he was bound to be impressed by what I had accomplished in the nearly 200 months that followed. "Tell me about yourself! What do you want to be when you grow up?" "Well..." I replied, "I'm already doing what I want to do when I grow up. I'm a musician. I play the trumpet, and I'm already starting to get paid and everything..." At that point, the line grew silent with the exception of the crackling hum of the poor connection. The silence continued for several more seconds until it was interrupted by a much more sullen and reserved voice than had been speaking to me only a moment earlier. "No," he said. "No. I do not approve."
No one in my family had ever said those words to me in that order. "You need to do something more sensible," he continued. "That is not good." Disappointment dripped from his words, flowed through 8,000 miles of telephone line, poured in through my ear, and began to well in my tear ducts. "Put Ijeoma back on the phone," he said, his voice now opaque with resignation. I handed Ijeoma the telephone, walked into the kitchen, and poured myself a glass of water.
That brief conversation hurtled me into a depression that lasted for months. During that period of time, my father made two more attempts to call me, but on both of the occasions that his 14-digit telephone number showed up on my caller ID, I didn't have the will to answer it, nor any idea what I would have said if I had. Eventually, the calls stopped, my life continued, and as the depression faded, I was left with nothing but pure and utter confusion.
When my father abandoned us, he left very little behind: a few photos, an empty storage chest, a copy of his doctoral thesis on the Biafran War... and the name he had given me, Ahamefule J. Oluo.*** Ahamefule is a very uncommon Nigerian name that literally translates to "let my name not be forgotten," a rather ironic meaning for a five-syllable first name. In fact, most people I meet find it absolutely impossible to remember.****
"LET MY NAME NOT BE FORGOTTEN." For my entire life, I had viewed my name as a mandate handed down from the larger-than-life, Mufasa-esque vision of my father that had been growing in my head for as long as I could remember. "MAKE YOUR MARK! BE SPECTACULAR! DON'T LET ANYONE FORGET THE DAY THAT THEY MET THE ONE AND ONLY AHAMEFULE J. OLUO!"
"Yes, cloud-dad. I won't let you down."
It is the name of a legend, it is the name of a star, it is the name of an artist. It is not the name of an accountant. So why did he give me this name if he had hoped I would do something sensible with my life? Ahamefule is not the name of a sensible man.
The question haunted me for years, and I had always thought that someday I would have the courage and the opportunity to ask my father about it, once and for all, face-to-face. But on the evening of February 21, 2006, I received a call from a Nigerian half-brother I had never met, informing me that our father had passed away at the age of 76 due to complications from diabetes.
His passing was a revelation, not only because I had to accept that I would never meet my father, but also because, according to his death certificate, he was nearly a quarter-century older than he had claimed to be. For the entire duration of his marriage to my mother, he had lied about his age. When they got married, she thought he was 30. He was actually FIFTY-THREE YEARS OLD. It became clear that I knew absolutely nothing about this man. I can unequivocally say that I have never before or since been so affected by the death of someone who, in reality, was a complete stranger.
I was heartbroken. My father had died disappointed in me. I had not had the opportunity to prove him wrong and now I never would. I was to remain a failure for all of eternity and my questions would remain unanswered, gnawing at my brain for the rest of my life. Or so I thought.
A couple years later, at a bar, I was approached by a man I had never met. As he walked toward me, he proclaimed very loudly, in an all-too-familiar accent, "YOU ARE NIGERIAN!" Like most people, I tend to be caught off guard when yelled at by strangers, so I did not immediately reply. As he approached, I stared at his face. He looked nothing like me... and at the same time, he looked exactly like me. He repeated, "YOU ARE NIGERIAN, RIGHT?" After another moment of hesitation, I calmly explained that yes, my father was, in fact, Nigerian. "I knew it! From the second I saw your face, I knew it. What village was your father from?"
"My father was the chief of Obibietche," I replied.
The man gasped. "I cannot believe it—I grew up five miles from Obibietche!"
Both of us were shocked by this coincidence. Obibietche is a small village in the Niger Delta, and I had never met anyone who had even heard of it, let alone grown up in its outskirts. I was letting all of this sink in when, out of the blue, he said, "Let me ask you, how is your relationship with your father?" Taken aback by the question, I began to realize what an unbelievable opportunity this could be to gain some new understanding of where my father came from and the culture that had molded him. I offered the man a seat next to me at the bar and began telling him the same story that I have just told you.
As I approached the end of my story, I told the stranger that I was haunted by all the questions that, due to my father's death, would never be answered. I explained that I had spent my entire life trying to embody the meaning of my name: Ahamefule J. Oluo, let my name not be forgotten, make my mark, be spectacular, Mufasa in the clouds, etc. How could it be that my father had been disappointed in me for trying to live up to the name he had given me? The more I spoke about it, the more emotional I became, the more I found myself drifting back to that morning when I was 16 years old and I spoke to my father for the first, last, and only time.
I was on the verge of tears when this man, this stranger, suddenly erupted in laughter. Since I failed to see the humor in my story, I asked him the next logical question: "Why are you laughing?"
He could barely get the words out, "Because you have completely misunderstood your name!"
In shock, I responded, "So... it doesn't mean 'let my name not be forgotten'?"
"Oh! No, that is exactly what it means, but you have misunderstood. Ahamefule is a name that a father gives to his first-born son. It is a celebration of the continuation of his bloodline. It doesn't mean let YOUR name not be forgotten—it means let HIS name not be forgotten! It has nothing to do with you!"
I was stunned into silence. After about three more minutes, the stranger's laughter subsided and he took a deep breath. "Ahamefule. That's a hard name to pronounce. Do you go by a nickname?"
"Yeah, well, most people just call me Aham." At that moment, he was overcome with laughter for the second time. Now, the first time it happened I was just confused. This time I was annoyed. "What's so funny now?" I asked.
He was barely able to catch enough breath to speak, but with tears streaming down his face, he squeezed out, word by word, "That... just... means... name!"
That was the end of our conversation.
All those years of wondering, the weight of those questions... and it turns out that the questions were never real to begin with. If I had known the true meaning of my name, would I have lived my life differently? Would you still be reading this? Would you have any idea who I was? I'm not sure, and I don't really care anymore. The name Ahamefule was never a charge of greatness—it was nothing but a selfish and contemptible man's tribute to himself. If I had known what my name really meant, would I have lived in a way that would have made him proud? I have no way of knowing that, because I don't know who the fuck he was. But I know who I am. I am Ahamefule J. Oluo.
*We weren't hiding.
** It was about that time when, at 8 and 9 years old, we tried to show our appreciation for our mother’s efforts by making her a Mother’s Day candle using crayons, sewing thread, and a microwave. Interesting statistic: Did you know that 8- and 9-year-olds left at home alone have a 113 percent chance of setting the house on fire?
*** Actually, he chose only the “Ahamefule” part. My mother, a white girl from Kansas, wanted me to have a simple American name, so they compromised. And that is why I am named Ahamefule Joe Oluo. Thanks for putting your foot down on that one, Mom.
**** It wasn’t until about a year ago that I found an effective method of teaching people to not only pronounce it correctly, but hopefully remember it for more than two and a half seconds. I go by Aham, and most people can pronounce that—it’s two syllables (AH-HAHM). Now think of someone named Aham who is a very unreliable fishmonger. AHAM-MAY-FILLET. Or he may not. He’s terrible at his job.
Ahamefule J. Oluo is a comedian and musician. His website is www.nowimfine.com.