This news report feels like one of those things (out of countless others) that should have brought the entire world to a standstill. I should not see spring flowers opening to the sky or people admiring them or 4 o’clock sun scattering across river water or money changing hands or meetings being called or meals spread across tables creaking with the weight of too much, when 43 people set off in a boat from a port in Mauritania, aiming for Europe, only to drift thousands of miles off course with 14 of them arriving in death on the Tobago coast months later. The first cruel coincidence was that a major clue that helped to identify the men was a t-shirt one of them had been wearing, printed with the question, “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?” The second:
“It’s kind of emotional for me, because I’m thinking why? What is happening here?” asked the soft-spoken Burris, who has since retired. “And then when I started looking at ocean currents. … It’s the same currents that they used when they brought us here.”
—Dr. Eslyn McDonald-Burris, forensic pathologist in Tobago
There is no metaphor or lyric or poem or archival study or white cloth or funeral rites or incense or prayer vast or worthy enough to describe or contain this horror, this grief.
“One mother was severely depressed and suffering from panic attacks, the villagers said. ‘You cannot even talk because everyone is so upset,’ said Oumar Koumé, the father of Djibi Koumé.”
“I have a friend who went to sea and never came back,” he says. “I don’t know the people and them. But I know the family will be hurting.”
—Lance Biggart, who was among the fishermen in Tobago who found the boat
We were not supposed to meet this way. We should not have to keep meeting this way.
“Just as few people in Tobago had ever heard of Mauritania before, families in Mauritania had never heard of Tobago. When shown the island on a map, with the Atlantic Ocean separating both nations, many gasped.”
On the occasion of the realization of your dreams for better, for a little more than just barely surviving for you and your loved ones, you put on your favorite, fanciest clothes. Maybe you also went with prayer beads and loved one’s photos and gris-gris and cellphones waiting for the right signal for you to hear “Please don’t go,” “Did you make it?,” and “What now?”
“I don’t think they had the right to bring things with them, so he must have worn his best clothes.”
—May Sow, aunt to Alassane Sow, one of the men found dead onboard the boat
I am so sorry you spent even one day cold and drifting and lost, let alone 137. I am so sorry we could not hold on to you. I am so sorry.
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
—from “blessing the boats” by Lucille Clifton
babying an injured knee; healing said knee when I stopped being so precious and scared to step down too hard on the stairs and picked the barbell back up; practicing my scales; practicing my sight reading; practicing my chord progressions; skipping piano practice on evenings when I want to crawl inside my tiredness and stay there past the next morning’s alarm; declaring the colt in Ada Limón’s poem dead; slicking down my hair into the same bun with extra time for the piece in the front that always refuses to corporate with water, mousse, *and* gel; feeling small; trying to remember that I am not;
folding days’ old laundry; folding laundry while it’s still hot from the dryer; leaving laundry unfolded until the dirty pile grows much higher than the clean one again; folding further into my self; breaking my glasses; stretching out my old pair for as long as I can see; loving and wanting to be loved by you/x/?; growing a rose plant in water; drinking wine that tastes like juice; drinking tea that tastes like juice; calling my self pathetic; avoiding eye contact in the mirror when I do; crying in virtual therapy; crying on Mass Ave; crying on the 86 bus; crying in the work bathroom; trying not to;
dividing up money for different purposes until the next monthly pay day; finding out how long a month is when the biggest bills are due at the beginning; wanting to be wanted by you/x/?; wanting to be free; wanting to be held; wanting more; feeling shame that I do; telling you/x/? anyway; laughing from my belly; waking up in the dark; making the bus on time because of waking up in the dark; returning home at golden hour; reading lots; not writing as much as I want; practicing being a reliable daughter-cousin-sister-friend; practicing vulnerability; practicing grace for self and for others, including those I cannot stand (which often includes “I”);
remembering “desire is never the mistake;” falling asleep in tears; waking up to more of the same; buying more masks; adjusting my mask so it doesn’t get tangled in my earrings or hurt the skin behind my ears; hiding my real facial expressions behind my mask; giving away masks; going to hear music; going to cafés; going out for drinks; going to see art until it almost feels like before-before though it will never do; holding the spirits of others like they are as-yet-unhatched eggs; throwing my own spirit into the unforgiving void of ego and insecurity; daring to hope that Ada Limón’s colt might still be living after all; listening to Deesha Philyaw and Kiese Laymon while I work; listening to Masego while I work; listening to When We Were Birds while I work [still!]; waiting for long-lasting warm weather; waiting for the water to boil; waiting for when I can quit; waiting in general and acting like I’m not, like I’m present, like I’m content, like my soul is not bowing down; bearing witness; paying attention;
A lot of my pleasure-seeking practices center around things I can hear. This would probably seem like a pretentious, overly flowery way of saying “I like the way listening to music makes me feel,” if that’s what I meant. But it’s a little more complicated, I promise. A few years ago, one of my professor-aunties who is also a beautiful singer and musician (I know her to play the guitar but I wouldn’t be surprised if she plays other instruments as well) was making a point about how a lot of Sade’s popular songs sound alike, and she sung a medley on the spot, each line from a different song flowing one into the next. The moment lasted probably about 10 seconds, and the only detail I remember clearly is that she ended on “…sweetest taboo,” but in my memory that sound acts as a sort of window into the thinking-feeling-knowing-creating place that I keep trying to look out of.
Another example: when I was around 13 or 14, I watched one of those “True Hollywood Story” episodes about Destiny’s Child, and there was a scene where Kelly Rowland talked about and sang a few lines of the first song she ever wrote as a young person. The actual notes are lost to me forever and at the same time remain so vivid because I can remember exactly how ecstatic the sound made me feel, and I think of it often, wishing I could only complete the sweetness of the memory by hearing again what exactly she sang. Other sounds that open up windows into that thinking-feeling-knowing-creating place are the several instances of “good night” (as in “good evening”) I heard in Barbados; the creaking sound guitars make on acoustic recordings; Mel and her brother talking to each other in their very New York accents; whatever the effect is that makes the music sound muffled like you’re hearing it through the wall or from outside the party before the song actually starts [the most recent example I can think of is at the beginning of “Pull Up” by Koffee]; the low “I like my girls just like I like my moneyyyy…” playing in the background, much more audible when Kehlani performs “Honey” live; Sakeenah saying “Now, wait a minute!”; the swell of a symphony’s strings filling your ears; the sound of the word trill or trilling as well as the sound of a voice when it does what the word describes; Toni Morrison asking “Are you any good?” It’s not just that I enjoy beautiful sounds and want to hear them all the time. It’s more so that those sounds open up emotional experiences or brief moments of ecstasy or the black femme sublime, and remembering or chasing the sound becomes more about accessing the feeling they elicit, whether or not the sound is available to me.
To chase away the soul-bowing down feeling, I listen, searching under and inside the songs I currently have on rotation for those notes and trills and harmonies that will be windows to that “other place” where cubicles and office politics are a distant part of my past. Currently, my working days are soundtracked by Sza, poet laureate and patron saint of the delightful, depressed, and delusional. I haven’t listened to much else since the release of her album SOS before the holidays, and I’m still finding new ways to relate to/wonder about/laugh at, even after two months of listening. Far like I don’t recognize me… and I’m thinking about how much repression or denial of one’s needs, desires, and self as a whole in order to participate in the world of work, so much so that it is common for us to not “have time” for ailments of varying levels of seriousness, because who has time for their body to break when due dates approach and the bottom line has never had more zeros?
Far like I don’t recognize me… and as soon as the pandemic was declared “over,” I feel like we accelerated headfirst into the worst of pre-COVID work culture, with surveillance, coercion, and conformity dressing up in the emperor’s finest clothes and calling themselves community-building. I am clutching with closed fists the boundaries I try to maintain between my full, real self and the one I must inhabit between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and in one instance from a few months back, I disappointed my self by making a petty comment about someone that I shouldn’t have, because whispered snark is often the conduit for channeling frustration at each other instead of towards someone more powerful with a heftier check. I like my self the least on any given Monday until the sun sets, and then I am too tired to step back into the self whose fragments I left at home.
