Love and Vengeance

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, not 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.

Stills from Moonlight (2016), dir. Barry Jenkins. The screenplay was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue.”

Resisting the bothersome urge to reassure the reader that the Black feminist “agenda” does not in fact include the denigration or destruction of cis-het Black men I will share instead that 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. 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: 

***

*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.

 

Dizzying/Against Balance

I didn’t know you well enough to know what you were going through, but I really wish you had stayed around a little longer. I hope that you have found peace.

 ***

For the past few weekends and a few after-work evenings in between, I have spent time in the presence of some of my favorite people in Boston and in general, wearing the same grin almost the entire time with them, and on the inside for hours after. I have been feeling so much joy that I am always tempted to apologize to the people who have the misfortune on the receiving end of my excited chatter, even faster than my usual high-speed speech. My grandma still gets frustrated trying to decipher all my running together words, and tells me to speak Ewe because she knows my brain unfortunately moves much more slowly when I have to translate thought to speech in Ewe.

Usually, I will undercut my own joy with a sense of foreboding, with the fear that my rightful fate lurks around the corner ready to yank me back into the misery which I deserve and in which I belong. As unsettling as this type of joy can be when it is accompanied by anxiety, I also feel most like myself, like the little self with the Afro puff or 2-4 braids (the extent of my mum’s hairstyling prowess when I was little) winning dancing competitions at your birthday party and your cousin’s too, like the me who would not be skipped ahead to the next class because I couldn’t be contained in my seat after I sped through all my work (the teachers thought I was too immature, but in my defense, I was five) the me who earned the nickname Dizzy because that’s how I made everyone in the house feel.

This isn’t the temporary euphoria of the “I took my meds, now I’m healed, let’s hang out” variety. I feel deeply at peace and able to tackle the difficulties of building a life as an adult thousands of miles away from majority of the people who love you the most. Two years ago around this time, four wisdom teeth out, a pinched nerve­­—sit up straight at your desk beloveds—and wrongly processed insurance claims leading to hundreds of dollars in bills where there should only be tens would have sent me into a downward spiral of self-loathing, of feeling stuck and unworthy of anything positive.

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“Was there ever a little girl in the whole wide world who was so loved and as loving as you!” -from a journal entry my mum wrote to me, dated December 31st, 1993

I would’ve been feeling as though the universe was conspiring to ensure that I would receive the punishment I surely deserved, which in turn made working through challenges even more difficult, leading to the spiral extending further downward and so on. I’m almost tempted to go as far as saying that what my mother and my therapist both call “the vicissitudes of life” feel easier and nowhere near as insurmountable when I’m not trudging through depression’s swamp. I am less inclined to apologize for things I didn’t do, to state plainly when I feel offended and better at expressing myself without the anxiety of trying to figure what the other person wants to hear, to recognize when I’m wrong without it turning into self-loathing, to believe that my low moments are some void of misery threatening to swallow anyone who gets too close. I feel more capable of staying at the surface of my life. Who knew this would be possible?

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This was actually a low moment, but I look in this photo how I feel these days. You can catch me singing along to whatever is playing on my headphones at any bus stop near you. I am now one of those people. (February 2018)

When my mother came to visit soon after what happened had happened, I was newly on the mend, and I was talkative, and energetic, and dizzy. She kept telling me to calm down, and I folded into myself, offended at the suggestion that I was being too much, manic (not in the clinical sense) even.

“Why are you telling me to calm down? Isn’t this better than me being miserable?”

“Baby, it’s about balance. You just need to find a balance.”

At the time, I didn’t think to tell her that I am not and probably never will be a laidback person, and that if I have appeared laidback or reserved on and off over the past few years, that is what my misery looks like. I didn’t think to tell her that if balance means risking talking too much, slightly grating even, uncontainable joy and where I was that evening in March, then I don’t want balance. I was not upset with her, because I think she just forgot how Dizzy could be. I know I had. Because I’m blessed to be the daughter of a wonderful mother, I was able to explain to her how unsettled I was feeling about her reminders about balance. She apologized and admitted that her advice was coming from a place of concern that I might have been experiencing mania; what she described as an “armchair diagnosis” on her part, an attempt to make some sense out of a state she had never seen me in prior to that week in March.

