[Don’t] Want to Be Held: Late 20s, Late Capitalism, and Loneliness

New decade, same old tricks, including extended meditations on loneliness (again), this time as a sort of thinking alongside Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me Be Lonely and this playlist, one of many I’ve made while in my feelings where I appear to have taken up permanent residence. (This isn’t necessarily a negative thing.)

***

“In my dream I apologize to everyone I meet. Instead of introducing myself, I apologize for not knowing why I am alive. I am sorry. I am sorry. I apologize. In real life, oddly enough, when I am fully awake and out and about, if I catch someone’s eye, I quickly look away. Perhaps this too is a form of apology.”

-Rankine, p.98 

Early in 2019, I thought I learnt a lesson about vulnerability and what happens when you share too much too soon, but I’m starting to think that was the wrong lesson. It might be true that you can’t spill some of your unspoken and unspeakable pain very early into getting to know someone without the possibility that they will be overwhelmed and retreat from you, which they are wholly entitled to do. It is also true that some people are just trifling and will reappear after six months of ghosting with the excuse that they lost their job and their pet died, not insignificant life events, but none of which impede the ability to text or call for six months…but I digress. 

Lonely structures in Amherst, MA and Amherst, VA.

More importantly, I spent a fair amount of that six-month period berating myself for committing what I though was the foolish mistake of allowing myself to be vulnerable, for trusting someone I didn’t know that well, for ignoring the “obvious” warning signs one is inclined to identify only after the fact to try and make sense of the hurt. I also felt shame, most of it related to and caused by the details of the thing that I shared, which I am still incapable of explaining straightforwardly except for the vague repetition on this blog of maybe that didn’t happen. maybe I didn’t say no.  But some of this shame came from the belief that I had no one else to blame than my self for thinking that it was safe to lower my emotional walls, and that I was actually deserving of care from someone who I wanted to care for as well. Please let me know if this is too much. I completely understand and would rather you said so than disappearing...

How could it be/ 20 something/ all alone still/ not a thing in my name/ ain’t got nothing, running from love/ only know fear -“20 Something,” Sza

Even the nebulous “societal/gendered expectations*” we always refer to in conversations around how people relate to each other somewhere along the scale of romantic vs. platonic (I don’t know if I believe that these things are polar opposites or mutually exclusive) can’t seem to agree. On one level, as long as one is acceptably relentless in the pursuit of material wealth—not only for personal advancement but towards the enrichment of one’s family, especially in cultural contexts where the collective sacrifice comes with an unspoken assumption of mutual responsibility—cultivating a varied and exciting social life, a promising career or one that will inspire approval and maybe a little envy when one’s parents brag, you don’t need to be worrying about all that romance stuff…until you do, most probably when that same collective who helped with school fees, medical bills, childcare etc. decides that it is indeed time to start worrying. At the same time, any expression of loneliness or yearning for different sorts of intimacy are met with a figurative averted eye, secondhand embarrassment for the person who is presumed to feel themselves inadequate on some level, they must, otherwise they would not be looking for completion in someone else. 

Stills from music video for Girls Need Love (2018), dir. Lacey Duke 

Girls can’t never say they want it/ Girls can’t never say how/ Girls can’t ever say they need it…-“Girls Need Love,” Summer Walker

And then there is the further complication of what happens when you meet someone you find attractive for any number of reasons, but don’t want to be the one to remove the facade of nonchalance first, don’t want to be the one to send multiple texts in a row, to invite out, to ask to be held, to call on the phone, to be left on read. I hope these lamentations are not mistaken for the sort of rhetoric that blames millennials (an often amorphous demographic rarely identified according to the wide differences across which we walk in this world) for our own despair when fascism, white supremacy, the cruelty and greed of capitalism, and pretty much everything about the world as we currently know it are right there deserving of a large portion of the blame. I don’t even think that the fear of vulnerability or intense self-protection which may also resemble self-sabotage in the context of relationships is something that is unique to our generation. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was easier to ghost when your only options were letters or landlines, and I also know of 100% certified adults (i.e. around our parents’ age) who chose to disappear rather than be upfront with their ex-partner about their changed mind or circumstances.

“You spoke aloud?

 I said, God rest me.

 You’d let me be lonely?

 I thought I was dead.” 

