Faux Nigerian Jason Johnson, center, with actual Nigerians Obinna Nwokike, left, and Nkechi Nneji.
Photo: Jason Johnson

“You’re totally Nigerian,” Nkechi Nneji said, holding her hands out in a frame like she was sizing up my face for a photo. “And you’ve got an Igbo head!”

This was uttered to me in a vaguely complimentary way by my friend, Nkechi (pronounced EN-KAY-Chee), as she and fellow Nigerian Omarosa (yes, that Omarosa), tried to convince me of my ethnic origin a few years ago when we were all sitting in a Washington, D.C., television studio. They weren’t the first or even the 15th Nigerian or Nigerian-adjacent people to claim me, convinced that my square head, broad shoulders and complexion proved that, at some point, my ancestors were hanging out in the Niger Delta.

Over the years, I’ve never put much thought into my ethnic origins, let alone Nigeria specifically. I never did 23 & Me when it came out because I was convinced it was an X-Files level conspiracy that would sell my DNA information to the Illuminati (and I was right). Plus, outside of some basic politics, the only thing I really knew about Nigerian culture was the overacting in Nollywood movies, a few books by Nnedi Okorafor and to never trust a Nigerian prince who emails you asking for your routing number so he can share his millions with you.

So when a Nigerian-American friend of mine invited me to the 14th annual Umu Igbo Unite Nigerian cultural conference (Igbo is pronounced E-Bo; the “g” is silent) in New Orleans last week and since I was going to be in New Orleans anyway, I said sure. I figured it would be fun learning about my possibly-not-quite-sure culture. I’m not Nigerian but I can at least play one for the weekend, right?

You know that feeling when you stumble onto a huge, wild, party that takes place every year in your neighborhood and your first thought is, “How did I not hear about this before?” That’s how I felt at Umu Igbo Unite. It’s not Essence Fest or Congressional Black Caucus weekend, but there were over 1,000 people staying in and around the Sheraton in downtown New Orleans. People flew in from as far as Lagos and London, as well as American cities with big Igbo populations like New York City, Houston and Washington, D.C. With only my pen and a pad (and Igbo-shaped head), I set out to learn as much as I could about Nigerian Igbo culture from a black American perspective.

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“Oh yeah, we hustle, we’re hard-working people, that’s like our thing,” a woman from D.C. told me during the outdoor picnic.

Nigerians are the largest African immigrant population in America. They’re also the most educated immigrants (more than Europeans and Asians) and wealthiest African immigrants. Culturally, the Igbo really pride themselves on being financially savvy and educated; some of this is just immigrant culture, but the focus on business was ever-present throughout the weekend. I asked Chiagorom Osu (Chi for short), a financier from New York, if the stereotype that Igbo are money hungry and shifty business people bothered him, and he laughed.

“My dad used to say, during the Biafra War (the Nigerian civil war in the ’60s) if you shoot an Igbo, the only way to make sure he was dead was to shake some coins over his head to see if he’d wake up for the money,” Chi joked.

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Wow. Yet, in America, where blackness is demonized and associated with crime, laziness and theft, growing up with the stereotype of being a crafty entrepreneur isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Of course, everything at the Umu Igbo Unite Conference wasn’t about business. There was a big party at New Orleans’ Audubon Park, with a DJ, food and some guy throwing dollar bills in the air. Everybody told me this is a Nigerian tradition that long predated “making it rain” in the strip club. Throwing dollars was automatic—didn’t matter if it was a man or woman dancing, indoors or out, within two minutes, somebody showed up tossing dollars. I’m convinced there’s a museum somewhere in Lagos with a giant tapestry depicting ancient Nigerians tossing Kola nuts in the air while a dance crew does the pre-Electric Slide.

During the day, there were speakers and panels on Nigerian etiquette and business, as well as politics. Nobody was stressing over dual identities; people comfortably code-switched from Nigerian afro-beats to hip-hop like it was no big deal. Even while reporting, I was flattered how often people thought I was part of their tribe. Literally. I met half a dozen people who looked like my cousins. It was like getting an invite to the hidden international cookout where the aunties argued about jollof rice recipes instead of sweet potato pies.

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However, being invited to the cookout doesn’t mean you know all the rules yet. The only “African” clothes I had for the big dress-up gala on Saturday night was an authentic dashiki I bought for the Black Panther movie premiere earlier this year. I was all ready to go and texted a friend, who sent me an adamant “NO” in response.

“Why not? It looks nice.” I texted back.

“You’ll look like a hotep-brother,” she said. And that was that.

I grudgingly put on a shirt-and-blazer combo and went to the gala. I was glad I listened because everyone there looked like they just finished the step and repeat at the MTV Africa Awards, all senator suits and geles (head wraps). If I’d worn my dashiki I would’ve looked like a black hipster who just left the campus Kwanzaa celebration.

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“You’re the only African American here who could probably pass for Igbo,” laughed Nina Ngobidi, one of the conference directors when she saw me come in the room. That was literally the best validation I could have hoped for of my fashion choices. The next morning, I chatted with more people, asking how they felt about the conference, why they came and what they got out of a weekend of binging on their own culture.

“Y’know, I was so wrapped up in the weekend, I just looked at the news this morning and saw that racist Trump tweet about Don Lemon and LeBron,” said Chimezie Okobi, a lawyer from New York City. “And I was like, it was so nice to just have a few days of being Igbo, being Nigerian, and now we’re going back to being black Americans.”

Prior to my Nigerian weekend, I might’ve taken this statement as shade but in that moment I understood exactly what he meant and I knew how he felt. African Americans, for all of our pride and accomplishments always wrestle with the fact that our country basically hates us, doesn’t want us here, and never really has.

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Whatever the issues there are in Nigeria, and there are plenty, everyone at Igbo Umo Unite knows that there is at least one country on planet Earth that loves them, whether they were born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and moved to Prince George’s County, Md., or if they only knew their home country from their parent’s photos. Over a couple of days, I got a glimpse of what that feeling must be like, even if it was all just from the shape of my head.