Sometimes, Teaching

About halfway through my first semester teaching “Introduction to College Writing,” I remember making an offhand comment to my students about how I would like to include writers from “more backgrounds” than I had at the moment on my syllabus. I forgot about it until it was time to look at my course evaluations, where one student pointed out that they enjoyed the readings, but also thought it would be good for me to follow up with my desire to add different writers to my syllabus in the future.

I’m not sure whose backgrounds I was referring to, but I know that comment came from my persistent anxiety that I would be called out for teaching “only” Black women in a writing class that was ostensibly only about the writing, and not a “niche” topic-based seminar. I believe I was trying to pre-empt resistance from my students, who I imagined would be a lot less receptive  to me and my approach before I had the chance to meet and engage with them.

I also felt as if I had to prove that it was possible to teach  students how to be generous and bold writers and readers from a Black feminist and womanist perspective. I was apprehensive because I thought I would have to prove that I didn’t assemble a syllabus of Black writers and artists simply because they look like they could be my aunties and sisters. I felt pressure to demonstrate that Black women and femmes write and produce knowledge  about the craft of writing itself, and about language and its potential for destructive power, as well as for imagining and constructing better worlds.

Ultimately, no-one ever asked, “What would you say if the reading list was majority white men, the way yours is majority Black women?” Even if they had, I would have been ready with some discussion of false equivalencies, and probably a lot of bitter and incredulous laughter. I’m mostly proud of the work we did, and I no longer feel the misguided need to prove the merits of Black feminist writers and thinkers who definitely don’t need me to justify or validate their brilliance.

I wrote semi-regular reflections about my teaching experience, some of which I shared with my students, some I kept to myself. I would love it if you took a look at some of my work from the fall semester here.

Brand New

***In the spirit of “fresh starts” and finishing my master’s degree, here’s my first post for 2018. And if you have any connects with Sallie Mae, please let a girl know. Being a broke artist is only cute in novels and on TV.***

I’ve spent the first days of this new year much like I spent the last few weeks of the old, fatigued, irritable, and most of all guilty and self-loathing for not being more grateful to be alive and mostly healthy. Whether one is a skeptic that enjoys pointing out that “the new year” is artificial and arbitrary, or a conspiracy theorist who thinks that the New Year’s fervor is manufactured by the calendar and gym industries to con people into spending money they don’t have, the yearning for a fresh start to avoid last year’s wrongs and hurts is almost inescapable. (I clearly haven’t left unnecessarily long sentences behind in 2017). This pursuit of newness is probably what fooled me into thinking that a different date would somehow provide some respite from a condition that I am still in the process of learning how to manage, and hopefully overcome.

I would love to focus this post on affirmative statements, on writing into existence things I would like to see happen over the next few months (figuring out a concrete post-graduation plan, preferably one that includes me living, working and writing in New Orleans), but positivity feels hazy and a little out of my reach at the moment. What I know for sure, is that I no longer have the desire or capacity to juggle other people’s emotions, and to help them painstakingly sort through their chaos while sinking in the middle of mine. I’m no longer interested in being anyone’s panic button, on-demand, therapist or cheerleader, nor can I continue playing mother to grown people when I can barely take care of myself on some days. I’m trying to be comfortable being someone who isn’t always available on the first ring or seconds after the latest text. My phone number cannot continue to be an emergency hotline that only works one-way.

I wish I could say all this is coming out of some re-dedication to caring for myself, but it’s really because “burnt out” has been my default state for months. If I may extend the metaphor a little too far, I would mostly be a pile of ashes at this point. I don’t think that I’m in any way more deserving of joy than the next person, but here’s to hoping that I can find a little more of it to write and to live this year.

a blog by her wildness, zoë gadegbeku

The window was sealed almost permanently; hinges caked over with rust and dirt, glass obscured with cobwebs and stained with raindrops from last season’s monsoon. But she had been gasping for air too long  and the supply of oxygen was frighteningly low and her throat was itching to the point of being raw and- she knew that inhaling rations of air in pitiful lungfuls would soon turn fatal. So she sucked in one last breath, formed a fist and smashed through the grimy glass that had kept out light and life for far too long.

