UNCLE TOMISM AND THE ART OF NOT TAKING BULLSHIT
But whose fault was this?
I walk into the salon and I am intensely grateful to leave the sun. It’s shining down like it has been issued the sack and is determined to wring the very life from all it touches on this its last working day.
It has been a hard day.
I woke to the glare of the morning rays streaming through the curtains and I realized I had slept through the alarm. Again! I wondered at this. Not too many months ago, I used to wake at 5am, I would wait for my alarm to ring so I could go running. These days, well, rising is a chore. And the funny thing is I go to bed earlier and earlier. I am aging.
I put off working out. My body will have to survive another skip in the routine. I boiled water for coffee and then realized I didn’t have any coffee. I couldn’t believe I forgot to buy, I mean, that is like a mother forgetting to buy formula for an infant. Hot damn. No question I had to go and buy. I am not awake until I have had my coffee. Don’t greet me. I will not answer.
Anyway, I raced down four flights of stairs, hit the streets and when I encountered the fifth locked store, I remembered that today was Thursday, the day that is set aside across Lagos (I don’t know if this applies in other states) for sanitation on business premises.
Me, I don’t understand the monthly sanitation as a whole and this weekly one in particular. It seems terribly wasteful to me that every Thursday, businesses cannot open until 10am so they can clean. Forgive me. I am from Cross River State. In Calabar, and I assume across the state, we have not heard “sanitation” for over ten years now. Sanitation is an EVERY DAY affair. We are clean people. We have a consciousness. Even after living in Lagos for two years, I still cannot drink water and throw the pure water sachet on the ground, even if it’s in the middle of the market. I don’t understand the people who do. (Meanwhile, sachet means “perfumed bag to perfume clothes-a small bag containing perfumed powder or potpourri, used to perfume clothes in closets or drawers. I wonder why we call it sachet water, sachet tomatoes, sachet peak”). Like I was saying, people who sell and do whatever business should clean before, during and after, everyday! Wasteful to set aside a day and blow all that time.
Well, stores were closed. No coffee. I knew it was going to be a long day. And it was. I missed my appointment with a prospective client-it’s client! Customers are the people you charge small money. Clients is genteel, like gourmet, like cuisine, pretentious words like that we use when we want to rip you off. So I missed the appointment but I was already half way there and had to do an about-turn, only to remember I had stuff to pick up at the market. At this point, I felt since I was already half way across town. I might as well go to the salon at Surulere.
You will remember this salon. It is the same one where the distracted dude singed my scalp with hot water, it is the same one where the overenthusiastic savage wanted to render me bald from just hair washing. Yes, that one. And so here I am again. Everything is going well until I feel Andy, my stylist, grip my shoulders. I want to say not so tight and if you need me to bend my head, you can nudge. If you need me to turn, the damn chair is swivel. Anyway, I look at him askance through the mirror and in the same instance when I note the distress on his face, a female voice, wrapped snug in a German accent rings out loud and clear “I go upstairs to wash now. I return in fifteen minutes and you do my hair, yes?” or is it I who imagined the question mark after the yes? Sounded like an order.
Anyway, I now understood the reason why he was trying to dismember me at the shoulders. Andy thinks he has a crisis on his hands, an Oyinbo woman who must receive instant attention, for whom he must jump when she barks. I felt sorry for Andy because he was at the same time coming to terms with the fact that this unyielding creature sitting before him was going to prove equally intractable.
You see, I know Andy’s type. We all do really. Uncle Toms (this term is not gender neutral). We see them everywhere-that storekeeper that will look over your shoulder and serve the white woman behind you in the queue, the bartender that will gush all over your white friend at the bar and ignore you completely while your face smiles back as your friend offers you a part conspiratorial, part conciliatory smile. That one. It brought to mind something that happened a few weeks ago. I stood on Adeniran Ogunsanya trying to hail a cab. I was again late for a meeting-please don’t think I’m always late for those-and quite desperate, and it was rush hour. So when this cab slowed, I was really relieved. We agreed on a price and he said “make I turn” because I was going in the opposite direction. Brethren, as he turned and would have driven a few yards to where I was standing, there was an Oyinbo, a Chinese, whether male or female I could not tell. And the rest as they say is history. I cannot begin to explain not just the anger, disappointment and frustration I felt but the mortification. You see, there were other people standing on the road who witnessed this and I felt…shamed. Small.
And so here is a similar scenario I have before me. I could feel the eyes of the other “clients”-it’s a highbrow salon ehn? watching me, and as the thoughts from the previous incidence barraged me, I was thankful for two things
One; this time I had more control of the situation
Two and very importantly; that it was happening to me. Me because I’m sure were it someone else, they might have permitted what Andy would dearly love to do, and even if I were at the salon as well, I would not have been inclined to interfere. But here, it felt like a gift, the kind of gift that comes with making careful choices, bringing to mind stories from childhood books like “the Drum”. It felt like a trust.
So as Andy tightened his grasp on my shoulders and looked at me pleadingly in the mirror, I blanched my eyes of all expression, emptied my head of all thought and gave him the blankest visage I could muster. I watched his shoulders droop. He knew exactly what I was doing. He read me well.
In a moment of sympathy-not empathy note-I raised my eyes to his and asked him “must it be you? Can someone else not do her hair?” and Andy explained that no, she didn’t like “just anybody” doing her hair and she had chosen him. I glimpsed a glimmer of pride in his eyes. Okay. Taking my interest to be a pact of sorts, an accedence to his scheme to shove me aside, he added “thank you. It will only take fifteen minutes”. I told him he had misunderstood, that he was going to continue doing my hair until we were done.
Before he could react, Ms. German accent was back and I heard her call across the room “Andy dear, let’s get this out of the way”. Andy’s colleagues started whispering frantic suggestions to him. Beg your customer. Make another person do your customer hair na? Guy nor waste this woman time oh. Guy nor fall your hand. Not one person suggested the woman wait her turn. When a few minutes passed and the woman shrieked “please save my time”, Andy again said to me “abeg now? E no go reash ten minutes I go finish”.
I raised my voice loud enough for the doorman on the other side of the room to hear and said “Andy and the rest of you, maybe you need a lecture. Listen, the only time one customer who arrives later that another leaves before them is if their hair took a shorter time to do and someone happened to be free to do them. Otherwise, it is first come, first served and wherever I go, I always wait my turn and I expect everybody to do same and shame on whoever does not and if you try it, if you leave my hair halfway and attend to someone else who does not have the courtesy to ask me directly, I will ruin this salon for you. I am a journalist (so what if I stretched the truth?) and I will rubbish this salon all over my publication, I will bring the whole weight of social media down on your heads and you will not recover any time soon. So biko, do my hair jeje”. I did not glance at her once. I have no idea what she looked like and I never got the chance to find out because, poor woman, she is not used to anti-racist behavior in a country where she has been spoiled silly by people bending over backwards and offering mouth-to-ass resuscitation, she stormed out. Maybe to return with the Nigerian police who will also do whatever she wants. In my country!
After she leaves, the air is charged with accusations but nobody has the nerve to utter a single word until the manicurist says “kai aunty, na wa for you oh. Na oyinbo be that.” I’m still reeling.
I get racism and racist behavior abroad. I don’t get what goes on here at home. I don’t get it at all.