“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” -James Baldwin
I’m reblogging this poem I wrote a few months ago because it was inspired by Lucille Clifton, whose “won’t you celebrate with me” has been my chant of choice when I need to remind myself why I am choosing to keep living, and choosing to be optimistic.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt in my poetry workshop this semester, it’s that I’m not a poet. I spend most of my time feeling belated embarrassment for all the poetry-related opportunities I’ve applied to, or that I’ve even dared to submit poetry for publication at all. There are different sorts of writing I do well, and I’m not sure poetry is one of them. I solemnly swear that I’m not tying to force positive comments out of you, I’m just stating what I feel to be true.
Still, I’m swerving out of my lane momentarily and I might as well do it wholeheartedly. Here’s a work in progress I wrote for my class. It’s a response to one of favorite poems from Lucille Clifton, “what the mirror said,” second only to “won’t you celebrate with me” also by Clifton.
I really am fine, or as fine as I can be, all things considered…
Teaching is incredibly rewarding and my thesis is pretty much writing itself after all the obsessive research and more than a few false starts.
I’m working on getting the care that I need. If you know me well enough to be worried after reading this blog, you also know that writing is my automatic response for anything that happens in my life, and not necessarily a cry for help nor a word-for-word rendering of the parts of my life no one can ever really know but me.
I’m caught in a place that is familiar to most people who are trying to find the joints between art, activism, academic work, and living as a whole human being. You can do you research about people and cultures, solidify their place in history, but by the time your work is actually done, the people you claim to care about could be long dead. What use are you to them while they are still living?
I just need to write.
When the bus plunges forward to an abrupt stop, I feel as though the force is going to take me with it. Take me out, through the window and onto the asphalt on a bed of broken windscreen and motor oil. The woman next to me is laughing too loud, to deep, to wide, too open; all the way back to her wisdom teeth and down her throat. Something on that stranger’s sandwich smells sour, as if it has been sitting on a glass shelf under a sweating spotlight for more hours than the package would recommend. Everything is entirely too much. Needless to say, I feel overwhelmed, and not just by the unending stream of news reporting brutality and collapse that is most certainly not new, but feels somehow even more urgent and threatening by the day.
I’m overwhelmed, so that every late-night message alert from one of my students, or an email reminder “touching base on your student loan,” feels like a bell ringing right next to my ear drum. Goddess forbid someone drop a heavy object upstairs, because that might as well be a rubber boot stomping on the inside of my head. The blender in the kitchen next door is a drill hammering directly onto my collarbone, and the shower running two doors down is more like a burst pipe emptying onto the floor around my bed. I’m overwhelmed in a way that I can only explain in these exaggerated terms, (except this is how it really feels), to demonstrate how any emotional or physical stimuli seem to have taken on several additional dimensions beyond what one would expect of livable reality.
The usually reliable neatness of my symptoms list is now no more than black marks skidding across the page where there used to be words (ants are too orderly). At least, it might as well be, because the sensation of the world pressing against my skin to the point where the pain is unbearable is new and doesn’t fit anywhere between “nervousness” and “paranoia.” Another new and even more concerning development is the compulsion I feel to punish myself for…what, I’m not completely sure. Self-deprecation is one thing; I’m so familiar with that mild sort of shame that my footprints leave footprints in the same grooves where I have stepped down that path many times before.
Normally, my issue is that I’m embarrassed or annoyed with myself for an inconsiderate or cruel thing I did or said years before I could have claimed to know better.
But this is different. The problem now seems to be that I exist at all. My smallest infractions send me spiraling around and down towards self-loathing and other horrid and unutterable thoughts. My default setting is now that I don’t deserve rest or reward because I haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t graded enough papers, haven’t written enough pages of my thesis, haven’t been pleasant enough to the people in my life who become collateral damage to my chaotic self.