Lately, I’ve been finding it very difficult to reconcile the pressure to act “normal” as if even one of the million and counting lives that have been lost to COVID did not mean anything, as if people are not repressing and denying themselves round the clock for jobs that do not keep the cupboards full nor allow [what shouldn’t be] the leisure of pursuing pleasure or finding rest just for the sake of it, as if every single office and committee and system is not currently designed to ensure that the aforementioned tragedies keep happening so that the [at times, rarely] benevolent and wealthy few can have an embarrassment of abundant resources to spend and enjoy as they wish. I will save the rest for my journal, and as my friend Ami says, “If I [talk] about a job, it’s hypothetical or I’m lying.”
But, I’m still upright [mostly, as frequent gym-going seems to have given me runner’s knee that I should be resting more] and seeking sweetness and pleasure wherever I can, and have recently signed up for piano lessons so I can maybe go back to the skill 15-year-old me had for being able to listen to songs and play the tune to my self, maybe relearn all my lost music vocabulary and knowledge so I can explain more clearly what exactly I like about particular sounds, maybe creating even more windows that open based on my own desires and ability to make them materialize, maybe having more frequent encounters of the black femme sublime.
 A door or a path into that garden of my mind would be more like full pieces of work I watch/read/listen to in order to access that place, whereas memories of brief instances like this are windows because I can see that feeling place through them even if they don’t necessarily carry me there in full.
 If “Kill Bill” had been released in 2016, you would have been sick of me posting side-by-side lyrics and gifs from the video with Rihanna’s “Needed Me” alongside yet another post about how angry I was at the time. Good for me [and you, and him] that I am no longer in that place.
 My guilty conscience is most over-active and most punitive when I feel smallest, and I have been caught in endless loops of self-questioning, “Why would I say that? That person has been nice to me before and I’m therefore a terrible person for thinking or saying uncharitable things about them.” At some point I need to tell my inner voice to calm down and find some real trouble to get into if these are the things keeping her/us up at night.
…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 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).
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],” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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 Kingand the Dahomey warrior women it portrays don’t inspire confidence 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.
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?
 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.
Greene, Sandra E. Slave Owners of West Africa: Decision Making in the Age of Abolition. Indiana University Press, 2017. page 58.
 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: https://shamgod.substack.com/p/the-woman-king
 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.
There’s a certain laugh I never laughed again that is stuck in the broken doorbell at the side entrance of a restaurant on Hemenway Street. It sounds like crackle-buzz-dropped signal across fraying electric cables strung between now and seven years ago, like the punchline of a joke I heard that year, which I will only repeat if you want me to, like I’ve been pressing the buzzer for two hours but I’m really standing in an alley with my forehead and hands up against a brick wall because the restaurant closed for good and none of the students walking by with horns in black cases taller than them have ever heard of it and cannot tell me where it went.
Planted in the window box of the building with the white facade down the street is a spray of flowers pink like the inside of a bloody mouth, but on Friday evenings the flowers wither and waft away, leaving room in the bed for all the things I should and shouldn’t have done or be doing or do to sprout and gnarl together, stubborn roots twisting long and deep until they bear deceptively heavy fruit [it is always hollow], bitter and unsatisfying, and did you know the reward for obedience and conscientiousness is more and more labor and less and less passion and exhilaration by way of mistake-making until you die upright and steadfast and alone in the tradition of a church you have not entered in years?
Six of my left ribs and two from my right have been extracted, repacked, and distributed in the following locations:
the railing closest to the Mermoz side of the foot bridge across the VDN that I was always too late or too embarrassed to use for fear of appearing like a tourist or a stranger;
the lone three-legged iron chair sitting in the middle of a football park in Nyaniba Estates, one more seasonal storm away from losing the last flecks of green clinging to its back;
the copper wire beneath the yellow strip that opens the back door of the Silver Line SL5, specifically when you press and press and it doesn’t sound so that you have now missed the Downton Crossing stop and are now on another loop further away from your self than you have ever been;
the steel tip of the cane belonging to the green-suited man who unlocks the empty room for the art show and laughs when I ask how long until the end as if we didn’t all start dying as soon as the clock struck midnight and we were born;
the spring in the cigarette lighter you and I pass back and forth between each other as you and I stand at a bus stop in the January of winter and did you notice the you and I are shifting and slippery, a safe, convenient device for confusing my selves, the reader, and people I should not love [it is too late], for refusing to commit to any of these personas and making it impossible to tell who the message is really for [it is for you];
the ring holding the key fob to an apartment building with carpet rubbed smooth and bald in some places in the lobby and an empty pool with cracked tile that has not seen use since the 80s;
the cap on a bottle of wine that rolled away from the rest of the offering at the crossroads and all the way down Esplanade Ave until it fell into the water and sank;
the gold leaf in the manicure glossing at the end of fingers on a/my/your hand that I should not hold and bring to the cradle that is the point where my neck turns into my chest [it is too late].
Between the lines of code that make it so that the cursor flashes just so and the words appear neatly rowed, as difficult as their meaning may be to decipher, there is evidence of my undoing
<<set $shatter to true>> How am I still functioning when I have dissected every aspect of my physical and spiritual selves and scattered the remnants down the length of the scroll bar and across any winding road I’ve ever walked? How am I still whole? [I am not, but almost no one is, especially those who believe they are. None of it is pathological, unless it is].
I have picked at my selves and called it accountable and picked at my selves and called it self-regard and picked at my selves and called it grown. I have crouched and burrowed and hidden in the hollow where those eight missing ribs once sat and called it introspection, as if I am nothing more than a collection of mementos that falsely prove I will never amount to more than the sorry sum of these parts that I am or am not. It is enough. Recovery must begin as soon as I can bear it or else I run the risk of leaving more and more smudges of my face on collars and shards of my bones on bus seats and hairs from my eyelashes everywhere until there is and I am nothing [left]. The long, winding beach road past Labadi or any other long, winding road is not my spine; it is a road at the end of which there is a house with wooden shutters and a deep clay-floored veranda or a loft with a ceiling of exposed beams or a low house where the life I am living spills out of French windows into a garden as alive as my pleasure and the work—pages to write, rice to boil, meat to marinade, clothes to wash, wounds to tend—is done graciously and with care if not always well [there is always tomorrow] and my hair is at its absolute fluffiest, perfect for someone—me/you/blank—to sink into with ready hands.
It’s always golden hour in Wakanda. The light is always honeyed and slow-flowing with dust dancing in its glow, and the people are always smiling as they sample assorted items from street vendors, walk from building to building and down the street into the light, always brightly adorned and beautiful. Always, at least in the glimpses we get of everyday life there, including in Aneka’s stylish and airy house on stilts, as majority of the film focuses on the state’s royalty, and even then, those scenes typically play out in Shuri’s lab or in the throne room where the elders sit in council with Queen Ramonda. Almost always golden hour, unless they are preparing for or are in battle. Or, unless it is the deep night ideal for ritual or war strategy, or the seemingly never-ending midnight that is loss and grief.
I went to the movies ready to attend a funeral by way of Wakanda Forever, the sequel to 2018’s Black Panther, aware of the fact that a lot of the fanfare and excitement that surrounded the first installment would be muted this time, clad in white this time, head bowed this time, red-eyed this time, processing towards the burial site this time, sobbing softly this time. I was also bracing to be angry at the muddled Pan-African and Black radical politics bound to come out of the far-reaching and seemingly unshakeable propaganda machine that is Hollywood. I left thinking how dangerously seductive Wakanda’s onscreen world is, not only because Hollywood has lent it its glamour and shine, nor solely because of the high-cheekboned glory of the cast, but because my own internal, inextinguishable embers of rage were stoked by seeing powerful African women wielding violence against the literal foot soldiers of EuroAmerican empire.
I was thrilled to see those French soldiers on their knees, at least, until I remembered why Wakanda was at the UN in the first place and how participation in such “international” institutions entrenches the legitimacy of white power structures and puts Wakanda in unnecessary contact and collaboration with its enemies; until Wakanda’s leaders call those same EuroAmerican powers on the phone to swop intel, or until they choose uneasy, unsustainable “peace” over solidarity and coalition with other indigenous people, in this case, Namor and his underwater kingdom, Talokan, against those same powers looking to destroy and rob these states for resources, as they have been known to do and are still doing today. I wished but knew I would never get the satisfaction of this film naming and fighting the real enemy with full-throated and unwavering boldness, not the defanged “colonizer” mentioned in jest, not vague references to “surface people” (though Namor and his people burning that Spanish colony down nearly had me in a one-person standing ovation), but the white hegemony who cannot rest until Black and indigenous people are dead, who require our death to consolidate their power and expand their empire.
