I [would love to] love myself when I am laughing*…

laughing1

…but mostly I’m in a forever panic hoping no one can tell how cowardly I have become, or how ashamed I am that I haven’t listened:

[Toni]

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.

[Flora]

not a piece of wood

letting down– Cécile, Sanité, Dedée

Warrior mothers I can only imagine hurling bodies over fortified walls– war prisoners and weak soldiers alike– just hush up your whining we’re in charge now!

[Zora]

Girl, your knife is as dull as a short plank and WE ARE NOT TRAGIC, do you hear me?

***

I would love for my laugh to be a festival

To live a life in which I could say that and mean it

Beyoncé surrounded by assorted flower arrangements rubbing her rounded belly

Rihanna blowing smoke straight into the camera

Rihanna shaking white feathers and rhinestones at carnival

Rihanna at any time of day or night, frankly

***

Actually

Not anyone who is light-skinned and wealthy

I would like to be the two girls I saw on the train this morning, one with Afro puffs parted by a sharp zig zag down the middle of her head, the other with cornrows swinging past her shoulders, sharing headphones and dancing their joy onto the platform and out into the world

Or the me who hadn’t yet started to fake humility until it became a nervous tick

When I was all

Itchy frilled socks filling with dust after church, and still twirling for frame after frame of photographs

Fluffy ponytail balanced on top of my head in the only way my mother new to style my hair

 ***

Especially in these times, I realize I need to be

 [Alice]

outrageous, audacious, courageous

To write us into revolution

Ink for poison, pen tips for murder

and other kinds of delusions

***

Instead I am here

crying through rain at the bus stop at 6am

jaw twitching resistance of false exuberance by 2 in the afternoon

By 10pm, roommates have to sweep up the shreds of my sorry self

And let me tell you about how in class white girls get to be basic and then offended by that label

“And isn’t this postcolonial stuff so dense?” means “Tell me you didn’t understand the reading either because there’s no way you can be better than I am at my own game…”

“Wow I’ve read your writing about colonialism. So powerful. Here’s more work for you. I want more.”

We’re all women first, sisters even

Empire wears an adorable pink hat with lopsided ears, don’t you know?

Out here struggling over words like Emecheta and bildungsroman

and ordinarily I would not judge and dismiss others by who wields this basic language best

But

For the sake of Black baby Jesus

I’m the one who isn’t making sense?

***

[Toni]

Alright, but what did we say about distractions? 

 Listen, I’m trying, ok? I’m finally over that guy and Becky with the split ends

[All sing refrain]

Oh honey, Daavi, not this again. Men absolutely do not treat us like that, and definitely not those with knuckles of that ashy nature. I mean at least let them be moisturized.

Are you listening? Look at me! And look at you:

Expending energy in self-doubt, crawling through the Internet for words of affirmation circled by hand drawn daisies and clouds, and supply store glitter

Unthreading at the seams,

you might want to get your fraying checked out,

mended

But at least your self has more trouble to write about, right?

Tragic

*****************************************************************

*In a letter to photographer Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston said the following in reference to some photos he had taken of her, “I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” This quote is also the inspiration behind the title of an anthology of extracts from Hurston’s works edited by Alice Walker.(Go to the library and borrow that book, now. Or you know, wherever you get your reading material. Just read it!)

Image: This was taken by Lloyd  K. Sarpong, best photographer this side of Dansoman, Somerville, and everywhere in between. I needed a headshot for a journal that will be publishing my work later this year, and it turned into a whole string of pictures because “we need to catch the light” *strong side-eye.* It wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t long-suffering and sarcastic, but I actually loved how these pictures came out especially because most of them weren’t posed.

I have two stories and a personal essay coming out this year, AND your girl is going to Barbados in May for the Callaloo Writing Workshop! It feels so early in the year to  have this many exciting writing-related things to look forward to. I’m trying to put my joy in my pocket and keep on working, instead of feeling guilty for being wrapped up in personal pursuits when a lot of us are terrified of what Suntan Satan is going to do next. I keep reminding myself that everything I’m doing currently is helping me to improve my writing. As I’ve said before, my writing is the best thing I have to offer others, and I can only hope that it will be meaningful for whoever gets to read it.

Safe House

There is no home to go to. Where do you think you’re going? Right now you are living in the Western Hemisphere regional branch of a corporation that built itself up on the bodies of people who looked very much like you who were snatched at night, who were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, who learnt to endure because there was no other option. The right side of the sea for you is a place where the same monster breathes down your neck; it’s breath just stinks a little differently.

