The Eye Exam

“You’re definitely a Glaucoma Suspect,” the ophthalmologist says, squeezing two fluorescein drops into each eye. He presses a clean tissue to your tear ducts, the white paper immediately blooming bright gold.

You blink, both at his words and the dye, which stings then numbs, as your pupils tighten. Did he just say you were Criminally Blind?

The ophthalmologist is short and white, with dry hands that smell almost pathologically clean. The two of you’ve been having a good time, you performing the charming, educated black patient, keeping him entertained. This is a role you fall into unconsciously, partly due to your pathological desire to please whitefolks, partly due to history. The women (the poor white Nordic immigrants), the Blackfolks (the educated Nigerians), in your family haven’t fared too well in American medicine. Perhaps if you demonstrate that you are worthy, this doctor will take more time, try to keep you alive.

So far it seems to be working, albeit at the expense of the Resident shadowing him, a hulking black youth who plays the straight man to your two-man comedy show. But then the ophthalmologist profiles you: “You’re a Suspect,” he says.  “Since your father had glaucoma, and you’re African American.”

After a moment of stunned, yellow-teared silence, you do the following:

  1. Rejoice. No one ever reads you as your parents’ daughter, but it’s finally happening, your absent Nigerian father making his legacy visible in you!
  2. Correct. Perfect that wide-eyed stare so useful for passing eye exams and teaching Race 101, then say lightly, so as not to disappoint him, “I’m not African American.”  It can be a teaching moment.
  3. Despair. Your Finnish great-grandfather was institutionalized for 40 years, your Finnish grandmother misdiagnosed with hysteria instead of cancer, your Finnish great-uncle zapped with electroshock treatments for alcoholism, your Nigerian father given two pacemakers in the same operation.  American medicine is not your friend.
  4. All of the above.

You’re halfway on your way to C) Despair, when the ophthalmologist stops short, what looks like a miniature label-maker in his antiseptic hand. He recovers and places it against your numbed cornea. “You’re not African American?”

He stares. “Not at all?”

He squints. “Not even partly?”

Clearly he doesn’t want to let it go. He narrows and widens his pale eyes like when directing you to look up, down, to the right, to the left, as he maneuvered the cobalt-blue glow of the slit lamp to read your optic nerve. But this time he focuses on your bright brown skin, full lips and multicolored curls. Finally, he swivels around to regard the Resident looming in the doorway.

Doctor Ivory to Resident Ebony, you imagine him paging. Can we get an assist!

Tagged in, the young man stirs to life, steps forward onto one massive wingtip, and has a go. His deep rich voice booms: “One of your parents?”

You snort. “No, neither parent is African American.” He of all people should be able to figure it out. His brow furrows. He is dumber than you thought. The instant you saw him, you recognized him as ABA, American-born African:

  1. African features.
  2. American accent.
  3. Impeccably groomed and behaved.
  4. Doctor.

Hasn’t he at least seen the surname on your chart?

“Where were you born?” Resident Ebony demands. It feels like a police interrogation under hot lights. So much for impeccably behaved.

“America.” Though spoken defiantly, it slips out before you can stop yourself. Damn!

Lately you’ve taken to lying, claiming, “Yes, I was born in Nigeria,” so as to avoid being instructed in your identity by folks who should shut the fuck up. This includes:

  1. Americans who say: What, you’re considered white in Nigeria? That is hilarious!
  2. Americans who say: But you were born in America, so Nigeria’s not really home.
  3. Nigerians who say: Africa.  West Africa. Nigeria. Which state? Ah, you know Nigeria? Did you marry a Nigerian to get that name?
  4. Nigerians who say: Yes, but have you ever been to Nigeria?
  5. Nigerians who say: Yes, fine, but do you speak Igbo? Eh hehn!

“Aha!” Resident Ebony crows a triumphant cartoon version of the nasally Eh hehn!, as if he’s singlehandedly apprehended the Blind Identity Thief and wrangled her to justice. (Tief! Tief! They would shout in Nigeria, the whole market running to see.) He smirks. “Well, then.”

Leaning forward, your weight in your face – chin cupped on one bar and forehead held into place against another – you imagine your great-grandfather and great-uncle felt like this, one’s arms flattened beneath a straight-jacket, the other’s in leather restraints, electrodes strapped to his head. Immobilized, you rotate your eyes to shoot daggers at Resident Ebony.

