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 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.
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: 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.
still working on turning a loving gaze on myself, but it’s easier to hide behind abstractions than to write plainly some of the things that have been on my mind lately…
“What the author has[…] An aspect […] A misplaced photograph she finds at times in a mirror.”
-“Verso” pp. 172, The Blue Clerk, Dionne Brand
I stretched my left hand out of the mirror and towards myself so I could feel with my fingertips the point where self and reflection were indistinguishable, mostly because I was hoping it would burn or at least sting to look on and experience one’s own self with something other than contempt, maybe not exactly with admiration, but at least curiosity, or an openness to being.
So I stretched out my hand expecting to breach in some way the naturally cruel ordering of things in which I am to understand that my self is only able to exist in so far as it is pliable and easy to dismantle, but not too brittle or quick to crumble, just willing to endure the swallowing of small indignities daily, followed by certain destruction.
But aside from the uncomfortable slip and slide of the mirror’s surface—old toothpaste-tainted water and fingerprints marked in hair oil—our meeting was basically painless. The slickness of the mirror’s [un]clean meant that I didn’t really feel the pieces of glass burrowing into the most fleshy parts of my palms. She did though, and she frowned at me, or at self, or together, as I continued to climb out, hardly taking an eye off our face except to avoid the wet places on the countertop so I wouldn’t fall.
“And both of them, all they could do was give birth to fragments of possible selves and then more fragments of themselves would sit in a window…”
-“Verso 2.3.1” pp. 18, The Blue Clerk, Dionne Brand
There was no splinter in the continuity of space and time; the sound of the neighbors now crying, then laughing continued in that muffled way like they were screaming into pillows, the on and off clicks of light switches in the next room went on with their usual sharp efficiency, engines stuttered and growled outside, fighting the freeze of February air. There was nothing monumental about this sort of reflection, this deliberate self-regard.
Your vision is blurry because when the tear film is dry, the light scatters.
-optician’s office on a Monday afternoon waiting to hear how much of my sight neglect may have cost me
I, (the reflection), and me, (the self of whom I am the imperfect likeness), had in the near past been spreading out and searching for the fragments we were wherever we could. We sought glimpses of our self in the glass of someone else’s eye, shining with want and momentary care that lasted only until the want subsided or was sated. We caught our self in refractions between spots of rust on a silver door handle, and again in the water-stained window of a store we would never think to enter—
“La façade en miroir d’une vitrine me renvoya le reflet de mon visage. Je n’en crus pas mes yeux […] Oui, j’étais une étrangère et c’était la première fois que je m’en rendais compte.”
–Le baobab fou, Ken Bugul, pp. 59-60
In pieces and not enough, we began to despair. I, reflection, watched me, self, turn against us. She pressed a powder compact into our palm so fiercely its glass shattered and dripped grainy brown and red sliding to a stop at our wrist. I shouted at me to stop, but our scream was one and the same. She could not hear. We scoured our wound into the sink and scoured our mind for people we knew we would not ask for help for fear that they saw us too clearly—
…but I guess I was tweeting hoping someone would reach out. Thank you for always seeing me
I see you, my brilliant child. You’ll be okay.
So, I and me, we have decided to turn to our self. We are new to our self, maybe even a little infatuated. Knowing that the world will not halt its terror and its magnificence neither for me nor for I, we turn to our self with kindness, and as if we know we are the most miraculous thing we have.
“-Don’t you go nowhere, mirror bitch.
-Where imma go?”
-Insecure Season 4, Ep. 4, “Fresh Like.” (1:19)
(Images by me: my bathroom mirror featuring the incredible Carrie Mae Weems, my reflection in a glass case holding a mask from the DRC at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, an old mirror selfie after a haircut I hated)
I was planning to write to you about some things I’m bringing into 2019 that I wish I wasn’t, things like shame and insecurity and other such emotional experiences that often feel awkward to explain and almost untouchable when presented in front of other people. I was going to describe my teetering between constantly feeling guilty for often failing at being the compassionate and capable friend/daughter/colleague I would like to be, and trying to be more conscious of the effects of my actions on others without making myself the center of or solution to their problems when I am not.
