When I started writing this, the “Sex for Grades” documentary had not yet been released, but there had already been hours and hours of conversation on- and offline about gender-based violence and exploitation in Ghana’s arts community, in academia, behind the locked gates of private homes, and in every facet of Ghanaian society where women dare to exist. I scrolled my timeline endlessly trying to see what Black and African feminists sharper and braver than myself were saying and doing about these terrors we all face, and I drafted tweets I never sent, not trusting myself to say anything incisive or even coherent. I think I need to remain in my lane for a while moving forward. My lane being fiction and something like poetry. As much as I read and admire the Black feminist essayists and theorists, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to join their ranks, no matter how much I study. Writing fiction that attempts to fit into the same universe that the organizers, theorists, and thinkers are imagining feels more within the reach of my abilities.
Between March and August of 2016, I’m not sure I slept a full night, not even with the help of chamomile tea and sleep aids, not even when my mum came to stay with me for two weeks. It only occurred to me very recently that the first full night’s sleep I had that August was made possible by the fact that I was now in a new room in a new apartment, away from the memories that stood against the walls of that old room, watching and taunting my un-sleeping self. All this because I was feeling used and discarded by someone whose actions and their effects still lurk in parts of my self close enough to the surface that I’m still writing and thinking about them three years later.
I became obsessed with the idea of vengeance, pouring over images of and articles about the warrior women of Dahomey and the fierceness I perceived in them that I felt I so desperately needed at the time, and conveniently (and regrettably) sidestepped the parts of these materials which discussed the role these women played in capturing other African people to be sold into slavery. I needed so badly to believe that I could wield power and do deadly damage, at least metaphorically, and historical context and networks of dispossession, power and, violence were of little consequence. My hurt was self-centered and all-consuming. I wrote this poem as well as an essay entitled “Fuck Your White Horse and Carriage,” my homework for a nonfiction workshop that will probably never see the light of day.
I know for sure that I’m still angry. I started thinking about my past (or ongoing, to be honest) fixation on those images again recently, because cishet men’s violence against women and queer people continues to be exposed and examined in all its dimensions online and in person for what feels like an unending time period. What does it mean to wield a fictional bat or gun, to eat razors for breakfast, to collapse hundreds of years of African and Afro-diasporic women’s history into a tweet or a poem in pursuit of even a speck of some of that strength in order to keep living in this violent world? What do accountability, healing, retribution look like in a world where Uyinene Mrwetyana never returned home from the post office; or where men in a trotro in Accra attacked another passenger because he “sounded like a girl;” in a world where Ruth Abakah, Priscilla Blessing Bentum, Ruth Love Quayson, and Priscilla Koranchie* are lost forever?
All I have are questions, but here are some answers: I spent most of my life until a day some months ago believing that what I thought were the outward signs of my great-grandmother’s aging in fact constituted the aftermath of her husband’s physical abuse. Actually, another question: can you imagine how hard you have to hit someone so that they lose teeth? And another: how many of us are wondering what the line is between “you just weren’t on the same page,” “an awkward sexual encounter,” coercion, and assault? How many of us have thought at least once a day, “Maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe I didn’t say no. Maybe I should’ve said no flat out instead of ‘no not really.’ ” And another: am I next? How do we understand emotional abuse, manipulation, and physical violence along a spectrum of patriarchal violence when all our testimonies, pleas for the recognition of our humanity, defiance, protest, and so on, are met with condescension and dismissal at best, and mockery and more violence at worst?
In an interview with Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison once said that she didn’t worry about depicting Black men doing harm to Black women in her fiction because she wrote from a place of love for the men. I don’t know how I understand this love when the most I am able to muster is cautious admiration for almost any man except my mother’s brothers, my former roommate, and a few honorary uncles. I realize that most of my distant admiration rests on observing the ways Black men carry and adorn themselves: the precision of a fade or the cut of a jacket or the sway of a gait. That is not love. What does love look like when you are expected to be in unquestioning solidarity with or even indulgent of the very same people who hold your own destruction in the palms of their hands?
While I’m writing from the U.S., the question is also racialized when I think of myself in relation to Ghanaian men. Even if you might be tempted to argue that the omnipresence of the “little white man on your shoulder” is not felt in the same way as with our counterparts in the diaspora, the anxiety of being watched and judged, of looking “uncivilized” in front of white people is undeniable. We are neocolonial subjects after all. I cannot hold you accountable for actions that have harmed me, my “brother,” in case I commit the ultimate treachery of confirming white people’s fears that you are dangerous, violent, hyper-sexual, irresponsible, and more.
I have been suppressing a resentment that shows itself every time I tried to write characters who were men for my grad school thesis, when I really tried to think of their interiority and realized I was uninterested and did so begrudgingly because I couldn’t bring myself to that place. I believe my resentment grew from constant reminders that I, we, must continue to capitulate to Black male genius no matter how otherwise terrible the person might be; that I, we, have to sacrifice our dignity and even our humanity at the altar of the egos of men who cannot stand our glory; that I, we, must continue to create infinite room for men’s growth at the expense of our own well-being and even our lives; that I, we, must endure the flattening of the tops of our spirits so we can give man-children places to stand while they learn to uplift themselves. And if the “lesson” they had to learn involved us dying first, then rest in power. It was for a noble cause.
Resisting the bothersome urge to reassure the reader that the Black feminist “agenda” does not in fact include the denigration or destruction of Black men, I still feel compelled need to say that the address to and focus on Black men at points in this post are because you actually are my brothers, because I have chosen to be in community with you, because I have chosen to partner with you romantically, because “accountability” is not just a buzzword.
The film Moonlight helped me think with more intention and care about the inner lives of Black men and the perils of particular kinds of masculinity. I re-watched it often during grad school and still do, partly for the exquisite visuals, but also for the scene near the end where grown-up Chiron says, “I haven’t really touched anyone, since.” I only recently stopped crying at that point. I don’t intend to argue that Jenkins’ and McCraney’s film is the definitive commentary on Black masculinity; it’s just one that continues to echo in my mind and spirit. In all honesty, I think my returning to the film over and over became more ritual that I believed put me in the mental space I needed to commune with my characters, and a little less about the actual content of the film. The beauty of the portraits presented simply made me want to imagine wider and think more carefully about the things my characters leave unsaid.
Lastly, I haven’t yet learned enough about transformative justice since the one Justice and Peace Studies course I took during my first year of college, nor have I developed the generosity of spirit I am told is necessary to “wish well” towards someone whose mistreatment I’m still trying to understand and mend three years later. If the completion of healing means forgiveness, then I am still hurting. I wish that person nothing but hardship in ways as mundane as scratching his throat with a tilapia bone severely enough that he will only be able to consume lukewarm food and drinks for the rest of his life so as not to disturb the scarring, and more significant, like the continued struggle and eventual failure of his scamming ass, so-called “social entrepreneurship.” One more time for the scammers in the back: “capitalism for the greater good” is an absolute contradiction in terms. Just say you want a taste of white men’s world domination and be free. I digress. I don’t wish you well. And my ancestors know your name.
What I’m thinking about:
- Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation Between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde
- Chanel Miller’s Statement
- “Y’all Mean” and “Kanye West is Better at His Job Than I Am at Mine (But I’m Way Better at Being a Fake-Ass Feminist” by Kiese Laymon
- Moonlight by Keguro Macharia
- Mothers and Men by OluTimehin Adegbeye
- Speaking My Truth by Dr. Sionne Neely
*I didn’t put a hyperlink here because I couldn’t find news coverage I felt was appropriate to remember them by. If anyone has read any thoughtful articles, please let me know.