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A Particular Kind of Black Man [Book Review]

Summary

A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin tells the story of Tunde Akinola, the son of Nigerian immigrants who settled in Utah. Released in 2019, A Particular Kind of Black Man is the first full-length title from Folarin. The story is not exactly autobiographical but is influenced by some aspects and experiences from the author’s life.

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Show Notes

Born and raised in Utah, Folarin is also a first-generation Nigerian-American. As the author of well-received short stories, Folarin was nominated for two and won one Caine Prize. The Caine Prize is an annual literary award given to a short story author who was born in Africa, is a national of an African country, or is the child of a parent who is African by birth or nationality.

After winning the prize, Folarin was criticized by some for not being African enough due to not having spent enough time on the continent. Much as the character Tunde, Folarin’s connection to his African heritage and culture are called into question. But, the questions of authenticity were public and a result of Folarin’s profession while the uncertainty about Tunde’s Blackness came primarily from within and was personal.

Other members of the Akinola family had previously left Nigeria for cities across Europe and America. But, Tunde’s dad wanted space from his family to fully immerse himself in American culture. (I don’t remember first names being used so to keep things clear I’ll refer to Tunde’s father as “Dad”, his mother as “Mom”, and his stepmother as “Stepmom”.) Dad emigrated with Mom to America after he was offered a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at a college in Utah. Unfortunately, they arrived with unrealistic expectations because their knowledge of America was primarily gained through music and they were anticipating a utopia of peace, love, and acceptance.

Which I didn’t understand because they would have been arriving in the 80s which isn’t that long after the social upheaval of the 60s. It also seems that they knew nothing about and did no research into Utah as they were somewhat surprised to find that there weren’t many Black people around and the area was heavily Mormon.

This experience rings true for a lot of people who immigrate to America, especially a few decades ago when information might have been less readily available. I know from my family’s experience and the experiences of people from elsewhere in the world that often the first generation struggles. This is both in terms of trying to secure their economic footing as well as socially. To some degree, this is also true for the people who moved from the South to the North and West during the Great Migration.

Many people leave their country in hopes of a better life and because of pop culture and people passing along inaccurate info arrive expecting to be welcomed with open arms and the American dream easily within reach. There are stories of people who were well-to-do professionals in their country arriving in America only to find that their credentials aren’t recognized here and end up having to find survival jobs like cleaning, driving taxis, etc. Some are fortunate to achieve their dreams of economic success within that first generation while others fall short of their own goals but work hard to invest in their children’s future.

Also, people who emigrate from their home country while still young enough to attend regular school in America can find it difficult to adapt culturally. For the first generation to grow up or be born here the culture they experience in school is often quite different from their culture at home.

I will state at this point that while he wasn’t perfect, Dad was my favorite character in A Particular Kind of Black Man. He endures a lot of setbacks and hardships but never gives up on himself and remains a constant and positive presence in the lives of his children. Dad was a good student in Nigeria and completed his engineering program but despite his drive and incredible potential was unable to find good opportunities. Given that the family would later relocate, it’s not clear why he didn’t move the family after graduating to somewhere with more engineering jobs. (But, then I guess we wouldn’t have the story of A Particular Kind of Black Man.)

Mom begins having a difficult time, some of it is a result of adjusting to life in Utah but to a greater degree its a result of her emerging mental illness. When her moods become unpredictable so do her actions, swinging between moments of tender care and physical/emotional abuse. She is ill and between the family’s limited financial resources and the mental health options available at the time, Dad is at a loss as to how to manage her mental health needs. Understandably lost in his grief, he is also unable to help the boys work through the emotional and the later physical loss of their mother. As a result, Tunde develops feelings of ambivalence towards Mom, deeply yearning for a mother’s love but also fearing the possibility of enduring such loss again or having to also deal with abuse.

When Tunde begins attending school he moves beyond the small world of his family and begins to come into contact with more people who don’t look like him and practice a different religion. As a young sheltered child, his innocence blinds him to several microaggressions by others who are also innocently ignorant and some who are just delusional. Tunde is a Black child with brown skin and kinky hair attending school with kids who likely haven’t seen anyone in-person who looked like him. They ask him questions about himself and his physical traits that until then he hadn’t regarded as different or abnormal and he’s unprepared to answer them.

This raises the issue of Black children growing up in communities where few people outside of their family look like them. It can often create a disconnect from the Black community but also feelings of not quite belonging in the White community. Traits and features usually associated with Black people can be viewed as inferior while White features and traits are idolized. In general, children’s self-esteem is initially built up by their parents so Black children growing up in non-Black communities can still learn to embrace all of themselves. But, it requires conversations and assurances from parents which Tunde does not receive or at least not in a manner that he understands.

Dad isn’t unfeeling but as with most difficult situations, he encourages Tunde and his brother Tayo to put aside their feelings and keep pushing forward. Granted, Dad follows his advice when dealing with hardships. But at what cost? Dad is certainly admirable as he sets aside his pride to work in whatever kind of job he can find to provide for himself and his family. Though it must have been soul-crushing, especially while also experiencing setbacks in his personal life. He keeps pushing and tries to keep up appearances but seems incredibly unhappy inside.

Dad’s age is unclear but I assume that he’s still at least relatively young and in need of companionship beyond his children. He doesn’t seem to have any friends and doesn’t date any local women. Yet, all of a sudden he’s going back to Nigeria to bring the kids a new mom. The first trip didn’t go according to plan but the second trip works out. Somewhat. When Dad remarries, his relationship with Stepmom is interesting in a weird “I don’t know about this” kind of way.

