This Is Emerson

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.

***

Read more about what’s happening at Emerson College in the students’ own words.

Petition: Demand Action from Emerson Administration

(The Final) Inventory

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 too real, 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.  

***

assorted lingerie

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.

Mute

I just had a short story published in the “Power and Money” issue of Saraba Magazine! You can find my work here, alongside several great pieces of fiction and poetry.

I was very anxious about this story from the time I turned it in to a fiction workshop last year, and all throughout submissions and rejections from different magazines. I’m still anxious about it now, mainly because it’s part of a larger project to trace links between Ewe and Fon folklore and cosmology in traditions to other parts of the African diaspora.

Who am I to even attempt this? I’m not from the land that is now known as Benin. I’ve never visited Haiti or Louisiana, two other locations my research has led me. How can I do my work without turning deities and beliefs I know little about into objects for sale? Who am I to even attempt this, when on my best day I can’t write a full sentence in Ewe that is grammatically correct without help from relatives?  How much can I fictionalize without being disrespectful? Also, is every market scene in an African story automatically cliché?

The pressure of these unanswered questions was made much more bearable by the Saraba Magazine editors who were incredibly patient and thoughtful during the editing process. I never once felt like I was being forced into changing any aspect of the story to fit the magazine’s aesthetic, nor did I ever sense that my concerns and suggestions weren’t being taken seriously. It’s an amazing feeling to entrust your work to people whose approach shows that they actually care about your writing.

This particular story isn’t based on any one folktale that I’ve come across, but rather combines details about actual places I have lived in and visited with the narrative of a supreme being that exists in my imagination as much as she does in Ewe religious beliefs. This story is part of a much larger project that still mostly exists as a mood board, scattered passages and research notes. It wouldn’t make sense to say much else at this time.

You can find links to my other published work here.

(Image: Cover page of Saraba Magazine’s “Money and Power” issue. Artwork: Daniels, Aisha. “Untitled.” 2016.

Kiss the Ring

Happy New Year! And we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming…

***

It has been a long 8 years, but Sunday morning has finally arrived and your white linen is hanging stiffly around your body, hardened by starch and lack of wear. The congregation mumbles their way through the hymn before the sermon, and you try to ignore the sweat dripping down the side of your face into your collar, the smell of perfumed powder cut through with sweat, and the back of a dusty wardrobe-old cloth shaken out and worn only for special occasions such as this

The “increase” you have been fasting and praying for is here. Later, the celebration will take place in a pointed white tent, its interior draped with chiffon and washed in purple light. Gospel songs will be remixed to include the name of your benefactor: we thank God that he has showered you with blessings. You have done your duty, worn the right colors, lobbied outside locked doors in ministries for hours for 5 minutes to pay your respects, to pay for your forms to be considered for a little longer before they are tossed in the shredder or at the bottom of the big man’s out tray beneath invoices

per diem for staff training payable to

Your time is now; you deserve this. Contracts that have stalled will now come complete with a narrow sign board stamped with your name and that of your company, school fees will no longer involve shifting around funds from other parts of the budget, or borrowing from relatives who are better off but begrudging. You will see appointments to a small advisory board for deciding the color of street name signs, maybe even scholarships and opportunities for your children to study abroad, or at least at a private university somewhere on the outskirts of Accra, invites to the most talked about weddings and opportunities for your white linen to loosen up from frequent use and proximity to luxury

The pastor screams POWER IS MOVING! The church rumbles in chorus Amen! Meanwhile, you, sitting at the back in your righteous disdain for all the people you dismiss as social climbers, you typing this account at a frenetic pace, trying to atone for sinful acts you didn’t have a choice but to partake in. You tell yourself, it’s just the way things are around here, you say, it’s a question of survival. You are usually law-abiding and resistant to the decadence festering about you, you will sit in the waiting room at DVLA with the air conditioning sputtering and groaning to cool a room full of increasingly restless people for 3,4,5 hours with a book you’re reading for the second time, have I really been waiting this long?

But you see, this time is different. You’re hoping to travel to Lagos in the new year and you need this passport before then and you just *hate* to do this…so you will give a regretful grimace-like smile to the mother whose child will not stop crying, the man whose lunch break is almost over and pretend you don’t see their eyes rolling in frustration, they know how this works, they owe you no pleasantries

It doesn’t matter how

uncomfortable you are how

deferential you are how

many “good mornings” and how

much earnest eye contact you make you can’t ignore the way jammed doors creak open, how impatient frowns ease into knowing smirks, this is HIS niece and no one ever has to utter his name for all the officials to follow the other protocol for people with your sort of connections

No one knows or cares how many jobs you’re holding down outside, the difference in status elsewhere for someone with your blackness and woman-ness.