But there, your 4×4 smells like abroad. It is pristine and you can yell at the driver for leaving oily fingerprints on the steering wheel covered in beige leather just like the rest of the car interior. And you can use that car to roll over the hands and feet of the people on crutches and in wheelchairs reaching to your windows misted over from the condensation of the cold AC meeting the hot glass. You can toss a few coins to the children grabbing at the pockets of your designer jeans as you exit the club, and maybe you’ll donate last year’s clothes to an orphanage knowing that you’ve done your civic duty.

And there you are safe, and the police yes sah and yes madam to your slippery accent and their giant rifles might as well be water guns because they would never dream of turning them on a big somebody like you. There you are safe, and blackness is only remarked upon when your grandma complains you have stayed out in the sun too long, or when the finest girl in the class is the shade of the inside of the palm you will use to try and get a feel of her wavy hair, or when the waiter is rude to you at a luxury resort full of white people turning red in the sun and you will shout at him, spit flying and veins threatening to explode: “Heh do you know who I am???”

Back home you are safe, and you are not a try-too-hard laughing a little louder and sharper because you don’t want to kill the vibe when your white friends are at a house party singing along in unison: “at least a nigger nigger rich” and making sure you hear the R at the end. You will roll that ‘r’ onto the ends of words like “wadur,” and insert them unnecessarily in words like Sakumono– you are safe.

But you don’t know that now you are living in the West African Headquarters of Keeping up Appearances. Your parents will list all your Latin honors when you shuffle into the living room after rolling out of bed at 1pm on a Tuesday and you will threaten to slap the house help for burning a hole through your silk shirt. Or maybe you won’t even speak to her except for a curt “Thank you” with the ends clipped off, at least everything is dignified you see. She has a uniform and has been working for your family for years, and maybe she has kids in the village somewhere but you really don’t know or care, and you definitely didn’t see her crying in the pantry after your father denied her permission to go home and attend to some sick relative.

You are safe, and the driver will warn you to avert your eyes when the neighborhood people are about to burn an armed robber with some old tires and kerosene and you will shake your head and kiss your teeth, why do these people always have to resort to such behavior? And you will flinch when the front pages of Saturday tabloids are covered with the image of dead bodies of people who were only guilty of loving each other in a way that your parents’ Bible does not permit and you know it’s wrong but Ghana is safe, who asked them to display their love in public­–

Now you are safe and you don’t have to let the white girl get away with anything and everything because she’ll cry if you try to point out her privilege– you are in a dive bar and all her friends are hitting you with drunken, slow punches and you know if you don’t leave soon, you won’t be safe because you will definitely be painted as the aggressor and the police will ensure that you don’t make it to the next morning. But now you are safe and this white girl is different and she cares about Africa’s development with a big ‘D’ and she loves black people, until she has a black daughter she is terrified and envious of and will drag a fine toothed comb without water or coconut oil through the same curls you used to admire on the girl that sat in front of you in class. But you are all safe–

And you will wrinkle your nose when the drains are too ripe and there are parts of the city you will never see. The tires of your car cannot roll over un-tarred roads, but they have built in treads for crushing the backs of the people who have been bought and sold, who are still being bought and sold, so you can sit over drinks on Friday night and celebrate how far hard work has brought you.

And you are safe because on your way home the policeman will wave you past the checkpoint with a flash of the torch and his teeth, even though you both know your “something small for the weekend” is what allowed him to ignore your expired license and the Jack Daniels mist hanging around your head. There you are safe, because the only way you will become a hashtag is if you become a local celebrity known for taking girls on dates with the intention of raping them or if you develop an app that is only useful to tourists looking for a good time and Ghanaians who have data bundles and iPhones manufactured wherever it’s cheapest. And the only slur you will know is the average Ghanaian because you are definitely not average you are special and you are safe.

Joyful Again

I was scrolling through my blog last night and thinking to myself: “Wow, why does anyone want to read this? I’ve been so angry lately!” Angry at myself for “letting” myself to be used and discarded by someone who is largely undeserving of all this glory *pauses and fluffs Afro while the crowd goes wild*. Angry at white people who hate black people but think they can cherry pick the “different” ones and expect these magical rarities to preen and curtsy in response to their attention.

