Not Today

I’m well aware that no-one comes to this blog searching for warm fuzzy feels, but today I’ve been thinking about my responsibility as an artist to respond to people’s pain with something they can hold onto. I’m no-one’s Audre Lorde or Ama Ata Aidoo or Nikki Giovanni,  but I also know that written words have so much power in moments when there’s nothing left to be spoken out loud. There are so many poems and works of fiction I turn to in difficult times, and they are usually free of the warm and fuzzies. There have been floods, hurricanes, wars raging on non-stop at the same relentless pace that the planet is heating up, and my writing is often not the place I choose to think about these things, at least not the writing I share here. I think it would be disingenuous to present sunshine and happy endings on a day such as this when many are visualizing a future that seems almost impossible to endure. Here’s something I started putting together during a free write session in class this evening, and finished on the train ride home.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Nina Simone today.

***

I don’t have to paint a grim wasteland of charred soil merging with a grey horizon because

we are already there

are metal gates slamming with their echo competing with people screeching as loud as they can there are foreheads stamped across the world saying Certified US Target so

this is is only ending the way it began if it is ending at all and

today the orange leaves are disrespectfully optimistic and

all that is here remains flourishing on stolen land where crude oil seeps into clear water drop by drop and

tomorrow we will all wake up tasting burning in our morning breath and

leaving smudges of ourselves on the walls we are depending on to remain upright and

bits of broken hair singed off from the rest of the tangled mass falling into the pale green liquid calling itself soup calling itself lunch and

fragments of teeth dislodging in my mouth starting from the ones I should have pulled out from once toughening gums turning into pudding sliding down my throat from dessert I didn’t want

to have to leave I wasn’t ready but she was busy and I was already enough of a nuisance making this all about myself and

I haven’t learnt to display my chaos in front of people I care about so here I am hoping strangers will stop for once and notice

the man sitting on the corner coloring line drawings of pineapples and other things I can’t explain

why the woman is hopping on one leg playing a pop song on her violin on the train station platform in her yellow sweater with black polka dots today

of all days she has spilling around her feet her own strobe lights

up in the park and out on the streets because no one wants this

advertisement is yelling at me “your life is worth living” and I want to know how you know this

is only ending the way it began and

I may go with it

A Kind of Woman

She, the kind of woman who curses around other people’s children and smiles and sticks her tongue out when they tug their innocent ones away from her evil. A Sula kind of woman, collarbones jutting out threats yet to be spoken, squinting eyes and trusting of no one­– you thought you were special– the daughter that slipped through Mama Day’s hands so she could cradle the dreams of others, nurse them to health, hand them cups of punch, and candles, never got the chance to be the child that went astray, brought shame to the steps of the silver trailer

She, torturing sleepless souls she doesn’t plan to love, you the woman she left behind in Miami in the small house with yellow walls and white metal curling around the windows, veins in a vanilla-scented neck pulsing in fruitless craving for the kind of woman who never looks back– she hasn’t called in months but her hair is still knotted around your hairbrush bristles

The kind of woman who has ground up any pride you thought you had and sprinkled the powder first over her right shoulder, then over the left, she has walked away wearing your possibility of future love around her neck held high, metal pendant heating the thin skin stretched across her breast bone, she is the kind of menace you were warned to avoid and now you pay

Scavenger

You do not know that you have let a vulture into your home. Sometimes I wait just outside the door to your room, sometimes at the foot of your bed, or at the end of a phone call with angry crackling interrupting your retelling of your latest private tragedy. I can only thrive as long as you are dissolving into a pool of your former self, as long as I can dance to the sound of air scratching the inside of your throat as you attempt to pull in your last breaths. I may help you to endure the worst moments of your pain while you’re awake. At night, I slide past the door you should have locked and use my nails to undo the rough stitches on your wounds, making sure not to scratch your ruined flesh. In the morning you will ease out of bed, one sore limb at a time, carrying the parts of you that hurt and laying them on my lap. You do not know that each bandage I use to cover you is laced with the sting of my resentment and that your healing will never come. You think your body is turning on itself, refusing to return to health, but I am actually massaging disease deeper into you each time you think– this will be the last time. I understand that this dying can be a painstaking process, but my patience slightly exceeds my thirst for blood. So, I will wait.

Safe House

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 the bodies of people who looked very much like you who were snatched at night, who were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, who 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 reaching to your windows misted over from the condensation of the cold AC meeting the hot glass. You can toss a few coins to the children grabbing at the pockets of your designer jeans as you exit the club, and maybe you’ll donate last year’s clothes to an orphanage knowing that you’ve done your civic duty.

And there you are safe, and the police yes sah and yes madam to your slippery accent and their giant rifles might as well be water guns because they would never dream of turning them on a big somebody like you. There you are safe, and blackness is only remarked upon when your grandma complains you have stayed out in the sun too long, or when the finest girl in the class is the shade of the inside of the palm you will use to try and get a feel of her wavy hair, or when the waiter is rude to you at a luxury resort full of white people turning red in the sun and you will shout at him, spit flying and veins threatening to explode: “Heh do you know who I am?”