I’m feeling dizzy, and joyous, and loved without condition or caveat. I’m feeling more like myself than I have since the Afro puff, like the painted-on self I have been pretending to be in order to get by and to appear untouchable. There are certain kinds of balance that I’m seeking; between rest and work; between enjoying retreats into my inner life and closing off from other people completely. I’m also seeking to open myself up to people and to love without fear of saying or being too much.

***

And here are some more things in which I delight: 

Orange line, rush hour, conversation between a mother and child:

Child: It’s a rainbow!

Mother: Where do you see a rainbow?

Child (undeterred by the mother’s doubt): Rainbow!

Mother: Ok, I’ll take your word for it, but mommy doesn’t see nobody’s rainbow.

A baby wearing a T-shirt featuring a picture of a sloth along with the words “slowly but surely, I’m going to bed.” It brings me great pleasure to add that the baby’s name was Zoë!

My therapist using the phrase “feminist utopias” during a session

A woman on the phone with small hands and lots of silver rings who reminded me of my friend Philippa

A house on my new commute with bushes growing over its white wall that look like bougainvillea; reminds me of home

Random parts of Cambridge that look like New Orleans (and I don’t mean gentrifiers whitewashing and taking over historic Black communities and make everything soulless glass and metal)

A Black girl with amazing boots and a T-shirt that says “radical and soft”

The swelling sound of the strings on “Eros” from the Beale Street soundtrack

Small talk with a Liberian woman who had lived in Ghana for years that started because she complimented the beads on my wrist and showed me her similar bracelet

A person wearing a T-shirt that says “Love is still the most powerful force on the planet”

A person wearing a T-shirt that says “I nap periodically” where I N-A-P was spelt with the periodic table symbols for iodine, sodium, and phosphorous

(I realize a lot of these are babies and T-shirts.)

 

 

 

A Glamouring

Eating the Other

“One desires ‘a bit of the Other’ to enhance the blank landscape of whiteness.”

“When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure,
the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as
constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders,
sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other.”

-from “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” by bell hooks

***

I’m sharing the post about “glamouring” again because I’ve been thinking, and in some cases, feeling uneasy about a number of things:

  • The fact that I keep joking about changing my name to “I like your hair/nails/earrings/shoes” because these are the only instances in which certain people at my new job speak to me. Compliments might seem benign enough, apart from the fact that these people never ever speak to me otherwise and in some cases I’m sure they don’t know my name. It’s uncomfortable to catch people who won’t ever say hello staring over their computer monitors, or have their eyes slide away from contact only to see their reflection looking after me. Friends, there is glass everywhere in this office and it will give you away every time. Being accustomed to the daily slights of being one of *insert any number less that ten* Black women in a given place means that you often start to second and third guess yourself to the point of distraction; was that *really* what I thought it was, or am I just hyper-sensitive? It’s hard not to feel like a disembodied pair of hands or a floating head when the only times you are acknowledged involve commentary on my appearance. I’m not an object on a shelf.

 

 

  • Isolation, at times self-enforced, at times externally imposed. In grad school, I spent my first year attempting to socialize with classmates before reasoning that if I isolated myself from the “micro”-aggressors, the less likely I would be to endure those daily slights. I withdrew from most people except a few, but I could never quite escape the disrespect. At this new job, which I enjoy for the most part despite how this post might sound, I recognize that corporate culture involves people generally not being as friendly as they might be in non-profits or higher education spaces, and most of this is likely not personal (I’m used to friendlier work environments, but that does not mean those places don’t fundamentally operate like corporations as well). Still, it’s not lost on me that the newer hires who started around the same time I did have all been able to find their way into the groups of people who do interact and socialize. One can only try to say hello and get sliding-away-eyes so many times before one gives up. And I’m talking about people I’ve actually been introduced to. As in we’ve met. I’m also a little resentful of having to prove that I’m not an intimidating Black girl to convince people it’s safe to speak to me. I’m not about to bend over backwards to show that I’m “actually really nice” so you can laugh about how you were initially scared of me. It’s not my fault you don’t know how to act because you don’t know any Black people in “real life.” It’s also not my fault that people perceive Black womanhood and certain performances of Black femininity as purely for consumption.