Because it’ll never be enough. I’ve been given too much I don’t deserve and there will never be a way to pay…I’ll eat when I’ve completed a satisfactory amount of work, which is usually hours after the stomach ache from hunger itself gives up in the hopes that I’ll change my mind and stop for food at some point.
I’ll take a break and go to meet with that person, or just go outside for fresh air when I’ve earned it, so probably never.
I’ll pause and join the rest of the house for a chat when I’m done reading this book, I need it for my research, I need it to tell me how to more present, to be more useful and the next and the next…read on the bus, in bed, in between in-betweens, even when fatigued from learning more about how we’ve created a world that is killing us all some more quickly than others.
I’ll wash and oil and braid my hair when I have a moment to spare, so not for the next few weeks until the next deadline passes, or until my curls and kinks can only be coaxed out of knots with a wide-toothed comb (and I am sure to lose a lot in the process).
I am my own predator. Anything about myself is fair game. Every unanswered message and missed meet-up is another failure. Any mundane setback is evidence of another thing I can’t do, another indication that I am not worthy. My current target is now the cavernous gap between my political convictions and the way I am living my life. Cavernous because my only option is to fall fast and far through the weak foundation of what I think I know and what I actually do…
Girl, like the one and only time you gave in to name-dropping an influential, or maybe even [in]famous, relative to slide around the bureaucracy of the passport office at home. Is “one and only” one time too many when I claim to understand how corruption works? Let’s hear some of that talk about privilege, hmm? How many volunteer shifts missed until I just stop going? How many times to be judgmental, or to compromise my own humanity by my inability or unwillingness to empathize with anyone who cries “white tears?” Or like the fact that I’m using this space to seek validation that I am indeed a “good” person doing my best? Is that what I’m doing? Who has time for my self-indulgence/self-flagellation-self at all?
Whatever is happening now is ugly. My writing has turned from confession and the occasional celebration into another opportunity to turn against my myself. I am living the combination of trying to move around as an artist concerned with what my work is going to mean in this world, attempting to navigate how I wield power and squirm under its heel at the same time, and this genetic? hormonal? all of the above? tendency to be ruthless with my self where I should be gentle. Whatever is happening now is ugly, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frightened.
Here are some of the things outside off (but not necessarily unrelated to) my self that I’ve been thinking and talking and teaching about over the past few weeks (and also trying to figure out things I can *do*.) Give them a read? It’s urgent.
Nothing that I have to say is particularly new. If you’re tired of hearing it, imagine how tired we are of saying it over and over.
Being a graduate student-instructor means that I must now call “colleagues” some of the same classmates whose racist and generally problematic writing and feedback I had to endure in workshops, whose microaggressions (the cumulative effects of which are anything but “micro”) I had to swallow and smile away, or bite back, in literature and theory seminars.
“I feel like you talk so much in class because the professor loves you. Or you know, maybe you talk so much because of where you sit.” It’s not like my brain is attached to chair. (This was my actual response). But sure, we can switch seats. It just won’t change the fact that your real gripe is that you’re now struggling in graduate school with the same Aimé Césaire text I read in the original French as an undergraduate. So maybe examine why exactly it is you’re so pressed?
Not my problem.
It’s even more infuriating that I feel the need to position myself in this way before saying what I really want to say, to shore up my credibility by name-dropping Césaire, and gesturing to how all my Black girl magic is never quite enough. And this is just one mild example.
At the moment, my most urgent concern is no longer this kind of comment directed towards me, because, well, I’m *me* and I’m not intimidated.
I’m concerned because some of my colleagues think it’s enough to sprinkle some James Baldwin here and some Gloria Anzaldúa there, a few extra credit points for a dash of some social justice buzzwords there, and shake to serve.
I am disheartened by this strange insistence from some people in the MFA that we are “writers and not academics,” here to work on our writing and not engage with “dense” theory, as if our creative work exists in some vacuum beyond the reach of scholarly pursuits.
I am frustrated because certain people think it’s enough to cherry pick works by people of color to use in their writing classes, without grounding their teaching in any clearly defined radical intellectual tradition.