The single digits dwindling in your bank account still come out green when you withdraw cash

You will only be able to disassociate yourself so far from the power pulling out thrones from under certain backsides and placing velvet pillows beneath others, power that operates silently in the background no matter which colors fly from the majority of windows and rear view mirrors

It’s Sunday morning, and you can keep your pretentious musings to yourself, like the fact that even where we worship is determined by how many zeros we write onto our tax returns (if we pay them) and how well we can roll r’s on demand in front of the window at the US embassy. Or how odd it is for us to be nostalgic for a time when we would not have been able to dirty the polished marble floors of the kinds of hotels we now enjoy, even in our best shoes: Gold Coast City, Villa, Manor, Castle, Colonial Suites… Power is moving in the same halls it has always adorned with its presence by way of framed black and white portraits of “freedom” brokers, it is trapped tightly in the fists that will punch the shoe shine boys and street hawkers in the stomach and the pocket, it is a generational blessing the leftovers of which you can only taste when those who are most “blessed” and most “hardworking,” most deserving and in possession of the most contacts have had their share

keep quiet and unfold your white hanky, wave it high, give praises to democracy working to kill as it always has and always will

(Image: Ghana Independence overprint on Gold Coast 1s stamp, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghana_Independence_overprint_on_Gold_Coast_1s_stamp_1957.jpg)

Recovery

reverse the order

It is a wonder there are any parts of myself left to write about. Take the rusty hook digging into my cheek, forcing my face into a grimace for a smile. I am the one holding it, it is this pen and workshops and operating rooms and places other sharp objects sit waiting to tear and reconstruct ugly parody of natural self. Recovery is not a destination; it is a place I keep writing myself away from

She is holding the scalpel ripping away at herself and now she has turned it on me. I am pulling further away from her and she has not noticed that her attempts at comfort and commiseration feel like the same unnecessary procedures she has had to endure. Just because our bones settle together into the same shape does not mean I want to die her sort of death

reversal of the order

is impossible. I’m writing against recovery but cannot write myself into wholeness. I speak most fluently in broken teeth spat into a hand– not mine– small strips of flesh hanging off the edges of my nail beds, splits in damaged hair pulled together too roughly. Is there anything else left to disfigure in the name of getting over and beyond…recovery will never be a destination

I have written too far away from it and everyone expects my remains as proof

reverse the order

I will still end up in ruin where I have put myself every single time, but she helped me get here and so did you

Cityscape

The city is winning. It follows me into the bathroom and rains murky water onto my head when I turn on the tap. This city has buried itself beneath my skin, a layer deeper than I can scrub, so I can never escape the smell. I’m on my third wash and my scalp has passed the point of burning protest and is now numb. My hair still smells like the man on the train who doesn’t care that I don’t want to chat. This morning’s coffee, cigarette smoke and saliva hiding behind spearmint.

My ex girlfriend called me up today and said come and have lunch with me. She works over at MGH. I call her nurse raging bitch.

The city won’t let me contribute to my own thoughts; my stream of consciousness has blank spaces for every time it has been interrupted by screeching on train tracks, dry cough and vomit splashing on concrete, heavy bass breaking through a car window at the traffic light. I sit up and inwards in an attempt to shrink my width so I don’t touch the woman reading student papers on my left and the drip of this man’s slushie on my right.

I made her pay my phone bill then I told her fuck off cuz I’m not interested. You believe that?

 Later, I’ll turn in my bed and see the same faces glaring at me for daring to take up too much space. I went to sleep compressed, with my legs tucked as closely together as possible, and woke up with the slushie spreading its unnatural blue on my sheets, and the student papers crumpled in a ball and stuffed in my mouth.

This city follows me to other places I’ve long since forgotten to call home. When I see the aunt who insists on calling me “Jehnet” for reasons I never really found funny, all I see is the body double she doesn’t know she has sitting on a bench outside a thrift store, smoking slim brown sticks and asking for change. The only reason I smiled and said, “No. I don’t mind” when she asked if she could smoke was because her hairnet looked familiar as did her chin that seamlessly folded into her neck.

The city is determined to follow me wherever I go. It scales the sides of buildings and hooks itself onto cracked open windows, before sliding down walls on the inside. It is mingling with the scent of tea brewing and traces of perfume, used books, cardboard and microwaved takeout. The city is heavy and only lifts itself off me long enough for me to say, “I’m good, howareyou?” It settles back down once I get the words out, pinning me to the chair and daring me to try again. I still can’t say, “Actually, I’m not ok. Do you have a minute?” because these people are here to teach and not to listen to the problems I think I have.

