`It's not what you call me, it's what I answer to'

November 05, 2000|By Gregory Kane

CHIKA ONYEANI is, by his own admission, a word that has been politely described as "the N-word." In fact, he seems downright proud of the word. He revels in it. Especially if you put the word "capitalist" in front of it.

"If you call me a `capitalist [N-word],'" Onyeani told a small cluster of folks gathered at Baltimore's AFRAM festival in late September, "at least it means I have some money."

Onyeani was in Baltimore to promote his new book, published this year. By now, you've already guessed its title: "Capitalist Nigger." At AFRAM, he briefly explained why he chose that.

"In Africa, we have a saying," the Nigerian native said. "It's not what you call me, but what I answer to that matters."

Last week, Onyeani, from his seventh-floor office in the 200 block of Broadway in New York City, headquarters for his newspaper the African Sun Times , elaborated further as the noise from the New York Yankees victory parade died down outside his window.

"Why is it that this word that we are so afraid of and so sensitive about makes us go to the barricades and shout at the top of our voices?" Onyeani asked.

"We make the people saying it feel important. I decided it was time we took that weapon away. The way to do that is to de-emphasize the meaning given to that word. My aim is that the next time the word is used in the dictionary, it will say it's a word black people used to be afraid of," he said.

Dressed in a black, knee-length buba, Onyeani, a former ambassador for Nigeria and the 1966-1970 Nigerian secessionist state of Biafra, made clear what he would like black people - Africans, African-Americans, West Indians - to get upset about.

Blacks, Onyeani insists, are strictly a consumer race. Blacks own little and buy from everyone. American blacks sit idly by and watch other groups buy and run the businesses in their neighborhoods. Africans look on meekly as Europeans and Asians buy their raw materials cheap and then refine them into finished products sold back to Africans at much higher prices. And it's not, Onyeani made clear, "Whitey's fault."

"I wanted to deliver a message to my people that it was time we started moving away from this blame game and victim's mentality," Onyeani said. "We have to move on to something productive."

In the process, Onyeani said, blacks would have to be "ruthlessly honest" with themselves. As ruthless, he says, as he is in his book.

Here's a sample of Onyeani's unpleasant but cogent commentary:

"You want your children to have good grades in school? Then [heed my advice] because then you will not blame the teachers for failing your children or blame the nationwide testing services for using non-black questions in their testing. You will be in control because you will totally understand that everything that happens to your child at school is a result of the learning environment you have provided him or her at home."

"We prefer others to establish the company so that we can come in and cry racism when they refuse to hire us. Why can't we establish the company [and] let others come in and cry racism for us not hiring them?"

"A Capitalist [black] must be fiercely ruthless with himself if he is to abandon the baggage that we as Africans carry all our lives until our graves: the notion that somebody owes us something. Continental Africans think the world owes them something. We whine and whine about how Europeans looted our natural resources. Yes, they did, so what. We allowed them to do it, and we are still allowing them to do it even today. There is too much whining among Africans. ... We are beggars. We beg for everything."

Onyeani lives in East Orange, N.J., with his wife Loretta, "an African-American who initially opposed [this] book because she believed I hated `Black people' (African-Americans)..." Onyeani wrote in the book's acknowledgements.

Mrs. Onyeani protested too much. Her husband abuses all blacks equally. It's a good thing he's living here. The way the African Sun Times, the paper he started 11 years ago, lambastes African leaders, Onyeani might have been jailed and probably executed years ago had he chosen to remain in Nigeria.

He was especially critical of departed Nigerian leader Sani Abacha, who, Onyeani charged, plundered his country's treasury for $5 billion.

"The white man didn't come to Nigeria and put a gun to Abacha's head and tell him to take that money," Onyeani said. Mobutu Sese Seko, who misruled Zaire - now, or, more correctly, once again, the Republic of the Congo - pilfered some $7 billion from his own people and stashed it in Swiss banks. The bank owners, Onyeani charged, claimed they can account for only $7 million of the money.

For all his criticism of blacks across the world, Onyeani reminds his people that "we are as capable, as naturally endowed, as any other group."

He just wants them to start acting like it.

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