I am distraught because an arts school such as Emerson College actually has the potential to create classroom spaces that are truly transformative, that threaten the empty complacency of our own institution, and push us all to more just and sustainable futures. Instead, we call it radical when students get to write essays about music videos (extra points if the artist is Black or brown!) and then we keep it moving.
And I am exhausted, because instead of expending my energy on attending to my mental health, and on my work that celebrates all there is to love and mourn in the Black diaspora, I am writing this post. [It’s 10 to 1 in the morning and I should be asleep.]
Just focus on the writing.
Meanwhile brilliant students are using their precious time to organize and march and sit and chant and cry, instead of working on the art they came here to perfect. Focus on the writing, but we are not pushing students (especially those who have never had to think deeply about how their comfort may depend on someone else’s strife) to unlearn the harmful ideas they may have already absorbed before getting to us.
I come from a place where it’s commonplace for textbooks to list the “advantages and disadvantages” of colonialism, and so can do no more than laugh a bitter laugh when I see false equivalences and ahistorical arguments used to try and hush any kind of dissent or critique.
Hold hands and love each other. But my Black friend told me…This hurt my feelings and I will no longer listen, how dare you call me racist?
And beyond this kind of ignorance, so generic and unoriginal it makes me bored rather than enrages me, we have the pièce de résistance; a direct quote from a classmate’s feedback to an essay I wrote in which I discussed, among other things, how white women are afforded space to play helpless victims of the scary Black person, even after saying and doing vile things. I may or may not have also witten the phrase “Fuck forced sisterhood with white women,” and *that* my dear friends, was my ultimate sin:
I absolutely understand that Black women have entirely different struggles and might need a different type of feminism than white women [We might? How kind of you to notice!]…Who’s forcing the sisterhood? I encourage the author to think about the way she views feminism/womanism…
As if I am not the daughter of a mother that considers Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens a guiding light in the form of a thick book with long-yellowed pages. As if I would need a white woman to explain womanism to me… Feminism is about gender equality and women helping other women…Alright “sis,” so how exactly are you helping me, when your response to my critique of white women wielding their femininity like a weapon, is to essentially dismiss me as divisive and too angry, or angry at the wrong things?
In the humanities, in our stale rooms packed to the ceilings with books, we have pages upon volumes of information about the slippery way in which power moves, years of careful analysis that explain how and why it is possible for one to benefit from a system that is resting on someone else’s bent back, without recognizing the invisible powers at work.
What are we really doing with the knowledge we have? What is the political engine driving our acting and writing and filming? What else needs to happen for us– for you– to realize how high the stakes are?
I have sharpened my oyster knife at Emerson, but my spirit is dull, and I am absolutely fed up.
I’m so grateful that my professor in the fall non fiction workshop, Jerald Walker, recommended my essay to be published in the May issue of Slice Magazine! My bio is just casually on the same page as Edwidge Danticat! I had a few more thoughts, because unfortunately the essay is as true for me today as it was when I wrote it in October. I’m doing alright for the most part, even though it may not necessarily seem like it. I’m grateful to be alive, and to have had the chance to focus completely on my writing in a way that I may not have done so easily had I not gone the MFA route. I’m just trying my best to navigate this thing called my 20s, along with everything else happening in the world right now, while still finding room for a little joy and some rest.
My favorite kind of message to receive is from people who read this blog and tell me that my being open about my mental health, anger among other things resonates deeply with them, or that my words have expressed their own personal experiences in ways they hadn’t been able to do before. This has nothing to do with any potential massages to my ego, but is completely about the relief I feel that I am not as alone as I may think, and that this writing practice, this thing I love to do the most out of anything in this world, has been helpful in some small way for others. I had recently started to think that I got such a positive response on posts about all these raw emotions because people love to consume others’ pain, particularly if the writer or artist is a Black woman carrying many things on her back. This may be true to some extent, but mostly people genuinely appreciate seeing themselves reflected in art, and it brings me such joy to be a part of that process.