Yeah I’m good! I just stopped by to say hello!

be sure to collect all the exclamation points you have used freely and falsely and stuff them back in your fist for the next time

I think I’ve gotten a moment to myself, but this city pries the elevator doors open just before I start my descent. It is with me as I walk past rows of candy colored houses whose interiors are probably and tragically identical to mine. Shiny red pieces of plastic scratch the sides of my face as I wait to cross the street next to a group of cheerleaders dressed in uniforms as red and shiny as the pompoms they’re waving in my face.

I cannot end with a reminder that city dwellers are really just people pretending to be dark grey pinstriped jackets drifting from metal box to metal building and back again, waiting for someone to shake them out and wear them with pride, for someone to love them. This place just will not let me do it.

(Image: Taken by me, June 2016)

Encore

It’s been a long summer of hoarding anger and pouring it all out into my writing. At this point, I’ve realized that I’m not so much venting and trying to get rid of all my toxic feelings, as I am just using my words to be as hurtful as possible to the person that hurt me. I’ve been trying to make up for all the  lost sleep/writing time/peace of mind/joy over a person and situation that didn’t deserve any of this trouble. My hurt didn’t come from the regret of losing out, because I know for a fact that I’m not missing out on much. It came from being disrespected and left powerless to do anything about it. So, I wrote. This is going to be the last post of its kind, because in that person’s own words “There are more important things to worry about; it’s not that deep.” It was only a couple of months, right? Chill. 🙂

***

Does it get exhausting to be so careful? Did you ever take piano lessons? Probably not, and I don’t judge you for it, although you will find some way to braid this fact into the tapestry that is your rise to success, from neighborhoods we shall not name to the beds of women with accents sliding past immigration regulations. I only asked about the piano lessons because I would imagine that they taught you discipline, to keep steady hands at a meeting where you are being silenced over and over for your age, your stature, for bearing the wrong passport. I imagine that in those lessons you would hear how to measure time carefully, how to drop staccato points of argument, to play softly when the mood calls for it, to close the deal with a high-pitched tinkle of whiskey tumblers at the extreme right of the keyboard. What do you do to unwind? Do you ever relax? I assume that is the purpose I served. I was a novelty ornament sitting on a dusty shelf behind invoices yet to be accounted for. I would rise slowly out of the box at your request, sometimes sharp, other times slow and teasing– whatever you would like today.

But this is not about me. You are probably not surprised at my harsh judgment because you believe that feathers and imaginary middle class anxieties cushion my every fall. Any attempt at a sob story is only a pathetic play to match yours, and it doesn’t matter what toilets my mothers scrubbed and what broken shoes they had to wear so that I could hide diplomas I cannot read in a drawer I never open. As far as you’re concerned, a baby born with success clinging to the folds of her chubby arms turns into one of those “fancy girls” you see enjoying unusual blends of tea in the café down the street from your job.

Now you have access, in space, in wallet, in meticulously maintained but still crooked and unconvincing smile, and you can destroy your previous enemies from the inside out. The heart is the tastiest part; start there. But this is not about me. This is about you and how hard you’ve worked to live in a house very far away from the one of your childhood. You can shake your head at the little boys with dust covering their arms from wrist to shoulder, the ones aiming jagged stones at unripe mangoes. “That is no longer who I am.” That is no longer who you are unless, of course, it can add to your charming brand.

I ask if it gets exhausting, but I actually do not care. Even if there were traces of actual human sentiment left hiding in the hollows of your ears, I would not believe you if you tried to say, sincerely, that sometimes you need a respite from the cruel mime you have performed for many years. You are the engineer of what appears to be a perfect system, at least for now. No creaks in the joints, every joke carefully placed between product pitches, every private memory carefully curated to show off the cosmopolitan sheen glinting off your face.

I could also be wrong. You could be perfectly human and flawed in less sinister ways than I have dreamt up. You could be happy in the same uninteresting way that drives people to hold hands in public and block doorways with their embraces while strangers offer indulgent looks of approval. The tools that I have, you lack access to, words like weapons to gouge out all the parts you thought were hidden, an intelligence you cannot begin to fit into spreadsheets and three hour sessions dreaming up incomplete solutions to problems to which you contribute yourself. But of course, I could just be bitter and unable to let go. You could be totally happy and regular. It is obvious that I do not wish you to be, but mostly I do not care.

fuck you
Source: Tumblr