Tunde and Tayo knew nothing about this woman and didn’t know their dad was “courting” anyone until shortly before she was expected to arrive in America. This is one instance in a series of occurrences where the family is going through major changes but Dad doesn’t have an in-depth conversation with the boys. Instead, they’re left trying to make sense of the situation on their own. And while Stepmom and her sons aren’t exactly mean, it’s clear that there is a distinct separation within the family. They’re not simply Mom, Dad, and the kids but rather Mom and her kids and Dad and his kids. On a basic level, the parts of mother, father, and children are there but the family unit is precariously held together with spit and twine.

From the outset Stepmom finds everything wanting and not quite to her standards or expectations. Though she does make an effort to spruce things up around the house and manages to forge a relationship with Tayo. But her relationship with Tunde remains somewhat distant despite him wanting a mother. Granted, some of this is likely a result of Tunde being ill at ease with himself and thus also uncomfortable with most other people. This is especially true concerning women as he has not had a constant female presence in his life.

Throughout A Particular Kind of Black Man Tunde has a lack of connection not just with being Black or the Black community but also with himself and his own life story. Our experiences shape us as people and individual memories help us remain connected with those parts of ourselves. As Tunde matures and begins to try to figure out his identity he experiences a type of double consciousness where he remembers moments from his life with different details and results. He fears incorrectly recalling his memories might be a sign of an emerging mental illness like his mother’s. But it can also be viewed as a manifestation of dealing with difficult moments as his father had instructed him to do.

Either way, this disconnect with his memories is symbolic of him being unclear and unsure of who he is and wants to be. We talk about people, men especially, burying their feelings. In this instance, Tunde is burying his thoughts and memories by smoothing over the difficult moments from his life and replacing them with these alternate memories. He experiences the world as it is but saves the memory as he sometimes wishes it could have been. Upon noticing this, he begins to question his sanity and thus himself.

Tunde doesn’t directly learn culture from those around him but rather by mimicking the habits and demeanor of a select group of Black male public figures. He loses himself even more in the process. By the time he gets to college, he views it as the moment where his life will truly begin. It’s an opportunity to start over away from people who knew him in the past and he’ll have the chance to become the person he has always dreamed of being. Ironically, this is quite similar to his father’s story of moving to America. Tunde might achieve the professional success that his father did not but would likely be being unhappy as a person. A key difference is that his father moved from Nigeria and found himself surrounded by White people in Utah. While Tunde moves to Atlanta to attend Morehouse and surrounds himself with Black people while on his search for acceptance.

Dad is hardworking and ambitious but also eager to please and be accepted. He wants Tunde to be agreeable and acceptable to mainstream society as he believes this will bring him success. It’s telling that instead of using himself as an example to be followed Dad presents Tunde with Sidney Poitier, Bryant Gumbel, etc. as Black men he should model himself after. He admires the success of these men and thinks its a result of them being viewed as non-threatening to mainstream society. But, despite Dad learning some of these lessons himself, becoming a A Particular Kind of Black Man hasn’t made life much easier for him. Yet, he encourages his son to mold himself in their form which disconnects him from himself and brings him unhappiness.

Tunde feels compelled to socialize with and date White people so he can learn their secrets to success. He also tries immersing himself in Black meetings and events but doesn’t find what he’s looking for there. The Black students that he meets at these events feel tied to the places they come from and the things they’ve experienced. Tunde believes that they are holding themselves back from assimilating and moving forward because they’re holding on to the past. Yet, he has a hard time fitting in despite being unable to remember or connect with his past.

There is a question of struggle here. Do you let go of your past in hopes of fitting in and reinventing yourself? Or do you hold on to your past and the things that define you at the expense of fitting in?

When Tunde finally gets a girlfriend late in A Particular Kind of Black Man, he believes people stare at them when they’re walking together holding hands and question the long-term potential of their relationship. But, are these people paying attention to him and his girlfriend like that? Up to this point, women haven’t been paying Tunde attention but he suddenly thinks they’re giving him flirtatious looks and would want him if he left her. It’s more likely that he isn’t even on their radar but his insecurities are masquerading as how other people see him.

His insecurities cause him to resist holding hands in public and he pushes away at times. Deep down inside he feels and fears that his girlfriend will leave him just like other women have in his life. Yet, she pushes him to do the hard work and figure himself out. Up to and including this point in A Particular Kind of Black Man, the female characters don’t feel very detailed. The girlfriend is also fairly flat but she serves as a device for him to start doing some heavy emotional and psychological lifting.

Tunde comes to realize that this unhappiness and uncertainty that he feels is a result of not knowing the full story of where and who he comes from. It takes some soul searching and reconnecting with his extended family and past for Tunde to begin finding himself. His past memories might be incomplete or inaccurate. But, he’s able to create new memories that connect him to his past by reaching out beyond himself and getting to know his mother and her family.

A Particular Kind of Black Man is a relatively short book that’s a quick and easy read. The only points that might require closer attention and re-reading are the parts of the book where he experiences double consciousness and/or switches to speaking about his experiences in the third person. It’s a cool book with a fresh approach to discussing the disconnect of emigrating, the hardships of immigrating, and overall issues with defining yourself as a person and particularly your Black identity. The book isn’t as in-depth as The Warmth of Other Suns but it reminds me of the experiences of Robert Joseph Pershing Foster.

A Particular Kind of Black Man is told from the perspective of a young man but I think the book would be relevant to either gender. It might appeal most to young adults who are college-aged but could also speak to older adults who have fallen out of contact with their hometowns and/or families.

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