I still feel isolated, because “opening up” in writing and in person, and setting boundaries for what I can and can’t take from others doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. I’ve tried to shift from cries for help buried in jokes and sarcasm to speaking plainly about my needs and my hurt, but somehow the resounding response seems to be “You’ll be fine. You always are.” Loneliness seems to be the best way to describe the resulting state of being after the “just checking on you” messages stutter to a stop, or the person in need of my care or advice has found their solution or someone else to lean on. As I’ve said before, I don’t resent at all being called on at any hour to put out a little fire, but it would be amazing to hear from people just for the sake of a pleasant chat, or “just thinking of you.”
There’s this phrase in Ewe my mum says regularly, whenever a friend or significant other begins to take one for granted. Loosely translated it means “loosen the rope” or “loosen the thread,” as in, begin to distance yourself. She’s always reminding me that life is too short to endure more heartbreak than is necessary, when one can just uproot oneself and leave in pursuit of contentment and more equal and nurturing relationships, platonic and otherwise.
I understand where that advice comes from, but I used to wonder, if I start pulling away the minute someone disappoints me, won’t that mean I’ll eventually have no one left? If we all take this approach, where would that leave us? Self-absorbed and unable to see past our own noses, and miserable and unloved all at the same time? I find myself wishing that people would just actually listen and be a little more gentle, so that we wouldn’t have to resort to coldness and withdrawal in the hopes of getting our needs considered more seriously. (It hurts even more when the “loosening of the tie” goes unnoticed, almost as if you’ve ceased to exist unless to offer some humor or a word of advice.)
Which brings me to the essay I had published in Slice Magazine in May, “My Secondhand Lonely,” The title comes from one of the most painful moments for me (among many) in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. My piece is about keeping up the kind of performance I’ve learnt from my mother, to always pretend to be well-adjusted and available for others, no matter the pain I’m going through. The timeline of the essay ends right before my first visit to a therapist and learning about PMDD. I also talk about recognizing this always-on-top-of-things performance in Molly from the HBO show Insecure. I wrote this essay before the point in the TV series where they turned Molly into a walking think-piece and began using her character to showcase what felt like every problematic worldview possible; homophobia, classism, respectability politics, you name it. There was just something about her strutting her flawless self around the office, paralleled by her crying alone in the bathroom at her office that felt so familiar.
Ultimately, the essay is about feeling ashamed for yearning for the company and care of others, because according to Sula the fearless, and the trope of the independent Black woman I see everywhere, I should be enough for myself. On some days, I do feel like enough, unstoppable and self-sufficient. Mostly, I’m still human and in need of connection with others, just like other human beings, but unsure of how else I can make this known without becoming irritating or repetitive (I fear I already am the latter.) I don’t think it’s sustainable to live this way, to weep privately, like I did while writing this post this evening, to grin and joke in public, and to keep loving and caring with little reciprocation while deteriorating on the inside. At the moment though, I don’t know how else to be.
You can read a preview of the essay and get a copy of the magazine here.
(Image: Cover of Slice Magazine Issue 20: Corporeal. Artwork by Jenny Morgan, courtesy of Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York. Cover design by Jennifer K. Beal Davis.)
For some reason, I keep coming back to this piece I wrote in 2015 called Inventory, and the short story I tried to make out of it (here and here). I’m still not interested in finishing it, nor am I any more inclined to start writing *that* immigrant student story that so many African literary critics and readers have declared self-indulgent, tired, and geared towards the “Western gaze.” These critiques of others work aren’t a deterrent for me at all, partly because I hate being told what to do, but mainly because I’m just far more excited by being able to set stories in Accra or in some other magical African diasporic elsewhere that only exists in my imagination (shout out to the thesis I should be working on!) I think i’ve returned to this old story again because I’m finally at a place where the real events that inspired the writing aren’t as upsetting to me as they once were (and I mean both the things I did and those that were done to me). I left out the most hurtful parts that were a little tooreal, and altered certain details to make the protagonist feel a little less like me. I can’t claim to know what “letting go” really looks like, except to say that for me it’s a continuous process that feels more final and successful on some days than others.