Back home you are safe, and you are not a try-too-hard laughing a little louder and sharper because you don’t want to kill the vibe when your white friends are at a house party singing along in unison: “at least a nigga nigger rich” and making sure you hear the R at the end. You will roll that ‘r’ onto the ends of words like “wadur,” and insert them unnecessarily in words like Sakumono– you are safe.

But you don’t know that now you are living in the West African Headquarters of Keeping up Appearances. Your parents will list all your Latin honors when you shuffle into the living room after rolling out of bed at 1pm on a Tuesday and you will threaten to slap the house help for burning a hole through your silk shirt. Or maybe you won’t even speak to her except for a curt “thank you” with the ends clipped off, at least everything is dignified you see. She has a uniform and has been working for your family for years, and maybe she has kids in the village somewhere but you really don’t know or care, and you definitely didn’t see her crying in the pantry after your father denied her permission to go home and attend to some sick relative.

You are safe, and the driver will warn you to avert your eyes when the neighborhood people are about to set a thief on fire with some old tires and kerosene and you will shake your head and kiss your teeth, why do these people always have to resort to such behavior? And you will flinch when the front pages of Saturday tabloids are covered with the image of dead bodies of people who were only guilty of loving each other in a way that your parents’ Bible does not permit and you know it’s wrong but Ghana is safe, who asked them to display their love in public­—

Now you are safe and you don’t have to let the white girl get away with anything and everything because she’ll cry if you try to point out her privilege—you are in a dive bar and all her friends are hitting you with drunken, slow punches and you know if you don’t leave soon, you won’t be safe because you will definitely be painted as the aggressor and the police will ensure that you don’t make it to the next morning. But now you are safe and this white girl is different and she cares about Africa’s development with a big ‘D’ and she loves Black people, until she has a Black daughter she is terrified and envious of and will drag a fine toothed comb without water or coconut oil through the same curls you used to admire on the girl that sat in front of you in class. But you are all safe—

And you will wrinkle your nose when the drains are too ripe and there are parts of the city you will never see. The tires of your car cannot roll over un-tarred roads, but they have built in treads for crushing the backs of the people who have been bought and sold, who are still being bought and sold, so you can sit over drinks on Friday night and celebrate how far hard work has brought you.

And you are safe because on your way home the policeman will wave you past the checkpoint with a flash of the torch and his teeth, even though you both know your “something small for the weekend” is what allowed him to ignore your expired license and the Jack Daniels mist hanging around your head. There you are safe, because the only way you will become a hashtag is if you become a local celebrity known for taking girls on dates with the intention of raping them or if you develop an app that is only useful to tourists looking for a good time and Ghanaians who have data bundles and iPhones manufactured wherever it’s cheapest. And the only slur you will know is the average Ghanaian because you are definitely not average you are special and you are safe.

Deep Conditioning

I would say this is a work in progress because it’s something that took only a few hours to write, but the reality, is I can probably edit it and re-use it for the next time. It’s frightening to know that there are so many white people and non-black people of color (I see you, black on black crime crusaders) who cannot recognize humanity in black people so much so that our deaths have become a spectator sport for the evening news highlight reel.

***

Cold water washes onto my scalp, cutting its own paths across the once clear parts I made for my braids, now blurred by traces of week-old hair cream and sweat.

I am washing out the dried flakes of the blood that splashed on my bowed head at the scene of the latest execution, where I was to be found mid-worship,

eyes fluttering between permanent sleep and nightmarish day,

praying to a God I have been told looks very much like the person pulling the trigger.

 

There are no new songs to sing while my hands dance to a routine they cannot forget

–good thing because my mind knows this wash and condition and repeat is an empty ritual–

I will never be clean.

The tune I am humming now sounds like sirens screeching in an eerie minor key, variations of families crying (the babies at a higher pitch) tires skidding on tarmac…

I’m not so much humming as I am screaming pain and desperation:

do you know what a gun shot sounds like when your chest is the speaker?

 

All the care I have been taught to rub into my dead strands is useless. My hair is brittle, crackling and falling into my lap by the fistful.

The strands are tangled with names I’ve seen splashed across white sheets and hung out to dry, stiff and still bearing the memories of people who were just trying to breathe, eat, make some money for the kids, love, curse, pray, gossip, cross the street…

I’m making new parts in my hair, maybe cornrows this time,

Nice and wide, room for all the names I am yet to learn.