-Rankine p.16

It’s possible that if I was a historian, economist, sociologist, or some other sort of social scientist who also happened to have a solid grounding in Black feminism, critical race theory, and maybe psychology**, I would be able to make a more meaningful connection between late capitalism, how we care for one another (or not), how consumption defines our lives to the extent that we are disposable to one another, the rate at which we consume all kinds of information without necessarily processing what we’ve seen***, how many of us fear appearing too earnest or too soft (millennials did not invent sneering at sentimentality, for the record), how everything we do and are has been priced and sold along with our personal data and our persistent hope of finding genuine connection with other humans who will try to be as careful with us as we try to be with them. 

Stills from the film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012), dir. Terence Nance 

“That’s too much…

 Like dying?

 Maybe, or death is second.

 Second to what?

 To loneliness. 

 Define loneliness.” 

-Rankine, p.58

loneliness (noun): a state of being or a fear of being seen that leads to feigning cynicism and nonchalance, or running and hiding from that person or situation requiring more vulnerability than feels safe. a secondhand**** imposition, so that even if one is vulnerable and willing to be seen, one can be left with open hands and open heart letting in all the whistling wind. a place where we spend our time despairing and desperately seeking something or someone to hold on to. 

But I don’t think it is a coincidence that I have had very similar conversations with Black women who are very dear to me, all in their mid- to late 20’s, who have described a sort of loneliness that doesn’t disperse even in the face of the deeply loving friendships we maintain with each other and busy lives that include making art, political advocacy work, doing something one hates because rent is due, and other preoccupations. Even the acknowledgment of the extent to which societal pressure (there they go again)* dictates mandatory partnership***** when a woman reaches a “certain age” is not enough to diminish the longing to be seen and cared for in ways that are still inarticulable, precisely because some of the dimensions of this loneliness are inarticulable as well. 

Stills from the music video for Planet U (2018), dir. Dawit N.M.

These contradictions manifest in the music we dance and cry to, from the soulful to the at times derisively described as “whisper-singing.”  In “Planet U,” my new musical obsession Mereba raps “Never feel alone cos I’m getting to the stacks” chasing money > chasing a text back in the same verse as the earnest statement, “your gold heart keeps away my blue.” The same SiR who echoes Zacari’s line, “I ain’t in the mood if I ain’t in my bag” also starts “John Redcorn” with the question, “Why am I alone/ Every night alone when I know that you want me too?” 

(Left to right) Lonely structures in Somerville, MA, Bridgetown, Barbados, and Boston, MA.

Because I have made far too many generalizations than I am comfortable with, I should probably point out that me my self, I am used to romantic relationships in which I have felt objectified, belittled, or picked apart for what seems like the fun of it but was most probably because the picker-apart was threatened by the very parts of me they claimed to admire and wanted to break them. This means that the fear of being (or rather appearing) thirsty or desperate and the reluctance to trust other people remains next to the self-doubt and insecurities left over from those encounters, even years after the fact. Even as I continue to grow more comfortable and even enamored with my self and the body she inhabits, I am also tired of being bombarded with reminders about colorism, ableism, classism, statistics on who is swiped right on the least on dating apps, and all sorts of other seemingly larger than our lives structures which suggest that loneliness or private admiration/fetishes concealed by the public performance of scorn are our lot in life as Black women, no matter our age. 

Girls need love too

Girls (and by girls I mean this writer and anyone else who might recognize themselves in these words) need to find work that allows them to meet their material needs without also crushing their souls in the process; girls need to stop hiding if they want to be seen and cared for with intention; girls need to stop hiding and feeling hurt and abandoned when they are not seen in the way they would like to be; girls need to stop hiding.

Girls need love too

Girls need to love and be loved without the fear of obliteration of the self, girls need to be cared for without the fear of that care being thrown back into their faces when it becomes difficult, girls need to love and be loved in healthy ways that do not involve manipulation and martyrdom. Girls need to disabuse themselves of the idea that seeking care and intimacy is a trivial pursuit just because this desire to see and be seen is not necessarily contributing to the (presumably more urgent) well-being of other people.

So what’s a girl to do when she needs loving too

***

*I describe social norms and -isms as “nebulous,” not because I believe in the slightest that these violent forces are somehow intangible or cause no real threat in our lives, but because I’ve realized how easy it is to list, as I did, without really getting to the heart of what these forces do and how they subjugate and confer power at the same time. What am I so afraid of saying that I’d rather conceal it with the -ism checklist?

**I don’t know that I think these credentials are absolutely necessary to attempt to comment on these matters, but I could see how the personal experiences I’m able to name and explore could be given more context had I more of an ability to connect the dots with the help that rigorous study and training can provide.

