Catharsis Is Not Freedom

…I tell my self as a consolation for the most recent instance of smiling in the face of condescension, or smiling like the meeting isn’t unnecessarily long, or the small talk unbearably inconsequential, or the tasks at hand even more so, or smiling like the sun is not disrespectfully bright considering it is another Monday of death in a week of death in a month of death in a year of death in an age of death. Catharsis is not freedom, so I remind my self that I am too busy keeping my soul upright and not crouching to the ground at the deepest, farthest base of my being, and that my work is not to insist on a seat at some paltry table nor is to prove my humanity or deserving-ness to people who don’t know the meaning of my middle name or why it is actually my first depending on whose mouth is calling me. Catharsis is not freedom, and so I resist the urge to counter “And you didn’t say anything? Couldn’t be me!” with hello-you-don’t-know-my testimony or to open my mouth wide to show the gaps or recount all the ways I fought and lost and fought and nearly fell forever over the edge of my sanity. Catharsis is not freedom, and none of us are going to confession, so I let you/me/? vent, because sometimes you need to wipe your feet on the doormat so thoroughly that your shoes and you yourself are new before you go back inside the home where you are [hopefully] more than the sum of all the small tyrannies you have been made to not just swallow, but also lie like you like the taste.

And so the rest of this post became a journal entry where I was able to speak freely and fast with the names and dates and times of the people and events I allude to but will not outright mention here. There is a shelf of journals I wrote from age 8 to 18 in my room at my mother’s house, now, it has been almost a year since my last private confession, as I prefer to post here or to send a voice memo to a friend in search of a way to be listened to by someone other than the chorus in my head, as if writing or speaking aloud means that I am real and that the self-denial we are all using to subsist[1] has not totally obliterated me, at least not yet, as if writing or speaking aloud will prevent me from ambushing acquaintances or relative strangers with the tangled results of my overthinking. I was most inclined (or compelled by my anxieties) to do this when I was in the middle of working on my novel, still a few years away from my first complete draft, especially if I encountered anyone who was from any of the places I was pulling from in my work: the security guard from Haiti, a stranger in a writing workshop or on the train from Louisiana, South Carolina, or anywhere they paint porch ceilings with haint blue.

I felt shame for what I understood as my insecurity as a writer and as a person, constantly in pursuit of external validation to keep doing this work I had already decided I was going to do. I was holding out my ideas and my stories and looking for someone to tell me: This is good and worthwhile, continue or I’m from this town or that city in the diaspora and this feels so true, how did you know? I was chasing the feeling of affirmation I had in a workshop for Black writers in Barbados where I went to a beach called Accra and my classmates all grasped onto details I thought I had invented as really authentic to their various places in the African diaspora, a confirmation that I was much more in tune than I thought with the preexisting Black collective spirit-knowledge I was studying and to which I was trying to contribute a humble piece. I was asking my self, Who am I to write this? and I was looking for anyone to bless me and say, Why not you? as if any one person could speak for their entire hometown or island or blue-ceilinged household and grant me the permission I was seeking.

A large part of my desperation was rooted in being so deep and low in that soul-bowing-down place that I didn’t consider my imagination and my life “worthy of elaboration” and didn’t think it was worth living or being missed at all, were I to be no more. The rest of my reticence came from a fear of being perceived as an arrogant child of the African continent attempting to arbitrate what is and isn’t authentic in Afro-diasporic spiritual practice and self-invention, when the reality is that much of my education in Accra was so much more colonized than I realized until I started to read my mother’s books and the books those writers were reading, so I could ask the right questions and roughly make out the shape of the unending grief for all the “African” things lost to the merciless fires of colonial hubris (Some of these fires are literal).

A photo of a framed black-and-white portrait of my great-great-grandfather, Nyaho Tamakloe. He has a full white beard and is wearing a decorated cap, a white shirt and a dark cloth slung over one shoulder.

And then, there is the day in 2017 when I saw a portrait of my great-great-grandfather, Nyaho Tamkakloe, in a book by historian and professor Sandra E. Greene titled Slave Owners of West Africa: Decision Making in the Age of Abolition. Prior to encountering this work, which had an entire section dedicated to my ancestor, I had seen that exact portrait every day for years in my mother’s kitchen next to portraits of two of his sons, and I only knew him as the father of my dear great-grandmother, who was one of his youngest children out of hundreds, and had only heard praise songs about his benevolent and fearless leadership. I sent the eBook to my mother and all her siblings, and we have talked at length about what it means to be ashamed to be descended from someone who I was understanding to be “on the wrong side of history.” From Dr. Greene’s work and other biographical snippets my aunties and uncles have sent me, I learnt the following:

