Intermission

The original starting point of this blog post went like this;

The lateness of this blog post is brought to [you] courtesy of a combination of staying up-to-date with the latest horrifying news and moving for a temporary job while trying to find a more permanent one for “the latter side of next.” I’m feeling this strange sort of distance from myself, where I know something is “off” in this hazy, undefined way, but can’t quite articulate why.

 The time is currently 1:19am, and I am sitting on my friend’s bed instead of dancing downstairs in the backyard with the rest of her guests (or helping to clean up now that the barbecue has just ended). I tried my hardest to rally myself into some sort of pleasantness– I even wore my new favorite yellow dress and my old faithful cartoonish pineapple earrings– but I eventually decided it would be best to go upstairs and think and write (and shower) rather than sniffling back tears on a crowded dance floor like the 90s teen drama protagonist I would hate to ever be.

I must also add that this self-deprecating comment is not an attempt to dismiss anyone else’s very real and painful feelings of anxiety and isolation in the middle of a crowd. Humor is just how I cheer myself up, as harmful as this sort of belittling of self may be. (See also my constant repetition of the “joke” that my life is at the moment a poorly written episode of a *insert Black young woman web-series here*, and that I need the writers’ room to get it together because the current storyline is looking a little bleak).

I’m rambling, but this rambling is as close as you can probably get to how I think and speak outside this blog post entry box. Basically, I’m worried about a lot of different things– many of them somewhat out of my control– and it appears that I have worried myself into silence. This silence is the real reason why there was no post last week, and why I can only seem to speak and write in riddles instead of putting into words what these worries are.

So, I’ve been busy with all the moving and job-hunting and planning and working, but beyond that, I also find myself unable to speak anything meaningful or true. I have turned to other artists’ work, not for some sort of empty “healing” or “care” in the ways these terms are often used to mean just a different sort of momentary gratification. I’ve been reading and watching and listening a lot, to hear other people speaking to each other, and to be confused and excited and emotionally invested in other people’s worlds and lives, whether imagined or otherwise. I can’t say more (I’m really struggling with my words, as I said)  except that these works mean a lot to me at the moment, even those I don’t quite fully understand as yet. I really want to share them with you.

Reading

where the line bleeds

I adore this book because as Jesmyn Ward herself has said in a number of interviews, she loved her characters so much that she felt she protected them from any fate too cruel for them (or her) to bear. Her writing is so detailed that I can see where the freckles are on characters’ faces, and the color of the sand beneath the surface of the water they dive into at the beginning. There is beauty and there is hurt, but Ward doesn’t torture her characters to reveal either.

Read also: Interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah by Chloe Wayne Sultan

To remember:

“How do we create altars in society for black female genius? And not just the women who are artists or authors. But the women who contained art and who were never afforded the space to express it. It’s not about me as a writer, it’s about: Who authored my life? It is fascinating how so many artists of color often feel as if we are a processional of legacy, and often we enter into these rarefied spaces of art through familial or localized bonds. And yet, outside our intimate memories, who knows the names of these women who made us?”

-Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Listening

  • “I Put a Spell on You”- Alice Smith rendition of the Nina Simone Song (watch the stunning short film, Black Mary, directed by Kahlil Joseph for the song here.)
  • “Come to Me”– Daymé Arocena (If you have the chance to see her live, please do. I’ve seen her twice in Boston, and both times felt like what I used to think church was supposed to feel like, free and easy.
  • “Nguwe”– Nomsa Mazwai
  • “I Wonder If I Take You Home”– Meshell Ndegeocello
  • “Django Jane”– Janelle Monáe
django jane.gif
Django Jane. Directed by Andrew Donoho, 2018. (GIF Source: GIPHY)

Watching

***

Header image taken by yours truly, Amherst College, June 2018. I’m working as a TA in a pre-college program on Amherst’s campus for the next few weeks. I love it already, and when I find my words I will tell you why.

