By Akin Adesokan
Moments after he steered onto the highway, the taxi driver, looking at me through the inner mirror, asked if my flight from Lagos had been fine. I replied that I wasn’t coming from Lagos, but from Indianapolis, and had been on the plane for under an hour. He kept quiet. Then, a few minutes later, he repeated the question, this time keeping his eyes on the road ahead. I also repeated my answer, trying not to be exasperated, but curious about his reason for persisting in this way. I didn’t have to ask: “Well, it doesn’t matter,” he said, turning his gaze back at the inner mirror to catch mine. “I’m from Ghana, and the last time I visited was 2011. But since September, I’ve noticed most of the passengers I pick up from the airport acting as if I’m infected with Ebola. They think that because you’re black and you don’t speak like them, then you have a problem with the disease.”
There was something of surliness to the man’s countenance. His quiet voice had a harsh undertone that, with attention, might be appreciated as congenital. I was not going to contradict him. Airport taxi-drivers could be ingratiating, I knew, to guarantee a decent tip at the end of the ride. But this was not the demeanor of a man currying a favor. I hadn’t noticed such behavior, I replied, perhaps because I didn’t view at myself through the lens of others, because my flight had been short, because I’d spent the time on board with my nose stuck in a book. “Welcome to Atlanta,” he said, as though alerting me to dangers ahead.
It was the middle of October, and I was visiting Emory University to give an academic lecture the day, it turned out, after the Texas nurse infected with the Ebola virus was transferred to the same university for treatment. I had not been oblivious to the connection between the West African location of the latest outbreak of the virus and the old and ongoing racist discourse of the abjection of black life—the fact that any spot of the African continent, any social or political development arising from or connected to the conduct of the scattered black populations of the world was always already marked with negative prejudice in the imagination of the world, sometimes African included. In fact, as soon as the case of Patrick Sawyer became news, I created a computer file of publications about Ebola from different sources. To be an informed interpreter of contemporary life in the world today is to be alert to issues of this kind, not only as they relate to black life but also how they reinforce perceptions between and across groups, irrespective of class, caste, region, and religion.
This process of continuing education is full of surprises. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa coincided with the preventable tragedy of building collapse in the premises of Pastor Temitope Joshua’s Synagogue Church of all Nations in mid-September 2014. Before the incident, I had been interested in what this organization meant for a broad number of people from different parts of the world, and I frequently screened YouTube videos from Emmanuel TV.
A taped sermon in September focused on the Ebola outbreak, and watching that video, I was at once puzzled and irritated by the inchoate, uninformed, yet effective discourse of Pan-Africanism it contained: Joshua was criticizing the policy on West African border control which, as he saw it, put national sovereignty above Pan-African solidarity. Joshua might not have heard of Edward Blyden or Amy Garvey, but there he was, effectively passing cultural politics off as religious sermon.
Back to Atlanta. I needed the hotel shuttle to get to the Emory campus before my flight. I explained to the driver, a Somali immigrant, that I might be late if I had to return to the hotel, and so I wanted the contact of a taxi service that I would call later. He found a taxi for me, and then instructed the driver, another immigrant from Haiti, to follow him and keep my luggage until I was ready. My protestations that the man didn’t have to wait were waved aside: we were all Africans. It would be ungracious to decline such solicitude. He didn’t mention Ebola.
Conversing with the elderly Haitian driver on the way to the airport, I remembered the words of a character at the end of Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel, The Healers: “But look at all the black people the whites have brought here. [We] have been wondering about ways to bring our people together again… Does it not amuse you, that in their wish to drive us apart the whites are actually bringing us healers work for the future?”
Akin Adesokan wrote in from Lagos