Doing the Most (and Never Enough)

I really am fine, or as fine as I can be, all things considered…

Teaching is incredibly rewarding and my thesis is pretty much writing itself after all the obsessive research and more than a few false starts.

I’m working on getting the care that I need. If you know me well enough to be worried after reading this blog, you also know that writing is my automatic response for anything that happens in my life, and not necessarily a cry for help nor a word-for-word rendering of the parts of my life no one can ever really know but me.

I’m caught in a place that is familiar to most people who are trying to find the joints between art, activism, academic work, and living as a whole human being. You can do you research about people and cultures, solidify their place in history, but by the time your work is actually done, the people you claim to care about could be long dead. What use are you to them while they are still living?

 I just need to write.

***

When the bus plunges forward to an abrupt stop, I feel as though the force is going to take me with it. Take me out, through the window and onto the asphalt on a bed of broken windscreen and motor oil. The woman next to me is laughing too loud, to deep, to wide, too open; all the way back to her wisdom teeth and down her throat. Something on that stranger’s sandwich smells sour, as if it has been sitting on a glass shelf under a sweating spotlight for more hours than the package would recommend. Everything is entirely too much. Needless to say, I feel overwhelmed, and not just by the unending stream of news reporting brutality and collapse that is most certainly not new, but feels somehow even more urgent and threatening by the day.

I’m overwhelmed, so that every late-night message alert from one of my students, or an email reminder “touching base on your student loan,” feels like a bell ringing right next to my ear drum. Goddess forbid someone drop a heavy object upstairs, because that might as well be a rubber boot stomping on the inside of my head. The blender in the kitchen next door is a drill hammering directly onto my collarbone, and the shower running two doors down is more like a burst pipe emptying onto the floor around my bed. I’m overwhelmed in a way that I can only explain in these exaggerated terms, (except this is how it really feels), to demonstrate how any emotional or physical stimuli seem to have taken on several additional dimensions beyond what one would expect of livable reality.

The usually reliable neatness of my symptoms list is now no more than black marks skidding across the page where there used to be words (ants are too orderly). At least, it might as well be, because the sensation of the world pressing against my skin to the point where the pain is unbearable is new and doesn’t fit anywhere between “nervousness” and “paranoia.” Another new and even more concerning development is the compulsion I feel to punish myself for…what, I’m not completely sure. Self-deprecation is one thing; I’m so familiar with that mild sort of shame that my footprints leave footprints in the same grooves where I have stepped down that path many times before.

Normally, my issue is that I’m embarrassed or annoyed with myself for an inconsiderate or cruel thing I did or said years before I could have claimed to know better.

But this is different. The problem now seems to be that I exist at all. My smallest infractions send me spiraling around and down towards self-loathing and other horrid and unutterable thoughts. My default setting is now that I don’t deserve rest or reward because I haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t graded enough papers, haven’t written enough pages of my thesis, haven’t been pleasant enough to the people in my life who become collateral damage to my chaotic self.

Because it’ll never be enough. I’ve been given too much I don’t deserve and there will never be a way to pay…I’ll eat when I’ve completed a satisfactory amount of work, which is usually hours after the stomach ache from hunger itself gives up in the hopes that I’ll change my mind and stop for food at some point.

I’ll take a break and go to meet with that person, or just go outside for fresh air when I’ve earned it, so probably never.

I’ll pause and join the rest of the house for a chat when I’m done reading this book, I need it for my research, I need it to tell me how to more present, to be more useful and the next and the next…read on the bus, in bed, in between in-betweens, even when fatigued from learning more about how we’ve created a world that is killing us all some more quickly than others.

It’s urgent.

I’ll wash and oil and braid my hair when I have a moment to spare, so not for the next few weeks until the next deadline passes, or until my curls and kinks can only be coaxed out of knots with a wide-toothed comb (and I am sure to lose a lot in the process).