If, according to Toni Cade Bambara, the responsibility of the cultural worker from an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible, I am ashamed to admit that not only do I have no idea what that revolution would look like and what it would demand of us, but that I don’t know what I could possible write and say to convince people that “representation” and “seeing ourselves” through the glitter of Hollywood’s lens may feel like edification and humanity in the meantime, but that the meantime is a trap, a slow march to our own graves on a road paved with the “good intentions” of diversity and inclusion mandates, that entertainment that feels relatable and affirming does not freedom make. What could I possibly say that thinkers and artists much more well-versed in these matters and generally wiser than me haven’t already said and warned and sang and written, to convince people to hold on a little longer beyond the meantime, that something much sweeter and freer awaits us somewhere in a nebulous future?
still from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler.
But that is not this essay. Right now, I’m thinking about the white cloth Shuri wore to two different funeral ceremonies, stamped with a pattern that resemble the Adinkra symbol “Nyame Due” or “tree of God,” symbolizing God’s protective presence, the meaning of which I had to look up to confirm, though I have worn the symbol as a pair of gold earrings almost every day since my mum got them for me when I was eight or nine. (That small moment of recognition, also a seduction.) Since seeing the movie on Thursday night with a friend, I have not been able to get the image of those mourning whites out of my mind, and more broadly, the ways the whole film is shrouded under the veil that is the death of the first Black Panther, played by actor Chadwick Boseman, and the collective grief of the past two years, and how this weight, this inhale between cries, shows itself in Shuri’s aesthetic and sartorial choices, and maybe even in those same choices of Letitia Wright, the actress who plays her.
The last time I knew anything or closely followed anything Marvel-related was when I still lived at home and watched with my mum who was more of a fan than I was, so I know that there are lots of connections I’m missing about other attempts at centering grief in other narratives that have come out in the aftermath of Thanos’ snap. To think through and write this, I tried to read profiles and interviews of director Ryan Coogler as well as other members of the cast and crew, often holding back tears any time one of them teared up as they recounted how they learned about Boseman’s death, how they had no clue the pain he was in the whole time they were getting to know him as a colleague, friend, and brother.
A podcast review from the Spectrum Lounge podcast gave me so much language to understand my viewing experience, and also confirmed my observation that regular Wakanda life is rarely depicted, though it appears that might be the focus of forthcoming TV shows. Host ReBecca Theodore-Vachon also describes the loss of innocence that is evident in the film. This is the film that we should probably expect after two years of a pandemic with no actual end in sight and the violence that is the neglect of people most vulnerable to COVID, police killings, nonsensical and frightening anti-queer legislation, attacks on bodily autonomy, environmental catastrophe, mass shootings, famine and deprivation, and the push to keep laboring and consuming like none of this is happening, among so many other horrors. In the universe of the movie itself, there is also the afterlife of Namor’s mother’s grief over losing her home and land to colonization that he has inherited and seems to believe is the secret to his formidable kingdom when he says, “Only the most broken people can be great leaders.” (At this point, my friend loud-whispered “Is it every day? Is it every day glorify our trauma? Sometimes, some light romance,” which is still making me laugh.)
Wakanda Forever still has a fair number of moments of levity and sarcasm, but in Black Panther, Shuri is genius little sister snark personified, all scoffs and smiles and laughs and teasing—at least until Killmonger appears on the scene—all braided buns and chokers, a sort of 90s take on an Afro-futuristic look, and much more colorfully dressed than she is at any point in Wakanda Forever. This time around, the hard edge of her physical and fashion presentation is not lost on me or any of the number of Tik Tok, Twitter, and Tumblr users who are convinced that Shuri (and/or Letitia Wright?) is queer because of the way her style has leaned into more “masculine” silhouettes and performance. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every other video on my timeline for the past week has been a looping edit of Wright in a black suit jacket with square shoulders and white thread embroidery on the front, the camera positioned lower than her face so she is looking down as she shows of her golds. This is not the focus of this piece of writing, but I will just say that on one end I think people are enamored of her attractiveness and want to claim it or her for themselves (I’ve read several comments to that effect, “I don’t know if I want to be her or be with her”), and I also think there are ways even those of us who strive to refuse the “either or” trap of gendered and sexual binaries end up reinforcing them, because maybe not every daddy is a daddy just because they look like one, not like that, anyway.
Left: still from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler. Both images on the right: stills from Black Panther (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler
Much of her clothing in the movie looks more athleticwear-inspired than it did in the first installment, even if it’s not necessarily dark in color, like the red turtleneck and white jacket she has on when Queen Ramonda comes looking for her in the lab to ask her to go with her to the bush for a mourning ritual that Shuri is reluctant to participate in, ostensibly because of her “rational,” science-driven mind, but also because she doesn’t seem ready to actually confront the reality of the loss of her brother. Another much edited for Tik Tok moment is the purple tracksuit, square shades, and hand tattoos Shuri sports when she and Okoye go to MIT’s campus (why was I so excited to recognize parts of Cambridge on screen?) to look for another Black girl prodigy, Riri Williams, whose genius has inadvertently put her life in danger.
Left: Photo by Jon Kapaloff. Source: TeenVogue. || Right: Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic. Source: People.
Even off screen, the cut of Wright’s outfits is much cleaner and sharper. At the US premiere of Wakanda Forever, Wright has on a black Alexander McQueen suit with a jeweled harness over the jacket, a tribute to a similar embroidered outfit Boseman wore to the Oscars in 2018. She has worn many a suit before, but during the 2018 press run, they were more likely to be floral or multicolored, like the purple Prada suit that included a black bow tied behind her head and trailing halfway to the ground like a train. Back then, Wright appeared in looser-fitting and maybe even girlish outfits that you might expect Shuri to wear to a gala, with the same microbraids studded with beads or pearls or even straightened hair. These days, even her dresses have edge, metallic and almost like chain mail, a more fluid piece of a larger repertoire of armor.
It’s possible I’m over-identifying with celebrity (itself another seduction), and with what I perceive to be the shift in Shuri/Wright’s style post- (or rather in the meantime of grief), but after days of obsessing over the film, I recognize the way I have been forever changed by particular traumatic experiences and the ongoing grieving process of who I was or could have been. Before 2016, before maybe I didn’t say no, maybe that didn’t happen, I didn’t wear anywhere near as much black as I do now, nor did I own as much my twisted into the shapes of snakes, dragons, knives, and a pair of earrings that looks like my ears are in the beginning stages of being gauged with gold screws when I have them on. Before 2016, friends and classmates alike would always comment on how colorfully turned out I was, and I never ever cursed, self-censoring swear words out of lyrics as I sang along. After passing through the threshold that was 2016, I hardened in all sorts of ways: I shaved both sides of my head so that about a third of my hair was gone, my lipstick darkened (partly because I still took a lot of my style cues from my mum in the 80s and 90s), and more recently, I acquired several tattoos. “Edgier” clothing wasn’t my only armor. I performed a particular bravado, convinced my self I was reclaiming the word “arrogant,” wrote so many sharp edges (razors, knife edges, swords) into my work, started cursing freely and often, trying to fashion a self that might be untouchable, or at least impossible or less likely to scar.
