Onyx slept in his seat for over four hours. He was not particularly comfortable, but the flight’s monotony coupled with the nasal drone of the stewardesses’ voices was more than enough to aid his slumber. He dreamt of nothing at all; waking up to the cold sterility of economy class. He looked at the lights up and down the aisles of the plane’s cabin and wondered who in the world got paid to design them. Did these faceless designers think depressing lighting would stir feelings of brand loyalty within the airline’s frequent flyers?
The clean lines and basic shapes in the cabin seemed like an insult to everything organic. This minimalist approach to decoration would have undoubtedly been considered ‘intelligent design’ by some of the elitist who polluted first class with their fancy fragrances, predictable politics, and obvious self-obsession. As far as the “one-percenters” were concerned, anything you paid a lot of money for was “intelligent”; especially when ordinary people couldn’t get access to it. In Onyx’s opinion, modern design’s purpose was to show off.
As someone who considered himself to be artistically inclined and an opponent of order, design did not appeal to him in the least. Design had function, form and purpose; whereas art was open to interpretation. It helped breed a sense of spontaneity in any who saw, witnessed, or experienced it. Art gave spontaneity a “voice,” and spontaneity was creativity’s very blood.
Spontaneity was the reason he was given the funny (and pompous sounding) name of Onyx. For some unexplained reason, his parents thought naming him after a semi-precious stone was a good idea. Spontaneity was the reason he had a foot tall afro in his thirties. He could have stopped when his hair had reached six inches, but decided only to cut it when it hindered his movement. Spontaneity was probably why he disliked mathematics and numbers in general. Figures had a way of making everything…finite. There was even a mathematical symbol for infinity. Why try to make something that is supposed to be endless and represent the mystery of the unknown tangible? He could not understand some people’s need to control everything.
His impulsive (some would say unfocused) nature made being inside the fixed space of the airplane like being inside a cage. Onyx hated knowing where everything was. It was his tendency towards spontaneity that made him wake up yesterday— without so much as a call to his family—and board a plane to the almost mystical country that made up fifty percent of who he was. He knew his daughter and ex-wife would be seated at the head of their metaphorical table of judgment to feast on hearty helpings of his “irresponsibility.” He would worry about that later. He had followed his heart, and would only apologize for the sake of their feelings.
Onyx Togbah was born 1979, in the West African nation of Liberia. This was the year before President William R. Tolbert was assassinated in coup d’état that changed the course of that nation’s history. He came into existence as a man perpetually caught between two worlds. He was the son of a proud farmer of the Kpelleh tribe who hailed from Liberia’s Gbong County, and a liberal mother of pure Irish-American stock from Boston who worked for the Peace Corps. He was undeniably Western in his mannerisms and thoughts, but the fullness of his features and density of his hair told Africa’s story. He carried an American passport with hands that were bronzed by his Liberian heritage. He often described himself as being “Afro with some Euro, but one-hundred percent soul.”
At the age of 35, Onyx was returning to his father’s homeland for the first time in 21 years. After two failed marriages, a string of unfulfilling jobs, and trying to raise Yamma, his precocious 12-year-old daughter, he needed to plant his feet on Liberia’s soil once again.
He took his first trip to Liberia after the coup when he was just 14. His mother, Janie Reardon, wanted him to spend the summer of 1993 with his father Richard. After his freshman year in high school, he left the dull concrete expanse of Columbus, Ohio, and set out on an adventure that would knock the ignorance out of his gullible little head.
He arrived to a moving welcome from his paternal family that made him feel like a little light-skinned prince. For his first two days in Liberia he was surrounded by the other Togbahs who praised his “fine and curly” afro and hazel eyes. Getting caught up in the moment, he was dumb enough to feel entitled to their admiration.
Onyx was a typical spoiled American kid until one fateful day—exactly two after his arrival —when his Dad drove him to the family farm at Gbartala, looked him in the eyes and said, “People who work are people who eat.”