 

  • The fact that I feel compelled to include the details that other people of color I’ve spoken to have shared which show that they feel similarly so as to legitimize my experience, but I won’t. (I have still done exactly what I just said I wouldn’t in a sly way, because I am desperate to convince you, the reader, and my own skeptical self that I’m not making this up). There are friendly faces as well, including some of the other non-Black people of color and a very good friend from grad school. I should also point out that part of me is grateful that most people don’t know that I [think I] have jokes so that I can never be less talkative without a “Why so quiet?” when they feel like being entertained. Or maybe I haven’t tried hard enough? The chip on my shoulder is enormous? Is a hello too much to ask for? Maybe I’m actually scary, arrogant, or intimidating? Maybe I’m just an asshole who isn’t as likable as she thing she is?

 

  • The time I created a first-year writing curriculum for a program I had taught in for only a semester in response to student protests for at my institution. Again, you might think, benign, except for the fact that this curriculum was grounded in Black feminist theory, and I still feel unsettled by the fact that I handed over this work to a program that I had to leave because it was not sustainable for me to continue to teach there, as far as my finances and my well-being (not unrelated) were concerned. At my presentation of this project, I stated plainly that I didn’t trust most of the people gathered to engage and teach the material I had put together in good faith, not because only Black women are able to understand Black women’s intellectual work, but because my colleagues had previously been the same classmates I *knew* to harbor prejudice and ignorance they were unwilling to address because they were comfortable in the power their whiteness afforded them, or at the very least were not interested in the mild discomfort brought on by pursuing a minimal level of self-awareness. My decision to do that work never felt as fraught as it did in the moment when I ran into the former director of the program a year later and he didn’t recognize me. A floating head, a disembodied mind, a few sprinkles of June Jordan’s words on the syllabi… Am I sure I did anything to help the students have their demands met? How do I know my work isn’t being trotted out just to demonstrate “diversity” without a single trace of real institutional transformation (the academy co-opts and sanitizes with the best of them), or simply languishing in the Google folder in which it lives unused and forgotten? Except, I do know…

 

  • The number of white people I see walking around [gentrified] Area 4 with “locs” in their hair. Anyone still arguing that it’s “just hair” is being willfully obtuse at this point. The question boils down to power, as Jackson says in the article mentioned above. (Read here and here.) And I can’t say I’ve actually researched this, but given what we know about the [ongoing] European colonial project in Africa and the ways colonialists controlled and commodified the bodies of Black people, I won’t be surprised if the mandate that girls must cut their hair short in Ghanaian public schools has something to do with colonialism. It’s never “just” what you think it is. And that’s on the oppressor, not the oppressed. Honorable mention goes to the fancy coffee shops playing nothing but R&B and hip hop without a single Black soul in sight. And God help you if you appear to not have bought anything to eat or drink before connecting to the free Wi-Fi…

 

  • We are not tragic, not a theory, not a spectacle, not easily erased, not on the menu, not for anyone’s enjoyment besides ourselves.

 

  • The time I had to interrupt so that two non-Black men and fellow teachers wouldn’t wrongly diagnose one of our incredible students with impostor syndrome just because she called into question the sort of tokenism and injustice behind hand-picking “the best of the best” students of color (herself included) to access certain opportunities most of her classmates can not. See also: non-Black people who are so “down,” their attempts to relate or encourage feel condescending or even insulting.

 

  • I would like to spend far less time than I do thinking about these things, especially when other more skilled writers and more critical minds have already said it all. Keta is literally being swallowed by the Atlantic. There are people drowning, dying in the desert, caged right near their desired port of entry (Of course I’m incapable of solving these issues single-handedly, but they are far more urgent and a more worthy use of my mental energy). What did Toni Morrison say about “distraction?”

 

  • White (and non-Black in general) people with self-described  “progressive” or even “radical” politics who still don’t recognize Black women’s humanity. Why does your solidarity, your empathy, your friendship, your romance, still feel like an insatiable desire to consume? Are you not full?

a blog by her wildness, zoë gadegbeku

I’m feeling very content with and within myself, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m not complaining that the ever elusive joy towards which I’ve been writing seems to have finally arrived, not at all. It’s a pleasant surprise after these weeks of feeling strangely “silent” and distant from myself. I feel like I’ve woken up from a deep, dreamless sleep and had a good, wide stretch. What’s most confusing about this shift is that nothing new in particular has happened to remove some of the worries I’ve been harboring. I’m still facing quite a bit of uncertainty, but as I usually do, I’m going to get on with the business of living.