In 1807, the British abolished the trade of enslaved people on the Gold Coast, resulting in the movement Euro-Africans, Europeans, and Brazilians further along the coast to Anlo, the region where our hometown of Keta is located, by the 1830s. Prior to their arrival, the area “had never been a major site for the export of enslaved [people],”[2] and power and influence were measured by “military prowess, ownership of powerful gods, and membership in the community’s founding families.” These newcomers bought their way into the society and brought money and the trade of goods and people with them. My ancestor was not yet born at this time. His coming of age was defined by fighting in several wars against coalitions of African and British forces, rising from fighter to mafiaga or commander by 1869. In an effort to establish their power in the region, the British, along with the Asante, waged a series of wars against the Anlo to disrupt existing trade, including of people, and to institute their own power and influence in the area. The British also made it clear that they were willing and capable to attack the Anlo from the interior, driving them to the coast where their ships would be waiting to “bombard and destroy every Anlo coastal town and village within the range of their guns.”[3]

After suffering profound losses in these wars, the Anlo decided to take a different approach that involved expanding commerce and amassing wealth, including “wealth-in-people.”[4] According to Dr. Greene, “…after realizing his inability to militarily resist the superior forces of the other Britain and Asante…Tamakloe worked with many of the other Anlo chiefs to pursue a different path. They decided to abandon the use of military force to protect their economic interests, and they pursued, instead, peaceful engagement with the world of commerce.”[5] My ancestor invested in all kinds of ventures, with a man of slave descent named Paul Sands as his close confidant and collaborator. (Later in the chapter, Dr. Greene asks whether his relationship with Sands contributed to Nyaho Tamokloe’s empathy towards enslaved people). When the British abolished slavery across their Empire in 1874, my ancestor treated those he had previously enslaved as relatives, supporting their material needs and giving them access to [colonial] education. From reading some of Dr. Greene’s other research, it seems that formerly enslaved people sometimes returned to their own communities elsewhere in Ghana, then the Gold Coast, and were also able to free their loved ones in certain instances. It is not clear to me whether some of the people who Nyaho Tamakloe enslaved were able to return home. The Anlo also made it illegal to mention an individual’s slave origins, though I wonder how this might have contributed to some extent the present culture of shame and silence in place of any kind of meaningful reckoning with this history. They also allowed the children of formerly enslaved wives to inherit property and made it so that formerly enslaved people could hold positions of political leadership. Dr. Greene’s work asks and proposes various reasons why Nyaho Tamkloe reoriented himself in this way by actively engaging in abolition, whether his motivations were mainly political and economic or also informed by empathy grounded in his own personal losses and grief and other sentimental considerations. She writes:

“Perhaps most important of all, Tamakloe was willing and able to reassess and alter his views on a variety of matters. He then used his considerable prestige to push for change within the larger community. Others exposed to the very same influences, others with a similar status and background did not take this path. Only Tamakloe. As indicated, he had no love for the British. He fought against them in the Atiteti war; he fought against them in the Agoue war. And he lost relatives and men to British fire in both. Yet he was willing to reconsider how he viewed this once fierce enemy.”


“…it seems Tamakloe broke with the prevailing attitudes about those of slave status. Knowing how important those individuals were to the production of his own wealth and that of others, but tempered by his understanding of the anguish of losing of one’s natal relatives, and aware of the pain experienced by some of those closest to him who were taunted for something over which they had no control, he modified his views on slavery. In his own family, he refused to distinguish between slave and free; in his courts he upheld the notion that those of slave descent could successfully sue those who abused them because of their origins; and as a member of the traditional council of chiefs, he supported the official recognition of a number of his former slaves as heads of their own communities. Convinced that this was the right path, he broke with a centuries-old tradition that accepted slavery as part of the fabric of life. He then forged a new path that he believed would “make [Anlo] beautiful.”

I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding like I’m playing semantic games or being an apologist for what is undoubtedly an inhumane and unimaginable institution. I don’t know what the line is between context and justification, and at what point one begins to bleed too heavily into the other. It’s so hard to try and understand that slavery as an institution was as banal as it was violent, so that there were instances in colonial Ghana of formerly enslaved people getting free and acquiring wealth, including enslaving other people themselves. Learning more about my great-great-grandfather has revealed to me that I have a rather naïve view of history as something with right and wrong sides rather than a kaleidoscope of realities and [re]tellings, almost comic book-esque with pure-hearted heroes fighting against selfish, greedy villains. I wanted so desperately, like some of the people Saidiya Hartman met on her travels in Ghana, to be able to say: I’m part of the people who fought for you to remain. I’m sorry we lost each other but we did fight, we did not let you go easily. My ancestor did fight, but I wanted him to have fought harder, I wanted to be able to say categorically that he stuck to some sort of anticolonial principle, even if he had to die by it. So really what I’m saying is, I often feel powerless in the face of white violence now, and I want so badly to believe I would have done something different had I been alive then. [Added on 2/22: I also think that these feelings of powerlessness or immobilization also feel like cowardice, like I’m not doing all I could be doing now besides writing, so who is to say I would’ve been different back then? And so I end up projecting onto ancestors a thousand times more courageous than I have ever been on my best day, denying them all their complicated dimensions and feeling shame in the face of my doing nothing towards a free now and future, my own perceived inadequacy.]