Being a typical emotional American teenager, Onyx cursed, threw a tantrum, and threatened to leave while flailing his arms about and shouting at the top of his lungs. Richard Togbah, being a typical African man, smiled at his “Fanta-colored” son and went about the business of clearing grass until Onyx was exhausted from his outburst. Onyx cried like a child half his age after that. He was overcome with shame from his playing the role of the “ugly American.” He made a transformation from the Ohio boy who only left his pampered suburban existence to buy things he did not need at the mall, to the young man who learned how to farm cassava. What other choice did he have that summer?
Onyx remembered his father as a man of unspeakable integrity and uncommon discipline. He was six-foot-three with shoulders as wide and majestic an eagle’s wingspan and a body hardened by years of honest work. He had skin the color of roasted coffee beans, and blindingly white teeth that caught the light whenever he laughed. And oh, how often he laughed! His silly American son gave him more than enough reason to. Onyx’s first attempts at using a cutlass and trying to carry a bucket of water on his head were every comedian’s dream. His father laughed at him, but never left his side until he learned. Onyx could not get over how a man who looked so much like himself could be so different.
His memories of Richard Togbah always conjured up a man who never raised his voice or hands to anyone. Those three months of farming with his dad over two decades ago destroyed most of the Western pretentiousness and stupid ego inside of Onyx. He went to Liberia a boy and returned to America ready to embrace the responsibilities of manhood.
When he returned to the U.S., his mother was pleasantly surprised. Janie Reardon’s former “couch-potato” son no longer had to be told to do his chores. He started wearing the ‘country-cloth’ shirts his father had made for him on a daily basis. He raised his head high with a new sense of awareness whenever he was around his friends. All he had to do was close his eyes and remember his father’s words, “I am honored to be your father; we are privileged to share blood.”
The smooth cadence of Richard Togbah’s Liberian patois combined with his gregariousness and honesty won his son over. Richard made Onyx feel a little less cynical about humanity and a lot less self-conscious about being the only face of color back in his Ohio classrooms. The sense of peace he developed from farming side by side with his father confirmed to him that he was undoubtedly a child of Africa. He could still hear his father’s voice calling to him, pronouncing his name the way only a Liberian man could, “Oh-nees! Oh-nees! I say! Oh-nees! You boy make haste ya! We have plenty work to do oh! Oh-nees…”
“….Oh-nees! Oh-nees… Mr. Tok-bar! Mr. Tok-bar!” He was startled out of his daydream by the obnoxious high-pitched twang the stewardess used to butcher his surname; his father’s name. She said it with the willful carelessness of people from America’s most annoying state. In a matter of seconds, his mind was transported from the time he was a teenage boy running to Richard Togbah’s side, back to the reality of being the tall grizzled man with too much hair for his age. He looked around and realized that the plane had landed and he was the only passenger still on it.
Behind her empty smile and almost impenetrable layer of makeup, the obviously Texan stewardess gave him a look that asked “Why are you still here?” Ignoring her, Onyx stood all 6-foot-3 inches of himself— a pale clone of his father— up from his seat and moved his single carry-on bag from the overhead compartment. He exited the plane with speed, allowing the clean humid air surrounding the Roberts International Airport to enter his lungs with almost violent force. He felt like he had received a shot of adrenaline directly into his bloodstream. He knew he was being enveloped in the magic of Liberia.
He entered customs and was pleasantly surprised by how easy things were. He had been told by friends and family who had traveled to Liberia recently to expect a rigorous inspection performed by merciless bureaucrats. Instead, he got warm smiles and even a pat on the back when they saw the name Togbah on his passport. The customs officers teased him about being a “frustrated white-man” and laughed because they said he spoke “se-rees”; but there was no malice in their words. This was Liberia, if you couldn’t stand a “hard joke” then it was better for you to turn around and get right back on the plane you came with. Laughter had sustained Liberians in their darkest years, who was any foreigner to tell them they needed to be politically correct?
Besides, he was fully aware he needed thick skin, good humor and a clear head for the task at hand. He had a mission. He was going to find out why he had not heard from Richard Togbah over the past 15 years. He was ready to do whatever it took in a country that had been through so much since he was a child. Onyx Togbah was going to find his father.
…To be continued