 

 

 

 

Wearing Nina’s Dress

I’m thinking about the ways I perform strength in public, with snark for days and the sharpest winged eyeliner since I started playing with drugstore makeup a few years ago. I’ve began to believe the myth of my own indestructibility, so much so that I continue to engage with people who make harmful statements diluted with well-meaning jokes and talking points because I shouldn’t isolate myself. I should be available. Shouldn’t I?

I was just asked by that anonymous villain who I’ve been referring to over the past few weeks, to dig deep down in my “graceful and giving” self to hear his side of a story to which I already know the end. As if all my grace has not been used up trying to keep my hurt private so I can perform strength for classmates who don’t really care about me, my well-being or my work, for friends who actually do care but need me to be there for them at different times, for people who prefer to dismiss me as anti-social or “You just don’t like people”  when I’m really just tired of sectioning different parts of myself for others like birthday cake, for strangers who routinely step on my toes and knock me in the chest with large bags and elbows because they didn’t see me there.

I’m not for everyone. I’m impossible to savor and digest. And you just have to deal with it. 

[I wrote the piece below a few weeks ago after watching the documentary “The Amazing Nina Simone” at the Roxbury International Film Festival in Boston.]

***

Wearing Nina’s Dress

I’m sitting in a dark theater, grateful that I decided to attend a screening of the documentary “The Amazing Nina Simone” on my own. I’ve lost track of how long the film has been running for, and the point at which I gave up and let the tears form channels on my face. I can’t imagine taking in the life and legacy of the glorious Nina Simone in any way other than crying quietly by myself in public. Two and a half hours of magnificent and complicated black womanhood would have been soured by the awkward de-brief on the walk back to the train. No walk is long enough to give a crash course on black women’s bodies and the ways our art and our selves are scorned by most, and consumed by voracious appetites all at the same time.

“You know I made 35 albums, they bootlegged 70. Oh everybody took a chunk of me.”

Nina Simone is standing on stage at the Montreux Jazz festival in 1976, in a sleeveless black dress, no jewelry except for the silver choker around her neck. At this point, I have cringed repeatedly for each time she has been referred to as “scary,” “intimidating,” or “over the top.” I’m destroyed by the fact that her own personal revolution, her pursuit of her authentic self and her insistence of belonging wholly to herself are always bearing the weight of the desires of her fans and critics. A journalist speaks wistfully about how he wishes he could’ve been the “piece of toast” Nina sang about, and the audience laughs at his unashamed yearning for Nina and her body.

Later in the film, Nina Simone responds to a French journalist’s question concerning the career she never had as a classical pianist.

“Yes, I regret it. I’m sorry that I didn’t become the world’s first black classic pianist. I think I would have been happier. I’m not very happy now.”

The crack in her voice as she says these words, and her obvious attempts to swallow her tears hurt just as much as the awkward laughter rippling through the audience when Nina Simone is shown later chastising her concertgoers from the stage. Her unraveling is comedy for my fellow viewers. She is irreverent, breaking the conventions of performance etiquette and embarrassing people who dare to stand up while she’s on stage. She is sassy, spicy, even. And it’s amusing. All I can see is her piercing stare that seems to have no one at the other end of it.

I am forced to confront the fact that we, the theater audience, are also consuming Nina like a product, engaging with her story in whichever way suits us best. Goddess. High priestess of soul Fearless activist. Unstable. Difficult. Bad mother. Tragic, tortured soul. I feel a useless guilt for partaking in this feasting on Nina Simone’s life story. I’m picking out the parts that resonate with me the most, so that I too can cling to her like a life raft, or a prophecy of what becomes of black women artists who expire in the process of creating art that is misunderstood and torn into digestible morsels for a ravenous public. I keep black and white photos of her as my phone screensaver. I want stills from her stage performances as prints for my bedroom wall. I listen to “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on repeat while I shower. I use her as a warning signal for what can happen to me: a black woman artist who is determined to let my work eat me up as long as it benefits even one reader. I’m not much better than the eager fans that watched her decline with popcorn butter melting between their fingers.