Angry at people back home who ask “Why do you stay there if it’s so bad?” Angry at black people from other parts of the diaspora who think African-Americans are to blame for their own oppression. Let me break this down: if you are a postcolonial subject, you are facing global systems of violence and oppression, and if you don’t feel it it’s probably because in your country you are benefiting from the violence being enacted on someone else. Our colonial masters were replaced by elites who may have looked like “the masses” but acted and continue to act very much like their white predecessors. You can watch the movie Xala by Ousmane Sembène for an illustration of this.

xala
Still from Xala, Ousmane Sembène (1975) 

I’m angry at the preppy Boston bros who bump into me on the street on a regular basis because I must be invisible. Angry at the non-black men of color who don’t respect my personal space and pop up directly in my face, mumbling stuff I cannot and do not want to hear, chuckling and breathing heavily as they stare into my cleavage. Angry at the white women who can roll over my toes with their strollers and give me tight-lipped smiles as apologies, knowing that any outrage I express could be deadly for my wild self and vindicating for their fragility. I’m angry that my white friends will mistake my using humor as a way to cope as an invitation for them to participate. So when I say things like: “Listen, I’m terrified of the police. I’m one rude comment away from being a hashtag,” the last thing you should say in response is “Well at least you’re not a man so maybe it’s two rude comments.” I don’t want to spend precious minutes re-hashing the stories of all the black women who have been dehumanized and murdered but who are not always included in the narrative. #SayHerName. Angry at the fact that even as I try to express all this, there will be someone quick to remind me that I have nothing to worry about because I’m comfortable, as if a large part of my anger and despair at this shapeless thing we call “the system” doesn’t come from the awareness that my own comfort is contingent on someone else’s suffering.

My writing is an automatic reaction to anything that happens, painful or joyful. It’s something I need to do to keep living and it’s been that way since I was little. I typed a piece (which I’ll post later) on my phone last night while switching between texting one of the amazing black women I call my friends, laughing and crying because we can add another name to the list, and checking Twitter for news. I feel as though I’m on the “racism beat,” chronicling all these things that are happening as though I’m a journalist. I just want to write the fiction and poetry I want to write and send my friends videos of carefree black children for the fun of it, and not for the purpose of getting our minds off the feeling of being hunted.

I’d also like to give a special shout out to all my classmates in grad school who were silent in class because they felt uncomfortable with “racially charged” course material but made sure to take notes when I spoke, and the friends who try to  hit me with the “but all women though” when they can’t begin to wrap their minds around my insight about what it means to be a dark-skinned black, African woman in “these United States.” Thanks. You give me so much motivation to keep writing. You’re going to hear me one way or another.

Lastly, white feminists: you are not the ones to teach me how to “lean in” when I’ve watched my mother assert herself in male-dominated workplaces in Ghana for years and never, ever, backing down. I’ve heard enough stories about how my great grandmother left her disrespectful husband and went on to be a successful businesswoman, inspirational in so many ways, and most importantly, a complete woman who belonged to herself. I have enough examples of BLACK women leaning all the way in, usually far enough for everybody else, including white women, to walk across their backs. Let’s talk when you’re being hunted and kidnapped and denied access to your own land and sent back across the border in the opposite direction of your kids and killed for being deviant in your femininity and killed just because and buried and and…but the Internet is still late for your funeral.

Until I can write something joyful again…

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.”

Transnational Bad Woman

I wrote this piece a few weeks ago for my Cuban Literature class in response to the novel, Cecilia, and its movie adaptation. It would take me an entire dissertation to express my feelings about Cecilia and how difficult it was to read for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the amount of violence depicted in general, but also the way black women were portrayed as a shameful specter hovering over anyone of mixed ancestry, as well as sex object, workhorse, the list goes on…There was also a moment in the text where an enslaved woman was banished from the house she worked in and sent for punishment on a plantation for daring to breastfeed her own child at the same time as she was supposed to be nursing her mistress’ baby. At that point, I had to put the book down for a few days.

I wasn’t going to post this on my blog, because frankly I just wanted to move on from any kind of engagement with that text. I changed my mind, mainly because I feel like a lot of the conversation about color privilege and colorism turns into a debate over “who has it worse.” We didn’t create the system of binaries that rules our lives, but it exists and we are responsible for perpetuating it in so far as we have internalized it. I’m not attempting to point fingers or to make anyone feel they must account for a privilege that at times comes with a horrific history, and one that is beyond their control. The assignment was to write an address to the title character, Cecila Valdes, a mixed race Cuban woman, with a darker skinned friend, Nemesia, who often plays the sidekick role complete with the suggestion of envy of her “more beautiful” friend. I’m not interested in shouting over someone else’s suffering, and I hope that comes across in the piece.