I think the store assistant called them “periwinkle.” I couldn’t be sure, because she was evidently uninterested in my stuttering inquiries; the novelty of mocking nervous first-time shoppers had long evaporated and she blinked slow lids up and down as though she was minutes from falling asleep. “So, do you want these gift-wrapped, or not?” I liked this particular pair of panties because their color was somewhere between purple and blue. The white lace trim reminded me of the heavy porcelain jewelry box a distant aunt had given me as a gift at a time when I was far too young and not pretentious enough to appreciate faux Victorian-era trinkets with November dust permanently stuck in its crevices. I already had a bra to match, and I stood in the crowded hall at Union Station grinning like a birthday girl because I felt as though I had a secret destined only for your discovery.
You were going to be visiting family in Maryland for the summer, a 30-minute drive from where I lived in DC, and I found it to be the perfect opportunity to make poor attempts at hiding the bitterness which I spat at you on a video call.
Ugh. I just– I hate to be selfish or to even bring this up at all, but I’m the one always coming up to see you though I know you can afford the trip and then some. You know I’m on work study, and this summer my campus job only gives me four days off, but my roommate is away, we can have the place to ourselves and I just–
I have to admit that I didn’t do a good job of concealing the manipulation I had fooled myself into calling I-just-want-to-spend-time-with you and It’s-only-fair. Emotional blackmail was only if you looked closely and a little too long at the shadows behind words and the pauses between them.
“Hmmm. Ok you…I’ll see what I can do.”
Yesss alright! So here’s what I was thinking. There’s a Ghanaian restaurant in Adams Morgan–
“I’m not making any promises though, so don’t get too excited.”
I had been fidgeting with the pink tissue paper my new underwear came wrapped in, but for some reason your response made me want to rip it between my jaws and stuff it down my throat. I was getting what I wanted, what was my problem now? I wanted you to come and visit me, but I also wanted you to want the exact same thing and to be happy about it. Be happy, whatever it takes.
I stood at the station with one hand behind my back, just above the point where the blue lace began, pulling imaginary puppet strings so that when I spotted you walking the yellow-lined maze of the parking garage, I could almost pretend that you did not already have a strained expression on your face. We would act out a scene from one of those novelas that used to bring us to the point of tearful laughter, because the characters had pale faces but had been dubbed to speak English just like we did, complete with “oh” and “ei” to show alarm.
You would set your weekend bag on the ground next to your feet and sweep me up into the air in a ridiculous spin of euphoria, and old women pushing babies in strollers and young couples sharing ice cream cones would smile at us indulgently as we said hellos set to background music of whiny guitar strings. The reality was that the ground was spotted with puddles of engine oil and dirty rainwater and you would never set down your expensive suede duffel on it, and the lovely grandmas and picture perfect couples were actually frustrated travelers with curved pillows dangling from their necks and toddlers screaming their exhaustion as they trailed behind.
“So are you gonna move? Goddam disrespectful kids…”
I don’t know why you’re angry. It’s not my fault the bus was delayed.
I don’t know why you’re even here. Nobody forced you to come.
Now my hands often wander to the part of my hip where the bone juts out, and it feels rough and unpleasant, as if someone has filed it down in an attempt to make it softer, less obtrusive. I realize that it is the imprint left from the lace scratching me in the same place every time, imprinting on my skin with its curling patterns intended to look like flowers. I am wounded in the same spot where your persistent hands burnt through the fabric with urgency like latent heat, so that the scar now looks more like the inside of a dead tree, each swirl and crisscrossing lines showing just how long this excruciating process of “getting over it” is going to take.