I’m wearing Nina’s dress. It’s a yellow halter-neck with black diamonds dotted all over it. There is a hungry crowd grabbing handfuls of the hem and trying to shove it into their mouths. This makes it very difficult to stand, to walk tall. I stumble every few steps, trying to resist the gravity that is trapped in these people’s fists. I try to snatch back the dress, but it disintegrates into yellow powder flecked with the burnt ends of matches in my hand. I’m naked, graceful, and available for everyone.

Image: Portrait of the singer Nina Simone, October 1969.  (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Razors for Breakfast

[Initial thoughts from 2:40am, essay for school abandoned hours ago in favor of watching and rewinding Lemonade and taking notes feverishly]

I’ve seen a few attempts at “Violence isn’t the answer” responses to Rihanna’s latest music video for her song “Needed Me,” similar to the critiques of her videos for “BBHMM” and “Man Down.” I won’t be the least bit surprised if the same cries for “why don’t we hold hands and sing kumabaya instead of protesting loudly and hurting each other” come from the white feminist camp and the coalition of all people who can’t let black women celebrate themselves after Beyoncé’s hour-long history lesson/poetry reading/letter to every ex/African diaspora vibes epic “Lemonade.” Visuals and lyrics like what these women have given us leave one feeling incredibly badass for lack of a more literary term. Actually, on this blog, badass is a perfectly acceptable term. Canonical, even. (Not exactly the right use for the word “canonical,” but I make the rules around here.) I’m readying my eye rolls for the next article I see that tries to condemn media that “glorifies” violence, as if black women grabbing the barrel of the gun and turning it outward is a new phenomenon.

rihanna needed me.gif
“Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?”

I don’t imagine that the women in the Haitian revolution sat quietly at home with their hands resting in their laps waiting for the men to return, or that during the rebellions led by enslaved people all over the Americas the women just remained on standby with warm cloths for their husbands’ wounds. There were entire armies of women in Dahomey who were renowned for their military prowess, and in Ghana Yaa Asantewaa didn’t just say: “Ok oooh, I hear. Let’s not fight. We can’t beat them anyway.” Musicians, and artists in general, may not be picking up real guns and overturning oppressive government systems themselves, but they are inspiring all those watching to lead rebellions in their own fields, throwing away the fear of being perceived as being too aggressive and chewing and swallowing the bit of forced humility we have been clenching between our teeth for years.

beyonce lemonade
“Motivate your ass, call me Malcom X.”

One can argue that we have a legitimate problem of making violence appear sexy and glamorous in film, music and video games etc targeted at young people, but when I see black women swinging baseball bats and shooting no-good men in the back of a strip club, I’m not compelled to go and pick up my longest knife and hurt the next person that tries to hurt me, and I don’t think that’s the message these artists are trying to send. It’s very convenient to forget that a huge component of the colonial project was brutal violence and suppression, bending people -body and soul- to submit to the authority of the master arbitrarily justified by his supposed superiority. Black women continue to face violence at the hands of the police, militant groups, relatives, romantic partners, and strangers who feel threatened by women’s queerness and trans identity. Do not ask us to “rise above” and sway softly to hymns and quiet songs for peace when our art provides us the perfect space to spit back the violence inherited as an unshakeable birthright.

My badass and my revolution looks like writing late into the night to make sure no one cuts of my tongue and my fingers, excusing their actions with a dismissive shrug. Zora Neale Hurston put it best when she said, “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” These portrayals of black women blowing gunpowder in the face of respectability and fighting for the right to exist unapologetically are not new. You just forgot, and we’re here to remind you.

beyonce lemonade 3
“Why do you deny yourself heaven? Why do you consider yourself undeserving?”

***

Razors for Breakfast

This isn’t something new I have just added to my diet. Neither is it a trend, nor another shortcut to the kind of beauty that mocks and berates those who don’t possess it, one that taunts from screens that sting tired eyes with their glow late at night. My jaws have been galvanized for this very purpose, teeth fixed in place like steel bolts in the neck of a crossbow, a roar for a voice like a high-powered engine.

