I bought an end table because it looks like I could’ve plucked it out of a photo of my grandma’s living room in the 70s, dusted off, reassembled, and no longer tinted a faded pink like the surface of the photo from which it emerged. Mango flavored things are often more enjoyable than mangos themselves but I bought some anyway just for the self-indulgent nostalgia of it all; well the real, less snarky reason is that I used to think fresh fruits and veggies a luxury I did not deserve. The moon is visible from every window in my place except the one in the kitchen, and whoever has to develop the film from the disposable camera I bought will have to share the joy of the blurry shots of this view with me. I feel safe and at ease at home, even with work seeping through the webcam and between my feet if I don’t close the door fast enough. There are several comfortable places to doze and drift away from wakefulness for me and any number of friends who visit. My plants grow sturdy and vivid green. The floor is mostly spotless and always free of someone else’s broken glass. There are mismatched blankets, an emerald couch, and fresh flowers for the altar every week. My grandma, mum, aunts, uncles, and my 7-year-old self grin and laugh at my present self from two frames of the same photo, from a day of the purest joy I have experienced so far, even with the uninvited guest lurking behind us, only a hem in view. Grief and uncertainty do not feel less grim here, but I’m sleeping better than I have in months. I’m saying all this aloud so that I can tell my self from 2016 or 2019 that I am in fact not a neurotic disgrace, that ease and contentment are possible, that punishing my self for every failure—perceived or true—is unsustainable and a diversion from all the living I still want to do. Most days in this place, I feel like my favorite poem, and the satisfaction is so deep that I almost don’t care that a lot of what I have just shared may make little sense, logically or narratively speaking.
I’m so tired of my regular indoor voice being heard as a scream; of being presumed to be arrogant, harsh, abrasive, or ungrateful for existing or, God forbid, advocating for myself; of being denied benefit of the doubt; of my attempts at stretching out wide and letting my bowed-down soul stand up being perceived as an offensive posture; of being humbled, belittled, “put in my place,” or knocked off an invisible pedestal, one I neither asked for nor do I desire, by the same ones who place me there. I don’t need help shrinking, I’m already as small as can be. I watch myself trying to keep my face neutral and non-threatening on Zoom. I try not to feel shame for being so fragile and anxious (after all, the times could not be more dire, unless they can). I’m wondering if it wouldn’t make sense to just be the arrogant bitch that I have been understood to be so that there is no longer any tension between performance and inner world. Might that be easier? I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding like my complaint is being shut out from white worlds or craving “a seat a the table,” because that is absolutely not the thorn here. (These are absolutely not confessions of a Black girl climber; I’ll be damned). My soul has been bowing down for years at work, and at home now that the walls have collapsed between those places, and I feel more tired than I should considering I have barely lived, compared to what my mothers would have been seeing at their age anyway. Tired and ashamed, for being so–
There’s this voice I have previously referred to as an imp, that seems to have taken up near permanent residence by my side. Its main job is to remind me how terrible I am the minute I start to feel too comfortable, when I seem to be getting closer to living up to my middle name Dzifa, “my heart is at peace.” It has remained there, even as I have adored every moment of working with students this summer, and especially when I have had to speak up to people with more authority in academic spaces in ways that are daunting and tiring because I seem to have to do so often.
You are always the one with the problem *and* the solution.
Taking up too much space.
Presumptuous. Arrogant, even.
The voice is always there because it is me, but it feels more romantic and less frightening to…
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Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, and I open up a new workbook in Excel to tally the points I must earn for my completed tasks. Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, around us, and I count feverishly so maybe I will be rewarded with a raise that will leave my account at a comfortable $45 overdraft instead of $150. Hundreds of thousands of people die, and I apologize: sorry for my oversight; I took some time off and I am now behind; I took some time off and I missed your email; I took some time off and now I must be punished. Hundreds of thousands of people die with saltwater where their lungs should be, hundreds of thousands of people die as the land burns and the shore sinks below itself, hundreds of thousands of people die and the horizon’s promise retreats further out…
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When I took this photo, I was waiting for the same Silver line I mention later, on my way to take part in a poetry festival organized in part by the same friend I describe. For the blur and crookedness of the image, I will blame the heat, the 30-minute bus delay, my attempt to snap while on the phone with my mum, shyness to squat to get the right angle, and excitement at seeing faces I have not seen since pre-pandemic times.