I begin to rifle through the underwear folded in my top drawer, checking the seams and frills, ripping out loose threads every so often. I even used my teeth to pull out the cream lace from that bra you liked. I didn’t realize those were the same threads tying the muscles in my face together to keep myself from slipping sideways and away.
1 ring finger (loosely jointed)
I’ve taken to cracking the ring finger on my left hand, so I’ll take out the knuckle and place it beside all my other things. It’s relatively easy to do, but the difficult part comes when I try to pry the residue of back-when-it-was-different from underneath my fingernails. I’m trying to sift through all the mistakes to find out when the gap between what I thought and what I actually said began to widen, until I learned to fill it with what you wanted me to say. I’m taking stock of myself today. I’m digging through empty chewing gum wrappers at the bottom of my handbag and scrolling through unanswered messages, trying to locate the moment my weight threatened to snap your back, or the moment I realized that with you I was the worst possible version of myself. Was it when the formerly steady stream of phone calls dwindled to a reluctant drip? Or when you were very clear that I was “stuck in the past, acting like we’re still 17 and 18 in high school” and didn’t I know that we had left the “honeymoon phase” behind? Or maybe it was when you started assigning “points” to rate my performance as someone who was supposed to love you; thumbs up for driving to your house late at night in a car I’m still scared to drive, and for performing remorse for all the self-centered monologues I forced you to endure about school, friends, the weather. Penalties for refusing to drive you to town for dinner, for bowing my head and letting you call me out my name and “call me out”–
“Shame on you. You don’t try. Are you…crying? You know I’m a bully, right?”
Is that a smile? Is that the sound of you enjoying this?
I hope that one day we can meet at one of those over-priced restaurants close to my job, where bright red umbrellas stand next to storefronts almost entirely covered in gold paint and stamped all over with the same designer logo. We can pass empty conversation back and forth between ourselves.
“I finally got the investment bank job I’ve been sweating for.”
That’s nice. Happy for you. I’m thinking of applying to grad school. Can’t work retail forever. At least I can say I really understand people now? Should help with psych, right?
Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Actually, let’s not. I still have a lot of self-cataloguing to do, and your “bullying” has set me back much further than I may ever be able to catch up. It’s taken me so long to discover that I may have been asking the wrong questions, how can I be better, instead of when did you give up? Or when did you start talking to her again? When did it start feeling like cheating? I just found a scratched mix CD and a coupon for a free dance class. I’m shuffling papers for the trash and shuffling selves until I find the original one that I cracked
when I tried to fit it into the right self for you.
I’m stopping by briefly to share this work I turned in to my poetry workshop last semester. This poem is related to my thesis, but as usual, I can’t give more details than that because it feels like bad luck (?) to share information about something that is still so…scattered. I feel very protective of my project, and it’s not because I think I’m Beyoncé on some surprise album drop type of thing, because who am I??? (Ok maybe a little bit Beyoncé *twirls in Lemonade yellow*) Still, I’ve only talked about this work in detail with a few people. I cringe a little when people make definitive “when it’s done” statements, or when someone says, “Oh I told so-and-so about your work and they think it’s really cool!” I get that excitement can be contagious, but talking about it too much out loud before it’s anywhere close to ready feels a little like testing fate.
Erzulie Dantor slides off an altar in Jérémie and falls into a seat at a bus stop in Dorchester. Blue chiffon and bluer water solidify into metal iced over and stinging to the thigh. She leaves behind houses flattened like matchboxes, like old photographs pressed between the pages of an address book with phone numbers long faded, like luxury car tires over desperate land.
sleet tapping on the bus window ke-ke-ke-ke
She has unraveled herself from linen headwraps and skirts, and now feels pinched in a too tight brown coat missing the top button she fidgeted away. White ruffles and bare stomping feet turn to dry ankles dusted with grey and jutting out of black bedroom slippers, dragged to tatters by hostile ground.
bones protesting when she tries to rise up ke-ke-ke-ke
She has teeth cracking ‘til they splinter far back in her jaw, the dagger in her heart shifting deeper into the muscle with each hacking cough. She runs her fingers over memories of battle, over tender skin of women à Louisiane, Ouidah, Dzelukoƒe, over Earth’s plates never to come together again.
Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation or learning. But that time is over. My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.
I’m breaking my hiatus from this blog so soon just to revel for a moment in how freeing I have found it to shrug off the unwanted weight of respectability, and to celebrate my anger loudly and often.
This blog has never been a destination for those in search of butterflies in their stomachs and warm fuzzy feelings in their chests, or wherever those feelings take place. It’s not a coincidence that my writing became harsher, more biting, around the time I studied in Dakar with lots of white people, some of whom were great friends, and the rest of whom were more concerned with getting ill-fitting outfits made out of wax print than they were with actually learning anything about Senegal (special shout out to the few people of color on the program as well, the ongoing shady commentary made the trip worthwhile)!
I was used to being the dissenting or challenging voice in class throughout college, but hadn’t yet began to imagine the limits of the classroom (especially one in a predominantly white university) as a space where any kind of radical work can occur.
My blog posts settled deeper into anger after I graduated and moved to Boston for grad school, which should be no surprise considering the city’s glaring whiteness and its continued efforts to keep people of color in the margins even though they outnumber the number of white Bostonians, (what’s up housing segregation, over-policing and discrimination in schools!)
In my everyday life, I became used to being antagonized and picked at by classmates who seemed to either resent my presence, or wanted to claim me as their “not a racist because Black friend” trophy. These personal incidents were taking place within the larger, frightening context of incessant police violence against Black people in the US, and unchecked (“unchecked” because it is all going according to plan) government corruption ensuring the continued suffering of Black people across the continent I call home.
Most importantly, my graduate courses began to nudge and then shove me to a place of more meaningful political consciousness. I grew ashamed of the complacent state I was living in as an undergraduate, still reasonable “aware” of systems of oppression but unwilling to be hyper-critical of how I was buying into them, and how I was standing on the backs of other Ghanaian women in order to “achieve my dreams.”
For one thing, most of my time outside of class in college was spent planning events for the African student organization, a group I loved dearly, but one whose strong reputation became mostly linked to our large social events (as vital and fulfilling as those were) at the expense of more political organizing, during the time that I moved from member to leader. Our political events were still well-attended, usually by white students who only saw the African continent as a wasteland ravage by conflict, and a site for potential “development” and profit. Still, we thrived, in spite of the somewhat one dimensional narrative around our groups identity, still putting on panel discussions, film screenings and conferences, some of which felt like they were mainly for ourselves rather than for our entire campus community to expand their knowledge about the African continent.
My own wishy-washy politics didn’t allow me to fully process the boundaries that existed between the Black groups on campus and how to turn those into potential for more solidarity with concerns from across the African diaspora. I couldn’t get past the feelings of invisibility or hurt I felt in seemingly insignificant moments when, for example, I tried to explain the Adinkra symbol our collective of Black on-campus groups had been using as a logo, with someone choosing to consult Google over listening to what I had to say as an actual Ghanaian person in the room.
I didn’t know how to understand how the idea of “the motherland” as it was frequently used positioned me somewhere in a distant and inaccessible past, and that all of us Black people were seeing incomplete and inaccurate images of one another filtered through white supremacist channels. I didn’t know how to express how I felt about most of the on-campus organizing for Black liberation centering on the US in a way that was necessary but also confusing in the broader context of Black people’s struggles elsewhere. I couldn’t fully grasp the toxic effects of our highly competitive campus environment that placed immense pressure on Black women, who often occupied several leadership positions at once, to be magical all the time with little regard for our personal relationships and our well-being.
How would I learn to walk the line between the tired and unfair expectation that Black American students take on the burden of fighting for every single other cause, and the yearning for a solidarity that transcended divisions within the African diaspora? How would I make differentiate between personal misunderstandings and conflicts that represented larger fractures between us as people of African descent? How would I begin to move beyond a place of authenticating Blackness, and obsessing over who gets let in or shut out based on “cultural difference” and old resentment remaining from childhood taunts?