I have always kept razors in my mouth, turning them over and over with my tongue, but long before me, there were women picking thorns out of their palms, bringing back royal heads wrapped in a tattered tricolore. They soaked gunpowder in hot water and rubbed it into aching muscles, and used it to wash their feet crusted over with mud and the crushed souls of the enemy. These women dragged timid men to war and trampled the pages of a history that forgot their names, their strides drumming up the same dust that will eventually settle on the books I will write and leave behind.

This isn’t something new I’ve recently learnt to do. Neither a twisted party trick, nor an illusion to make you squirm and wonder how I made it look so effortless. The blood dripping from the point of my chin onto my chest is yours and not mine, theirs and not ours. It is the last remaining hint that we once sliced them in half and licked away the evidence. Today I had razors for breakfast, and the taste of victory still lingers on my lips.

***

The work of one of my favorite poets, Warsan Shire, serves as a beautiful backdrop for Lemonade. Here is my favorite quote from her. I’m sure I’ve posted it on this blog before, but I still love it just as much, so here you go!

“If you think I’ll be the dark sky so you can be the star, well the sky is vast and have you seen the sky in the morning? Have you seen how it looks against the sun? I’ll swallow you whole.” -Warsan Shire

Another favorite quote of mine:

“No, I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” -Zora Neale Hurston

beyonce lemonade2
“Baptize me, now that reconciliation is possible. If we’re going to heal, let it be glorious.”

Laissez les bons temps rouler

In today’s installment of “screaming into the void,” I’m attempting to release myself from the feeling of always having to explain or give insight about myself or to be present in spaces where I feel incredibly isolated. During a class discussion the other day, I attempted to describe how burnt out I’ve been feeling less than a year into this MFA program, after constantly having to engage with texts and theories which trace and retrace in painstaking detail the suffering of anyone whose way of life was flattened by the weight of the only kind of “civilization” that mattered and continues to matter today. I made a comment about how tired I am of looking for myself in these texts only to find blank space, an emptiness characterized by the lack of women with whom I can relate or the confusion of strange caricatures that look nothing like me or any of the women I know. I must say that these classes align with my personal interests, so I’m grateful they even exist and that there are professors specializing in postcolonial theory and “Third World” feminism among other things, but it doesn’t make it any easier to face just because I find these topics intellectually stimulating.

I went on to talk about how I just want to write sunsets and happy endings, ironically of course, because if you read this blog you know I have no concept of what that means at all. The expected response to this statement was laughter (which I got) because it was a joke, after all. I also heard: “Why? That’s so boring!” which is fair, happy endings are often a little disappointing in their predictability. What I meant to say was that even my joy is political, an act of resistance in the face of so many forces trying to convince  that I cannot belong to myself, that I can never just write whatever I desire without feeling compelled to make the void collapse onto itself, and that the continuous consumption of pain and brokenness expressed through artistic production is deemed “interesting” or “edgy”.

When I try to discuss these feelings of exhaustion with my peers, the reaction which stings the most is “What did you expect?” even when it’s meant to be taken as a joke. I’m not trying to play oppression Olympics with anyone, because I’m fully aware of the great privilege I enjoy which enables me to pursue higher education and to work on my writing in an environment exclusively designed for this pursuit while only working part time. (At the moment I have to pretend I don’t know who Sallie Mae is in order not to become even more sleep-deprived than I already am.) Besides, people have rarely achieved much from arguing over who has it the worst. There are people here and people at home–wherever that may be– staring down the nose of death, and my writing always bears the weight of this knowledge. In order for my work to be significant, it has to be more than catharsis, it has to mean something, which probably explains why the word “thoughtful” is often used to describe pieces of my writing which I wasn’t even aware were making some sort of statement to begin with.