In the sharp lines and sharper shoulders of suit jackets, in the rapper-esque bravado she seems to put on in front of all the flashing lights, in the grills, and chunky signet rings, I read in Shuri/Wright the same kind of reinvented aesthetic that has characterized how I’ve been dealing with my own lonely, my own darkness, my own private and painful breaking. A lot of her style evolution seems to have taken place as a result of her collaboration with stylist Shiona Turini, who was also responsible for so much of the memorable style in the TV show Insecure. Maybe the premise of this wondering or wandering is shaky, and Wright’s sartorial choices are due to her being a few years older than she was the first time she played Shuri and with access to better tailoring and a new stylist. This essay might not be much better than all the social media fantasies in that I have to gloss over the fact that I am projecting and theorizing around the self-presentation of a total stranger, and it’s probably safer to focus more pointed analysis on the fictional characters and not the people who portray them. Still, I’m inclined, or maybe I need to, interpret the suit jackets and jewelry as an outward manifestation of the loss of someone you loved and admired (sometimes that person is you) and almost losing your self, a glamouring in the form of the realization that you were never and will never be a certain version of your self again. I’m even wondering if the short haircuts both Shuri and Queen Ramonda wear are part of their mourning rituals, which, were that the case, would again speak to the ways grief externalized can sometimes look like a glamouring.
In “The Case of Rihanna: Erotic Violence and Black Female Desire,” Nicole Fleetwood analyzes Rihanna’s own hardening and sharpening in the form of her aesthetic choices and expressions of sexuality and pleasure seeking after the way Chris Brown’s assault of her played out in public, and how her self-presentation was not coherent with widely accepted expectations of what the “perfect” victim and survivor of domestic violence should look and act like. I was such a fan of Rihanna pre-2009 that I cut several inches off my hair for that Umbrella-era bob, and my mum and I would belt out “Shut Up and Drive” in traffic jams on the way to school and work each morning. My relationship to the newly minted “bad gal” Riri eventually changed and leaned closer into confusion and judgment, especially when I was in college, because I think I was grappling with the tension between my desire to carry my self in similarly brazen ways and the conservative Christian values I had internalized, not from home, but from church youth leaders, public commentators, teachers, and all kinds of men who managed to be both lecherous and sanctimonious at the same time. In 2016, Anti and the “Needed Me” music video specifically brought me to a renewed, more mature appreciation for Rihanna at that time, and I reached back to that post-2009 version of her persona and her body of work as well, because I needed the release of imagining my self in vengeance, wielding power and pain against the object of my desired retribution.
Sometimes I wonder if I am clinging to victimhood and fixating on the past self lost to me forever, that maybe it’s time to burn the mourning clothes (in a symbolic sense) like Shuri does, to bring back some more bright blues and greens in more than just the few tops I have for work in the summer and a few of my winter coats. I don’t know if I still need the armor. I don’t know if it’s closing me off from more possibility than it is protecting me. I don’t know if it’s now clunky and uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to be brighter, with my teal fleece and head wrap to match, and I also want to continue to be mindful about whether or not I actually need new clothes and where I purchase them from. The byproducts of my growing and loving of self do not need to end up unusable and wasted in my own hometown or in other locations elsewhere enough that Western consumers do not have to consider their pollution and destruction. At the same time, I’m so much more in love with or at least more appreciative of the me I am today, still soft and open to possibility and growth where I need to be or where it feels safe, still trying to remember that in Ewe, sadness is not something you “are” but that either happens to you or that you “hold,” meaning that it will surely pass, and that you can put it down. At the end of Wakanda Forever, Shuri is wearing a cropped black hooded top, even though she finds her self on the beach in Haiti, where it is, as you can probably guess, golden hour, where, even as she recognizes that the self she was before is lost to her forever, she is hopefully open to a future of possibility and healing, a softening, a smoothening of some of those sharp edges.
I’ve been in two minds about the cultural landscape of this onscreen world since the first film. I attended a talk that Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the fall of 2018 and gained a deep appreciation and admiration for the depth of research and painstaking detail it took to build that world. And, I’m also wondering what harm could come from depicting an assemblage of accents, customs, and aesthetics for audiences who, regardless of what they watch or consume, may still be thinking about Africa as a country and viewing people of African descent without nuance and complication. And then I remember the world I have tried to build for my novel, which largely takes place in an imagined elsewhere that feels vaguely like Keta, Haiti, Louisiana, and a little like Barbados, and also like none of those places at the same time, so maybe I’m sitting in a glass house with rocks by the bowlful.
The easiest thing to do where I am, in this current (and temporary) headspace, would be bite back at my own words almost as soon as I’ve said them, undermining my own feelings of being lonely, depleted, and homesick this holiday season. Self-deprecation comes too readily to me, like you are not the only one who has felt lonely when it’s cold all the time and getting dark at 4 p.m.; you are too extra and too overwhelming, nobody cares; you are a failure because you should be making more money than this by now; you are not complicated enough to be misunderstood; you are a failure because you haven’t been on a [good] date since _____; you are self-obsessed, and even in your own writing there should be less about you and your anxieties, just look around at the world; this is tiring and everyone you know is tired of it and you, aren’t you tired?; you’re not the only one who has spent years away from home because of high travel costs or insufficient time off work; you’re a failure because when they ask you at work how you spent your weekend, you want to say “I spent it with x and did y, but your honest answer would be in tears and checking the bank; you’re not the only “highly sensitive artist;” you’re not the only one pinching pennies (farewell, pandemic discounts on rent); you need to let all this go. I’m only comfortable sharing these extracts of inner dialogue because they are relatively tame, because I’ve shared them here before, and for the most part I’m no longer talking to my self like this, at least nowhere near as often as I used to.
Because the story I’ve told my self about my self is that I must always be the person who knows exactly what to say and/or do, including when to be still and listen and hold, in response to the sorrows of other people, and because my empathy is not just a story but a very real part of how I try to move in the world, I am often horrified by my own inner dialogue, because it would never even occur to me to think about let alone speak so cruelly to another person who was hurting, never ever. I excavate my inner world for problems and failings that I would never even identify as such in other people. As in, I can’t remember ever referring to someone else as a “dumb bitch” when they make a mistake, and yet, if I’m the maker of the mistake…
Before I listened to this Therapy for Black Girls episode on loneliness, I resolved to try an experiment in which I would talk to my self in second person, to see if I could trick my self into turning to my own worries with the tenderness I try to practice for other people (the inner wicked voice is saying: you are not all that you think you are to other people; you are giving your self too much credit). The podcast validated this approach by discussing how depersonalizing your experience of loneliness can help to offer some more balanced perspective, helping you see beyond your self and misery that can at time feel all-encompassing and immovable. (They also talked about volunteering and engaging with surrounding communities as a way to see past your self while supporting other people, something I used to do and need to pick back up.) So here I go:
Even if you are extra—in size of sleeve or earring or laugh or joke or dream or flourish of hands—that is something you love about your self, and it is something many people who know and see you the best love too.
That italicized voice is coming from a place of self-protection, as they said in the podcast, a manifestation of the fear that you will be rejected if you do reach out to a loved one paradoxically existing alongside the desire for connection and to be seen and listened to. She can be cruel, but she is not your enemy, she is just scared and living in all the moments of emotional and other kinds of injuries you have experienced. She will most likely resurface when you are reminded of those injuries, but you do not live together. She is not even a temporary houseguest. If you want, she can be as transient as the voice of someone having a loud phone conversation on the street bouncing off the walls of your building and eventually, away.
It is ok to wear your heart on your sleeve, but sometimes, give that thing a scarf or put it in your pocket, or something. [The analogy is falling apart]. There is no shame in being vulnerable, even if you may at times feel or be rejected. Sometimes, it matters just that someone made themselves available to listen, even if they changed the subject in a rush to try to cheer you up or stared blankly, saying nothing. Sometimes, you just have to accept saving certain topics for your therapist, even if you feel shame that someone who is essentially a stranger who is paid to listen has to do so where you wished it could be someone you love deep and love for real. [It was your therapist who told you that there’s no shame in wearing your heart on your sleeve.] Sometimes too, you just have to be quiet. Be quiet and turn to your pages.
There is also no shame in caring what other people think about you, especially when you feel your side of the story is missing, but you need to let it go. And again remember that you probably can’t and shouldn’t share everything with everybody, that you can strike a balance between being open and upfront and refraining saying things you would be ashamed to stand by in public; you’ve become a lot better at this, and it is human to slip.
You are never as alone as you feel like you are, especially these days. For example, you just spent a lovely stretch of hours with a friend you met at your lowest [you didn’t even know how low you could get then], and you are both still here, in each other’s lives. 2016–2018 you would be proud of you, because you live on your own with lots of plants and fresh fruits and veggies in the fridge that do not spoil because you have the time and energy to prepare and eat them.