It is very important to note that formerly enslaved people were not passive recipients of the ostensible benevolence of people like my ancestor. According to Dr. Greene, the formerly enslaved and their descendants were determined to advocate for themselves, refusing harmful stereotypes about their ancestry and working to access educational and other opportunities for themselves and their descendants. She adds that they were also often at the vanguard of anticolonial efforts, “And it was they who most actively used in other places in West Africa the anticolonial rhetoric—first in the 1950s and ’60s, and again in the 1990s and early 2000s in the wake of the push for democratization—to challenge their continued stigmatization and to demand real freedom from slavery and full citizenship rights.”[6]

I have absorbed so much online conversation (sometimes brought on by articles like this) that is essentially the following: Africans sold each other. They are not innocent; they are not victims. Even if it was that simple, what can anyone say was gained from this alleged treachery? Wealth for very few, strife and oppression for the majority, and the forgetting and erasure of self-knowledge that colonialism induced for everyone? Absolutely nothing would make generations of suffering “worth it;” this is more to point out that not everyone who remained was able to remain because they themselves traded others. Some were enslaved or free or wealthy or striving, and many more than we will ever be able to account for died fighting. There is no Wakanda untouched by colonial scars, nowhere on the continent enjoying widespread prosperity except in the grasping, greedy hands of a few members of the political class, some of whose fathers actively coddled or colluded with our colonizers. And also, what would I look like saying chattel slavery in the Americas was a different beast, and the idea of racial solidarity or belief in a shared blackness did not exist for our ancestors in this way, and my ancestor would not have been alive at the time the trade of enslaved people to the Caribbean and the Americas was taking place in earnest, with the subtext being, please understand that I am not a traitor, at least not of my own doing.

I also fear being used as a scapegoat by white people uncomfortable in the whiteness they have inherited as currency and supposed superiority to be able to point and say, “Well what about her? She is guilty too. If I apologize for my ancestors, will she say sorry too?” I have a story about a writer’s residency where the other artists ran to tell the only other Black woman who arrived there about my ancestry behind my back, as though she and I hadn’t already talked in her studio at length about this exact history and about her own travels in Ghana. And there was also the white woman who tried to ask me what she should do with her guilt about her ancestor who owned plantations in the US South. I can’t remember what I said, but I know my first thought was, what’s that got to do with me? I’m still confused as to whether she wanted me to offer her solidarity or absolution, neither of which I had any business giving her. As my mum often says, her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, everyone must work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

Since finding Dr. Greene’s work in 2017, I have drafted several versions of an email I never sent to say thank you to her for all her research; her other books were an integral part of my novel-writing process, especially West African Narratives of Slavery: Texts from 19th and early 20th Century Ghana, which includes accounts from people who were enslaved in the domestic system of slavery that existed apart from the Transatlantic one. On a random Thursday in January, I decided to write to her with my gratitude and my confusion, and she responded quickly and with such kindness, including a reminder of how different attitudes towards slavery and power were at that time—different doesn’t necessarily mean unimpeachable or excusable, just that, different—and how unconventional my ancestor was for his time. I’m paraphrasing here as I don’t know if it’s appropriate to cite a private message without permission.

I’m realizing too that my constant search for validation doesn’t just come from a shallow place defined by some vague insecurity or feeling like an imposter. It stems from wanting to be recognized and approved of by the people I write for. I want us to be able to see the care and intention and detail and spirit that went into my story, and I also need to make peace with the fact that some of us might not want anything to do with a story that involves slavery at all, or might view me with suspicion or disgust, because maybe all this talking I’ve done is empty at best, manipulative at worst, and still easily distilled into, You sold me. You enjoyed while I died. You are just as worthy of blame as the European colonizers who stole us. You are the reason we lost each other. Discourse I’ve eavesdropped on regarding the film The Woman King[7] and the Dahomey warrior women it portrays don’t inspire confidence[8] especially when certain people tried to boycott it before they could even watch, based on Dahomey’s own history with slavery and colonialism—until I remember that it is bold of me to assume my work will even have enough of a reach for people to tear it apart to that extent. It’s also possible that people will dislike it for a million other reasons beyond my positioning and my ancestor’s life and pursuits, or even worse, they might be completely indifferent or oblivious towards it.