I’m not even suggesting that my position is particularly exceptional or surprising. Yet, I am constantly tripped up by the fact that I feel the need to include this disclaimer to minimize my own position because it cannot be that bad to feel invisible in the classroom when people are having to reaffirm daily that they are human to people looking at them through the barrel of a loaded gun. I shouldn’t have to weigh struggles against each other, but I guess I have internalized my position as an African woman writer to chronicle and soothe the suffering of others because I’ve learnt how to swallow mine from every aunty and cousin and mother who has had to do the same. What I do know is that I’ve had trouble sleeping because my brain keeps whirring away with all the rebuttals I should’ve made to comments that took me by surprise with their ignorance and the mouth they came from, that I’m desperate to avoid the possibility of becoming yet another decimal point who doesn’t make it to graduation because I couldn’t quite hack the system. My point is, if you are not a black woman that plasters bottled confidence in Dark 2 Cacao all over her face every morning before marching out into the world, you don’t get to tell me how to feel about anything. If you can speak as little to me as possible, that would be even better. I have a lot of rest and a lot of joy to catch up on.

(Image: https://digitallibrary.tulane.edu/islandora/object/tulane%3A21638)

Magical Black Girl Talks Back

Last week I handed in this piece about “privilege” for my Cuban Literature class. I’ve already talked about how rewarding but also exhausting and isolating it can be to exist in this strange environment called the MFA here, and this never really goes away especially when you have to confront this at poetry readings and parties and in texts which are pretty much empty of black women’s presence unless they are nursing someone else’s child or rubbing their downy afro against some white man’s cheek…or something. I basically spend all my time trying to write our selves out of oblivion only to to be put back there by people who believe their “down-ness” allows them to chip off part of your cultural experience (and other experiences you may have only lived through books and music videos) and bounce them back against your forehead, and others who make it their business to approve or deny your blackness only to expect solidarity exclusively from your end, and those who believe this is self-inflicted and will all be solved if you just “return to where you belong.”

Incidentally, I just listened to this podcast with two awesome women from Georgetown talking about what it’s like to be hyper-visible and invisible at the same time. I snapped and clapped throughout the whole thing. It was Lauryn Hill “Killing me Softly” level prophesy, to be honest. It’s very affirming to know that you’re not alone but also somewhat depressing that we all share some of these experiences.

I’ve also started a Twitter account, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. Apart from the fact that I’m years late to the party, I feel as though this blog is a better platform for me to spew random thoughts, put them in some sort of order and claim they’re so deep you may not be able to understand. Still, follow me @HerWildness. I’m making no promises whatsoever.

[Edited to add] It’s also incredibly important for me to note that the title of this piece was inspired by the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic, created by CaShawn Thompson in 2013. You can buy her merchandise here. I have one of her hoodies and it’s one of my favorite pieces of clothing. I especially enjoy the side eyes from salty people on the train…

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Magical Black Girl Takes on Privilege

In other words, the mechanism of control against the subaltern makes demands, makes the group tense and finally filters it so that only the disproportionate and exceptional stand out; in this way, not belonging to the hegemonic group is equivalent to losing the right to normalcy…

-From ‘Black Problem’ to White Privilege in Nicolás Guillén’s Thought, Victor Fowler Calzada

This thing called privilege sits with me everyday. It is not the kind of constant companion that perches on your shoulder swinging its legs, carefree, nor is it a pleasant cloud that hovers somewhere above your ear, whispering in the air around your head every so often. This thing called privilege is more like a wooden plank that is suspended right above my head, so that every morning when I wake and sit up right, it smashes into my forehead to remind me of its presence. Mostly, I am only able to understand it in terms of all the things I lack. I rub the wounded spot, surprised that this daily wake up call hasn’t left a permanent mark. Then I remember that it is my magic which takes that spot right in the center of my face and turns it smooth again. I will go through my morning routine chanting spells that sound like do-no-get-mad-today-let-your-rage-stay-hidden-behind-the-flat-bridge-of-your-nose.