Note: The phrase “worst kind of woman” comes from the film, during  a scene in which a white woman insults Cecilia presumably for being immoral and a temptress.

***

You are the worst kind of woman. You are fluid in more ways than I will ever be. A toss of your hair over a bare shoulder is a lazy curl of your lip is an almost imperceptible crook of your finger is a higher arch of your foot than the flatness of mine. You are always liquid over whichever terrain you pass and I’m the rock cracking under the heat of people’s disgust and pity, impervious to the coolness of your water. You are the worst kind of woman because I’m supposed to hate you.

In Accra you are striding over open drains and floating above the smell of over-ripe vegetables, you are that half-co one dey be waaa…the black one no shedda be bad but some time she be too dark. You are Ceci Yellow you’re too fine ooh come let us look at your hair! You are bony fingers knocking your scalp in disbelief while they marvel at the absence of thread and tracks to keep your locks in place, running over the smoothness of your skin as if it is butter that has merged with your muscle to disguise the undesirable blackness below the surface. In Accra, you are the jealously guarded crush-girlfriend-mistress-turned-wife, you are the one who bakes to a pleasant warmth in the sun like the crumbling edges of a slightly overdone pastry. You are to be possessed and reviled and glorified and stamped onto the pages of notebooks shoved in the backpacks of desperate teenage boys who cannot see past their own reflection shining in your forehead. You are the worst kind of woman for them because somehow they will aspire to your brightness while rubbing hatred deeper into their own chests, and the worst kind for me because I’m supposed to hate you.

In Havana, you are close enough to white to flow in through the windows of grand mansions and from one set of pale arms to another. Mulatta, you are also far enough from me that you can storm through the termite-infested door of my house before ripping it off its hinges and breaking it over my head. My helmet of cottony wool hair is not enough to shield me from the oppressive radiance of your smile. You are the worst kind of woman, they say, with loose limbs and an even looser grasp on good Catholic guilt. You are the worst because the white men lie in icy bed sheets next to their wives coated in lace and inaccessibility and imagine that they are grabbing handfuls of your light, because the black men spit in the faces of women who look like their mothers and imagine they are kissing yours, because we are all supposed to bob and courtesy and despise your grace.

I don’t know that I actually believe that you are as terrible as they say– nyornu bada, puta, bad woman. I have been trained to stare into your light brown velvet covering trying to find the seams so I can snatch it from you and sew it onto my own body. I’m supposed to crave the innocent, swirling hairs that stick to your forehead and the nape of your neck, while snagging the harsh reality of my dry coils on zippers and unattainable beauty standards. I cannot be who I am without spending hours staring back at a reflection that harbors too many shadows, one that is always already disappointing before I have even pried open my eyes to take a look at it. There is no way for me to exist without making your existence about me. There is a cavity inside my chest devoted to you where I can squeeze every last drop of the special treatment you enjoy, so that I too can flow and sway and waft into rooms with the scent of jasmine and stale sweat.

Cecilia, I keep you in the spaces behind my knees, and on the flatness of the back of my neck, so that it is increasingly difficult to walk. I do not envy the bitter taste clinging to your lips, the lingering memory of being created out of a bit of me and a bit of those who hate me intertwined with your veins. The fact that I am attempting to distil you into your constituent parts is more evidence that I have indulged in the addictive syrup of a system that blurs our vision and does not wish us to see each our reflections in each other’s pupils. You body is more than a site for national myth creation and pornographic fantasy. You are more than a backboard off which I can bounce off my insecurities and my desire to be a little less touched by the sun. I do not hate or pity or even love you just because your mother could’ve been mine. I cannot even claim kinship solely based on the fact that they ultimately see us as the same black bitches when it is convenient for them, only drawing lines according to color gradients and nose width when it serves a higher purpose of entrenching power.

We are the worst kind of women because we transcend the deviance of our own beings, because we rip gaping holes in the fabric that keeps our arms strapped down so we can’t reach for each other. We are the worst kind of women because we are perpetual reminders of unadulterated arrogance that cannot be snatched out of us no matter how hard they scratch or grab, standing astride their notions of purity and respectability, smoking the ash of the conflicts they imposed on us and blowing them in their faces.