One brave sunbeam burst into the room and swept the sinister shadows from each corner. A shriveled imp stirred suddenly and shielded its one good eye. Today, the characteristic glint of malice was absent from its eye; the sun’s glare had overpowered it completely.

And yet, it persisted…

“Not even that kind, selfless, deserving, intelligent…”

“Not today…

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Safe House

I’m sharing this again with a special dedication to those of us who are strangely fixated on “The Africa They Don’t Show You.” Even without going full pretentious writer with the “let me deconstruct real quick,” I’m really just curious…what exactly is it that we’re trying to prove? That brunch cocktails taste the same in Osu as they do in DuPont Circle? (It’s also possible that in addition to my writerly concern, I’m a little salty because my bank account says I can’t afford brunch in either of those places.)

But again, I ask, what are you trying to prove? To who? And why do you think they care? That our swimming pools gleam with the same kind of blue as that one delightful boutique hotel in Portugal? That we too know how to do social inequality with the best of the other “global citizens,” with the right amount of class and an extra healthy offering on Sunday to thank God for all the blessings our parents “worked so hard for?” (I too, used to be one of those people…)

At the same time I know it’s difficult for you to look down at those new suede boots and see that you are using them to stand on someone’s back, or that your penthouse apartments and island getaways are paid for money that a rundown clinic somewhere will never see. We’re all held up by the collar, yes, you too in the Prada, some far more tightly than others, so what can you/are you going to do?

I’m not interested in any kind of “global citizenship” that doesn’t acknowledge how much further a blue passport will carry you than a green one, and why that is (or carrying both, as I do), nor do I want to become numb to the sound of European cars rolling over the hands of “those people would make it too if they studied and worked hard like we did.” Aren’t you horrified? Do you not think you lose little slices of your humanity when you see and treat others as less human too?

I also do not mean to suggest that you deny yourself enjoyment for the good of those whose suffering props up your comfort. After all, one missed club night will not magically redistribute resources and recognize the humanity of every single person across our country. But be responsible. Or rather, be honest with yourself, no matter how much it stings to look at yourself without the veneer of wealth as virtue, virtuous wealth, that you have been wearing all your life.

I want to add that with the following piece, “Safe House,” I imagined the persona I was addressing as a cishet man for various reasons. It’s true that may women who have access to education, healthcare, social status among other resources are able to wield their power in terrible ways. Most of the time though, at least from what I have seen in my short life, this power isn’t enough to remove these women from the reach of what Flora Nwapa’s Efuru recognizes as a “conspiracy,” the patriarchy, quite simply, where men can harm and destroy and somehow evade accountability altogether.

What I’ve been reading;
The Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl, The New Yorker
Slavery’s Last Stronghold, CNN
Italy Holds Funeral for 26 Nigerian Women Drowned in the Mediterranean, Reuters

a blog by her wildness, zoë gadegbeku

There is no home to go to. Where do you think you’re going? Right now you are living in the Western Hemisphere regional branch of a corporation that built itself up on bodies that looked very much like yours that were snatched at night, that were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, that learnt to endure because there was no other option. The right side of the sea for you is a place where the same monster breathes down your neck; it’s breath just stinks a little differently.

But there, your 4×4 smells like abroad. It is pristine and you can yell at the driver for leaving oily fingerprints on the steering wheel covered in beige leather just like the rest of the car interior. And you can use that car to roll over the hands and feet of the people on crutches and in wheelchairs…

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Benediction for Black Madonna

“The immigrant artist shares with all other artists the desire to interpret and possibly remake his or her own world. So though we may not be creating as dangerously as our forebears—though we are not risking torture, beatings, execution, though exile does not threaten us into perpetual silence— still, while we are at work bodies are littering the streets somewhere. People are buried under rubble somewhere. Mass graves are being dug somewhere. Survivors are living in makeshift tent cities and refugee camps somewhere, shielding their heads from the rain, closing their eyes, covering their ears, to shut out the sounds of military “aid” helicopters. And still, many are reading, and writing, quietly, quietly.”