I’m also still sorting through some of the things with which I walked away from grad school. I am the proud owner of a few certificates embossed with curly gold lettering, folders full of…

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In Which I Delight

Note: For those who might need a heads up, this post discusses suicide and suicidal thoughts.

 

 

(VCCA grounds, June 2019)

***

for someone I know who ultimately chose a different way

I’m sure I’ve written before about how terrified I am about wishing away time, of not being present even when the circumstances are difficult. The sort of presence I try my hardest to practice feels impossible while I working at a place where the desperation is not quiet, and most bonding between people is done in whispers–at times bitter, at times distressed, many times both– about such things like “higher ups” family trips abroad and holiday homes outside the city. Meanwhile a trip out of state is a stretch for most everyone else, or God forbid, an unexpected medical expense. Meanwhile dignity is synonymous only with title and power, a distorted order of things made more frustrating and even more painful by the almost mandated performance of enthusiasm, gratitude, and community, and the belief that all the “good” the work is presumed to be doing out in the world allows room to sidestep the irony of bloated grants and paychecks that could directly transform the lives of the people about who we claim to care so deeply. Have I described the non-profit where you work?

I’ve been trying to remind myself that me being disposable in the work machine does not make it so in real life. In real life, I have agency, and should be able to move beyond whispered grievances in someone’s office doorway to a place where I decide how to seek and hold on to joy and work with meaning. Unfortunately, depression also exists in real life, as evidenced by the average of 45 minutes it takes me to get out of bed on most work days, and the frequent stepping away from my desk for a quick cry, or a moment to sit outside the building and just breathe. Even with Beyoncé’s Homecoming on a loop, or interviews with Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, Jesmyn Ward, Julie Dash, and other Black women whose work sustains me playing in the background, I am increasingly absent. So much so, that I can go days before realizing I have lost track of the date, and that I have worn the same combination of black leggings and black shirts far more drab that what used to be my usual. But I can no longer afford this sort of absence from my own life. As hard as I have tried and laughed and joked and made grand pronouncements about “surviving,” I am not able to successfully insulate myself from the discontent (justified and understandable though it may be) that coats the  office walls and the feelings of being stuck that keep me fixed to my swivel chair.

On the last Tuesday of March, a few days before my mum was due to fly into Boston before our trip to New Orleans, I tried to end myself. It was in a small way, relatively speaking, but the despair and feelings of worthlessness behind my actions were not small, and neither was the harm I was working myself up to, one which a growing part of myself hoped would be more final. This wasn’t the first time I had seriously considered and even planned suicide, like 2017 4th of July weekend when one of my roommates coming home earlier than expected save me from my own mind, or the summer of 2014 where I drove my mum’s car faster and way more aggressively than I usually would dare because I didn’t care what the outcome could be, or all the times before I left home where I explained away my own sorrowful feelings as being “moody” or “dramatic.” But this time, what terrified the larger part of myself that loves life and wants to continue living it was that for the first time I had the means to succeed, namely three months’ supply of an anti-depressant that I now know was not doing its job. Everything I’ve said prior to this point might point to work as the primary source of my misery, but the conditions I have tried to summarize are just the backdrop against which so many other low moments converged in my mind on that Tuesday night. I honestly can’t remember what happened that day, all I know is I was on the train trying to sniff back my tears until I could get home to let them out.

All at once, I was standing and walking in all the public places I have cried; the 80 bus, the road sloping down towards Medford Street from the corner of Highland Ave and School Street, a significant stretch of Broadway from Powder House Square to the CVS in Magoun Square, the 86 bus, the entire length of the red and orange line platforms at Downtown Crossing, the 86 bus, the car park in front of the giant Kappy’s that would be so much more convenient as a supermarket, the 88 bus, on Cambridge Street down the road from the nail salon and the dentist, the Lechmere-bound green line platform at Park Street, the complicated highway I have to cross to get to my otherwise wonderful apartment, any number of places in Harvard Square and Boylston Street downtown, and the beginning of yoga class in Dudley Square while everyone’s eyes are supposed to be closed. There was the weight of reflections of myself I didn’t recognize and with which I’m constantly struggling; selfish, needy, demanding, burdensome (whether you think you are hiding well or not), and waves of grief about things I have been terrified to reckon with, things like “Maybe I didn’t really say no. Maybe that didn’t happen.”