After reading my mother’s books throughout secondary school, I had the voices of characters created by Toni Morrison, Ama Ata Aidoo, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others shaping my understanding of Black feminism, pushing me to think more deeply about power and oppression as immediate life and death issues rather than abstract theories, as well as the celebration that it is to be a Black woman. I didn’t know what to do with these influences, and so I didn’t really listen.
All these conflicting forces within and outside of myself stirred up with an unexpected disaster of a “relationship” however brief…
This is a friendly reminder to avoid any man that uses the terms “socially responsible” and “capitalist” in the same sentence without a shred of irony or shame. Avoid any man that makes it a point to tell you that he has a “global dating pool” because of frequent work-related travel, and feels the need to mention that he has dated mostly white women (as a Black man) and always imagined he would ultimately have biracial children until he met you.
Run fast the minute that person says, “You know I’m just a really private person so don’t post any photos of us.” Turn that run into a sprint for your life when this man makes disparaging comments about other women he has dated, and shows you multiple other examples of his misogyny, internalized anti-blackness and general gaslighting and terrible-ness.
When you have gotten far enough away, think about how blessed you are to have escaped this misfortune, especially since you may eventually discover that all along you were playing second fiddle to his real relationship with Becky with the split ends… I’m trying to get an essay about this published so you’ll have to wait a little longer for the full story!
Disclaimer: Most (cisgender heterosexual) men have proven themselves to be terrible in some way, whether they can cite bell hooks from memory, or expect you to cook fresh meals every night after work. Or both. Proceed with caution.
I still don’t know what to make of the fact that much of my embracing and tapping into my anger has happened in reaction to external factors in my personal life, the overbearing whiteness of my MFA program, being abandoned by a guy I hadn’t sought out to begin with, dealing with a non-existent relationship with my father, and so on (and not solely because of some latent impulse to contribute to righting the world’s wrongs).
After two years in graduate school of learning to become a more careful reader and writer, I am now able to see anger as more than a moment of meaningless lashing out, and rather as a source of creative fuel and a path to possible healing. I can now throw curse words into conversation as much as I please, and I think I’m a lot funnier and more tolerable to spend time with now that all the fucks I give have expired. I am after all the daughter of a woman who does the same. (Can you imagine how annoying I was when I used to be to shy to be anything but the prim and sometimes sarcastic persona I was performing??? I still have so much love for my reserved and/or slightly awkward girls, we are all on different journeys.)
In no way I am I suggesting that learning to curse is the way to get us all free. Rather, it is a small personal change that has shown me how being “well-behaved” is the ultimate scam, and that Black women have the right to express anger and frustration at oppressive structures in any way they see fit. I’m also aware that I can adopt this attitude with little risk for my personal safety because I still enjoy the respectability conferred by degrees and other trappings of middle class life, and (particularly when I am in the US), an accent that is hard to place and is immediately read as less threatening when it is convenient for others to make unnecessary distinctions between me and other Black women, my sisters.
I can’t express enough gratitude to my all my Sisters Killjoy, my roommate and my friends who have given me (probably too much) space to be messy and complicated without apology, and to all the wonderful professors and mentors who have talked me off many a ledge. These women have shown me that feminism is more than a cutesy movement that stops at women getting into power suits and graduation regalia, and involves a concerted and difficult effort to dismantle complex networks of power that place value on people based on strict and harmful constraints based on race, gender, sexuality, disability and on how much they produce and consume among many other factors.
And of course, a million thanks to Beyoncé for the angry section of Lemonade that comes before all the softness and reconciliation. My 2016 would have been a lot less bearable without “Don’t Hurt Yourself” on repeat.
(Header Image: A life-giving book that I’ve only recently come to understand fully. In the background is one of my grandma’s many beautiful scarves.)