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

-Edwidge Danticat, from “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.”

Today, the news broke that *someone*’s president has decided to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 60,000 Haitian people who have been building lives in the United States since the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. I usually have a strong aversion to opening up thoughts with statistics, mainly because I find it easy to unsee each important and individual human life when they are presented to you as marks on a graph. Yet, I feel as though it’s important to have the facts clear.

When the earthquake hit, I was still in high school in Ghana, and the only other information I knew about Haiti was the story of Toussaint Louverture’s triumph over French colonial rule, recounted in my history teacher’s booming voice. I didn’t yet know that I would spend most of my time in graduate school tracing links and fractures in that story from my own Ewe people in Ghana and Togo, and our Fon cousins to Haiti and Louisiana. I didn’t yet know that the more I would read and study and listen, the more I would find reasons to quit writing and do something else.

What use can my stories possibly do, when the people I claim to care so deeply about, those to whom I’m trying to draw closer in my clumsy cobbling together of folklore, vodou and favorite foods, are being targeted all the time for daring to exist, for continuing to choose life where death was the pre-selected destination. These questions have been chewed over and crumpled up into balls of waste paper for as long as writers have sat alone in rooms in need of airing, in the back of clothing stores between shifts, on freezing park benches, trying to write because they had something vital to add to the world. Edwidge Danticat’s words are a clear admonition and encouragement, “write anyway.”

I have reached a point where I must resolve to stop turning always back to my self in this way, what does it mean for *me* to do this, who says *I* can, etc. The best I can do is write my care and concern for all of these Black people across diaspora, those I know personally and those I love only from afar, into my work. The best I can do is to bear witness, to keep looking and to turn my readers heads to look as well, even when we are inclined to look away. The best I can do is accompany my imagining and writing with direct actions that may take a little less time than it does to edit a novel; calling or faxing whichever government official I need to contact (dubious results?) giving up time and money as often and as generously as I can, impressing upon my students just how high the stakes have always been, not just “now more than ever.”

UndocuBlack Network and Black Alliance for Just Immigration  are two organizations working persistently for justice for Black immigrants. Please visit their sites to learn how you can contribute to this cause in time or financial means, and to find out about direct actions and rallies that they organize.

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” -Toni Morrison

a blog by her wildness, zoë gadegbeku

I’m stopping by briefly to share this work I turned in to my poetry workshop last semester. This poem is related to my thesis, but as usual, I can’t give more details than that because it feels like bad luck (?) to share information about something that is still so…scattered. I feel very protective of my project, and it’s not because I think I’m Beyoncé on some surprise album drop type of thing, because who am I??? (Ok maybe a little bit Beyoncé *twirls in Lemonade yellow*) Still, I’ve only talked about this work in detail with a few people. I cringe a little when people make definitive “when it’s done” statements, or when someone says, “Oh I told so-and-so about your work and they think it’s really cool!” I get that excitement can be contagious, but talking about it too much out loud before it’s anywhere close to ready…

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Lady, like

a blog by her wildness, zoë gadegbeku

(Trigger warning: sexual assault)

I was not raised to be pleasant, to say yes to things because “it’s just how things are done.” I had five mothers, and each of them was preparing me for a world in which it wouldn’tmatter how close together I keptmy knees if someone decided to push them apart against my will. I’m supposed to provide unlimited access to myself, mind, body, soul, sense of humor, mental health, of course you didn’t force me, I didn’t say no outright. Did I? Could I?

