september 1, 1981.
i swallow back the bile in my throat,
suppress the body’s compulsion to
spew forth my resenting anger, to soak
the tattered back seat of this overpriced
taxi; to spray the unwashed back, neck
& ears of the driver with venomous
i need to hit somebody.
george, my liberian host & inadvertent
tour guide, sensing my mood, prattles
nervously about the scenery. i only see
red, & remember:
wanting to press my lips against african
soil; feeling the tingle of one who has
passed through the looking glass. wanting
to shout “i am here! i am home!”
passing through immigrations, getting my
passport stamped, collecting my baggage
(no skycaps; no conveyor belts or revolving
luggage islands), i approach customs.
my eyes dart with exaggerated interest,
a dark young man waves, comes forward.
he is tentative. “are u mr. mcnair?”
“ i am,” i say. “the car is waiting, sir.”
“let me clear my luggage.” i am anxious to
see the world outside.
“my name is george,” he says. “my
pleasure,” i reply.
we stand exchanging pleasantries as the line
shortens. i note that the three uniformed
officers are indifferent to the arriving
passengers (it’s six a.m.). waving most of
it’s my turn. a tallish officer, thin &
phlegmatic, asks for my ticket, passport &
baggage check. asks if i have anything to
i say no & reach for my ticket.
in freeing my ticket from my breast pocket,
i dislodge three one hundred dollars bills,
& watch them, with sinking heart, float in
slow motion to the floor. i quickly retrieve
them, but everyone has seen.
george whispers, “this is not good.”
the other two customs men join the tallish
one. i can see their preceptors, a seasoned
team, now, move into well practiced
formations, execute complex sensory plays
with precision, as one.
i see myself being seen through eyes that
register images differently:
through myopic little tribal lenses that
distort, bend, break true images apart for
retinal membranes to put back together
again, upside down, & often with pieces
eyes that see me white when i
am black; that see me strange,
alien rather than familiar; that
see me rich,
& brush against me like pickpockets.
their ears, twitching with alertness,
listen but do not hear;
do not hear the universal
voice of my uncertainty
at being in an unfamiliar place;
do not hear my frustration
when i raise my voice to
make myself understood.
their ears listen, but for something else.
some trumped up tonal larceny
in the different rhythms, the
unfamiliar phrases of the
english i speak. some
self-betrayal in my accent
giving them good cause to painstakingly
search my bags.
& their nostrils flare:
sniffing for guiltfear as
their practiced hands rummage
through my shirts, socks, &
underwear; my suits, trousers &
shoes; through my books &
mementos of a past life; through
my camera bags…
where they find cause to detain me.
“are u a reporter?” their hard mouths
“why do u have so much equipment?”
“i am an amateur photographer,” i reply.
“where i go, these go with me.”
& they nod knowingly to one another.
“where is yr receipt for this equipment?”
i am ready for that question, having been
warned about my camera before i left
home. i show them. their faces fall rigid.
they consult, they confer, they conclude.
they circle me like predators.
“u are in violation of our nation’s
custom’s law, “they say, watching me like
jackals watch a tired prey.” u must pay
an import tax of twenty-five hundred u.s.
dollars only,” a formality, they say, “or
leave yr camera in our baggage room,
it will be safe, until u leave the country.”
they smile & lick their lips.
though bourgeois born, i am ghetto bred.
same rules, different jungle. i am
wounded. my naïve, idyllic pictures of the
african, of africa bleed, a stigmata.
i show my fangs & press the attack. my
mouth a beserker:
tearing into their pretense
of legality; ripping away the
dirty veil of feigned probity;
exposing their bribable greed,
their culpable corruption…
they don’t get all the words, but they get
my tone & intent. i sink my teeth into
their invidious comparing of me to them
& know their uncertainty. they withdraw
& i see another image of myself in their
“there ain’t shit in this stinking
country worth twenty-five
hundred dollars,” i shout loud
enough for everyone to hear,
“nothing i want to see, anyway!
i’ll sit my butt in this airport
all day & all night or as long
as it takes to get the next plane
to nigeria, a country big
enough to treat a black man
i collect my bags & move in the direction
of the departure lobby. the red
clears. george follows but says nothing. he
looks as if he wants to run away.
i am hit suddenly with the awareness of
what i have said, what i’ve done, where i
am. the next plane to nigeria leaves in
three days. i tighten my jaws, stiffen my
spine. i’ll wait!
“excuse me, sir,” says an obsequious voice
at my back, “ please, don’t be annoyed.” i
turn, snarling, to face the smallish black
man with the look of authority.
“who the hell are u?”
“i am mr. benson, the senior customs
officer. perhaps i can be of some
i am told that this road to monrovia is
thirty miles long. my eyes are not yet
clear. all i have seen is the vague
graygreen of the jungle merging into the
red of my anger & the clayish soil.
the morning air is warm & tense – a
tension outside of myself & made more so
as i realize that the only people i have seen
on this road are the gaunt boy soldiers
dwarfed by man-sized ak-47’s.
& i begin to have doubts that i’ll ever use
my camera here; that the negotiated one
hundred dollar import tax was too much to
pay in a place too mean,
too fearful to film.
©Joseph McNair; 1984-2009