A discussion I had with an American friend of mine a couple of days ago inspired this column. One of the enduring stereotypes about Africans living in America is that they tend to have a supernormal fondness for claiming to be descended from distinguished royal lineages. It's the basis of a widespread sneer among Americans that every African in America is either a "prince" or a "princess."
Of course, this is an over-generalization. Many Africans who are not descended from royal families don't claim royal bloodline, and many Africans who claim to be princes and princesses are indeed what they claim to be. But this does not detract from the fact that there is an inordinately large number of Africans in America who claim to be scions of royal stocks both to compensate for their low station here and to impress their American hosts.
I had a particularly hilarious encounter with this phenomenon in my very first week in the United States. A group of Americans who welcomed me in the city I first lived when I came here asked if I knew a certain Nigerian man whose name I shall conceal here. Except for the fact that the name sounded distinctly Nigerian, I had no earthly clue who he was. Then one of them, a lady, asked if I was really Nigerian. "Are you perhaps from Niger Republic or something?" she asked. I assured her I was Nigerian.
She later explained that she wanted to be doubly sure of my Nigerianness because the man they were talking about had assured them that everybody in Nigeria knew him. Since I said I was a journalist, she thought I had even more reasons to know him.
Nigeria is a country of 150 million people: how could one person, who isn't the president of the country, make such an insanely exaggerated claim to fame? I wondered aloud. Well, my American acquaintances told me the man said the source of his wild popularity was that he was a "triple high chief" and was the "king in absentia" of three different Nigerian communities. He said the attainment of such a distinguished status had no parallel in Nigeria's history. Because of the unusualness of his achievement, he was reported to have said, his renown had traveled the length and breadth of Nigeria. Hard as I tried, I couldn't suppress the burst of deep, loud, hearty laughter that escaped from my mouth.
When the Americans told the "triple high chief" about me, he invited me to his house. After a light, informal conversation, he asked me in a hushed voice what I stood to gain from ridiculing him before Americans. "Everybody is a prince or princess here," he said. "But in my case, I actually got three chieftaincy titles from three communities in my state. The part about my being a king in absentia for three communities is their own interpretation of my being a high chief in three communities."
After only a few minutes of discussing with this "triple high chief," I knew he was a double-dyed crook. He seemed to be luxuriating in plentiful wealth, but no one knew for sure what he did for a living. They just assumed that he inherited his wealth from his Nigerian royal ancestors.
When the man offered to pay me $500 every month for just being his "Nigerian brother" I rejected his magnanimity and became even more suspicious of him. I never visited him a second time.
The story of the "triple high chief" is an extreme example of the kinds of off-the-wall claims to royalty that some of our people make here. Many local news magazines actually did personality profiles on this man. I used to fall off my chair each time I read the wildly over-inflated and patently false claims he made in the interviews.
But why do Americans believe people like that? Why do claims of association with royalty tickle the fancy of Americans? I have three theories.
First, Americans have an ambivalent relationship with royalty: they are simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by it. The country prides itself on being the world's first modern, truly republican government where ascent to leadership is not based on the often unearned privilege of bloodline but on popular assent. At the same time, American youth popular culture glamorizes royalty with unnerving obsessiveness. Disney stories, for instance, are almost always about princes and princesses. Therefore, little girls and boys grow up fantasizing about finding their "prince charming" or saving their "princesses in distress."
So Americans grow up with a subconscious reverence for the privileges and cultural capital of royalty. That's also why British royal weddings are such a huge deal in this country that otherwise despises inherited authority.
Second, black Americans, who are great suckers of stories of African "princes" and "princesses" in America, cherish the narrative about their ancestors being princes and princesses before they were captured by rival royal families and sold into slavery. This is, of course, not entirely true. But this self-serving, historically suspect narrative helps some of them to cultivate a sense of self-worth in a society where they have been dehumanized for hundreds of years. So claims of regal descent by some Africans in America resonate with some of them on a vicarious level.
Thirdly, many Americans have unquestioningly accepted the racialized fantasies of Africans as invariably poor and deprived people. These fantasies dispose them to imagine that only the few Africans that are privileged to be descended from royalty can afford to travel to and live in America.
However, thanks to the ubiquity of 419 scams, the narrative of the African prince or princess in America is crumbling. Now, claims to being an African prince or princess invite loud or suppressed guffaw at best and quiet suspicion at worst. When I discussed the topic with my American friend, we both had a great laugh.