In the summer of 2013, I decided to get a job at my college that came with free on-campus housing so I could stay in DC for the summer. Work study paychecks weren’t enough to pay for a ticket home, and I couldn’t stand for my mum to pay for things I didn’t consider absolutely essential. I know my reluctance and at times outright refusal to ask for any kind of help (material, emotional, or anything else) causes her distress, though my own unbending self-reliance is something I learnt from her.
My fear of coming up short and anxieties around scarcity meant that I convinced myself that the Safeway across the bridge from my campus was more affordable than its shiny counterpart in the middle of the multimillion dollar neighborhood the school shared with politicians and various other people with wealth of dubious origin (Is this a misnomer? If one is that wealthy in the face of so much suffering, isn’t all the wealth acquired by dubious means, or in other words, stolen?) Whether that store branch was actually cheaper, I can no longer remember, but on any given weekend or day off work and regardless of weather, I would faithfully find myself across the bridge for my weekly groceries. This mundane errand became some sort of anchor for me, so much so that even when carrying it out wasn’t ideal because the weather was too wet or too hot, or if the window of time I had to get to the store and back before my next work shift, I would still insist on completing this ritual. When my boyfriend at the time came to visit, I forced him to accompany me, even with his [justified] complaints about the heat, the distance, and the impracticality of the whole affair. As we waited for the bus that would take us home, he waved his hands in frustration towards the line of empty taxis waiting for passengers, even offering to pay the fare if money was my concern. I refused, and we carried the groceries on and off the bus and all the way back to my dorm.
There was no way to explain what was happening in my brain to make me believe that if I deviated from my usual routine, I would be in some kind of danger or experience unbearable panic turned pain, in short that some sort of catastrophe would materialize or if I failed to complete this senseless mission. It was almost as though a circuit had tripped in my mind, leaving sparks and a lackluster puff of smoke where my good sense should have been. Even if I had these words at the time, I don’t know that he would have had the empathy to receive them well. That summer was fraught in our relationship for several reasons, not the least of which where the endless spirals of my emotional reactions and his harshness. I don’t know what it is about straight men and their insecurities that transforms their admiration into contempt, unless perhaps what initially appears to be romantic interest and admiration was really just a desire to possess and control another person. As was often the case with us, I would have to make up for my behavior when it was my turn to visit him, and we walked the whole way from his local grocery store back to his apartment so I could see what I had put him through, a sort of vengeance on his part. I have no interest nor do I gain anything from casting someone I haven’t spoken to in years as a villain, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting for a long while afterwards to think about how the beginnings of my mental unravelling were treated like self-indulgence, selfishness, nonsense, by someone who claimed to love me.
Five years later, my state of mind was much the worse for wear after grad school and after having borne witness to and experiencing all kinds of banal and spectacular cruelties that Boston’s racism had to offer. I was also graduating with a number of publications and other “achievements” to my name, and I needed the longest, most extra ponytail to match my teal blazer dress and silver boots and the overall fanfare of the moment, whether or not a full-time job with benefits was waiting on the other side (It was not). I mapped my path from Somerville to the big beauty supply on Mass Ave, its outer walls like an old dollhouse drained of most of its color—there were closer options, but I was going to be downtown for other errands, so my good sense told me to take this route—80 bus to Lechmere, Green line to Park Street, and then SL5 to Washington Street at Mass Ave.
A dear friend was also going to be downtown and wanted to spend time together, so I asked if she would mind going to the store with me before we went on to get some ice cream or whatever else we felt like. I had been repeating the sequence of my journey in my head like an incantation, as if I couldn’t follow this route with my eyes closed: 80, Green Life, Silver Line, 80, Green Line, Silver Line. But as soon as my friend walked up to me and asked, “Which store are you going to? Can we walk?” that circuit tripped and replaced my good sense with panic. Instead of suggesting we wait for the next bus or that we walk down Washington Street along the same route the Silver line would have taken us, I somehow decided we should go the “scenic, long way,” down Boylston past the library, the Prudential, and the Brooks-Brothers clad populace most likely to be shopping there, and eventually a left turn on Mass Ave, maneuvering around music students carrying instrument cases twice their size.
