As an immigrant, the first thing you learn in America is silence. It is because what separates you from the people you will meet on the street is your accent; it marks you out as an outsider that needs to be interrogated.
Just a few days after I arrived at Logan International Airport, after I lost count of people asking for my “my original country,” anytime I opened my mouth to speak, I learned that my silence would help me navigate through America without the stress of defending my presence in the U.S. It would lead me away from uncomfortable conversations in Uber vehicles where drivers either couldn’t believe English was spoken by most people in Nigeria or they couldn’t understand why I was speaking English language fluently when I had just got there. I guess they thought Africa was one giant country filled with huts and men running after tigers with spears made out of tree branches.
No one walks through life silent and Audre Lourde wrote, “your silence won’t save you.” In Grand Central Station in New York, a white man I asked for directions asked me where I was from when he heard me speak. When I told him I’m from Nigeria, he said with so much anger, “you people are destroying America, go back to your country.” I was scared, I touched the passport in my pocket and even if the visa in it said I was here legally, I was shaken.
I have heard of people getting arrested and deported if they couldn’t produce an ID. In Nigeria, I could afford to lose my wallet and survive. In the U.S., I have to be careful. I ran away from the man and found the nearest exit. I didn’t know what would happen, I didn’t want to find out.
In the final season of Orange Is the New Black, there was a moment in episode five where I had to meet my fear. When Maritza (Diane Guerrero) stood before the airplane as she was being deported and looked at the future before her with disbelief, I stood with her. I believe I am not the only one. At that moment millions of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. to find safety stood behind her, each of us holding our fears in our palms. I looked into Maritza’s eyes and wondered, how do you begin to breathe in a country that is your home and at the same time it is not your home. How do you begin to live again knowing the country you called home since you were a child hunted you, handcuffed you and sent you to a place you don’t know as home.
America prides itself on liberty, but that liberty is given to an immigrant freely when you belong to a certain social class. Those running to safety with just their clothes and faith in a country that has preached freedom to the world must stay in cages while they are judged, while they pray to be found worthy to walk the streets of America.
At a bar in Cambridge, Mass., I was having drinks and discussing how difficult it is to come to America legally, especially when you are fleeing from your own country because of a threat to your life. In the middle of our conversation, a man said we don’t have anything to worry about since we are at Harvard University. I think his attitude says a lot about how America treats people coming with just their lives and their fears.
As Maritza takes her seat on the airplane, her face becomes one with the other women waiting to be deported. There is nothing to differentiate them from one another other. At that moment I asked myself, do people care about the other women?
White America loves to see images before they believe and care about other people. It is why there was little uproar when a large number of people were deported during the Obama administration. It is why photos of drowned immigrant bodies are all over the television and the internet, and why people weep over videos of children sleeping in detention centers, moving people to act. White America can’t imagine the suffering that’s not theirs if it is not shown in all its horror to them.
It is 8pm in Portland, I am typing this essay in a bar. My passport is in my pocket. At this very moment undocumented immigrants returning to their homes are navigating a world of uncertainty. At this very moment, someone whose face we can’t imagine is getting arrested. He is no 21 Savage, so we can’t imagine his pain, we can’t protest because his face is not all over the news. Like Maritza, he will be deported quietly at night to a country he fled from.