Or more daunting; the guilt of seeking pursuits just for the sake of my personal joy, like writing, and dreaming; for potentially letting my mum down if I don’t make her work worth it, followed by the guilt of passing back over the same insecurities for the thousandth time, and the shame of not being over hurtful words and actions that are now years old.
you always use your emotions to justify your bad behavior; you’re selfish; you care too much what other people think; you were trying so hard to be perfect, weren’t you; you’re being irrational; you can’t handle someone like me; your feelings are less important to me than hers; you’re acting like this after a few weeks, how do you think she feels; you know I’m a bully, right?
More daunting still, the guilt of daring to look down on myself after all my foremothers have been through to give me life, for my weakness next to their fortitude, as though they would be ashamed of me if they could see how easy it was for my self-worth to be tossed around on the tides of circumstances and the changing whims and opinions of other people.
I would continue by detailing all of my flaws I am deeply aware of, (I won’t because I’ve done so over and over on this blog, as you know) the missteps, personal and professional, that in my mind have proven that I am an irredeemable mess. All this followed by the guilt induced by Toni Morrison’s disapproval, definitely imagined because of course I don’t know her in person. I assume she would disapprove of my incessant chorus of “I’m terrible and unworthy, and here are all the reasons why” because I once heard a clip from an interview where she explained how she would tell her students that she doesn’t want to read about them or their grandmas, encouraging them instead to inhabit and write about the lives of people very different from themselves, to build empathy and to concern themselves with human experiences beyond themselves. But instead, here I am doing this, fixated on the tip of my own nose. So, I’m also failing the “What Would Toni Morrison Do” test in my mind at least.
As always, I turned to books for comfort and advice, not wanting to bother anyone else with problems I believe are imaginary or “not that serious” on most days. In her latest work, Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life, Kim McLarin writes about what it means to be a Black woman who loves herself and is fully in possession of that self, about what it means to be womanish. She also has an essay aptly titled “On Self-Delusion” which I have returned to several times since finishing the book in just over a day. Following a series of “I” statements she refers to as “self-deceptions” that include “I am more misunderstood than the average person,” “I am angry but my anger is righteous and thereby justified,” and “I don’t hurt others, others hurt me,” she writes,
“These seven sentences share a common theme and a common word: I. This both is and is not egotistical, in the sense that all human beings are egocentric and all writing is egotistical…and yet, if that writing is worthwhile, it endeavors to point to something true beyond itself.” (Womanish, pg. 103).
This passage means so much to me because it arrived in a moment where I seemed to need to read it the most, as most of Kim’s words often did when she was my thesis advisor. I don’t think I’ve ever told her how I would re-read her writing on her mental health when I felt most like it would be better for everyone else if I wasn’t around, and even on days when I didn’t feel that way. She recognized how low I was feeling in grad school as I continued to sink lower, and she printed out things for me to read, sent me a therapist’s contact information, and gave me her cellphone number. I knew I wouldn’t use it because I didn’t want to be a bother, but it was a huge comfort to know that she saw me. I definitely haven’t told her that I was always wishing I could prolong our thesis meetings beyond the one-hour we had just so I could hang out with her— Did you see that article? Oh God did I tell you what this classmate said to me?
Maybe “her advice was right on time” is a little cliché, especially when she is the person who has given me some of the most vital guidance about the sort of writer I want to be in the world. But that’s how it feels, especially coming from a woman I admire who is actually grown, and not what grown looks like according to my *yikes-I’m-three-years from thirty-and-still-a-mess* perspective. I’m trying to learn how I can re-orient the ways I think about myself, to be honest to myself without being cruel, and to use my writing “to point to something true” for those who read it. (The intensely negative thoughts and self-perceptions might be delusions too.)
So instead of continuing to dwell on how I’m failing as a person, I’m deciding to think about Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk which I saw with a dear friend recently, and about how much Jenkins loves Black people through every frame, and about how I felt loved in each moment as I watched, and how I want people reading my work to feel loved in the same way, and about how I want the light in every scene of fiction I write to be as perfectly illuminating of beautiful and painful parts of Black people’s lives as the lighting in Jenkins’ work. I want to show to myself and to others the same kind of fortifying love that Ernestine shows when she says to Tish, “Unbow your head, sister.” Even as much as I allowed myself to be caught up in the beauty of the film and its soundtrack, I’m also thinking about Baldwin’s portrayals of women, and about how Kim, who knows more about his work than anyone else I know, loves him enough to recognize that the women and mothers in his work are somehow incomplete, their images distorted through the patriarchal lens that even Baldwin saw through.