My magic isn’t enough to remove the anxiety I face, standing naked in front of a mirror streaked with tears I will pretend are toothpaste stains. Too tight. Too sexy for class. Too baggy. Too frumpy. Eyes will slide past you on the street. Eyes will slide and then linger over the spot where your waist dips in before your hips circle outwards and left and right and back and forth. I can’t wish away the string of arguments and rebuttals that are circling and tightening around my throat. After all, ALL WOMEN experience these same fears. ALL WOMEN face street harassment. This is about ALL WOMEN. I can only speak for myself, the magical black girl who has mastered the craft of striding through grey streets as if I have more talent clinging to the fingernail clippings I tossed in the trash this morning than can be found in an entire classroom, as if I have the power to take ideology and theory and bend it into sensual lines of poetry that will lead you over the edge of my bed and into a never-ending free fall.

It is almost impossible to explain how my existence is subversive and ornamental all at once. How can I articulate the heady feeling of standing on a marble platform– no, granite– no, whatever unbreakable stone looks the most like the skin in which I am encased, how do I show you what it feels like to be idealized and erased in one go? Men who could be my uncles will bow down as I walk by, thanking whichever god they worship for a womb that supposedly bore the fruit of those who built the pyramids or some other absurd accolade which I earn only by virtue of a skin tone a few latitudes away from the Equator. Men who look like the ones who are sitting on top of my future are too scared of blackgirlmagic to actually step close enough to the furnace to feel my warmth. Instead they are content to gawk at my figure on magazine covers, pitting me against those particularly lacking in melanin and magic, shifting from one foot to another, made uncomfortable by their desire, and deciding instead to hide pieces of me in the obscurity of private rendez-vous and between the lines of dubious poetry where they will carefully chronicle what droplets of water and light look like dangling on the ends of my coily hair, what my backside looks like stretching the seams of an old pair of jeans. Women who are the negative of me look straight through me on the train. Women who could be myself expect me to hold the mask tight against my brokenness. You can’t let them see you looking crazy. Them? Who are they? ALL WOMEN.

The ability to move about uninhibited by these clashing thoughts is the thing called privilege. No potion brewed at the bottom of a mug of English Breakfast tea can grant me access to it. That I can only explain this thing in terms of what it isn’t shows how much I have swallowed this system of binaries, haves and have-nots, them and us, the fullness of darkness and the harsh glare of whiteness. That every piece of writing, much like this one, is an attempt to rupture the strained veins on the side of my neck and empty out centuries’ worth of resentment for people who will never be able to understand because they can only see me if I am amazingly successful or amazingly deviant. You cannot look into my face and recognize the same collection of features and future plans that you are carrying with you, so how can I show you what privilege, and its lack thereof, looks like?

This thing means that you can stare directly into my rage, spit-flying, curse-flinging anger and ask naïve questions that sound like I-don’t-get-it-I-think-you-may-be-exaggerating-I-don’t-see-color. You can never truly see me even when I am marching across your TV screen, fro fluffed and oiled, fist up and defiant, legs strutting and unashamed, body bleeding and shivering and left for hours before an ambulance is available. You can’t and don’t comprehend why staring at my arrogance makes you uneasy, that I dare to be human and flawed and flawless and regular with two kids and a dog and abnormal with two stints in rehab and a child I haven’t seen in years. This thing called privilege has wedged itself between my brain and the words I write so that I’m still not satisfied with my description of it. This privilege means that you can step in and out of oppression as you so wish, yes ALL WOMEN and ALL LIVES, that you can claim all the cool without all the unwanted attention, that you can state the color of a wall and call it art, that your mediocrity will earn you a page in literary history even as my bold experimentation is written off as unintelligible whining. I continue to sit here trying to make magic out of the grains of smiles I have ground and smashed together and rage that was stamped onto the last page of my passport and handed to me over a metal counter. This thing called privilege will not let me rest.

