and a few more thoughts for the road
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.
-Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” 1981.
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.
How I feel arguing in class every day.
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 an “involvement” 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. 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, ableness 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.)