Thank you for reading, and for letting me know that you see something about yourself in what I write, and for bearing witness as I attempt to turn that loving gaze on myself while lying to myself (and to you) a little less.
This post is full of a lot of “my mother always says.” She can’t help being so wise. One of these sayings is “Start as you mean to go on.” I can’t be silent until I’m an important enough somebody to speak up. What’s the guarantee I’ll speak up then, if my silence is what helped me to “make it” in the first place? As Queen Zora Neale Hurston, said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
I sometimes have these moments where I’m convinced Issa Rae is going to jump out from behind a pillar and yell, “Cut!” It’s very possible I’m just narcissistic because I’m a Leo (if you believe in what the stars have to say), or because I’m an only child and a writer (if you don’t). Let’s consider the stats for a moment: irritating mid-twenties millennial, owns brightly-colored coats with ridiculous sleeves that are always too extra for any given weather or occasion, acts like she’s too feminist for Migos but secretly knows her fair share of Takeoff verses. And honestly, I would probably be at brunch more often if I lived somewhere that wasn’t Boston and if I could afford it. You see where I’m coming from?
Anyway, on this particular evening, I was on my usual walk through the covered car park on my way home, hysterically crying on the phone to my mum. Sadly, Issa didn’t jump out—she never does—and that’s because the scenario was more bleak than I have tried to make it out to be with the slightly cheesy Insecure-themed humor. “I’m exhausted,” I said “I don’t know what giving up looks like, but I’m ready to do it.” At this point my voice is bouncing off the walls and all around the car park, but in my experience people tend to give crying strangers a wide berth no matter how hard to ignore they might be. I can’t say I blame them. After all, Effie we all got pain.
As always, my mum is wise and calm in a way I’m not sure I will ever be. She asked, what does giving up look like? Moving home? I would absolutely find something to do. It’s not like people aren’t making incredible art in spite of the difficulties around structural support (I’m also not saying it’s easy to do so). I would be home, there’s nothing shameful in that. Except it implies that home would somehow be more tenable, that I would automatically be more at peace in a way that isn’t always possible in Boston.
As soon as the words are out of my mouth I realize how twisted it is for me to perceive “moving home” as a sign of failure, as if those who are striving, thriving, making their art and making their way in the world are somehow carving some lesser path than the one on which I find myself because I happen to be abroad while they are not. And as my mother reminded me, there would be nothing necessarily easier about being a young woman with lots of opinions and little fear to express them just because I would be in Accra and not Boston. My mother is brilliant, and has always been unafraid to refuse orders she takes issue with. She spent most of her career at odds with “big men” who could not stand anyone who wouldn’t toe the line, let alone a woman. She has been punished for her brilliance and her refusal over and over again, and yet has always remained uncompromising and solidly in possession of herself.
In my personal relationships, I may not be as self-assured because I’m not very confident in my roles of daughter and friend, but at work and school, I truly am my mother’s daughter. I usually know what I’m talking about, and no one can tell me otherwise. But this day in the car park, just a few evenings ago, was not an isolated tantrum. It came out of weeks (or maybe even months, if I’m honest) of wallowing in desperation, of making room for misery to fester and expand. After completing grad school, I am still struggling with the feeling of being unmoored, and with the [false] belief that I am worthless without the right credentials and financial stability that would make me deserving of the luxury or privilege of peace of mind and time to research and write.
I have worked hard, I have “gone above and beyond” which usually means finding solutions to problems I didn’t create, I have spoken up and out for myself and other people, I have tried to be brilliant, to refuse when possible. I have also been feeling depleted, nursing old hurts, spending weekends depressed and teary after weekdays trying to be my shiniest and most impressive self at two different jobs and in social settings, exhausted from this relentless pursuit of financial stability that I am finding it increasingly difficult to socialize, attend dance classes, visit museums, volunteer, write, imagine; to do anything really that is spirit-sustaining for me.
I am slowly accepting lack, exhaustion, and precariousness as necessary for my journey in writing and life.
