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