***On a regular day, my Twitter feed reads something like the following: snarky tweet about living in Boston—climate catastrophe in the Amazon/Australia/on the coast of Senegal and Ghana—what this incredible Black woman artist is up to—African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean—Rihanna’s cleavage—celebrity worship is a plague—eat the rich—self-deprecating tweet about failing as a dutiful African daughter because I cannot yet pay back all the financial sacrifices and contributions that have been made for me—what does solidarity across diasporas look like in the face of American imperial horror—pleas for Rihanna to release her new album—who is the real leftist anyway?

****It has only been two years since “My Secondhand Lonely” was published, but I feel so much more mature, and I’m trying hard not to condemn my past self too harshly but damn, the martyrdom. I was expecting things from people I wasn’t willing to open my mouth and vocalize, burning myself out with other people’s trouble out of love, sure, but also out of a sense of dutyI thought if I didn’t, who wouldand a fear that if I didn’t, they would abandon me.

*****Partnership specifically with a cishet man, as anyone else would be a different sort of taboo even more unimaginable than remaining single…

A Rendering

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

-sent 9:43PM

 I see you, my brilliant child. You’ll be okay.

-received 9:49PM

 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)

 

 

 

 

To My Mama Alwin Mana

There’s this voice I have previously referred to as an imp, that seems to have taken up near permanent residence by my side. Its main job is to remind me how terrible I am the minute I start to feel too comfortable, when I seem to be getting closer to living up to my middle name Dzifa, “my heart is at peace.” It has remained there, even as I have adored every moment of working with students this summer, and especially when I have had to speak up to people with more authority in academic spaces in ways that are daunting and tiring because I seem to have to do so often.

You are always the one with the problem *and* the solution.

Taking up too much space.

Presumptuous. Arrogant, even.

The voice is always there because it is me, but it feels more romantic and less frightening to externalize it, to carry on as if I don’t know that I am the main one picking myself to pieces at every turn. Constantly ready to berate myself in anticipation of mistakes, when I actually do make one, it feels world-ending in a way that it wouldn’t if my mind didn’t work the way it does. Between job-searching while trying to be present with students, and navigating relationships and life in general, my self-policing/self-silencing/self-punishment mechanisms have been working overtime, even in the face of exciting news.

I recently started a part-time job, an incredible position I didn’t think would  necessarily be an option for me, as the Editorial Assistant at Transition Magazine, and I’m optimistic about finding another part-time position to add to it. I’ve been reading a whole lot, and writing not as much as I should be, but still writing. Yet, I can’t shake the heightened urgency and anxiety that has characterized my approach to life for the past few years: Nothing is ever enough, especially not myself.

I feel guilty and sorry all the time, just for being the way I am, and for being at all, because my default positioning is that any personal crisis could have been averted if only I had just tried harder to be better. Some of the time, this is actually true. Self-centered, I know, because no one woman [has] all that power*, but it’s hard not to feel like every wrong thing rests on some lack or failing on my part when the imp just won’t shut up and allow me to make sense of life.

I am also terrified of isolation, so much so that I might end up isolating myself anyway as a result of my behavior, or things I say, or things I leave unsaid. I’m trying to stop “unsaying,” and to listen more carefully to myself and to other people, and to try to understand myself as more complicated than the sum of all my wrongdoings, as more than an ever-growing list of the ways I have or will hurt myself and other people. I absolutely want the people in my life to hold me accountable for my actions, and to be able to hold myself accountable, but I’m just wondering if there’s a way to do this without it hurting so deeply. Or maybe it has to hurt, and you just have to eat some of that hurt and put the rest in your pocket for later, for when you start to feel lazy or complacent, for when accountability turns into a buzzword instead of an ongoing practice.

Most of all, I’m realizing that a lot of the work of realizing that I’m not so terrible as the imp– me myself– would have me believe has to be internal, with a lot of help from an amazing therapist, and voice notes from my mother late at night. On another note that isn’t as unrelated as it may seem, I’ve been thinking and dreaming a lot about my great-grandmother, but she hasn’t actually said much to me in those dreams. I’m not sure what I want to ask her or want to hear her say, if I’m honest.