This runs deeper than the harmful “one has to suffer for one’s art” cliché. Through actions, words, and also the silences, I have encountered deliberate efforts to convince me and other Black women and queer people that we are unworthy of care, of living and working in places where we are not treated as though we are disposable.
But I am not convinced. The other day, I read this incredible essay by Alexis Pauline Gumbs titled “The Shape of my Impact,” and I have since posted quotes from it on my office wall opposite some other quotes of hers I put up after reading her book Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. She articulates all my fears and misgivings about giving myself and my brilliance over to institutions that do not care about my well-being or my life. In the essay, she writes,
“Let us be clear. Universities keep huge endowments, money on reserve, because they are supposed to keep money. They will always tell you they cannot afford you. They will not spend their money to save the life of a Black feminist. Poet Laureate though she may be. Let us be clear. The universities that we mistakenly label as our bright quirky only refuge for Black brilliance have worked our geniuses to death, and have denied us help when we asked for it. The universities that employed June Jordan, Audre Lorde and so many others, watched cancer eat away at our geniuses, as they simultaneously ate away at black women’s labor. An institution knows how to preserve itself and it knows that Black feminists are a trouble more useful as dead invocation than as live troublemakers, raising concerns in faculty meetings. And those institutions continue to make money and garner prestige off of their once affiliated now dead faculty members.”
I have had this exact conversation with people working across industries. We are being depleted, but it is “for our own good.” We are reminded that somehow the places that cause us harm are also exactly where we need to force our “seat at the table” in order to do our work.
It is not hyperbole when I say to you that I have been in some of my worst health over the past few years in graduate school and immediately after. I am 26, and in the space of a few months in 2017 I had a surprise root canal, several fillings, and two eye infections (one in each eye), all ailments I had never ever struggled with until then. I’ve had panic attacks right before going out into the world with fake-slay intact. I have random knee and back pain that pop up on non-Zumba class days, and sometimes stay longer than must be normal. I may not have the medical credentials to say for sure that these are directly related to academic and professional stress as a grad student, but I am saying that being paid inadequately [sans benefits] for doing some really vital work including teaching [as an adjunct], means that you might not realize that tooth pain can turn into teeth falling out of your mouth, or rather that you might have to ignore those aches and pains in the hopes that they will disappear on their own.
I am not convinced that it’s normal for me to feel so undeserving of good things that even signing a lease for a lovely new apartment with a roommate who laughs and bakes and has the Bronx all over her sarcasm and sense of humor feels “too nice” for me to deserve. Every rent payment feels like an unnecessary splurge, because somehow I have come to believe that I don’t deserve the joy of looking forward to returning to my own living space, even when I can afford it.
In a recent conversation, I admitted to my mum that when I first started grad school, I used to feel so anxious about my finances that I would spend the barest minimum on groceries. She had given me money for my rent, and I felt so guilty that I had failed for not being able to pay on my own despite working multiple jobs, that I had failed for deciding to take out loans to attend graduate school because I didn’t get a scholarship (was this irresponsible of me?), so much so that it didn’t matter that I had always tried to be as self-sufficient as possible after leaving home because I felt she had already done more than enough for me, and because I knew she would give whether she had or not. So, snacks were non-essential. Fresh fruit and vegetables? Unnecessary. My fridge might as well have been an arctic wasteland until payday, and even then it was hardly any better.
I am not romanticizing the “struggling artist” trope. It is not just some cute aesthetic. I’m trying to tell you that I watched my physical and mental health fall all over the place because I believed the lie that I didn’t deserve any better. I still feel so much shame in speaking about this publicly because of the constant reminders, subtle and explicit, that “making it” has more to do with wealth, class status, and returning home to attempt to climb Accra’s rickety social ladder than it does pursuing a path that I find joy and fulfillment in despite the (largely structural) obstacles, and trying to do work that might benefit other people no matter how small the effect may end up being. All her brains, and this is what she is using them for?- a direct quote, as if making art and cultivating concern for other people beyond oneself in thought and action is inferior to raking in money for doing an exploitative corporate job…
I am not silly or presumptuous for seeking health, peace of mind, space, and time to do things that bring me joy. I am not ungrateful for requiring appropriate credit and compensation for work that I do, most of which is usually at the service of other people. I am not a “just for the time being until we have squeezed out all we can from you.” I am nobody’s negation or blank-space-until-filled. I am not disposable. I am trying to remember that desperation is not my default, that my peace lives with me and not where I have the most elite co-sign.
