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

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…

***

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