Because today is a more clear-headed, less anxious day, I must also add that I’m feeling grown. Grown like my mum mid-90s with more confidence than you’ve ever seen, and the fluffy roller set and denim minidress combo, except without the child (yours truly) she had at the time. I feel grown, settled into my newly 26-year old body in a way that allows me to see how troubling it is that so much of this blog consists of me turning against myself obsessively, pointing out every flaw I can find in my own thinking, my feminism, my writing, or my actions, and with a strange impulse to do so publicly, as if I’m anticipating other people will chime in with their own harsh critiques of me. These small acts of tearing myself down haven’t been productive in the least, nor have they necessarily made me a better person or writer. It feels exhausting to look back through some of those posts, and I’m so grateful you are still here reading when I tend to say the same things repeatedly in slightly different ways.

And this is where the fear of personal writing usually kicks in, the fear that there is something disingenuous about trying to find the prettiest and most evocative language to describe real life pain, yours and that of other people. And doesn’t the narrator always make themselves martyr, the long-suffering yet still dazzling star of the show, if all the reader can see is through that narrator’s eyes? Now that I have fully devolved into a cryptic babble, I will take it as a sign that this post could have ended a few paragraphs earlier than it has. So I pause, for now.

***

unnamed (3)
I miss her all the time, especially these days.

To My Mama Alwin Mana

-through an intercessor because I am too afraid to say

Dadá, you are mother in life, and in memory, which means you live still

And you didn’t enter a room like an avalanche clearing a mountain side only for your child to carry herself like this, to be sifting through pebbles looking for the fractured pieces of good sense she has dashed to the ground

She is looking for you on streets in places too frigid for your spirit to land:

Sweetie, you know what time the bus coming?

They say

Bon…I lost my stop, cherie, you know where I can get the number 1 bus?

They say

She is looking for you in the scarf creases of someone else’s grandmama or tatie, in metal shopping carts rocking on uneven wheels, and inside old money bills folded between scrap paper with a fading phone number scratched across in blue ink

It’s embarrassing, Dadá, frankly she is embarrassing herself on your account, look

She is calling you all kinds of names and you do not come, names she never knew you as:

Mama Mana

Dadá

La Vierge Noire

Our Lady of la Caridad del Cobre

Star of the Sea

protector, protect me, she says

“Voici la Porte de L’éternel, c’est par elle qu’entrent les Justes.”

She is leaving smudges of herself everywhere, kohl watered and blurred on her fingertip, face powder smeared on her shirt collar (a few shades off for August skin) dust sitting on the ridge of her bed’s headboard, and round the rim of the bath, scum

All this, and your back is still turned against her. And if it wasn’t for your usual no-tune hum hanging around your head, she wouldn’t even know it was you

Dadá, she has failed because she isn’t the kind of steadfast you borned her to be.

She cannot bear to tell you herself, and so she sent me

***

* Kanye *slavery was a choice* West has been on the outs with a lot of us for a long time, but this quote felt appropriate in this context…

(Image: Taken in Somerville, MA by yours truly on Wednesday 8/8/2018. I decided to take the longest walking route home, and I passed this Haitian Seventh Day Adventist church on my way.)

A Glamouring

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.

***

unnamed

A Glamouring

“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 some of the analogies and language he used to discuss the enslavement of Black people and white supremacist violence enacted against Black people.

Miss Freda Pays a Visit

Since my last post, I’ve felt myself retreating further into myself, further into silence. I have been talking a lot, but I’m not saying anything of consequence, anything that matters, or saying anything I really want to say. I’ve typed and erased several messages and tweets, and felt the urge to call someone to relay some funny or frustrating or mundane subside as soon as I think to pick up the phone. It may seem odd that I feel so silent when most of my days involve interacting with other people, particularly when most of those people are eager high school students with a lot of fascinating insights to share. I had a really uncomfortable encounter with a stranger in public yesterday (I’m ok). I thought a good cry would help me feel less agitated, but I couldn’t get any tears out.*

But I’m still here, and still writing for myself, for this blog, and for you.

I submitted the following piece of flash fiction for the Afreada x Africa Writes contest judged by Warsan Shire (!!!) I made it to the penultimate round–15 out of 225 submissions– which is pretty encouraging. I’m so grateful to the Afreada editors for considering me and my work. I’ve had some other works published on Afreada, “Pain Control” and “Safe House.” I’m hoping to turn this into something longer, you know, as soon as I find more words.