I am my own predator. Anything about myself is fair game. Every unanswered message and missed meet-up is another failure. Any mundane setback is evidence of another thing I can’t do, another indication that I am not worthy. My current target is now the cavernous gap between my political convictions and the way I am living my life. Cavernous because my only option is to fall fast and far through the weak foundation of what I think I know and what I actually do…

Girl, like the one and only time you gave in to name-dropping an influential, or maybe even [in]famous, relative to slide around the bureaucracy of the passport office at home. Is “one and only” one time too many when I claim to understand how corruption works? Let’s hear some of that talk about privilege, hmm? How many volunteer shifts missed until I just stop going? How many times to be judgmental, or to compromise my own humanity by my inability or unwillingness to empathize with anyone who cries “white tears?” Or like the fact that I’m using this space to seek validation that I am indeed a “good” person doing my best? Is that what I’m doing? Who has time for my self-indulgence/self-flagellation-self at all?

Whatever is happening now is ugly. My writing has turned from confession and the occasional celebration into another opportunity to turn against my myself. I am living the combination of trying to move around as an artist concerned with what my work is going to mean in this world, attempting to navigate how I wield power and squirm under its heel at the same time, and this genetic? hormonal? all of the above? tendency to be ruthless with my self where I should be gentle. Whatever is happening now is ugly, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frightened.

***

Here are some of the things outside off (but not necessarily unrelated to) my self that I’ve been thinking and talking and teaching about over the past few weeks (and also trying to figure out things I can *do*.) Give them a read? It’s urgent.

 

 

 

 

Not Everyday Rejection!

Well, the title of this post isn’t exactly accurate. I’ve had the usual helping of rejection emails for the past few weeks, which is nothing new or interesting. For once though, they’ve been off set with some more pleasant news, including a brief mention in The Review Review of my poem “Razors for Breakfast,” published on this blog and in The Fem Lit Mag earlier this summer. It’s pretty exciting when someone who isn’t your friend/relative/favorite professor compliments your work! It doesn’t help that I’m apparently predisposed to be bigheaded because of the combination of being an only child and a Leo, but “I would very much like to be excluded from that narrative.” (Taylor Swift is NOT our friend, but I have to admit that using art to vent about men who have been particularly terrible can be very satisfying. See previous and upcoming posts on this blog 🙂 ) But on a serious note, it means so much when something you create resonates with another person, especially when that person is a complete stranger. You can read the review here. You can also find the poem I had published on The Fem here, along with other pieces I’ve had published.

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…

Limited Access

I may have to take the veins from the side of your neck, empty out the contents and use them for ink to write back to you.

I’m one forced smile away from spitting in your face.

Inaccessible. Grant me access to your work. Grant me access to yourself. Grant me access I’m entitled to access grant me access to what I’m entitled to–

Access means your lifeless hands are attracted to the warm breath lingering around my half-open mouth. You want to be able to press down unhindered, until I cough and struggle and grow still.

I’m one forced smile away from spitting in your face, one clenched fist away from leaving the chipped corners of my own nails buried in the skin on my arms.

And you…are not safe just because what I meant to say passed over your head and dumped a bucket of seawater over your shoulders. You are straining against the complicated, non-linear, who do you think you are to do this, other writers do this well but who do you think you are to do something this complicated, non-linear lines of prose and verse I am wrapping around your upper arms to interrupt your blood flow.

You are broiling in the steam of your frustration, how dare you I demand access how dare you have no right to deny me what has always been mine.

This is disjointed and nonsensical, try again.

Again I will tell you have no idea what any of this means because my expanse is too wide to fold into the narrow channel of your understanding again I will tell you are not entitled to any more than I am willing to give again…

(Image: Taken by the loveliest of lovelies, Claytia Gonsalves, at the National Museuem of African Art in DC. Spring 2015.)