Lady, like one who cannot and will not ever complain that she could’ve walked through the day bathing in warm air, instead of cowering indoors with the curtainsclosed because the burden of other people’s worries and perversions have formed a hump on her back she doesn’t want anyone to see. Ladylike, doesn’t wear shorts no matter how hot the August is…

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Doing the Most (and Never Enough)

I really am fine, or as fine as I can be, all things considered…

Teaching is incredibly rewarding and my thesis is pretty much writing itself after all the obsessive research and more than a few false starts.

I’m working on getting the care that I need. If you know me well enough to be worried after reading this blog, you also know that writing is my automatic response for anything that happens in my life, and not necessarily a cry for help nor a word-for-word rendering of the parts of my life no one can ever really know but me.

I’m caught in a place that is familiar to most people who are trying to find the joints between art, activism, academic work, and living as a whole human being. You can do you research about people and cultures, solidify their place in history, but by the time your work is actually done, the people you claim to care about could be long dead. What use are you to them while they are still living?

 I just need to write.

***

When the bus plunges forward to an abrupt stop, I feel as though the force is going to take me with it. Take me out, through the window and onto the asphalt on a bed of broken windscreen and motor oil. The woman next to me is laughing too loud, to deep, to wide, too open; all the way back to her wisdom teeth and down her throat. Something on that stranger’s sandwich smells sour, as if it has been sitting on a glass shelf under a sweating spotlight for more hours than the package would recommend. Everything is entirely too much. Needless to say, I feel overwhelmed, and not just by the unending stream of news reporting brutality and collapse that is most certainly not new, but feels somehow even more urgent and threatening by the day.

I’m overwhelmed, so that every late-night message alert from one of my students, or an email reminder “touching base on your student loan,” feels like a bell ringing right next to my ear drum. Goddess forbid someone drop a heavy object upstairs, because that might as well be a rubber boot stomping on the inside of my head. The blender in the kitchen next door is a drill hammering directly onto my collarbone, and the shower running two doors down is more like a burst pipe emptying onto the floor around my bed. I’m overwhelmed in a way that I can only explain in these exaggerated terms, (except this is how it really feels), to demonstrate how any emotional or physical stimuli seem to have taken on several additional dimensions beyond what one would expect of livable reality.

The usually reliable neatness of my symptoms list is now no more than black marks skidding across the page where there used to be words (ants are too orderly). At least, it might as well be, because the sensation of the world pressing against my skin to the point where the pain is unbearable is new and doesn’t fit anywhere between “nervousness” and “paranoia.” Another new and even more concerning development is the compulsion I feel to punish myself for…what, I’m not completely sure. Self-deprecation is one thing; I’m so familiar with that mild sort of shame that my footprints leave footprints in the same grooves where I have stepped down that path many times before.

Normally, my issue is that I’m embarrassed or annoyed with myself for an inconsiderate or cruel thing I did or said years before I could have claimed to know better.

But this is different. The problem now seems to be that I exist at all. My smallest infractions send me spiraling around and down towards self-loathing and other horrid and unutterable thoughts. My default setting is now that I don’t deserve rest or reward because I haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t graded enough papers, haven’t written enough pages of my thesis, haven’t been pleasant enough to the people in my life who become collateral damage to my chaotic self.

Because it’ll never be enough. I’ve been given too much I don’t deserve and there will never be a way to pay…I’ll eat when I’ve completed a satisfactory amount of work, which is usually hours after the stomach ache from hunger itself gives up in the hopes that I’ll change my mind and stop for food at some point.

I’ll take a break and go to meet with that person, or just go outside for fresh air when I’ve earned it, so probably never.

I’ll pause and join the rest of the house for a chat when I’m done reading this book, I need it for my research, I need it to tell me how to more present, to be more useful and the next and the next…read on the bus, in bed, in between in-betweens, even when fatigued from learning more about how we’ve created a world that is killing us all some more quickly than others.

It’s urgent.