***

On the third day she came to visit, all the sharp edges in my house fell to pieces. I discovered them hour by painful hour, as I moved from dusty corridor, to bath, to wood-floored bedroom dotted with several months’ worth of shed hair and fluff. Sewing scissors– their gold handle rusted over with neglect– sat scattered on my work table; screw, blades, and finger rests spread far from each other as though they had never been whole. The old-time straight razor I used to shave my head was also apart from itself, its cutting edge bent in half like it was made of paper and not steel. Even the keys jammed into my room’s locks were dull around their teeth.

“The keys too? Is that not a bit much?”

My voice scratched its way out of my mouth, hoarse from lack of use, but she behaved as though she hadn’t heard me.

“Miss Freda?”

She was still, just as she had been on her first two visits, careful not to make any forceful movements that would topple the unsteady kitchen stool she sat on. She usually stayed no more than three hours, sighing whisper-soft every few minutes, and rearranging her lean arms across her chest when she grew stiff.

“Girl. You are still mourning? Still trying to end yourself?”

Her voice lilted and chimed like a dinner bell, but there was some sort of distortion to the sound. It was almost as if my head was submerged in water, and I was listening to her through the muffle. I stood silent in front of her, watching the 4 o’clock sunlight spilling lazy orange warmth over the window sill and onto my feet, narrow and much-veined just like hers.

“Miss Freda, didn’t you die?”

She ignored me. We might as well have been taking part in two different conversations, running parallel and eventually away from one another.

“Anyway, I deadened the keys too, just in case. It would be torturous to go that way, but I thought you might still try.”

She laughed to herself like high heels kicking on concrete and added, “You this child of ours.”

“Of ours? I’m no one’s but my very own.”

Miss Freda kissed her teeth and rolled her eyes so far up and back I thought they would stick.

“Girl. You think you made yourself the way you stitch those clothes? You think you hold yourself together all on your own?

As she spoke, she adjusted the yellow film of fabric she wore for a dress. The way she called me Girl made me forget my real name. I knew she was the aunt that followed her sister, my distant and unloving mother into sickness and then death years ago, but I felt more lifeless before her brazen self. What did she want with me?

“Give the sharp edges a rest, girl. You are all of us. You are a wide sky inside too stifling a house. Let me show you–

***

*My current obsession, Alice Smith’s performance of “I Put a Spell on You” in Black Mary, the short film by Kahlil Joseph, helped me a little with the words and the tears this afternoon.

Black Mary
Still from Black Mary. Directed by Kahlil Joseph, 2017.

 

For Miss Freda, and for all my Lilians

A lot of my recent writing has been an attempt to gain understanding of Ewe and Haitian vodou, without being disrespectful or misrepresenting these already maligned and misunderstood religions. I’m Ewe, but have not been initiated into nor do I practice vodou. I didn’t grow up listening to our creation myths, or folktales about why certain animals behave a certain way, and so on. One of my most persistent fears is to turn these beautifully fearsome spirits and gods into glossy and easily consumed half-versions of themselves, or to co-opt imagery with little care for its origin or significance. I haven’t yet been able to get over the discomfort of trying to tap into a heritage that I know mostly in name and phrases mixed with English only. I’m also careful not to idealize pre-colonial ways of being and of understanding the world as some sort of utopia as yet unsullied or destroyed by European colonialism.

I feel as though I’m always seeking approval or permission to be curious about these things, even though they are the very things that have made me and my imagination possible. So, I’ve been reading and researching as much as I can about Anlo-Ewe spirituality, and about life before and during European conquest in my part of what is now Ghana. I’ve been asking my relatives a lot of questions, and trying to be as careful a student as I can be. I’ve been writing characters and settings, as well as praise songs and prayers that seem authentic to these spiritualities, while making a conscious effort to avoid copying elements wholesale into my work. I’m trying to write a world that appears as though it would fit into the universe my forebears imagined and created for themselves.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about love, partly because of Erzulie Freda– lwa of love, luxury, and sensuality– who is always trying to take up more space in my work than I have given her. The rhetoric around love being a superior response to rage, and a cure-all for oppressive structures has also been on my mind a lot, mostly because it frustrates me so much. Most of the “well-meaning” people who try to bludgeon the (rightfully) enraged with this sort of rhetoric do not usually mean love in any meaningful or transformative way. They simply mean “Lie down and die quietly; your protests are a nuisance and make me uncomfortable.”

In an attempt to keep writing in spite of my current anxieties about the general state of the world/career/debt/life/relationships, I’ve been picking quotes or passages as prompts for my posts, and it’s been a pretty productive exercise. Here is a praise song/prose poem in response to two quotes, one from Sula, and the other from Terence Nance’s 2012 film An Oversimplification of her Beauty.

