Before arriving in the United States, Igwe Udeh had never seen a cowboy in real life. He didn't even know they still existed. When he was a child in Nigeria, peddlers used to come through his small town, show spaghetti Westerns on a projector, and sell American products to amped-up audiences. Udeh loved those films and knew all the lines to every Clint Eastwood classic. But to him, the cowboy was a mythical character — a symbol of a bygone era in the American West. That is, until the autumn of 1980, when he looked up from his desk at the University of Oklahoma and saw a tall, slender man strolling into the classroom. This man wore a red plaid shirt, thick leather boots that clicked as he walked, and a wide-brimmed hat that obscured his face. When he sat down, he gently took off his hat and set it on the seat next to him. As other students poured into the classroom, no one dared to sit there. Udeh was in awe of this man's confidence.
Udeh left Nigeria to pursue a graduate degree in economics at the University of Oklahoma. But when he arrived, he found that he was the only black man in his program and one of the few in the town of Norman. None of the local barbers knew how to cut Udeh's hair, so he let it grow into an Afro. Some of the locals also had a hard time understanding Udeh through his thick Nigerian accent. When Udeh went to church, he wore his most traditional garb: a colorful West African pullover known as a dashiki. "No one would talk to me," he recalls in an interview. "They'd look at me like, 'Why are you dressed like that?' I'd sit down and people would get up one by one from the pews and move somewhere else. I'd leave feeling rejected and alienated."
Udeh wanted to assimilate, but in a way that would still allow him to express his African identity. As a Nigerian of Igbo descent, Udeh recognized some commonalities between his background and the American cowboy. Both cultures are deeply connected to the land. They are also both known for their strong, independent spirit and blunt manner of speaking. So Udeh went around to the local thrift stores to shop for some cowboy clothes (not difficult, as that's all they sold). He purchased plaid flannel shirts with shiny pearl-snap buttons, second-hand blue jeans, and cowboy boots that made him stand taller. He even bought the biggest Kawasaki motorcycle he could afford — his own iron horse — but found he couldn't wear the helmet because his Afro was too big. His appearance tickled local Oklahomans who had never seen a foreigner dress this way. "The first time I walked into a classroom in my new cowboy getup, someone said, 'Look at that! Igwe wants to be a cowboy.' I smiled and replied, 'Yes, I do.'"Keep reading