(Image: This is me on my 6th birthday. I’d also like to point out that this would have made a perfect “Bow Down” meme if only I had found this picture in time for the trend…)

I, Wild Woman

A few days ago, the kind of thing happened that tends to happen when you dare to swell and fill more space than has been allotted to you. Person who is black/brown/anything other than default setting, you must have been confused in thinking that your role involved more than absolving people of their ancestral guilt by assuring them that your gods are no longer angry. On behalf of you and all your people, all has been forgiven. Don’t worry, we’re good.

A classmate giving a presentation expressed her opinions concerning the imposition of “political correctness” as a tool for certain students to deny writers the right to tell the “truth.” This was a graduate-level class about travel literature, a kind of writing that happens to follow a long tradition of people from the West journeying to and turning a colonial gaze on far-flung, God-forsaken, dark places, where they encounter savages who only appear in the traveler’s written accounts to carry said intrepid adventurer across swamps to show where all the jewels are buried. They may also be given a few lines of dialogue if they happen to be women who the traveler finds attractive, or men who express a clownish sense of humor in snatches of broken English.

Like “playing the victim,” “pulling the race card,” “being hyper-sensitive” or the plain and simple “being obnoxious,” political correctness is often evoked to tell opinionated, unapologetic people (especially people of color) to sit down and stop whining about their imaginary oppression.

I’m not able to wrap my mind around the idea that I in my personal capacity have the power and privilege to deny writers like Mungo Park and Paul Theroux who are lauded as geniuses in travel literature the right to freely express their incomplete and often harmful ideas about people and places they visited but never bothered getting to know. These are the same writers who more often than not relied on and produced the tired tropes that are responsible for our classmates and colleagues not being able to recognize the value in our critiques and concerns. Heaven forbid that we challenge and explore the texts when we are really only supposed to be thanking the fairy godmother of higher education for granting our desperate wishes to be allowed in the classroom in the first place.

***

The irony doesn’t escape me, that you accuse me of denying the humanity of the person that came soon after and maybe from the same place and on the same boat as the one who spat in my great-great grandmother’s face before assessing the width of her hips, before deciding who would make a profitable sale and who would produce a fine bastard child, before deciding who would stay and who would go. Who else but an African woman to smile into the terrible set of jaws, bloody with the remains of her children and to offer to give more if you want, sah? I wasn’t born in a cold hospital room with blinking fluorescent lights. I emerged naked from smoke and dust in a wasteland littered with discarded weapons. I was drawn smiling a tempting smile with fleshy arms outstretched, a basket of fruit on my head. I draped imitation glass beads- the originals can now be viewed at a museum near you- over my breasts. I brought hood girl hoops to a class meeting. I showed too much waist beads and not enough gratitude-yes sah I’m so happy to be here thank you sah- at the thesis defense.

It is my recognition of your humanity that allows me to be happy for you, that you do not have to enter a classroom forcing your head higher into the air space because the moment you cast your eyes downwards your spine may follow. I’m so glad that you will never know what it feels like to flatten your vowels so they can slide more easily into the ears of reluctant listeners. That you will never have to beg at the door of the very establishment that has made it so that you cannot sing your thoughts in your own language. Cannot compare and contrast, argue and prove in the once familiar phrases that should be resting in the back of your throat. That you haven’t felt blood running down your chin after you notice too late that you’ve bitten down so hard on the tip of your tongue that it has come off in your mouth.

I assure you that you should be relieved that these circumstances are unfamiliar to you. That despite all the feelings of inadequacy derailing the linearity of your thoughts, you still itch for the rubber stamp of Latin phrases you don’t quite understand, of letters of recommendation and grades on the correct side of 3.5 which will still not be enough to justify that you deserve garlands for your neck and striped robes for your back, because that back is too sun-darkened and too unclean to lean against the cool marble of the ivory tower.