***

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My beloved and beautiful Grandma Lilian. I’m named after her– I have two middle names– but I don’t think the name suits me that well. I don’t have the requisite kind eyes and pleasant disposition, I feel.

“Love: an art form slightly removed from its intended context.”

-from an Oversimplification of Her Beauty

“Like an artist without an art form, she became dangerous.”

-from Sula

And so Erzulie Freda’s lastborn sings:

Love has chosen my own head as a seat for her crown.

I am gilded fury hardened in the heat of clenched fists, and I am sweet joy whispered in your ear on the night side of dawn. I come from beyond the Universe’s horizon, sweeping across the sea in a hot wind, troubling the water, and the sand, and the flimsy cloth in your windows, and the tufts of hair and dust in the corners of your room.

Love has lent me her face and the better one of her eyes that shines mischief and liquid silver when I laugh.

I am everywhere you look and, and especially where you hide. I live on your heaving shoulders after a healthy cry, and in the curves of your ears where the salt from your tears turned crystal.

Love has blessed my hands with enough power.

I am firm fingers scrubbing stubborn sweat and grit from your scalp each evening, and I am lifting your work-weary arms to tie your sleeping scarf­ –careful like– so my nails won’t catch on the threads that have fallen loose from its weave.

careful

I am of Erzulie Freda’s dangerous charm.

I am of colossal proportions.

I am everything.

First, the Fire

“Eva looked into Hannah’s eyes. “Is? My baby? Burning?” “

“…Eva said yes, but inside she disagreed and remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

-from Sula by Toni Morrison

***

So, I’m writing.

I’ve been giving myself writing exercises in an attempt to free myself for this frustrating halt that I’ve been feeling each time I’ve tried to resume working on my thesis project recently. The way I see it, if I keep writing around and around, I will eventually write towards my actual work, as long as I’m always writing pieces that exist in the same universe as the one that I’ve created for my novel. With that in mind, I’ve invented a series of plagues that are sort of “biblical” in the sense that Christianity and a lot of its symbols and imagery have been fused or absorbed into Ewe and Haitian vodou (This is related to the research I’ve done for most of my time in my MFA program, and I wrote about it briefly here).

I didn’t grow up with the ritual of burning fallen hair after braiding or combing, but I’ve grown fixated on that image after encountering it repeatedly in Black women’s writing across the diaspora. Someone is always burning shed hair immediately before some sort of tragedy, or before the next “strange thing,” as Toni Morrison puts it in Sula.

I re-read Sula a few weeks ago, and it was not the more spectacular instances of burning that stayed with me, not Eva setting fire to Plum in his bed, or even Hannah going up in flames in the yard and Eva leaping out of the window to try and save her.

Rather, it was the smaller, the seemingly more ordinary; Nel’s grandmother using a burnt out match to darken her eyebrows, or Sula’s return, marked by birds, and by Eva burning her shed hair with her back to the same window she once leapt out of. In Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, we are to believe that it is Cocoa’s fallen hairs, those that didn’t get burnt, those that end up in the jealous Ruby’s pocket, that lead to her painful deterioration. (There’s something I think Sula and Mama Day are saying to each other, and I wrote about that here.)

My first plague is fire.

***

There is oil hissing and spitting inside. It’s possible that it is frying on too high heat until whatever you had wanted to eat is shriveled and burnt, stuck to the pan’s deep rusty belly, forevermore resistant to any scrub. It could be that the stove’s heat is too great, or, that the whole house is burning, and I am going with it.

Don’t you want to see what you can salvage

 There is something frying inside, but you are still and always slim legs, not crossed, but rather arranged one next to the other, grey dusting where your ankles meet from too many dry afternoon hours exposed to the air. Something is on fire, and your skirt is bunched up in messy fistfuls high on your thighs. Your feet are in the dust next to mine on the lower step and something is on fire. Yet, you just sit.

You have gathered the fallen hair from my head into a feathery ball and set it alight, three clicks of a lighter and a curse. There is something burning inside–I am sure– and yet, you sit, with my shed strands flaming first between your pointer and your thumb, and now in the palm of your hand.

Maybe the whole house is burning, or maybe it is just my scalp is scorching sweet mercy. I told you not to make the parts so small this time,

I told you I am something tender–

(Image by Hannah Firmin, from the cover art of the Grafton Books 1982 edition of Sula)