One of my favorite sayings I’ve borrowed from my mother is “I didn’t come into this world to come and suffer.” One of her middle names is Obiageli, loosely translating from Igbo to mean “she came to enjoy life.” Usually, in my mouth it turns into something along the lines of “My mother didn’t give birth for me to sit down and suffer quietly.” She definitely didn’t bring me into this world to be beholden to people and institutions that would love to see me kill myself slowly for their benefit. I am formidable and curious and kind and hilarious.
In several interviews, Q&As, and most recently in this conversation with Marc Lamont Hill, Kiese Laymon has talked about being the kind of Black writer whose love for Black people will not allow him to devote his art to pleading with “good” white people to change their ways. Each time he’s said this, I nod in self-righteous agreement. Same. I think to myself that my concern for Black people spans locations in time and space; luxury hotels and wealthy buyers displacing communities in Ghana, and in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, communities being lost to the relentless and raging Atlantic, African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, police brutality from Ghana to Brazil to the US, government neglect of or refusal to provide safe infrastructure, and so many other intentional cruelties. Yes, I think to myself, I am concerned, and my concern is justified and right and urgent.
And yet I am afraid that I have become a parody of a parody in the following ways:
moves thousands of miles away from home
goes to grad school
encounters casual and overt racism in and out of the classroom
encounters Suzanne Césaire
shaves a not insignificant portion of head
throws the phrase class struggle into casual conversation
My “concern” only goes as far as I will let it, so that I’m realizing that even if I’m not interested in speaking to white readers at all (I mean really, you all can take this or leave it and I’d be totally alright) I might be the writer who is making it her ministry to plead with “good,” “well-meaning” elite Ghanaians that they too must change, and to attack the ones who do not even try to pretend they mean well towards those who are affected by their hoarding of wealth . My situation and Laymon’s are not analogous; in my “us” and “them” scenario, I belong more closely to the group who is resting their feet on the backs of the large exploited majority.
“The race for economic fortune, diplomas, unscrupulous social climbing. A struggle shrunken to the standard of being middle class. The pursuit of monkeyshines. Vanity Fair.”
-from “The Malaise of a Civilization,” Suzanne Césaire
We—and if you feel yourself implicated in this we then I’m definitely talking to you—sat in the same classrooms together, accruing an obscene amount of social capital, together, even those of us who see ourselves closer to the “middle,” those whose parents who had it like that some years and didn’t at other times, those whose parents didn’t not clear school fees checks with ease. You, whose grandfather’s face is on Ghana’s banknotes, and you, whose parents own several businesses most Ghanaians do not have the money to patronize, and you, who felt bad that most Ghanaian children lacked what we had in such excess we barely sniffed at but carried on in blissful entitlement anyway, and you, self-obsessed writer who is preoccupied with how often you write about the sun and the moon in all these precious and sentimental ways as if we aren’t all so close to burning alive. I’ve also been worrying about how basic, unexpansive, and decidedly not breathtaking my writing is. I’ve been reading a lot of Dionne Brand and every word I’ve written has felt unworthy ever since.
I’ve been talking a lot about people wearing white and sipping champagne at 2pm at the polo match, and I need a new image—I’ve used this one so much I might as well have it tattooed—but you know who you/we are. It’s not that I think I’m superior, more “radical” or more forward thinking, or that a few self-righteous blog posts equal class treason (but in the right direction, in solidarity with those most oppressed) or some other pretentious exaggeration, nor do I feel that now I have read Claudia Jones I’m ready to tell everyone how ridiculous and terrible we all are, how grotesque and excessive your “high society” is and has been.