When we reached our destination, I braced myself for the sneering, the contempt, the threat of punishment, but my friend only stamped her foot and play scolded me like the Trini junior-auntie she is, and we went inside to search for my ponytail. She had a way of knowing things I had not told her, mostly because that is one of her gifts, and maybe because of the way she loves, so it’s possible she knew that my confusing actions had their roots in some unspoken pain within me. In any case, we proceeded to have the sweetest evening, including ice cream and a chance meeting with two friends of hers on the street outside the hair store, both black women, one who was mother to a child named Zora. There would be no atonement for inconveniencing or frustrating her, nor would I have to produce evidence of having been previously unimpeachable as a friend (another time I might tell you about the period of time that ex assigned and subtracted points, supposedly as a joke, according to the satisfactory [or not] nature of my actions…) to justify this one transgression.
My fear of retribution was informed not by anything in her character or prior treatment of me, but rather in the contempt I seemed to elicit in the past for not having “my shit together” in the words of that distant ex. I can say with no tongue-biting or hesitation that majority of the people who have met my chaos or my pain with [willful] misunderstanding, refusal to truly see me, or outright malice have been men. This piece of writing is not intended to excuse treating the people around oneself as collateral damage for one’s depressive or incoherent behaviors, nor do I mean to render friends who have extended me abundant care and grace as long-suffering martyrs. I just have the “sheer good fortune” to be loved by so many women as friend and sister, and I spare no opportunity to show them as much praise and appreciation as I can muster, knowing that it can never be enough for the glory that they are.
I’m trying to take a moment to revel in the contentment I feel now, in the immense space that has opened up in my mind now that anxiety is largely absent, meaning I can listen to music that is totally new to me; take different routes around the city than the ones I may have memorized; or deviate from any daily routine without fear that my life will collapse under the advent of anything different or unfamiliar. I’m thrifting clothes in the light colors I used to wear before my fear of financial lack and determination to be as practical and responsible as possible stocked my closet with a uniform of black leggings with black t shirts for warmer weather and black turtlenecks for winter; thrift rather than brand new to try and participate as little as possible in a garment industry that takes lives in exchange for the most flattering high-waisted jeans for someone living in wealthier locales. I do not include this detail to be sanctimonious, but rather to express that I can’t be at peace while knowing that the things I use to adorn my body come at the cost of the lives of factory and agricultural workers, many of them women in places like Indonesia and Bangladesh. I have a writing residency stipend that allows me a living situation I thought I would only ever be able to afford if I moved to a cheaper part of the country. After about a three-week period of feeling despondent, low, and small in spirit and imagination, I’m trying with all the strength I can summon to be the exuberant 7-year-old version of myself who could and would not shrink even if she tried and to refuse the pressure to participate in my own diminution for the benefit of whoever’s check pays the most bills. There is still pain, grief, worry about money and survival, and I hope the positive turn at this ending is not a “Pollyannaish” (as my therapist loves to say), narrative of tripped circuits finding repair and new, brighter light after a period of disfunction. Because I believe in something called the black femme sublime, I know the sparks, the smoke, the glitching connections, and the brightness of all-that-is-possible can coexist; I’m just trying to do a better job of documenting the good as much as I tend to the hurt.
“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.
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The original starting point of this blog post went like this;
The lateness of this blog post is brought to [you] courtesy of a combination of staying up-to-date with the latest horrifying news and moving for a temporary job while trying to find a more permanent one for “the latter side of next.” I’m feeling this strange sort of distance from myself, where I know something is “off” in this hazy, undefined way, but can’t quite articulate why.
The time is currently 1:19am, and I am sitting on my friend’s bed instead of dancing downstairs in the backyard with the rest of her guests (or helping to clean up now that the barbecue has just ended). I tried my hardest to rally myself into some sort of pleasantness– I even wore my new favorite yellow dress and my old faithful cartoonish pineapple earrings– but I eventually decided…
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My aunt used to wear a jade bracelet—she wears one still—right or left wrist, I no longer remember; my memory has no sense of direction these days. To my childish eyes, It looked like liquid light turned molten in fire so I didn’t think that it could break, but that day in the kitchen I tried it on, it slipped smooth off my wrist and cracked clean in half on the terrazzo floor. Out of the two shining halves fell a shining child with dimples sinking so deep into his face that water welled in them, and honey; a serious child with long enough arms to reach around herself…I let her borrow my face but I’m now terrified that she hides behind it too well; an amethyst ring, a ruby ring missing its stone, a gold tooth, three laughing sisters, two more sitting at the table to share in the joke, a bottle of schnapps and a shot glass for Dada, ten perfect nail beds curved like the part of the road we cannot yet see, like the bend where I wait for a bus or a train, a pair of wings maybe, like the molten jade light fusing back to itself in a pair of feverish palms slick with sweat and an eagerness to be [re]made whole.