And no, those people who said or did this or that were not right about you. You need to let those stories go, too. No one is powerful enough to take you out of step with your self.
Turning inwards and falling silent is probably ok when important deadlines loom, but don’t become so remote from your own life and from other people that you run the risk of your soul crouching and preparing to die. Unfortunately, the solitude it requires to take one’s art seriously often creates or deepens cravings for meaningful connection with other people. But the version of you who had multiple jobs and little time will always be grateful for any uninterrupted time to focus or dream or sleep, even if the house is so empty, it echoes.
You are neither as miserable nor as grandiose as your delusions would have you believe. You are just fine.
Repost from March 2019:
“A list of quiet things: the sun, snakes, stars, Aminah’s heart every morning, the thick forest surrounding Wofa Sarpong’s farm, seeds, millet seedlings bursting from seeds, the furry mold sprouting on everything, Hassana since arriving on the farm, Wofa Sarpong entering Aminah and Hassana’s room at night, his excited exhalations, Hassana breathing by Aminah, Wofa Sarpong slinking out, the night, heaviness falling and contouring every part of Aminah till morning came, Wofa Sarpong’s wives on the goings-on in Aminah’s room, moonlight.”
-page 86, The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah
For a person who talks so loud and so much, one would be surprised to know how often I choose silence (here as well). Maybe other only children or people who were the youngest siblings by far can understand the fact of inhabiting worlds that you’ve mostly imagined and rarely or never share with other people.
Choosing silence used to feel freeing; it meant climbing trees I was too scared to jump down from, inventing languages only I could understand, and reveling in the sweet secrecy of it all. Sometimes it still feels this way, like when I laugh to myself as I witness irate passengers on the Orange Line huffing and puffing as though it will make the train move faster/make it less crowded or more fragrant-smelling, or when I think the funniest thought while crossing the street made all the more hilarious because I know I will never repeat it to anyone else. Sometimes, it feels like receiving good news and keeping it to myself for a few days or weeks, not because I doubt that I deserve the news, but just to savor it privately like smiling behind my own hand.
This evening, I’m choosing silence only to a certain extent, because writing this blog still feels like speaking out loud, except that I’m free to withhold or conceal whatever I want in a way I probably couldn’t if I called a friend or a relative in tears. I’m choosing silence because no matter how many times I’m convinced of the contrary, I’m always seeking confirmation for what I believe to be true, which is that my frightening lows and exuberant highs are too confusing and just too much to expect other people to navigate with me.
This silence looks like scrolling through my phone and coming up with reasons not to call each name that flashes across the screen: it’s too late there; she’s been a little distant lately and is probably struggling herself; she is definitely struggling herself; they are definitely struggling themselves; she has exams to prepare for; she is teaching; she will panic; she has too much work already and too many responsibilities; he will worry too much and call everyone else; so will he; it’s too late there.
Then there are also the warnings from recent and more distant pasts: [don’t call because] you will eventually overdo it; you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate; you will bring down the mood; you will be too negative; you will be an uncomfortable presence other people will have to tiptoe around when they are also trying to be well; your sadness is inconvenient and even worse, contagious; you will take up too much space, you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate– as an aside, I met someone new, but he has disappeared and reappeared and disappeared again, and I fear that it may be because I have shared too much and confused and overwhelmed and frustrated him. It’s also possible he’s just trifling. Who knows?
Today is a Tuesday, which means a long day, but not as bad as Mondays when I split my day between two different jobs. Today’s silence sounds like drumming my acrylic nails on the desk for exaggerated comedic effect, and talking faster and louder and trying to land more punchlines and more laughs. It sounds like responding to several text threads, gifs included, through tears as if nothing is wrong. It sounds like comforting and encouraging someone I admire with a gentleness and conviction that I rarely if ever show myself. It sounds like trying to cry quietly while I call my therapist’s voicemail box, and trying even harder when I hear my roommate in the other room because I don’t want to worry her (I get through because luckily the therapist happens to be working late.) It sounds like my phone buzzing on my bedside table from the people I did try to contact asking if everything is ok. I know I will not answer tonight. Maybe tomorrow, so I can say, “Thanks for checking in. I’m fine!”
Even in this post, I’m saying a lot without saying much at all. What I am able to say out loud is that I am working at a place where I feel my soul bowing down a little when I walk through the door. It feels that dire because I witness and experience all kinds of belittling and disrespect almost daily, and because I see so much wealth and power being hoarded in the name of “justice and equity” or “meeting goals and targets” or “turning theory into action,” meanwhile the world grows ill and dies while we have an unfair share of the necessary remedies. (If you know where I work you will probably ask why I expected it to be different). I am so exhausted and also ashamed for feeling this way, because I would not exist if my mothers did not have the fortitude (something I fear I am lacking or deficient in) to choose to live in the ways they did. I also know they would not want me to despair.
Because of this shame, I was hesitant to include the quote in full at the top of this page, for fear that it would appear as if I was drawing a disrespectful parallel between my life and Aminah’s experience of being commodified and enslaved in colonial era Ghana. Aminah lives most of the novel in her mind, and more importantly she was written in honor of the author’s own great-great-grandmother who was enslaved in Ghana during that era. Aminah means so much to me because she is almost always turned towards herself and her internal life, and I was lucky enough to be able to share this impression with Ayesha Harruna Attah, the author, when I interviewed her at an event at the Boston Public Library a few weeks ago. Most importantly, I love Aminah because she occupied a similar time period as my own great-great-grandmother, whose story I hope to honor one day.
My own list of quiet things continues to grow, especially because it includes memories and events I’m still terrified to think about, let alone to speak aloud. I’m choosing silence just for this evening but hopefully not for long after this, as I know that I can only poison myself eventually if I continue to hold some of these things in. I am trying to remember that I am not too much for seeking to be heard and loved in particular ways, and also that not everyone I choose will be able or willing to choose me and my breaking silence.
I initially intended to post this on my planned return to Instagram, because I realized I’m missing so many people I keep in touch with there. But then I decided to stay “offline” a little while longer (I’m still on Twitter, help), because it’s easier to keep eyes on one’s own work and one’s own life without real-time and/or carefully curated updates about everyone else’s, as lovely as they may be to look at.
What I’ve been up to offline, though as I said before I “left,” if you are really invested in this information it means you probably already know what I’ve been doing and thinking about, and maybe secretly hope I would be quiet sometimes, which I know is a lie, and I can already anticipate the people who will text me to say they wish I would stop projecting and let them listen to and love me:
Replaying every interaction with other people because being “outside” still feels uncomfortable, wearing my trusty “snakeskin” boots rain or shine, work or play; overthinking all [not so] recent instances of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or what happens when walking on eggshells doesn’t guarantee you won’t end up causing someone else hurt or harm; writing lots; reading even more; dreaming up tattoos I can’t currently afford; trying to be a good listener and a steady shoulder; trying not to lose my self while I do; losing my self;
buying new masks, buying perfume I can sometimes smell through said masks and wondering if it’s too strong; wishing I could explain [more, or better]; buying earrings I can’t comfortably wear with said masks; swiping left and hitting “x”; waiting for SiR’s new album; waiting for payday; taking my self out to bars and cafes after the deposit; trying not to care about looking silly and green at the gym; missing the bus, catching the bus at the expense of sleep and breakfast; [rarely, though I’m on a good routine lately] catching the bus well-rested and fed; acting like I’m fine; being fine; not hiding when I’m not fine; thinking about how “good employee” often means “who can be coerced easiest or can deny one’s self—or at least pretend to—the best,” missing the bus some more; trying not to despair.