I’m just wondering if I’m making it my job to do this cajoling and convincing, and if I even have the words to be successful. There’s always something prickly to me about aligning myself with people who have done or benefit from so much harm to other people, even if this alignment is a device put in place to point out that I’ve seen you up close and you need to be stopped. Power acts and consolidates in ways writers far more impressive and diligent than myself have not succeeded in stalling, or is that too narrow-minded, too pessimistic? Laymon expresses this same sentiment in the conversation I reference earlier, citing Toni Morrison and James Baldwin as examples of people who haven’t quite been able to coax the “good” white people away from their racism and the power it confers upon them. [Although I don’t know that Toni Morrison was ever interested in doing so…] If I were to stand in the center of Accra and scream about proletarian revolution, wouldn’t someone ask me, so you’ve finished enjoying in America and now you want to shout about equality?
I am standing at an important point in my writing, not a crossroads (too over-traveled) more like a dusty no-place in the back of my own subconscious. I have decided that I cannot afford the indulgence or the audacity of losing hope when other writers who have made me and my writing possible have written under threat of harm or death, in times maybe more bleak than these. Reckoning with the dangerous power you wield doesn’t mean that you are solely responsible for all of Ghana’s inequality. (This caveat also feels prickly to me. Why do I feel the need to give you this small wriggle room?) It means that your life is being made possible by exploitation and death, yes, the cost is in human life, and I feel I must say so again, this is not hyperbole. So reckon with this, and then decide what you will do. I’m reckoning and writing, as always, even as I know this is not nearly enough. So what next?
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 PDFs forever on my “to read an annotate” list, jeans that are now a little looser than I would prefer– neglecting oneself is costly, just ask my dental bills and my newly too large wardrobe– and a not insignificant amount of debt.
I won’t miss the condescension masquerading as concern; the fortified self I had to carry around constantly to ensure that no one saw my weakness and tried to use it against me. I won’t miss the being talked over, diminished and stepped on in conversation. I can’t miss any of these things partly because they are still around. I am still frustratingly the only Black woman™ (my summer reading list is helping me move around this isolation: Dionne Brand, Robin Coste Lewis, Tiphanie Yanique, Alice Walker) and I am still how dare you be “mean and impressive” in front of my mediocrity.
Anyway, I’m feeling good– and not just looking like it or pretending– and it feels good to say so.
I wrote the following piece as I was thinking about Toni Morrison’s Sula– as I often am– and how Sula was a sort of necessary evil for the people in her community. They needed her to feel and to act worthy and kind, and I’m wondering if that means we should question if she was really evil, or what it means to be evil at all.
“I like to say Black people do this thing I like to call glamouring, we glamour…What Black tend to do is we tend to mesmerize the person who’s acting on us. A lot of what we do, everything from shucking and jiving, to Michael Jackson moonwalking, it’s all glamouring.” -Arthur Jafa*
She told me every night, over after-dinner orange slices, the blue edge of the plate chipped so much it looked like part of the pattern. She told me if I kept swallowing whole orange seeds, I would grow a tree from the middle of my head, and then we would keep on growing– the tree and me– through the ceiling and the roof, splintering wood and metal alike.
Determined to become an expanse of living things, I grew.
I stretched my legs into the ground, my back turned black soil flower bed. Orange blossom curled out of my ears and over my shoulders. I became a whole grove, all flourish and sweet, and too much of me will ruin you.
My arms wrapped around myself as long as it takes generations of women to laugh and die and run and glamour. I stood there hugging myself, tall and unwavering, tree trunks draped then strangled by vines.
Then I came back, and this time I wasn’t so precious, so careful.
My high shoes planted their pointy heels between new shoots struggling toward life. She was watching from the window, louver blades drawing long darts of shadow across her frowning face.
I stood under the tallest tree I made of me
Me: one grand motherfucker
I lit a cigarette until fear turned molten in my chest and flowed out
Me: a wild fire
For years to come people would cough ash over their plates of after-dinner oranges, would swear that they could still feel the glow.
Image: Selfie by yours truly, “a glamouring” from June 2018.
*This quote comes from a conversation between bell hooks and Arthur Jafa at the New School in 2014, as part of a week-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: A Education as a Practice of Freedom. This text has become a sort of handbook for me as I try to learn more about teaching, and hooks’ dialogue with Jafa raised some really interesting questions about the camera as an agent of the white gaze, even when there is a Black person behind it, and about surveilling and performing Blackness in public spaces. Still, I disagreed with and was taken aback by some of Jafa’s comments, especially around the analogies and ableist language he used to discuss the enslavement of Black people and white supremacist violence enacted against Black people.