 

 

(Downton Crossing, Wellington, Home, Savin Hill)

Mostly though, I was exhausted in every way one can be, just wanted so badly to sleep, and was not really concerned with whatever lay on the other side of that sleep. Recognizing I was putting myself in danger, I called my therapist’s voicemail box, and she called back right away because she happened to be working late. I refused to check myself in to the hospital no matter how much she insisted, because even more terrifying than what I was trying to do was the prospect of checking myself in on my own. I promised to go in to see her the next day, and I did, after going to work and before going to a yoga class that I feel strongly helped me save myself that week. My therapist could not convince me to go to a psychiatric ward, and I think the only reason she stopped insisting was because I promised I could hold on until my mum’s arrival on Saturday, and more importantly that I wanted to live, that I had been making plans for my future, as uncertain as it all seemed.

 

 

(Swimming back to the surface + candles and some high-maintenance plants)

I spent the rest of the week swimming furiously back to the surface of my own life. I took a personal day from work and bought the plants I’d been meaning to get for a while, as well as an overpriced tea from a café on the way, I called my mum and told her about the plants, about the much better tea I could have had for free at home, about the spring weather finally coming in, about how healthy my hair was looking, but not about Tuesday night. I wrote this in an effort to ask for help while still remaining partially in hiding, I brushed off any concerned messages following that post about silence with a mention of “work stress,” I cried on the phone to my friend Mel and yelled back at the rude neighbors who complained that I was crying too loud. By the time Saturday arrived, I was feeling stable enough to make my café date with my gem of a friend Abigail (we meet every few weeks at a different café and sometimes in between for film screenings, author talks, museum trips, general catch-ups etc.), and then on to the airport to wait for my mum. By the time my mum walked through the arrival gates, I was in tears, a mix of relief that she had made it and fear of what I was about to tell her.

 

 

(Myself and a gem: Abigail and I a few days after what happened had happened, and again this summer)

New Orleans could not have come at a more perfect moment, and before she went back to Accra a few weeks later, she was sure to tell as many of my Boston people as possible that she needed them to check on me because she knew I wouldn’t call. I was grateful she did, because I would have just kept hiding and got on with it as is my wont. My swim to the surface included actively looking for a new job (which I now have and will be starting at the end of August), writing, Zumba-ing, and yoga-ing because it really did feel like my life depended on it, and most importantly, trying not to be silent about what I tried to do. People who I love and who love me, especially those I have not yet told about this in person or on the phone, I hope you will understand why I had to write this. Saying everything out loud gives the silence and the low moments far less power over my self, and I promise you with every part of this self that I am ok now. Moving back home isn’t what I want to do right now even as I see how much that might put you at ease, and as much as I would love to be there right this minute. There is still so much I want to do out here, such as it is. I need to choose to live everyday for myself, because that is what I want to do, and not only because of the fear of letting other people down. I hope you will not be angry with or disappointed in me.

Here I am at the surface of my life, present and accounted for by Alwin Mana and by her mother Lolomo who loved me even before she knew who I would be. I have been actively trying to re-orient the way I think so that I don’t sink to those depths again. I had bloodwork, a general check-up, an appointment with a psychiatrist, and a change in medication. Bank accounts, work  drama, the inhumanity of borders, and the rising sea levels are still on my mind daily, the last two far more urgent than the first two, but I am loving and listening to the inner self assuring me that I must hold on, and that I must keep choosing life daily. I can no longer afford self-deprecating humor about depression; I can’t afford ironic pessimism; I can’t afford to keep hiding behind sarcasm, although I do not at all intend to shame other people who use these as coping devices. Personally, I just cannot do it any longer. I am choosing life. There is nothing to joke about.

