Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Taking The Reigns

Well, I need to shut up for a week or two. So, I have extended an invitation to my father, mother and sister, to contribute to this blog. You see, I wanted to dare, to offer each of them the opportunity to respond, publicly, to my memoir. It's only fair, right?

As they prepare their responses, and I attempt my lecture--that is the thing that scares me more than death--I've invited two of my favorite emerging writers to contribute blogs. I hope you enjoy their meditations.

Now, on to the Good Stuff: First up, author of Some White English Women I've Almost Known.

Mogbolahan Koya-Oyagbola was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1970. He spent his early childhood in Lagos. At the age of ten he started attending a private boarding school in England. He later studied architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture for a year before dropping out. Subsequently, he attended University College London where he attained a B.A. in Philosophy. He also holds an M.A. in Modernism and Modern Writing from Royal Holloway University of London. Having lived in capitals as diverse as Lagos, London, Glasgow, Tokyo, Mexico City and Vancouver, he now earns his keep in Munich as a qualified English language teacher.

Relinquishing The Ghetto
by Mogbolahan Koya-Oyagbola

I have eclectic musical taste. I can go from opera to hip hop in a heartbeat. These days though, there is less hip hop in my playlist. I wish hip hop hadn’t taken such a sharp turn into Profanity Avenue in the mid 90s. But I still love Mos Def, Common and the old school stuff. Give me Pharcyde, Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul any day of the week. And if we’re on granddaddy night then bring back Afrika Bambatta, Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

Tonight I’m listening to Voglio Restare Cosi by Andrea Bocelli.

For the non-linguists, this means I Want to Stay This Way. Okay I admit that beyond the “Restare” which I guessed from my far from perfect knowledge of French, I didn’t know the meaning of this song either. Babelfish came to the rescue and now that I think about it cosi isn’t far off from the Spanish como asi. I had known about Andrea Bocelli since way back in the early 90s but stupidly I never bought anything by him. I was still locked into my British induced ghetto back then. Before buying this CD about a year ago, I remember listening to Voglio Restare Cosi in the music store and feeling liberated while letting the symphonic undulations and far off accordion (or mouth organ… not sure which) wash over me. I’m part hard-nosed pragmatist, part romantic so I am temporarily overwhelmed by sentiment every now and again. This was one of those occasions and I felt a wave of emotion well up in my chest. To be able to listen and not give a damn about any judgement that might come my way was thrilling. I had lost that ghetto feeling a while back during my travels, but a two year return to England brought it all back. During my two year sojourn my project team leader at work would tell me I talked like a book. She’d say I wasn’t personable enough, that I was too rigid. I saw through her claims and read into the subtext. All her comments came down to the fact I was polite, didn’t burst into expletives after every two sentences like she did and refused to talk like a cockney. Now given that my father was a Nigerian barrister, my mother a careerist woman and that I attended a public (which means private) school, precisely where was I supposed to have picked up this cockney twang?

I was back to the nightmare labels of the England where class consciousness is king. My two year sojourn brought it all back and convinced me I had to move on. Listening to Opera, Sinatra, Jazz or indeed just about anything outside the mainstream got one labelled posh. My public school accent got me labelled posh. My manners got me labelled posh. What manners? Well for instance I always said please and thank you. I opened doors for women. Now believe me when I say I wasn’t trying to win brownie points. I was raised with an old world outlook, as a result once I got to a certain age I always opened doors for my mum. I opened the car door for her; I opened building doors for her. If doors hadn’t been invented I would have created them just so I could open them for her. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see how such a habit could develop into an automatic response mechanism that had me opening doors for all women. That didn’t mean I was trying to project gentlemanly manners or be “posh” as the Brits say. Nevertheless I was labelled posh. On the other hand I was also the threatening black man. In my teens and early twenties I would be observed with suspicion one moment then called a posh git the next. My teen years were filled with muted anger and confusion. Go back to my post about why I wrote about exile for the other half of the puzzle and a clear picture arises as to why beneath the two dimensional fa├žade I presented to the world, I was a seething cauldron of hostility.

Outside of school, being perceived as either a posh git or a mugger slowly turned me into a misanthrope. Listening to Voglio Restare Cosi again tonight reminds me of all this because while I listened at the CD store in Munich I recalled Munich’s street performances of Classical music. I remembered the Christmas markets that embraced all who wished to attend. I remembered the wealthy white woman who gave me a cheery greeting of an evening in Munich and I realised I had been let out of the ghetto of my teenage years. Neither mugger nor posh git, I was just me. Andrea Bocelli might have been singing in Italian but this was not Italian music, posh music or white people’s music, it was my music. It was my music because I had been let out of the ghetto. I had relinquished the ghetto. Finally, I belonged to the universe and the universe belonged to me. And for anyone who deemed me a posh git or mugger I now felt only pity as they stared me down from beyond the caged walls of their ghetto.

Irrespective of what anyone now thinks of me, I like me. In the grand scheme of things, opening doors for women really isn’t so bad. And despite appearances, being polite and thoughtful doesn’t make me an idiot or a push over, nor does it make me perfect. I am as flawed as the next human being but I work at being the kind of person I would like to be. So as Andrea sings his words Voglio Restare Cosi, I have to agree.

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve relinquished the ghetto and while far from perfect, I really like me. Voglio restare cosi – I want to stay this way.

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