All 14 of us were on a family vacation to Barbados to celebrate my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. There’d been an incident on the flight: one passenger had tried to start a fight with another and his family. He became verbally aggressive after being cautioned by a flight attendant. “I don’t talk to white women. I’m going back to my country. Black man country.” When our flight landed, black Barbadian police officers arrived to escort him off the plane. There was cheering from passengers of all races.
At immigration, those in our group with British passports breezed through. The Nigerian passport holders were held for further questioning. “Where’s your return ticket?” the official asked. Although no visas were required for any foreign nationals, it was still assumed that the Nigerians would try to overstay their welcome.
This made me angry. Any Nigerian who could afford to travel to Barbados on holiday would not want to overstay. Why would they choose to become an illegal immigrant when they had a good quality of life at home? But to be an African traveller, even in a country peopled by the descendants of Africans, was to be automatically viewed with suspicion. Black man not quite welcome in black man country.
On the drive to our resort, the driver pointed out landmarks with pride. “That’s Simon Cowell’s house.” “That’s Wayne Rooney’s house. It’s behind that high wall. You can just see the roof.” Where did the rich black Barbadians live? Had they been run off all the prime property on their own island?
It was an all-inclusive holiday. From about 10 each morning, scores of white holidaymakers would drift to the sunloungers at our beach resort and spread their semi-naked bodies across the oceanfront. It was like watching buns bake in an oven. Every half hour or so, they would turn so their skin could cook evenly in this sun worship ritual.
For most of our stay, we were the only black guests in the entire resort. The only other black faces were waiters, porters and watersports instructors. Sometimes we were treated with extra cordiality, at other times with sharp brusqueness: the intersection of race and class, perhaps. Some staff were happy to see us, an affluent black family. Others maybe didn’t want to serve a black family, and an African one at that, seeing it as a demotion of some sort.
On the day of my parents’ anniversary we went to another resort for a change of scenery. It was a former slave plantation, preserved in all its infamy, with shutters, verandas, landscaped gardens and rattan chairs lining the pool. It was an old, nostalgic beauty built on blood. There was something wrong with the optics of that place. An elderly, white clientele served by black staff in a former slave plantation.
And yet, and yet, it was beautiful to be in black man country. Despite Barbados relying heavily on tourism, it has no private beaches, unlike some other Caribbean islands. Resorts can be built by the beach, but they can’t stop locals from walking on them. It was a right that was fought for by the likes of the calypsonian Mighty Gabby.
In the mornings, people would come to our beach and fish for a meal. I watched a man throw his net into the water at dawn and catch sardines. I discovered that I liked beaches. One day I joined the sun worshippers on the beach. I read Michelle Obama’s memoirs while I roasted gently. After a few hours, I thought to myself: maybe this sun worship is not a race thing but a living in a cold climate thing. Even a Nigerian raised in Nigeria, such as myself, may become a sun worshipper after repeated exposure to British winters.
On the drive back to the airport, I saw three boys. They were in uniform, probably just let out of school. They walked with a bounce, a swagger, with their elbows slightly stuck out to give their wiry frames some bulk. In another context, these carefree boys might have been viewed with suspicion: by just walking boldly and freely, taking up space on a public pavement, they might have had criminal aspersions cast on their association. But here, you could see them clearly for what they were: black boys full of joy. It was good to be in black man country.
Chibundu Onuzo is the author of The Spider King’s Daughter and Welcome to Lagos