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

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

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.

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…

You in Black

You really need to stop looking for Accra in every pair of swinging hips. You will never be able to fit yourself into the gap between perfect enamel plates set against a starless midnight sky of a face. Why do you care so much? Only a few months and you think you have become entitled to the same petty excuses? I don’t know how it works where you come from, but that won’t fly over here. You in the black, take your hat off! Pull your pants up! Why is your voice so loud? This is not your war to fight. If anything, you are partially to blame, don’t you know your grandfather sold mine away to…

My friend was a midnight baby born to a mother whose golden skin is rivaled only by the sun’s farewell. She said she gets her black from her dad. She has aunts and uncles back home who are “so black, they’re blue”. And it’s beautiful. And tears teeter on the edge of my eyes every single time; what if those were my aunts and uncles too?

Your mother wrings her hands so much that the delicate brown skin on her fingers has began to rub raw and show the ungodly pink underneath. Always in black, what happened to the peace we planted in your heart, worth the seven days we waited to name you…Why are you always bent over? Head touching lap, soul spilling onto ground, ears covered. This posture has become second nature.

I do not possess the right bank balance nor do I have a high enough following of fanatics to discard my black whenever I please. This is not a housecoat or a headwrap that I can shed when it’s time to go out and look like people. Like people. What was I before? This is not a choice. But…you’re not bl− I don’t believe the people who are scared of me and my black lipstick will stop to find out how round my vowels are and what stamp my passport carries before creating a cavity in my skull filled with burning coals and centuries of inhumanity.

But−

The minute I begin to define myself purely based on someone else’s expectations, I no longer exist.

I no longer exist.

But−

This is not a choice. I can show off, sure. I can make this glow under the light, just rub on some extra shea butter to be sure. Yes for the hair too. I can smooth it out with powder and man-made perfection. But no one is going to take the time to figure out if I really am from Keta by way of Louisiana by way of a patch of black soil by the Nile. Which came first?

When did you learn to speak English? How did you learn to write like this? This is my English. I have declared it so by the order of the people who did not need to be taught the meaning of nobility and civilization. These lyrics are mine. I have stamped them with my own combination of verb tenses, because where I come from we hide yesterday underneath our tonsils and it bursts forth very time we speak. Mine. This is my kingdom. What did you say? What? You said what?

Wow, your hair and clothes are always so…fun! Why are you always so uptight? This isn’t your story. You’re so…different. It doesn’t matter to anyone that I clapped my hands and stomped my feet amidst dust clouds in games of ampe and not double dutch. I’m sorry, you look so much like- Let’s ignore the fact that my curls scream do-not-comb and hers have been pressed into stringy submission… I’ll pretend I don’t know I’m the only one you actually know…sort of. It doesn’t matter, to them you are all the same. Hey! You in black! What are you looking for in here?

On dirait un Toucouleur! You mean you only speak Ewe? Not only. I speak. I thought your mum was an Ashanti, she’s so black!

The minute I begin to define myself purely based on someone else’s expectations, I no longer exist.

I no longer exist.

I showed up late to class today. In all black. I decided to leave out the black lipstick, mostly because I don’t own any. But also because I didn’t want to intimidate anyone any more than my shiny African blackness was about to do. Someone said that poetry was supposed to be a thing of virtue and not a vehicle for hate and vengeance. He didn’t know he was talking about James Baldwin. Why is he so angry? I said: “Maybe because he didn’t ask to be brought here to begin with.” Do you think his ancestors were invited to take an all expenses paid cruise to the New World? Do you think the family he will never know has stopped mourning their loss? You are the reason I wake up with anger fighting to shoot out of my pores. You are the reason we wear anger laced through the spaces between our fingers. Look at my fist.

I no longer exist.

Your lily-white indignation means nothing in the face of pitch black rage. Your voice may try to stack decibels above mine, but black rage will explode hot lava all over your island, black rage will be the only pillar left standing in the middle of your crumbling colosseum, black rage will trample the relics of your stale accomplishments. Black rage has bigger problems than you. Stay out of my way.

You need to make your writing more accessible. How is anyone going to know what this means? They would need to have grown up exactly how you did. Besides, this is not your story. No, there are not enough Toni Morrison or Toni Cade Bambara texts in the world or on your bookshelf for you to claim otherwise. I don’t care that you went to sleep with Sula stomping behind your eyelids. Why are you always so angry? Why the obsession with white evil? Aren’t you tired of carting that hunk of rock around on your back?

I could stop, if only white evil stopped telling me how to be, stopped telling me to be at all-

This is a response to the phenomenal work “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine. You should definitely look it up if you have never heard of it. I had to submit this for my writing seminar, but after the class I went through and made some edits based on how the class went…but that’s another story.