What you would like to shout:

  1. Well then what?
  2. Really? Glaucoma cares where I was born?
  3. Shut the fuck up! (Or, as we say in Nigeria, Why are you the one crying about the pain in someone else’s head?)

What you say instead: “My birth place is an issue of legality and nationality. Isn’t African American-ness an issue of history and ethnicity?”

Ebony & Ivory unhinge their jaws. Flies swoop in, build condos.

You try again: “If glaucoma is like Sickle Cell—genetic, prevalent among folks of African descent—then yes, I am a Suspect.”  (Though now medicine says the crescent-shaped Sickler Gene comes from malaria resistance, not race at all.)

Flies create new systems of government, launch wars on neighboring states.

You continue: “But if glaucoma is like cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes—prevalent among folks of color but a matter of context—poverty, lack of access to education and health care, then I’m in fact innocent. Or are we talking Epigenetics? Can the stress of racism actually cause eye pressure?”

“T-t-he first one,” Resident Ebony manages to stammer out. “Descent.” A wave of Paco Rabanne for Men blooms through the fluorescent room, signaling his distress.

As cool and dry as the puff of air the Tonometer expels onto your cornea, Doctor Ivory shakes his head. “Well, I don’t get it,” he announces peevishly. “Someone’s going to have to explain that one to me sometime.”

Why not now? You bite your inner cheek, giving your conciliatory, raised-with-whitefolks smile. Why doesn’t he just ask if you’re black? You hate this term, AfricanAmerican. In particular, the way White Liberals nervously run the seven syllables together so fast you know they’re not really thinking about or hearing what they’re saying, using it as a painfully-polite, I-don’t-see-color code for “black.” As in, “What are conditions like for Scandinavia’s and Germany’s AfricanAmericans?” or “AfricanAmerican culture is so vibrant in Brazil!”

It reminds you of how so-called liberals in your hometown complained about their underpaid Mexicano and Chicano fieldhands, lowering their voices and calling them Spanish (because whispering and whitening makes it less racist).

Resident Ebony hovers in front of you, meaty hands jammed into white pockets, dark eyes bright like he wants to say or ask something. You close your eyes and let your tears soak up the tissue. You can’t quite get over the color, this intense cadmium yellow. Do you look like a Sickler (as we say, problematically, in Nigeria), eyes jaundiced with Malaria?

Poor Ebony & Ivory are bearing the brunt for all the Americans and Nigerians who don’t ask, just tell. If only someone would ask, you would explain that it’s all a matter of context:

  1. That in terms of nationality and legal citizenship, you are both Nigerian and American.
  2. That in terms of ethnicity and region, you are both Igbo and Nordic (not Scandinavian, by the way, because Finns are not Scandinavian, and no, Nordic is not short for Norwegian), but this itself requires a GPS tracker, because:
    1. In Igboland, what matters is that you come from Ngwa;
    2. In Finland, what matters is that you come from Savo;
    3. In Sweden, what matters is that you come from Götaland.
  3. That in terms of race, you are Black (because while you are African and you are American, you are not AfricanAmerican). And simultaneously Biracial (which has been Legal since Loving vs. Virginia 1967 and Official since the 2000 Census). And in Nigeria, white (and why not, as one-drop goes both ways?).

As Doctor Ivory disinfects his hands at the corner sink, he glances over with a grin and asks the name of your book. Touched, but a little bit apprehensive, you suggest he read your travel and personal essays: “Since you’re a history buff.”

“I want to read a book,” he insists. He pulls out his script pad and writes down the title of your memoir, an account of how your identity crisis led you to flunk out of college and ordain as a nun. “Hmm,” he muses, “Meeting Faith. Is Faith someone’s name?”

You squint in disbelief.

“It’s hers!” Resident Ebony volunteers eagerly.

Afterwards you wait, blurry-eyed in a yellowish world, until your husband pulls up to the curb: African features, African accent, impeccably groomed and behaved. Nonetheless, every time he leaves the house to Drive Black through the streets of America, you worry.

He sniggers when you tell him about the ABA Resident who didn’t recognize you. “Did they dilate your pupils?” he asks. “Can you see?”

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