 

Original Simone

We got an assignment in fiction workshop a few weeks ago to write a plot outline based on this two-line story published by Thomas Bailey Aldrich in 1870: “A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world; every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.”  My attempt wasn’t exactly successful because I didn’t include the major conflict of the story, but it was still really fun to try this surreal post-apocalyptic style for this assignment! I may end up turning this into a full story, stay tuned 🙂

***

Simone heard a voice that sounded remarkably like her own coming from the other side of the door. “Let me in! I beg you!” It was disturbing enough that she was the only surviving human on the planet, at least she had thought so until now, but the fact that this impossible visitor echoed the sound of her own voice was even more terrifying. Her first instinct was not to duck below window level even as the knocking and begging increased in intensity. Instead, she was fixed to a spot in the center of her living room, halfway between the crooked hand-me-down armchair and the door, her anxious energy almost burning a hole on the green floral carpet on which she stood.

Perhaps she had missed conventional human interaction more than she had realized, and the lack of it had subsequently caused her to lose any sense of judgment, but for whatever reason her curiosity overwhelmed her fear and she walked towards the door and opened it. She nearly fell backwards into the room when she saw that she was standing before herself, a more worn and tattered Simone with a light film of ash over cracked brownness which must not have seen lotion in days, leaves and clumps of mud dispersed throughout the tangled mass of tight curls piled on top of her head, and smears of indeterminate substances all over a white shirt and navy trousers.

“Simone! I mean…I! Ugh this is too complicated. Let me in, please? They’re coming for me…us! Whatever, let me in!”

Simone could not distill her confused thoughts into speech, but then she recognized the twisted humor of the situation. Technically she had spoken, it was herself at the door after all. Her two selves sat down together, and beat-up Simone winced a little as she tried to get comfortable in her seat. Beat-up Simone went on to explain that she was alone in the world, but technically she wasn’t, because there were different versions of themselves scattered around their small town from different stages in her life leading up to the day the world ended for everyone else. There was blissfully happy Simone with her culinary school certificate displayed on the wall in an apartment much like this one, and frustrated Simone who could only get a job as a dishwasher in a French restaurant downtown because fresh trainees didn’t typically rise to executive chef right off the graduation dais.

Then there was her, beat-up Simone, who looked the way she did because all the other versions had tried to stop her from going to tell original Simone what was happening. They only stopped throwing punches when she caught her breath mid-attack to ask “Wait…what are you even scared of? What is going to happen if she finds out?” They realized they had been acting based on group hysteria and outrage, and had no real justification for why they felt as though original Simone should not know of their existence, so they let her go. Collectively, they didn’t really know much at all. Not about how they, or her, of all people had been saved from whatever unknown but deadly fate had befallen the rest of the world, and why this had caused them to separate out into these strange constituent parts. As beat-up Simone tried to explain all this to the baffled and slightly amused original, they both heard the doorbell proceeded by frantic knocking.

“Let me in!” they said in unison.

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

Rewritten

You search for a word to describe the loaded pause in a baby’s cry, crumpled face frozen for a few long seconds before the real pain is wrenched out of its body. You try repeatedly to rearrange subjects and objects in such a way that the reader will feel the same twist in their abdomen that you felt the first time you witnessed this. You thumb through crumbling dictionaries and scan cleverly curated lists online for untranslatable words and emotions. There must be some speakers of a language you have never heard before that can accurately describe this moment which up until now has grazed the edge of your fingertips, missing your keyboard by the minutest distance. You hold your breath, hoping that by simulating this agonizing breathlessness, the words to describe it will stir from the floor of your lungs and make their way out of your mouth. Words are your daily sustenance, but in this instance any metaphors you can imagine are rotting in the back of your fridge, clinging to a wall of ice and congealed juices. You include your description of this ambiguous moment anyway. Surely anyone who has had to care for a younger sibling or neighbor or distant relative’s child (or all of the above) will know what it feels like to have their misery balanced at a single point on top of their head for five seconds or an eternity before it comes crashing down all over their shoulders. You have written about it anyway, only to find a red line through your words, invalidating that such a moment actually exists. Rewrite for clarity. Or delete.