Choosing life also looks like trying to find small things in which I delight as often as I can. I got the idea from a lovely person I met during an Alternative Spring Break program in college, who posts “small and beautiful things” she observes as she moves around New York City. Trying to do this daily over the past few weeks has shown me that Boston can truly be as miserable as people make it out to be (seriously, there is nobody as mean and abrasive as someone yelling at their fellow passenger on the MBTA at 8:45am), and especially if you are not a well-off white cis person. A lady at the hair salon once described Boston as “Atlanta for white people” and I have never heard anything more accurate. Trying to find things to delight in where I can instead of every day has made it much easier and much more pleasant than putting pressure on myself to find any hollow thing to be happy about every single day. Because this is already so long, I will only post some of my favorites for now. I am choosing to continue living this life, and in this life I will delight.

***

An [initial] list of things in which I delight: 

A wide-eyed little girl wearing a t-shirt with the words “Small Wonder” printed across the front

A woman with a New Orleans accent making pleasant small talk with her neighbor on the train

The words “fly blackbird” carved into the brick on the platform at the Davis T station (and running into other lines of poetry on unexpected pavements and platforms around the city)

A new shoot finally pushing through after my asparagus fern’s sickness

Surprise “Have a good week” texts from a dear friend who was just on my mind

A baby giggling on a bike ride (although I generally find it frightening to see small children strapped behind their parents on bikes)

In someone’s front yard, a sunflower taller than me with a bee kissing up to it

 

 

 

 

Hey, Celestial!

Love. Tar Baby. A Mercy. Home. Beloved. In this order, I revisited and in some cases read for the first time these works by Toni Morrison. My mum had all the books she had published up until the 80s, and I felt this urgent impulse to fill in the remaining gaps. I spent the entire month of July doing this, leaving Beloved for the end of the month near my birthday. I can’t say I would recommend doing what I did, reading several of her works in quick succession, unless you can spare significant amounts of time to catch your breath. I finished a few weeks ago, and I’m still breathless from the language, hypnotized by her brilliance, and unsettled by the aspects of human nature that she revealed and compelled her readers to reckon with. Even as I went from book to book knowing I should take a break, I kept going because I felt so strongly that I couldn’t stop. I left work a little early one afternoon to catch the documentary The Pieces I Am as part of the Roxbury Film Festival, and enjoyed it thoroughly while also feeling as though I had seen it before after spending hours watching any interviews and archival footage of her that I could find. Probably because I was spending so much time thinking about her and reading her work, I also dreamt one night that she was my teacher, literally, standing at a white board and writing out a lesson for me to take notes. My best friend said something in my spirit must have known.

 

 

Hey, Celestial! Hey. Celestial. Hey Celestial (Photos by Warring Abbott, 1974)

Toni Morrison, Toni the gawd, Toni Morrison as in one of the greatest to ever do it, became an ancestor on Monday night. This news was the first thing to greet me when I sat at my desk at work on Tuesday morning, on time for once and feeling unusually optimistic about the day. Toni Morrison is now an ancestor. Hey, Celestial! I don’t know what else to say except that I have never felt so deeply about the death of someone I didn’t know personally. I don’t know what else to say that people far more eloquent than me are already saying about what it has been like to live on this earth at the same time as someone so legendary. I don’t know what else to say except that I wrote nearly 2000 words last night which is far more than I’ve written in one sitting in weeks. I don’t know what else to say except that we are now living in a world where Toni Morrison is no longer sitting by a window somewhere laughing that distinct laugh and being wise and hilarious and sarcastic all at once. Except we are. She is still with us. Hey Celestial.

***

Here’s what I posted on my social media accounts last night:

 

67960167_10217340091707042_6063896757073346560_nI talk about her all the time. As it is with so many other people, her name usually comes first for me as one of the writers who made it possible for me to imagine widely and to attempt to put that imagination into words. The yet to be finished book project I turned in as my masters thesis would literally be nowhere without Song of Solomon.

I’ve lost count of the number of application essays, reflection papers for class, and casual conversations in which I reference reading my mum’s copies of Morrison’s books when I was too young to fully understand, and yet somehow I did, and kept reading and re-reading her for years after that, trying to understand what kind of mind produces the sort of sentences she puts together.