My novel is still months away from an actual release date, but I’m so proud of what I have made. There are parts that made me cringe because I have read and revised them so many times, the words grate, and there are parts I love, like the sentence “Blue like noon sky is sitting high above your head full of promise and I love you,” or “…you wanted to be rocked to sleep on the cradle of her voice.” This book is much more than just a conduit for me to pick through my feelings about Nyaho Tamakloe. It was also a way to write my great-great-grandmother, Lɔ̃lɔ̃mo into being, while I continue to search for more information about her life. [I had even hoped to catch a glimpse of her in Dr. Greene’s work.] My naïveté, again. I wrote this about Lɔ̃lɔ̃mo on this blog:

What I forgot was that I had already been trying to develop my own understanding of what it meant to practice love, at first for my novel, which centers on a place outside of time where the souls of formerly enslaved and otherwise oppressed Africans are able to fly to and begin life anew, essentially where freedom dreams are embodied. You can imagine that in such a world, falling mid-flight would mean irreversible catastrophe, and for this reason, the people there would describe a person as “turning Love’s Face” towards another rather than “falling in love.” While I wish I could take credit for the phrase, its origin actually lies with my great-great-grandmother Sarah Lɔ̃lɔ̃mo, whose image I’m trying to piece together from family lore I only heard two years ago and fast-fading memories from elders. A more lyrical or sentimental translation of Lɔ̃lɔ̃mo would be “love’s face,” or “the face of love,” or “love showing in the face.” Its actual meaning is a proverb and a warning along the lines of “things aren’t always as they appear.” As if this wasn’t almost too perfect for poetry already, she apparently died wishing that her women descendants would not be loved the way she was because of all the pain it brought her. Apparently, she was one of Nyaho Tamakloe’s favorite wives out of the hundreds (?) he had, which led to some of her rivals trying to harm and poison her. My mother never told me this story until 2017 when we started talking about my great-great-grandfather, because the women in my family seem to understand this as a curse. It wasn’t until years later when a conversation with a scholar I deeply admire that I realized this wasn’t a curse but rather an affirmation that Lɔ̃lɔ̃mo wanted (and wants) us to be loved like we belong to our selves and not like a favorite possession of someone else.

And here:

Finding nothing substantial enough to satisfy my yearning for these women, I decide to write them into fiction. My maternal great-great-grandma was named Lɔ̃lɔ̃mo an Ewe name I choose to translate as “Love’s Face.” The nothing I know about her life becomes the ideal space to spin a story about Love personified, walking around earth and turning her face towards those who need to see her the most. Lɔ̃lɔ̃mo’s daughter, my great-grandma, Alwin Mana, becomes a fearsome character who uses her pocketknife to divide up the fabric she prints and sells, to cut away the lives of men who harm any of the women under her protection, to cut open paths into other worlds. I attempt to bend my lack of a cohesive history of these women into stories where this current reality doesn’t have to be the only one.

This book is the best and one of the most difficult things I’ve done so far in my young life. I have loved every second of the years of research and wondering and writing, and most of the difficulty came from work and other external forces demanding so much time and energy and leaving only tiny slivers of both for my real, creative life. I hope that Black people who read me will feel loved and will laugh at things I didn’t even think they would find funny. I also need you to know that Lɔ̃lɔ̃mo wasn’t always in pain, she also loved gold jewelry and lent or sold it to her neighbors. Alwin Mana was more complicated than the strife she suffered at the hands of her husband. Possessing a similarly enterprising spirit to her mother, Alwin Mana left and went out into the world to make so many ways for her self, and she also made it so that other women in abusive situations could leave too and survive on their own.

Can you tell I have tried my absolute, most anxious, and maybe a little desperate best to be careful? [I know it might still not be enough.]

Will you trust me?

[1] In “The Shape of My Impact,” Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes: I love the word survival.  And I hate how we declaim it in our contemporary mouths.  Rarely these days do you see the word survival without the disclaimer, not just (survive) and the additive, but thrive.   Are we so seduced by the rhyme that we forget the whole meaning of survival?   What people most seem to be actually meaning today when they say, “not just survive” actually means not just subsist.  Survival has never meant, bare minimum, mere straggling breath, the small space next to the line of death.

[2]Greene, Sandra E. Slave Owners of West Africa: Decision Making in the Age of Abolition. Indiana University Press, 2017. page 58.

[3] Ibid., page 60.

[4] Ibid., page 68

[5] Ibid., page 62

[6] Ibid., 85

[7] Culture writer Shamira Ibrahim wrote a really good review of the film where she discusses the limits and possibilities of adapting African history in Hollywood and what it means to try to reckon with the “open wound” that is the Transatlantic trade of enslaved people:

[8] Maybe spending too much time on Twitter isn’t healthy, though it would also be obtuse of me to suggest that these conversations only happen there and not in waking life.

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