I am pleased that you will never have that piece of doubt scratching behind your ear, the one that pushes you to acknowledge with every turn of phrase “how far there is left for us to go” when today the only story you are yearning to tell is about how you are finally enough for yourself– but you have a responsibility to your community and to the rest of humanity to write until injustice exists only in memory, that’s the only way all this will be worth it, the only truth you’re allowed to have–

It gives me pleasure to know that you didn’t go home today with a headache threatening to crack your forehead open, that you didn’t toss and turn in bed before turning over and beginning to type these words frantically on a too small phone keyboard in hopes of some catharsis, some truth, some spiritual awakening that you travelled to the ends of the earth, or to Asia, to demand– tell me where can I find mine? I’m sincerely thrilled that you did not stop suddenly halfway through typing out your thoughts, looking at what you had written and doubting whether you should even have done so especially when

the world is in flames from Beirut to Baghdad to Bujumbura to Maiduguri to Paris to Chicago to Mizzou to to to there are gaping wounds waiting for healing and no one has time to listen to your empty complaints black woman get some ice for that so-called pain I’m sure the weight you are carrying is not that heavy

I can no longer extend my grace– smells like shea butter I rubbed onto myself– to you when your authenticity and your truth are a mockery, a worn out recycling of the same image I was taught to see in the mirror–same dirty streets, same naked babies, same sagging greenery, same same–

I can understand that it must be difficult for you to grapple with my existence, that I even exist without asking you if it’s alright, that I can do things to the English that was first shouted out by a ruddy-faced trader on the beach in Keta where he did not belong, do things with words that you cannot even imagine and to which you will never be able to come close. That I can effortlessly conjugate verbs in languages that you have only heard whispered in seedy bars, that I can comfort and seduce and insult and debate you into a corner while you struggle along in the subtitles trying to keep up, only to turn around and ask

 i’m confused how is it that you speak French so well translates into négresse tu oses de te moquer de moi sur ma propre terre

That I take out my gum and stick it on the steel vault that protects the canon–I’ve heard of that but I’m not sure what it looks like– I am arrogant enough to point out the errors of a teacher in whose presence I should just feel lucky to stand. I don’t have to explain to you that these thoughts settled at the base of my eyelashes waiting for a day when Sula and Esi Sekyi and Ramatoulaye and Maya would blow on my cheeks and force me to stop dreaming and start writing. That I did not learn outrage when I left home because I saw others doing it and I thought it would make me more interesting. I won’t even address the fact that you think I enjoy the late night vigil I am keeping over the words you typed in smudged ink; even the printer must have been reluctant to allow you to do this.

I want you to continue to squirm in your seat, to stare at my aggressive, glossy, African blackness and pause to realize that you are not disgusted but rather in awe. I have planted my flag on this land, this is mine. This flashing screen, this desk, this seat, this language. Mine. I’m too proud, not because you don’t expect it of me, and not in reaction to the people whose pride and authority I’m forced to accept without question, for fear of being asked to take my sentimentality outside the room. I’m so proud because I just am. My defiance is hanging off the edge of my pushed out lower lip. I am not afraid to admit that I am angry, in fact I think it suits me. I have melted it down and twisted it, and it sits on my wrist, heavy and tinkling every time I wave my hands in your face

ohmygawsh did you see me i was so scared I thought they were going to fight me but I made it ohmygawsh she has such an attitude

I have planted myself here. I am here, skinny legs crossed, thick thighs spread, hands on hips, hand on stomach to keep my rowdy laughter from bursting into the world, hands off head because I’m no longer in mourning.

nyͻnu. tsukunͻ.

This is wild territory. I have no time or interest to conquer you yourself. Stay, or don’t, as you please.

this is wild territory for all the mad women who do not apologize for dancing on the table before breaking it in half you do not need to offer me a seat I have taken it

***

I will continue to enter classrooms/discussions/office hours/any space in which I’m not expected to excel like:rainha

Even if sometimes on the inside I feel like:cookie

Still, no one will be able to tell me to sit down and shut up:

rainha2u mad

Header image: This is my canon including my mother (in the middle on the top row) because she arranged all the books I “shouldn’t have been reading”  low enough on her bookcase for me to reach.

GIFs: Buzzfeed, Giphy