sharing e-books with my mum like it’s 2004 and I’m reading the books from her shelf she told me not to; listening to Jesmyn Ward interviews while I work; listening to Megan Thee Stallion while I work; listening to Honey and Spice while I work; trying to remember my self while I work; forgetting my self; thiefing sugar; missing the nail salon; missing all the places I used to go that have closed for good, pandemic-because; missing people I shouldn’t; saving up for braids only to realize I didn’t miss them as much as I thought I did; going to doctor’s appointments on my own like it’s 2017, even though there are several people who care enough to go with me; leaving and getting left on read; saving recipes I am too tired or too anxious about money to try;
obsessing over [in]correct Ewe spellings and accent marks in my manuscript; obsessing over ancestors whose names I do not know; obsessing over the ones I do; wrapping my head too tight on cold days; refusing to act like all this death did not and is not happening; burning incense until I’m congested; worrying that the congestion or the tickle in my throat is COVID; thinking about how lucky I am to have older relatives I can talk to the way I do; walking instead of asking for rides; forgetting to tend to my plants even as they keep sprouting and flowering, even now; losing sleep; going to sleep at 8 pm; going to sleep alone;
My first reading of Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic” left me feeling totally confused and inadequate, and it took some years for me to realize those feelings had more to do with the environment in which I read the essay and less about some lack of insight or deficiency on my part. During the first semester of my sophomore year, I took an introductory Women’s and Gender Studies course to see how I felt about declaring it as my minor. The main text we studied throughout the semester was something by Maria Shriver about the wage gap (framed in the usual white feminist ways that flattened all women’s concerns into something we can “lean in” our way out of), and Lorde was one of three texts by or about Black women. The other two were “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens” (the essay, not the book) by Alice Walker and an extract from the book TheImmortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
That same semester, I was trying to make up for my homesick first year by overloading on activities, saying yes to almost any and all friends and whatever they wanted to get up to, and taking classes towards the psychology double major I would eventually drop when I realized the humanities did not need a science to legitimize their study. So, it’s possible my encounter with Lorde was more like taking sandpaper to bare hands washed with lemon and vinegar and less like loving because I didn’t give myself enough time to do the readings and write the response paragraphs as thoroughly as was required of me. But I also think there was something more visceral about the way I experienced that essay in that classroom, something that made me feel confused and outside of my self for completely missing the point of a piece of writing that was supposed to be “for” or “about” me. I’m telling you I had to write a response to that essay and I could not assemble a single coherent thought, but neither Audre Lorde’s vocabulary nor the structure of her argument were to blame.
When I read Sister Outsider in grad school on my own a few years later, it was like someone had reminded me of a name I used to be called at home where I was safe, and I understood it well enough to teach from it towards the end of my time as a grad student. I first assumed the light that clicked on had to do with the passing of time and presumed maturity I had acquired, partially through the trauma of certain experiences that compelled me to harden and sharpen in ways that protected me and also…maybe I didn’t say no, maybe that didn’t happen.
Turning towards my self to try and find some of the blame for my lack of understanding within is my default posture. Only a few years had passed, and I don’t think I believe that I had to experience certain kinds of gendered violence firsthand in order to understand written works about it. I think part of the problem was located in that classroom where the only other ways Black women appeared were in graphic, lyricized descriptions by Eve Ensler of her putting her hands inside the wounds and fistulae of Congolese women who had been raped. I’m still so horrified by this detail that part of me hopes it is only a half-memory, though the detail of the horror and the depth of the disgust it still elicits tell me I didn’t dream this up.
I also have vague memories of an exercise where the professor wrote and underlined the words “black” and “white” on the board and asked us to add words we associated underneath each, and a white guy said he didn’t understand why “beautiful” would be under black because he would never feel compelled to add such an adjective for “white.” Less vague is my recollection of the time a Black man—a student minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies— in class said breastfeeding in public was inappropriate because “what if I just took my dick out and pissed in the middle of the street?” The more I write, the more comfortable I am saying the problem was the class and not me and my being an over-extended, less than diligent student at the time.
I’m thinking about “Uses of the Erotic” again because the author Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote a really insightful thread in response to a tweet that was a only a little tongue-in-cheek about the dearth of the erotic in media, “Why is nothing EROTIC anymore. Whatever happened to the slow uncovering of a shoulder? A knowing glance shared between lovers? A gentle kiss on the corner of the mouth? What the fuck guys?” Greenidge wrote, “eroticim requires a level of emotional vulnerability, directness and commitment to pleasure that is anathema to most media being produced today and honestly, most audiences consuming it.” She adds that our current algorithm-driven media landscape and mass/hyper-consumption make it so that it is almost impossible to tune into the “eroticism of the individual imagination/life,” [a lot of people’s versions of “romanticize your life” à la Tik Tok looks oddly similar, with the same beige couches and beige lattes, but I also think this romanticization is more about the simplified, easily recognizable gesture than it is about deep, individual desire] when our glowing screens are encouraging us to consume our way to a persona that will eventually have to shift when the aesthetic at hand is no longer on trend.
And then there is everyday surveillance that is any given somebody with a camera phone who could record your public moment of euphoria or crisis, “The generation that won’t dance in public anymore for the very real fear some random person will record it and upload it to social media for ridicule is fighting an uphill battle to get comfortable enough for full on eroticism.” I think there’s also something to be said for following along as people live out milestones you think you might like to have for your self. I’m not suggesting that social media invented wedding, promotion, or “just bought a house” announcements (have you heard of testimonies in church or the newspaper’s weddings section?), but church bulletins and special print columns are discreet and confined to the moment right after you leave the pew or close the newspaper, which might be less jarring, less humbling, less like an ambush, than seeing an ex or a former co-worker you didn’t particularly get along with having the destination wedding you never thought you wanted until this very exact moment, one that finds you alone on the couch on a weekend or at work on a shift that threatens to never end with no such joyful prospects on the horizon.
The thread ended with the following quote from Audre Lorde:
“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self respect we can require no less of ourselves…”
…a very timely reminder that all these months I have been searching for the words to try and explain the connection between my writing practice, pleasure, and a deep sense of self-fulfillment and satisfaction, I was looking for a Psychology Today post or an article with “nih.gov” in the URL when Audre Lorde had already given us the words.
I’ve been grasping at thoughts like dragging my hands through something spilled and scattered, trying to explain how well [I think] the novel revisions are going (only when people ask, for fear of becoming the insufferable artist friend, and also because I don’t expect people to be interested in something so narrow and so personal to me), where writing I do for other people and for work comes from a place of knowing that feels hollow. I wouldn’t even compare it to writing lists of groceries or tasks to complete, because even those have elements of ritual that can be sacred, because I am precious enough with my self to write down things like “altar flowers” and “loose leaf tea” and “plant care” and “text back” so that I not only remember these tasks, but can also celebrate their completion.
It doesn’t feel like schoolwork because I have always loved school from kindergarten through my graduate program, and there was nothing empty or soulless about the frustration I would feel trying to decipher even the subjects I didn’t enjoy [Ask me about the 2009 IGCSE Chemistry exam. I still haven’t recovered]. Writing on the behalf of another person or an organization feels sort of like writing by numbers, like internalizing rhetoric and turns of phrase that are not my own in order to produce something appropriate and slightly bland, supplanting my memory with that of the institution, like mimicry, without the bend of the accented voice or Ghanaian English discursive twists, like I’m moving my mouth and a language I only learned how to speak yesterday is coming out, in a voice much higher-pitched and slower talking than my own.
In “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” which also appears in the Sister Outsider anthology, Audre Lorde writes, “The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us-the poet-whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free…[The same white fathers who told me to look to Psychology Today or the NIH for answers I already knew?] For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men.”
The tension is not between the unfeeling, knowing place I work from as the realm of what is presumed logic or rationality versus my creative practice belonging to emotion and sentimentality, nor is it solely about my creative practice bending and taking a subordinate position to what I do to keep the lights on. If anything, my creativity and capacity to love and be loved take precedence in all ways except for time or the lack thereof, and even then, it is only my physical self spending the majority of her time between buses, office cubes, conference rooms, and back again. Anything I write for my self, even on days like this one where the words are coming out like pulling teeth from tough gums, is coming from a place so far within and so complicated that I don’t know if there will ever be words to explain what it means to write from a seeing-thinking-knowing-feeling place, but thankfully I don’t have to, because in a letter to Black women published in Essence Magazine in 1985, Toni Morrison said: “You had this canny ability to shape an untenable reality, mold it, sing it, reduce it to its manageable transforming essence, which is a knowing so deep it’s like a secret.”