lady in red
i waz missin somethin
lady in purple
somethin so important
lady in brown
lady in blue
a layin on of hands…
-from for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
I’m now throwing away most of the things people have tried to teach me about art and writing and story structure and how things must be done. There is too much grief and too much death, too much misery for me to continue to use writing as another way to punish myself for my shortcomings; to hyper-fixate on the use or utility of my work to the point of inaction; to point out all the areas of failure, all the evidence that these words have no transformative or radical potential; or, how nobody cares to hear from another African international-school-to-abroad pipeline person who thinks their third eye has opened wide enough and thinks themselves brave for saying what must be said about other such people on this pipeline, power, neocolonialism, and incompetent, bigoted officials who wouldn’t know what “our culture” was if it came like an ancestor slapping them awake at night, yet still believe themselves just and traditional for calling death on the heads of queer Ghanaian people. There is too much misery, and I’ll get neither the approval nor the permission I crave from the speakers in June Jordan’s poems, the speakers in Ama Ata Aidoo’s poems, Toni Morrison’s unwavering eye from beyond this plane of life, my great-great-grandma who I endlessly seek in dreams, old friends and classmates, people who condescend to me at work and in leasing offices, black women artists I admire and follow on Twitter.
My plan is to be precious with these things called art, and by precious I mean in the Ewe sense of “listening to one’s self too much” and not precious as in growing so self-indulgent that I abandon all rigor or empathy in my work. I am just in pursuit of writing something lush and sweet for my self because I’ve been missing this sweetness all along. I’m going to repeat images because they are nostalgic and pleasurable to me and do whatever I want with sentences and flow. [This is no act of defiance. I am still lacking courage in so many of the most urgent ways. I’m just now realizing I can say or do anything I want with these pages while I’m still breathing.] This may sound elementary if you didn’t know I was bringing all kinds of neuroticism to the writing desk: what is useful and urgent and unflinching and what will liberate me or us or what will get the attention of the right contest judge or agent—all these things can’t be true of one piece of art at once because if we were all free and materially and spiritually abundant, then the art would be too, and the contest judges and agents and editors would all be out of a job.
Because I am ashamed and totally exhausted with my own self-deprecation and cynicism, moving forward, I will be practicing earnestness, sappiness, anything that is almost too much but not too far past the line that so that it seems insincere. I’m going to keep talking about my one aunty’s gold tooth and another aunty’s jade bracelet because my adoration for them and their quirks continue to expand the longer I am away, though I was already obsessed before I left. I’m going to write images that don’t make rational sense just because I love the way the sentences sound, like comparing forced laughter between a doomed couple to coins hitting a sticky restaurant tabletop, laughter ringing so sharp and loud that it turns into coins pocketed by one half of said doomed couple. I’m going to write about how much I love it when a black man with a New York accent refers to himself as “the kid” or when people from New Orleans say anything at all, about people going to work on Friday mornings in Dakar and how their clothes are still flawless white at 7pm that day. I’m going to do all this because I can.
The only point of view that matters is whatever self-indulgent one will allow me to write pages about ice lollies melting to a drip and then to a stain on my 4-year-old self’s dress and about my 7-year-old self in my first swimsuit on the way to the beach with my uncle. I resolve to be incoherent and illegible except to the initiated who inhabit the land beyond glamouring and who have an understanding of the sublime that only we can see and feel. I want to make my writing a series of unending ecstatic experiences just because I can, but also because I am in desperate need of some respite.
Desperate is the word, because of the state of our current world, and because my self-loathing passed joking on the internet about depression a long time ago; instead it took the form of denying myself food, new clothing, a social life (unless there was no cover, and even then) or anything that didn’t feel as essential as rent, bills, and T fare, because of the deep fear of coming up short, and because I believed everyone (read: classmates, “higher-ups,” performance reviews, manipulative exes, headlines spelling the impending murder of anyone like me) who reminded me that I wasn’t worth anything enjoyable in this world. Desperate is the word, because I’m trying to remember what my favorite food is and the kinds of dresses I like to wear in hot weather, and I’m tattooing myself so that I may believe my self a canvas worthy of adornment.