Image: Still of the actress Daisy Granados from film Memories of Underdevelopment (which we also watched in class.) She also played Cecilia in the film adaptation of the novel.

Goodbye, My Temporary Lover

More thoughts from Dakar…

I wanted you to sing to me. I had grown accustomed to hasty lullabies flung over my mother’s shoulder while she fanned a reluctant flame, or loving strains whispered to me long after I had fallen asleep, another hard day of work completed. I wanted you to sing to me, to speak to me tenderly, to bring offerings of fabrics and drinks to my family, humbly asking for my hand. Instead, you spoke to me in a bastardized mix of phrases and predicates, faint traces of grammar lessons you never paid attention to. You shrugged your shoulders when I delicately pointed out your mistakes, ready to applaud your efforts to correct yourself. You carried on, contorting the names of all my beloved places. The haunts of my childhood, towns with melodic names, appellations lovingly bestowed eight days after birth, corrupted in your bitter mouth, hacked apart with your lackluster accent. Popenguine. Ziguinchor. Sangalkam. You didn’t bother to learn the names of my children, they were just props in your collection of rare objects. Aïssatou. Ndeye. Moustapha. I wanted you to sing their harmonies, but you were never quite on key.

Why did I try? I invited you into my world, laid all my wares before you. Your hands invaded all my nuances, manipulated my curves and felt every crevice. You were trying to see if I was worth the “bon prix”, worth taking back and being put on display in your ivory tower for all your people to ogle and admire and criticize. I was exotic enough for the moment, the highest of cheekbones and the longest of necks. Beauty incarnate, elegance itself. I would do. In the same way you chewed up and spat out words in a twisted mess, you mangled the parts of me that suited you and discarded those that were too mundane. Your greedy, sweaty hands roved and roved over all my goods, and picked what looked most authentic to accessorize your pale life.

And yet, when I tried to introduce you to my aunts, the one who was not wanted and the illustrious Madame Bâ, the disapproving Uncle Leopold and the eccentric neighbor Soyinka with his shock of white hair, you offered a wan smile out of courtesy. Your hands had barely grasped theirs in greeting before you turned away and sought more exciting things to satisfy your wanderlust. You wanted to explore with me…explore me, exploit… You carried on with your expedition, taking and taking. You said you needed souvenirs to remember me by, and I foolishly obliged. I knew you did not fully understand, nor would you ever, but accorded the privilege of guest status you gained access to all the secret trappings of my being. I unraveled lengths of beads from around my neck, my wrist, my waist. I smudged the kohl from my eyes, extended my palms free of their red stain. I wanted you to experience me in my truest form, in my multitude of realities. I offered you the finest mbazin, but the ill-fitting garment you produced did not do it an ounce of justice.

I wanted to dance with you. I wanted us to sway together as the strings plucked our pleasure in liquid form, harmonies deliciously languid and painfully expectant. I wanted you to fly feet off the ground driven wild by the escalating rhythm. We would disappear into a cloud of dust and emerge laughing and arguing about who fell first. But instead, you stayed firmly planted in the sand, your joints creaking and complaining as they were not accustomed to moving in that way. Your hips remained immovable, but I loved you for trying. At least I did, until you whispered to me with your mouth curved in that cruel smirk, more disjointed words about how this wasn’t a “real” dance anyway.

The sound of drums grated your nerves. You failed to see how this could be considered music. You failed to notice the exhilarating effect they had on my sisters surrounded by a circle of eager spectators. You failed to listen to my stories of ancestral triumph and defeat, to the ways my cousins reclaimed their compromised nobility and built shaky nations where empires had stood just the other day. My stories of cultural movements and newborn intellectuals in impeccably fitted suits failed to tickle your fancy. You failed to perceive the romantic wistfulness in my eyes, the nostalgia for a time I had never known. Or lack thereof. You did not even sniff at my apathy, my longing to be more like you and your own, nor did you understand your role in my cracked mirror reflection. You failed.

Please tell the others. If they are only looking for sweet mangoes and wide hips, for immaculately starched boubous collecting red sand as they sweep along, for chivalry and chauvinism wrapped in a confusing dark and handsome package, for “cute” little keepsakes to collect as ransom for my forgotten history, tell them not to come. It is not the right season for mangoes, and I am fresh out of cheap tricks.

All Rights Usurped®

You can probably tell that my mind has been all over the place since I’ve been in Senegal. Or maybe you can’t because I’m so good at acting like I know what I’m doing 🙂 In any case, this particular post isn’t entirely based on my experiences here. It’s more a collection of things over a long period of time that I’ve only recently started seeing with new eyes. Recently I’ve been writing these stream of consciousness not-really-fiction posts but I hope you enjoy reading! 