I’ll wash and oil and braid my hair when I have a moment to spare, so not for the next few weeks until the next deadline passes, or until my curls and kinks can only be coaxed out of knots with a wide-toothed comb (and I am sure to lose a lot in the process).

I am my own predator. Anything about myself is fair game. Every unanswered message and missed meet-up is another failure. Any mundane setback is evidence of another thing I can’t do, another indication that I am not worthy. My current target is now the cavernous gap between my political convictions and the way I am living my life. Cavernous because my only option is to fall fast and far through the weak foundation of what I think I know and what I actually do…

Girl, like the one and only time you gave in to name-dropping an influential, or maybe even [in]famous, relative to slide around the bureaucracy of the passport office at home. Is “one and only” one time too many when I claim to understand how corruption works? Let’s hear some of that talk about privilege, hmm? How many volunteer shifts missed until I just stop going? How many times to be judgmental, or to compromise my own humanity by my inability or unwillingness to empathize with anyone who cries “white tears?” Or like the fact that I’m using this space to seek validation that I am indeed a “good” person doing my best? Is that what I’m doing? Who has time for my self-indulgence/self-flagellation-self at all?

Whatever is happening now is ugly. My writing has turned from confession and the occasional celebration into another opportunity to turn against my myself. I am living the combination of trying to move around as an artist concerned with what my work is going to mean in this world, attempting to navigate how I wield power and squirm under its heel at the same time, and this genetic? hormonal? all of the above? tendency to be ruthless with my self where I should be gentle. Whatever is happening now is ugly, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frightened.

***

Here are some of the things outside off (but not necessarily unrelated to) my self that I’ve been thinking and talking and teaching about over the past few weeks (and also trying to figure out things I can *do*.) Give them a read? It’s urgent.

 

 

 

 

Dakar Retrospective

and some growing pains

I’ve decided that now is the perfect moment for some healthy picking myself and my own writing apart, hopefully with the outcome of sharing the twists and turns of my thought processes with other people who might be working through similar issues. I recently came across some old blog posts I wrote while studying in Dakar during the spring of 2014, and the first most obvious thing I noticed was how…different some of my writing was at the time. I used clichés like “emotional rollercoaster” and repeated the phrase “for lack of a better word” instead of just…finding a better word to use in a sentence.

The aspect that I find most troubling, or at the very least embarrassing is how *problematic* a lot of my analyses were. (If I have learned nothing else in grad school, I’ve mastered the ability to deploy the P word with the same ease that I decline the company of anyone I suspect is looking for a cool Black friend). I loved my time in Dakar so much, despite the undiagnosed mental health woes and a relationship in its death throes that contributed to my not freeing myself to enjoy the city as much as I could have. “Incomplete” may be a better descriptor for some of the points I was attempting to make about my experiences in Senegal.

In the spirit of transparency and that fairy god parent of academia called “objectivity,” I must point out that I was writing for the study abroad blog of my college and as a result felt the need to keep it cute as much as possible. I waved away microagressions about my decision to study abroad in West Africa as a West African with a few airy sentences:

“But actually, yes Francophone Africa (too general of a concept in itself) is THAT different from its Anglophone counterparts. Yes, academic interest and a love for francophone African writers (a.k.a. research for the daunting senior thesis I must write in French) as well as sheer curiosity brought me here and that’s ok!”

 What I would have done if I had the space to do so, was to point out how hilarious American entitlement is, with my peers daring to question what an African was doing in Africa when I could have easily asked the same of them, and their intrusive and violent ancestors. I was less inclined to mince words in real life, because most of the time I was fed the fuck up to be perfectly honest.

“I want to get braids. Do you think it’ll look good on me?”

No, girl.

Said while holding pale arm next to mine: “These wax prints look so good on your skin. I don’t think I could pull it off.”

Well, no you couldn’t. They’re not made for you.