I want all my writing to feel like [re]-reading Ntozake Shange when I want to feel slices of said ecstatic experience. I want to stop picking my self apart on paper and calling it introspection, only to cast about in search of the discarded pieces of self, pretending it isn’t unhealthy self-absorption, whole time we’re all sinking slowly into the sea. I’m tired of caring so much what will be well-received by whoever I imagine is looking at me or at this—no one is looking—which presents the perfect conditions to do my work and revel in the process of its doing. The conceit of this is that I do actually care what anyone and everyone thinks, contrary to all these preceding lines. I care so much that I’m still typing. I have written more condolences and robotic emails about work assignments than I have about what 4pm on a Saturday feels like when your mum comes home smelling like the hair salon, like high perfume and something about to burn; about cold water hitting your scalp in the right places, or about the hyacinths spilling purple all over the side table I bought because it looked like something my grandma would have owned in the 70s. I resolve to change this.
Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, and I open up a new workbook in Excel to tally the points I must earn for my completed tasks. Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, around us, and I count feverishly so maybe I will be rewarded with a raise that will leave my account at a comfortable $45 overdraft instead of $150. Hundreds of thousands of people die, and I apologize: sorry for my oversight; I took some time off and I am now behind; I took some time off and I missed your email; I took some time off and now I must be punished. Hundreds of thousands of people die with saltwater where their lungs should be, hundreds of thousands of people die as the land burns and the shore sinks below itself, hundreds of thousands of people die and the horizon’s promise retreats further out of reach.
Millions of people walk to the edges of their own lives and jump over, no longer able to withstand the discord between and subsequent fracturing of self, spirit, and body. Meanwhile, I apologize again: I’m sorry I’m a little overwhelmed, a little behind, a little out of step with reality, a lot incredulous that I am to carry on tallying points and meeting quotas as if Belly Mujinga made it home from work to hug her baby, as if Breonna Taylor was early enough for work this morning to stop for an iced coffee, as if Uyinene and Priscilla and Ruth and Ruth and Priscilla just sat down at their desks for a new school year, as if Nina Pop waved good evening to her neighbor before settling herself in for a quiet evening in front of the TV.
“Big Men”—their appetites bigger than hundreds and thousands and millions can satisfy—where I am from move their masks down their chins to declare that they are sending schoolchildren to their deaths, but not their own, their own children will put on their whites,not for a wedding (read: business merger) nor for an outdooring (read: delivery of luxury European car paid for in cash and in full), but for a charitable cause, to “raise funds and awareness” for problems their fathers have created and could solve with a little less “procurement” and a little less greed. [All these quotation marks, even in rage I can only speak in euphemisms about the wealthy few toasting and taking tequila shots on top of the coffins on the rest of their “fellow Ghanaians.” And again, with the euphemisms…I first learned this tactic from the news on GTV with my grandma’s impatient teeth-kissing in the background]
We are asked to talk small about favorite books, foods, things we are most proud of, I can’t say:
I don’t have one right now because my tears have melded the pages together and turned them into mush;
I don’t have one because too high a cost will always overrule taste and nostalgia for what we used to have for Friday afternoons at grandma’s–some cousins prefer shito and others ketchup;
Today I am most proud that I haven’t looked directly into the screen and cursed the meeting host and everyone that loves them, or asked them one or two questions:
Do you know that this is dehumanizing? Do you know that whiteness itself and your commitment to it has compromised your own humanity, and that your capacity to feel more strongly about quotas and deadlines and points than you do about human life is an aberration? [The Big Men where I am from are afflicted with the poison of whiteness too, ever since their fathers brokered our freedom in exchange for suit trousers too-small seats, ever since military men and mindless intellectuals fought each other for the right to rule and the right to murder the ruled.] Do you know that your imagination has been so deprived of space to stand up and stretch wide that you are resigned to the reality that how well you meet quotas and deadlines and amass points will determine how well you eat or comfortably you sleep, or if you get to eat or sleep at all? Do you know that I am somebody’s child? Do you know you are?
I’m trying not to talk about this year in past tense, as in I was going to start a new project; I was going to learn more about visual media; I was going to look into moving to a new city etc. because I’m still alive, still trying to imagine and to bear witness. So instead, I’ll share my gratitude for being included in the 2020 Call to Create cohort of Mother Mercy, an incubator and a community of incredible women artists. You can read about the project I’ll be working on this year here.
[Image: my great-grandmother, Alwin Mana in a collage I made using the VSCO app]