You do not own the copyright to anger. Righteous indignation is not your birthright. As far as I’m aware, no one handed you a large manila envelope, official wax seal still drying, containing a patent to that particular brand of condescension that you call justice. Thank you, the sentiments you have expressed are a “nice” gesture at best. “Nice”, like a stranger helping you pick up your now ruined papers from the dusty roadside. “Nice”, like someone saying they are sorry for your loss as they rush you off the phone, ignoring your sniffing and tears on the other end of the line. You are not the first, nor will you be the last to be appalled. “How could they do this? How could anyone let this happen? How?”

Let me tell you a secret. No, not here. Not under this sacred tree where women cried out to resolutely silent ancestors for salvation, where old men handed out  wisdom in bite-sized proverb-shaped portions, where tired farmers simply sat and sat until it was time to coax food out of the stubborn dry earth once more. You are not invited to this gathering, not welcome here. Not unless you shed your coat of “knowing better” before you arrive. I repeat, for this is highly important; you are not the first, nor will you be the last to feel the way you do. A host of others before you have come, seen and felt disgust. Bravo, you are able to empathize with your fellow humans. You are indeed, human. Here is your ID Card. Don’t be confused, this does not grant you access to an entire history. You will not immediately understand, not in a week, not in two  months, not in four years. Please try to understand this, these people are aware.

It doesn’t take critically acclaimed documentaries produced by a man in tortoise shell glasses,nor socially conscious bloggers who purchase Fairtrade everything to create awareness. Your concern is appreciated, but you do not have the right to pick and choose where to direct your outrage without bringing an offering of respect, nestled humbly in a bag of kola nuts. You do not get to apportion blame, nor do you earn the right to share in ancestral resentment leveled at former masters. Solidarity grows out of an understanding that someone’s suffering could easily be your own, and as a fellow human being you are deciding to support another human in their struggle, while respecting their agency and their efforts to transform the situation.

I imagine that you are growing more and more perplexed. How does one scold another for caring? Child, and yes, I call you child because in the eyes of this most regal and most ancient land you remain in your earliest stages of infancy. I do not condemn you for caring, again I extend my congratulations. You are indeed, human. But when your caring leads you to shut your ears to any further explanation, or to believe what UN official reports tell you, and what college professors preach as gospel, then your cause is lost. At least you are mature enough to realize that buying a pair of comfortable shoes from a “socially conscious” business creates more problems than it solves. Again, the blogs (and some common sense) have served you well.

Caring, the softest and sweetest of emotions, turns ugly when you do it the way you do. A firm, warm hand on a shoulder heaving with grief turns into a sharp slap across the face. Do you assume that the person you are attempting to comfort does not know the situation they are in? Do you presume to teach someone how to grieve, and how to move on from grieving to re-building? There is a faint waft of supposed superiority on your hot breath. You are angry. How could they? Your anger veils your eyes in thick black mourning cloth. You stuff your ears with cotton, you refuse to listen further. Instead, you decide to do your best to counteract this corrupt, broken-down system you have come to meet. You clap and sing and “Repeat after me!” and you are convinced this is going to blow away the sands of time and exploitation that have settled in the cracks of a once well-oiled machine. Your shaky hands touch wounds they have not yet been taught how to heal, reach places they should not be authorized to enter, and you go home satisfied that you have done an amazing thing.

Again, this is not an indictment on your actions. It is not your fault. Your arrival was marked with outstretched arms, with people ready to bestow undeserved responsibility on your naive shoulders. Where you were met with quiet dignity and resistance, you failed to recognize it. These people all need help, whether they know it or not. And yet you long to feel at home. The fanfare of culture entices you, as it is prone to do. Perhaps you feel as though you are peeping through the window, watching a party you were not invited to. Or perhaps you misplaced your invitation, or you misunderstood it. You wade through market after market, sifting through trinkets and fabrics and hair pieces. With the right costume you can integrate…right? Admiration or appropriation, where does one draw the line?

Come, child, sit down on this mat. You have much to learn. Come, let me show you how to tie that wrapper tightly around your waist. And you, with your sun-burnished skin, you also have much to learn. Your language rises and falls with the same musical cadence, your round hips sway to the same rhythm, but you remain a child. Come. You are welcome.