Anyway, I’m here to stare in shock and confusion at my past self, because the compulsion to “keep it cute” is not enough to make up for how much I lacked in understanding and capacity to express myself in writing. After two particularly intense trips to a daara in Dakar’s Liberté 6 neighborhood, and an exhibition about discrimination against LGBTQ people in Senegal, I close one of my blog posts like this:

It was hard to take in the information being displayed in the exhibit or to listen to the marabout’s extremely politically correct answers to our questions, but it was even harder to listen to all the appalled gasps of “How could they do this?” and “This is unbelievable” that were flying around my head. It’s always jarring when my peers remind me of this constant “us” and “them” dichotomy that seems to have haunted human civilization since a time long before ours. It’s a hard pill to swallow

 However, I have come to realize that the source of my discomfort and emotional reaction to these [sic] type of situations is the underlying condescension that is implied by suggesting that someone else’s way of life is inferior to your own. Echoes of words like barbaric and backward come to mind. I don’t see myself as someone who excuses discriminatory and harmful practices with “culture” and “That’s just the way it’s always been”. However, I believe it’s important to have some respect when evaluating a culture that is almost entirely unknown to you and to realize that it is almost impossible to gain that profound understanding just from a few months of travel. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to stay humble, and to keep the “theys” to a minimum.

 I won’t address the repetition of “however.” Nor will I go into too much detail about the faint whiffs I’m detecting of “We’re all one people” I’m picking up from my fixation on “us” and “them.” The thing that alarms (and disgraces) me the most is that I seem to have taken a defensive stance against my (mostly white) classmates critiquing the exploitative nature of marabouts and talibés, and the homophobia we saw glaring back from the walls of the exhibit that day. In doing so, I was also indulging in something very dangerous that looked a lot like justifying violence by insisting that my classmates didn’t understand the cultural context enough to condemn it.

What I was feeling at that time was an anxiety of “critique” from white people who had shown no indication of actually caring about the people whose realities they now claimed to be so horrified by. It was almost as if they felt emboldened to suggest that homophobia and child abuse were the preserve of Africans, as if these same issues were not embedded in their own society. I believed my classmates to be looking for more reasons to prove their superior position over these backward people.

I had watched these classmates scroll Facebook aimlessly instead of listening to the amazing filmmakers, artists and activists invited by the program to speak with us. I had seen their enthusiasm rocket when it was time to shop for fabric and beads, or to go to the beach and the club on Friday night, only to plummet when it was time to engage in class discussion about Senegalese literature. I had overheard and at times intervened the ignorant comments they made about their host families’ “superstitious” ways. I had felt rage and horror after hearing and witnessing how my classmates’ whiteness afforded them unquestioned access to take photos with strangers’ children, to even take part in medical work usually reserved for the highly skilled. I had sensed the same kind of unlooking I felt back on my DC college campus, from the kind of white people who typically wanted nothing to do with black people, now in Africa just to say they did it and to take some dramatic photos of sunsets over the desert. Ultimately, I was fixated on and prioritizing the white gaze so much so that what they were doing was more important to me than my own experiences in Dakar, more important than my own politics, more important than being in solidarity with queer Senegalese people.

Still, none of this excuses my misplaced priorities. It was easier for me to accuse my classmates for not feeling a shred of concern for queer Senegalese people, or for the talibés who often died anonymous and far from home at the impact of burning steel pushed by an impatient motorist. But how much could I say I cared, if I was more concerned with Africans “looking bad” in front of white people than with the tightly woven networks of oppression that ensure that the violence will persist?

I feel that in now trying to right, and write, my wrongs, I’m only writing myself closer to frustration. Something still feels incomplete. I’ll leave you with some reading material. Coverage of 9 children who died in a fire at a daara, and of women arrested for “acts against nature” while out celebrating a birthday.

Until next time, I’ll continue working towards this masters in pulling my head out from the sand…

(You can read the post I quoted from here. I also have some other strange assertions about class inequality in Dakar buried somewhere in those platitudes, but I’ll deal with that another time.)