This secret place is the psycho-spiritual manifestation of Gloria Naylor’s “other place” where all that is “dark, ancient, and deep” and “unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling” are guarded from the grasping hands and roving eyes of the uninitiated. When Yejide’s distant mother, Petronella, dies in Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s novel When We Were Birds, the two of them sit in the garden of Yejide’s mind sharing a cigarette and staring into the unending green, and Petronella tries to show Yejide how to step into their family’s ancestral duty to be custodians of the restless dead, both ancient and new, trying to call her attention to this seeing-thinking-knowing-feeling place by pressing hard on her pelvis until she feels:
“And then Yejide see it, or rather feel—how to see when is not your eyes working? When something in you seeing in a way you never see before?—sharp, shallow needle blues, placenta edges of pink and red and gold, flare then flicker and fade, like a bulb in a dark room.”
Even in this moment, with her mother talking to her from the afterlife while they both sit suspended between Petronella’s deathbed, Yejide’s subconscious, and the afterlife, Yejide still tries to see with her eyes and know with her mind as if these are separate experiences:
“Yejide squint past the garden and the mountains, past the figures in the room, try to pull back the colours to her—the blues, the pinks, the dark purples.
“Not with your eyes, child,” Petronella snap. “Some things spirit, and some things flesh. She press low on Yejide belly again, rougher, hurting her now.
“Here. Look with here.”
This “other place” might be inaccessible to Leonie, another complicated, difficult-to-love mother, in the novel Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, because even though she is able to see her deceased brother, she can neither sing to nor hear the natural world the way her children and her mother can, maybe because her grief and her addiction have built a dam blocking the way to her other place that grows more impenetrable the harder she tries to forget. Her inability to access what Lorde describes as “self-connection, as the knowledge of oneself as “capable of feeling,” as the demand that knowledge places on the self to live as though know you know “such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife” sends her deeper into despair and into longing for that connection anywhere else she can find it outside her self, in bad drug trips and in her boyfriend and the father of her children, Michael. I can no longer find the link to the recording, but I remember an interview where Jesmyn Ward described Leonie as “a walking wound” of a person, but I’d like to think that somewhere beyond the end of that story, she is closer to wholeness, because she is able to find her way back to the inner resources she has inherited from Mam’s ancestral veneration and Vodou practice, and also that she is living in a material reality where she is not vilified and shunned for being unwell and unable to care for her children the way they need or at all, but rather able to access the care she needs to be well.
Because I am an artist with an art form and so [hopefully] not a danger to my self or to anyone else—I can pour all my fury and my hurt and my lost and my lonely and my glimmer onto these pages, though I wonder if the pages are enough, and I’m trying to keep the way open between my present and my other place and my “ungloved hand” turned towards all my creative impulses and desires, in the face of daily life that offers only two options: endless work (“stripped of its erotic value, its erotic power, and life appeal and fulfillment”) and self-denial in exchange for a place to lay one’s head, or abjection and death, and the even worse third option which is most common, endless work, self-denial, and abjection and death anyway, because the yield you were promised for all your labor was not enough to make the living you were promised.
Audre Lorde defines the erotic as follows:
“The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects—born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives…In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”
My evocation of Audre Lorde here is not to simply suggest that spending hours with my creative work feels sensual or romantic, though it does to a large extent. This is more an acknowledgment that new perfume; playlists full of songs about longing and lust and love; endless re-watches of Moonlight, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, In the Mood for Love, and specific episodes of Queen Sugar; listening to the When We Were Birds audiobook on an endless loop for the story’s beauty as much as for the Trini accents; and digital moodboards full of lush and lovely imagery are more a means to an end, what I listen to and look at on the way to my my other place, or, more actively, what carries or drives me there, meaning that even when I am completing the “necessary” paid work that sometimes makes my soul crouch low, I know that nothing is more powerful than the creative force of that seeing-thinking-knowing-feeling place, slices of the black femme sublime laying in luxuriant wait for Monday evening or Wednesday at lunch or Saturday morning when I can visit the garden of my mind and tend to all that is green and alive there, pruning all that is not, singing songs I have tried and failed to render in plain words, and cultivating secret knowings I may never tell.
Note added 10/25: I forgot to mention that poet, artist, and scholar Bettina Judd has a book coming out this winter titled Feelin: Creative Practice, Pleasure, and Black Feminist Thought, and just like Wicked Flesh by Jessica Marie Johnson, I’m breathlessly waiting, because I can tell that it will be what I need personally and for my creative and writing practice. A snippet from the blurb: “…feelin, in African American Vernacular English, is how Black women artists approach and produce knowledge as sensation: internal and complex, entangled with pleasure, pain, anger, and joy, and manifesting artistic production itself as the meaning of the work.” December can’t come soon enough.
 I wanted to cite this tweet properly but can no longer find the person’s account.
 Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” pp. 43. Sister Outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press, 2012.
 Morrison, Toni. “A knowing so deep.” Essence 230 (1985)
 This is a reference to Gloria Naylor’s novel Mama Day (1988). The other place is the site of Mama Day’s childhood home where she goes to reclaim memory or actual items she needs for her ritual and care work.
 Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” pp. 25. Sister Outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press, 2012.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Grafton Books, 1982. This is about to be the longest footnote, because it was only when I went to look up the passage I’m referencing here that I realized that Toni Morrison’s description of Sula’s preoccupation with “her own mood and whim” sounds a lot like Audre Lorde’s erotic, except that maybe she didn’t have anywhere to channel this force that was more fruitful than her relationships with men could ever be. The passage is long but worth quoting in full:
“They taught her nothing but love tricks, shared nothing but worry, gave nothing but money. She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be—for a woman. And that no one would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out and touch with an ungloved hand. There was only her own mood and whim, and if that was all there was, she decided to turn the naked hand towards it, discover it and let others become as intimate with their own selves as she was.
In her way, her strangeness, her naivete, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”
I’m often lonely for meaningful human connection, because besides in-person work, I’m still trying to avoid falling ill with COVID as much as I can, and because pre-2020 [and now when it’s possible to stay outdoors] I’m inclined to choose and enjoy my own company at bars, concerts, cafés until I look up and realize that it’s been weeks and I’d like to share the experience with someone else, especially someone who actually sees more of my humanity than they see the idea of me or the way I can make them feel. Do I sound like an egomaniac lying to themselves and other people by claiming to be an “empath?” I promise I’m not. This would probably make more sense in the context of a conversation I was just having with one of my uncles about a returning ghost who said to me that beyond being aware how upsetting his unceremonious disappearance would be to me, he was devastated at the possibility of “never getting to hear Zoë’s voice again.” Something about that third person…can you tell Casper was also just full of it? I’m not as profoundly lonely as I felt years ago, ironically when I was in grad school and living with roommates, but the line between alone and lonely sometimes seems nonexistent in these eternal pandemic times.
Here is my latest paradox: I work full time and recently went from a fully remote job to one on a hybrid schedule, leaving only narrow slivers of time for long, laugh-full phone calls; moving my body, long, tear-full phone calls; endless voice memos; my writing; and shame spirals about how the amount of effort one puts into work never seems to quite align with material gain or stability. In this money-mad, murderous matrix, doctor’s visits cost, lunch costs, and rent costs 27.5 times more than both combined, and somehow the ends remain the twain never to meet, no matter how many hours one puts in to work. [Did the bootstrap theorists lie? The answer is yes.] Because I am a full-time cubicle-sitter and a less than part-time artist, I feel less deserving of room to be still, to be left alone with my bibliographies and research rabbit holes and the nagging, joyful, enticing, desperate voices of the characters I brought forth into being. Classic upside-down thinking that only makes sense in my anxious brain: I have limited time to do my work because capitalism calls, and somehow that means I don’t deserve the solitude necessary to immerse my self in the kind of work that feels more like loving, that keeps me alive, because I’m not a “real” artist. This is particularly absurd and unnecessarily harsh on my self in this current reality where I’m getting reacquainted with some approximation of pre-pandemic work life at a new job and where I’m experiencing all kinds of unpleasant side effects—nausea, dizziness, itching like being bitten by insects moving too fast for you to catch, something that isn’t dizziness but feels like you’re falling for a split-second, fatigue, generally feeling out of sorts—from getting off the anti-depressant medications I’ve taken for the past four years, no matter how slowly I try to take the tapering process.