She gave a series of lectures in Boston in 2016, at a time when I was feeling burnt out and discouraged at school and at work, and violated and angry in my personal life. I went to four of those lectures to hear her speak, and the way her presence filled the room was nothing short of divine. I’m still feeling discouraged these days, and especially today, but I guess because of Toni Morrison and what she has made possible, it is my responsibility to keep trying to do this thing called life.

RIP to one of the greatest to ever do it.

 

Happenings

I’ve been finding it really difficult to separate the idea of my “worth” and my self from the dollar amounts that people are willing to pay me for my work. At times, it’s so difficult to remember that institutions don’t really care about you as an individual, so that the fact that there never seems to be any money for increased hours or pay has far more to do with the fact that they are trying to maximize the amount of productivity for the most reasonable (read: lowest) cost, than it does with you in particular. It’s not personal, and never has been, but it’s hard to believe when your personal well-being and personal bank account are directly at odds with how hard and how well you seem to be doing your job(s).

With this in mind, I’m trying to step up my compartmentalizing game. Work is just a place, and I am a whole person who belongs not to that place, but to myself. I am a whole person who is permitted to make mistakes (as long as other people do not end up being collateral damage to those mistakes), including but not limited to; sending a late-night text that will surely go unanswered in an attempt to figure out the reason behind someone’s  ghosting, deciding 9pm on a Sunday is the best time to wash my hair, and continuing to purchase knockoff earphones even though I already know they will only last for about two weeks.

My writing life is also sitting in its own little compartment where it is flourishing in it’s own slow and steady way. Over the past few months, the following *cool writing things* have occurred:

  • My essay “My Secondhand Lonely” was included on the Notable List in the 2018 edition of Best American Essays.
  • I wrote two reviews for The Washington Post, one on the Well-Read Black Anthology edited by Glory Edim and Damon Young’s memoir What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.
  • My flash fiction piece “Miss Freda Pays a Visit” made it to the penultimate round of the Afreada x Africa Writes contest judged by the baddest, Warsan Shire. This piece was also selected to be included in the 2019 edition of the Best Small Fictions Anthology.
  • I interviewed Ayesha Harruna Attah about her book The Hundred Wells of Salaga as part of the Boston Public Library’s Author Talk Series. I love watching artists give lectures about their work/take part in the “in conversation” sort of thing; sometimes I play them in the background at work to stay motivated throughout the day. It was such an honor to take part in an event like this, especially with a Ghanaian woman author interested in the afterlife of slavery as Saidiya Hartman puts it [and the domestic trade of enslaved people in Ghana in particular]. She was a delight to talk to. I hope I did my secondary school English Literature teachers proud with my close reading and questions.
  • I was accepted to do a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, which means in June I will have uninterrupted writing and research time, a huge luxury for any artist/writer trying to live life and pay bills at the same time!

I’m also trying to remember that even if none of these things had happened, and in spite of the rejections that have come in between these opportunities, I would still be a whole person worth more than the sum total of resume lines.

Facebook Post-writer

In my efforts to document not just my low moments, I must also report the following;

  • I took a trip to New Orleans (the place where I’ve felt the most at home in the US so far) with my mum. I’m back in Boston, but my spirit (and tastebuds) are most certainly not.
  • I’ve started going to a POC yoga class that apparently has been going on for about 5 years, a year longer than I’ve lived in Boston. It feels amazing to share that breathing space with so many kind people in a city that can feel rather stifling at times, especially when the cold weather drags on. If I may say so myself, I’m not half bad at it either. Every week, I’m surprised at how satisfying and freeing it feels to see how far I’m able to push my body in terms of the stretches and movements we are called upon to do, but not in a scary hyper-competitive way, just in a “ok, sis who knew we could do this” way.
  • Most importantly, I am reminded everyday that I am loved and not alone. Who knew that living somewhere for nearly 4 years would lead to so many meaningful and loving connections? Even when that somewhere is Boston, when the city’s latent and overt hostility to Black people and non-Black people of color and its high cost of living makes building community feel impossible.

Some of my snaps from New Orleans, including my mum living her best life at the Backstreet Cultural Museum and flipping her hair somewhere [on the quieter side] of the French Quarter.

Another important point: I am here. And choosing to keep on living.

A List of Quiet Things

“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.