I am also always reminding my self that I am a person first before I make art, and I have convinced my self that being a person means being readily and consistently available to touch, commiserate, cry with, calm down, and cheer up the people dearest to my self. One of my biggest nightmares is being the sort of person who is so single-minded and takes their art so seriously that they are unreliable or absent, with no room to turn with love to other human beings who exist beyond the blinking cursor and the lined page. Even bigger than that frightful thought is the possibility of not being useful or not being needed or not being light in spirit and presence whenever the situation demands. Eight years and other relationships have passed, but the echoes of “you are selfish and use your emotions as an excuse for behaving badly” are faint but not dead. It’s been four years, and any time I call someone with tears instead of a joke or a reassuring word, I still feel the slight sting of “things are great when you’re funny and we’re having fun, but when you’re down it feels like carrying a burden because no one else is there for you the way you need, so I have to be” or “when you check in it feels like you care more whether I’m upset with you than about how I’m doing.” I feel a little ashamed for remembering these and other painful words so clearly all these years later, because I should be “over it” by now, because sometimes I think my mum is disappointed that my upper lip isn’t a little stiffer.
When I wrote about falling silent [and here] in the summer following my master’s program graduation, it was in part because I heard “I prefer when you’re fun and funny,” resulting in the overwhelm of anxiety that my mental state was a tremendous void waiting to swallow anyone who accompanied me too close to the edge of my life, that I wasn’t hiding my tears as well as I thought I was, that I was taking up too much space just by being, and most importantly, that lots of my other friends felt the same exhaustion with me and just hadn’t said so aloud. The part of me that tries my hardest to be careful on the page with people whose words or actions have hurt me feels like it might be unfair to present these memories with no context, but honestly, the full stories from my perspective would probably make those people sound worse, which I’m not interested in doing. What would be the use? This is just a small part of my ongoing efforts to excise the harsh voices that have become part of my inner chorus.
There is also the issue of the posture I take towards my self, one of punishment and self-denial, because various friendships and relationships that twisted away from sweet and turned bitter and sharp made me feel like I needed to do penance for the fact that I was [just was, and was the way I was]. In my mind, I’m still atoning for the time I spoke green-tinged snark behind the back of a younger schoolmate who I’m pretty sure overheard my comment, or all the times I missed office hours and appointments because I could no longer get out of bed, or some others of my most shameful moments where I was not behaving like my best selves. According to some of my closest friends, the things that keep me up at night are so tame, I might need to consider living even a fraction as wildly as my aesthetics and poems about knives suggest I do.
This punitive posture looks like not being able to fully enjoy New Orleans or New Year’s at a hotel in Accra with my mum because of some unspoken vow of austerity that means blaming my self for any financial precarity because the cost of that ring or roll-on perfume oil could have paid for about 1/5 of a grocery trip, or probably even less, the way these prices are looking. [Considering my undergrad and my current place of employment, can I blame Saint Ignatius for this? The answer is no, because since when did I listen to saints, but I thought this was kind of funny.] It also means taking being an ethical and responsible person and artist to the furthest extent, because I should not be able to sleep soundly or lay on a beach when so many other human beings must starve and die to make my leisure possible.
Any small niceties I allow myself cannot be fully indulged or enjoyed without lengthy considerations about why I’m not deserving or whether this momentary pleasure is worth all the horrific consequences rippling far beyond my little life. Is it a sign of hubris or self-centeredness to obsess over the fact that the cost of the palm oil in my beauty products are the lives of women laboring on plantations in Indonesia every time I line my eyes? Am I casting the Ivorian cocoa farmers and their children who have never tasted the chocolate that is the product of their work as unwilling background characters in my circular, neurotic thought processes? Without having read too much about why people take on vows like silence and austerity, my first inclination is to ask what the use is of denying one’s self pleasure if that denial cannot necessarily guarantee the alleviation of other people’s suffering? What is the use of symbolic solidarity? I’m not talking about strategic boycotts called for by the people or groups most harmed by the production of a good, like BDS for example. I’m talking about making a monastery out of a one-bedroom apartment you can sometimes afford on a good day…And again, it wouldn’t be just symbolic if enough of us committed to consuming and accumulating less so that someone else might breathe a little bit easier, would it?
What I’m trying to get at is that I lose sleep over the high price that capitalism exacts for small luxuries we don’t actually need but are told we cannot live without, and there should be enough humanity in the world so that we should all be losing sleep, and we should all come to a complete halt any time there is a person in tears asking for money outside a store in the city’s wealthiest neighborhood or any time a child dies mining for the metal we use for our soon-to-be obsolete gadgets. Every time the police gun down a Black child at home or at the playground or in their front yard or in the earliest bloom of their life, the sky should not be so blue and there should not be so many people strolling with dogs and grocery bags down a street, and there should not be money changing hands and work meetings to attend. [But such humanity would demand a completely new way of organizing the world that would make it possible for us to stay home from places of commerce—without losing livelihoods—and pleasure to keep each other safe, to hold each other, and to mourn millions of lives lost to a pandemic.] So. This oath that I did not realize I took means that to me, missing out on the bar or the beach or the spa is a miniscule price to pay for someone else’s life, and that I do not “deserve” rest more than the person who would serve me my cocktail avec too much water, syrup, and tiny toothpick umbrella.
If nothing else is clear, I can plainly say that years of being underpaid for work I love and that felt important when I was doing it and the story I have told my self about the use and utility of my humor and touch and calm mean that I am terrified of withdrawing those things even when I am depleted or even when I want to give more than thin slices of attention to my writing, the thing I am so thoroughly in love with and need most in this world. I have a little over three months to submit my second round of novel revisions, and so far it feels like it’s going well, it feels lush and like ritual (or at least the idealized, flowery, and fragrant way I imagine ritual to be—sometimes, I wonder if my ancestors are satisfied with fruit and cups of tea), like a trance-like state where I have to loosen up and surrender enough to let the words arrange themselves how they must. And it also feels like shame, because that severe part of my self—at total odds with the part of my self constantly seeking beauty—doesn’t think I should be indulging my self so much by enjoying the process of making my art.
I’m not just writing about writing and how much I wish I could do it, nor is this post about refusing the urge to put one’s self on display in ways that prioritize the luster over the pain. I don’t feel that way about social media, because alongside the tattoo thirst traps and the group selfies are as much vulnerability as I’m able to share about the times I wanted to walk over the edge and keep falling. It’s more about releasing the need to avoid or disperse other people’s disappointment if I am slow to answer the phone or if I say I can’t meet at whichever place at whichever time because I am with my work or because funds are tight until my next payday, and about letting go of the fear that the people I love will no longer have any use for me if I am a little less present than usual.
I’m inviting you to bear witness to me taking my self seriously enough to take Michaela Coel’s advice to writers to be unafraid “to disappear and see what comes [to me] in the silence.” I need witnesses who will remind me that my sole purpose is not to be of use in all the different and at times conflicting ways that other people may need, that I don’t need to punish my self so stringently to be a kind, ethical person, that trying to do work that might be of use to a reader somewhere also looks like sitting still with my words, even if it feels like love and not like that soul-bowing-down feeling that most work brings. I am always available to those I love, but/and I know that I am loved even when I am not. And, I must be wholly available to my self first before all else.
This feels like it needs a sign off, though it is not an ending, just giving in wholeheartedly with all the fear and shame and relish and uncertainty—
 This alliteration feels extra and a little corny considering what I’m trying to describe and considering what “literary” writers are supposed to do, but I kept it in for the 14-year-old me who learnt about the “punchy 3” and alliteration in English class and became obsessed with spotting and coming up with examples of both. I think she would be really proud of grown us.
 This is about more than empty, useless guilt and DEI committees and 30 seconds of silence preceding business as usual. We should be so maddened by exhaustion and grief that we tear the world to pieces in hopes of pulling something better out of the wreckage. And many people already are. But also, what am I doing materially towards this/these end[s] beyond this page? I don’t know that I can accept that my job is to say the words that steal your sleep at night in the hopes that you “act,” the implication that making art is itself not a worthy way to “act,” more overly harsh, upside-down thinking?