 

 

 

Carnage

I wake up to warfare every morning. Fists clenched, spirit ready to pounce on the air and claw holes into it. I’m going to implode. I can only be as scathing as I desire when I am my own target. I’m lying down, and my pulse is running marathons inside my wrists. There is nothing left of me to dismantle. I have already used the edges of these words to chop up my self and feed it to the greedy rage growing more robust with each day that passes, the one that lives in the part of the wardrobe I can’t see from my bed. I’ve made a confidante out of this anger that is feasting on me non-stop. I give more and more of myself to it during the early hours of the morning so that it’s full and drowsy by the time I’m ready to wake up.

I re-enact the motions of preparing for the day. I am my favorite dress– black, thin-strapped, low square neckline and very clingy, slits on the left side– in your face. My body in your face because at least that, I can control. I walk through my new fury-tinted life, sprinkling swear words in everyday conversation like part of a ceremony from which I can draw some sort of power. My skin has gained a rough covering, unsightly to look at, even more to the touch, but I don’t care.

I AM ANGRY ALL THE TIME.

I turn the volume of music in headphones loud enough for it to hurt my ears, bumping into groups of white men in khakis and pastel-colored shirts. 5-4-3- it was only one man. I’m determined to take up too much space, sighing audibly and rolling my eyes skyward until people move out of my way, pushing them with my weight if I have to, making sure they feel the bone sticking out of my shoulder.

I have just learnt what it feels like to combust from the inside. This condition involves my insides melding together and settling with a heavy finality at the bottom of my abdomen. It comes from a regular diet of savoring and digesting all kinds of hate, from casual insults to bitter animosity which sting on contact with my self. The problem is aggravated by all the insults I wish I could throw into the dartboard I want to make out of you. For now, they are flying around in my own air space and pricking me instead. There is no cure for me as long as I keep nursing this illness while you proceed healthy and unburdened.

I AM ANGRY ALL THE TIME.

My frustration is outrageous. It clears a way for me before I arrive, discordant cymbals striking thighs and warped hands being used to play trumpets. I am an ugly parade. Lucky for you that this is the least of my wrath you have had to endure.

Taking Out the Trash

I have revealed a lot of things on this blog that are deeply personal, and not always in a way that is very obvious unless you happen to know the real life situations I make reference to in my own roundabout way. These days I feel as though I’m angry all the time, but have been hesitant to express my anger unless it has to do with larger issues of which I am but a small piece: racial inequality, gender-based violence, among many other things. What will my writing become if I’m only ever doing it with some bigger picture in mind? This blog, although public, is still my own space to do what I want. Today “what I want” includes getting out some of this anger before it eats me up from the inside, more than it has done already. You may see it as attention-seeking or unnecessary, but what will my writing become if I can’t sometimes use it as therapy and catharsis for myself?

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” -Anne Lamott

***

Consider this a found poem, a collection of random trash I stepped on when I stumbled out of bed at 5:08 this morning.

a seemingly harmless follow up message to make sure you noticed me the way I noticed you: Great meeting you yesterday.

arrogance masquerading as playful banter: Here are all the reasons you should be impressed by me.

false self-deprecation and all the reasons I’m impressed by you: I have my money on you getting us a NYT bestseller.

a few “tone-deaf” statements I may or may not believe fully just to provoke you: Feminism still thrives on emotion and faux outrage.

casual suggestion of another in-person meeting: I’m happy to take payment in a form of coffee or some cocktail.

appearing to enjoy your sarcasm and jabs at my ego: After the multiple slights, I must have a weird need to be maltreated. Now do your worst, go for it. I quickly learned to stow my heart away when dealing with you

connection based on a shared language and culture: The curse of millennial Ewes.

 this is the part where cheesy pick up lines give way to requests for you to share more of yourself with me: Give me a glimpse into “Vulnerable you.”

this is the part where you should have heeded the warning, anyone who disparages your sisters to flatter you is not worth your time: The yous of this town are like an eclipse. A rarity. Refreshing.

 this is the part where you really should have turned back, the part that spoke the future almost word for word: I’m very calculating. But not that kind of calculating. Spontaneity is a big part of my MO.

absurd tantrum, complete with tears, when I find out your life plans are not quaint enough to fit into my own: You watched me change plans and get rid of lingering situations! If I had known you weren’t coming back things would have been different.

 arrogance exposing itself with no reservations: I think too highly of myself to be treated this way.

the warning signs are much closer together now that the novelty has worn off, now that you have waited up with no idea where I am, when facts and fiction swirl together in a cloud of smoke: I was working on an urgent project all night. I know I should’ve called. You’re taking this really well. You’re NOT dealing with workaholic me so well. Times and seasons babe. There are times when I’m consumed by work and the time zone difference isn’t helpful.

red flags are slapping you in the face and you still can’t see that you are being made to feel like demanding I take responsibility for my actions is actually emotional instability: I’m sorry you feel that way. Jumping to conclusions with very little context isn’t going to help. None of this played out the way I had imagined it.

unfortunately I thought I could get away with making you the understudy for someone else’s permanence. 

 It’s 6:13 now and I’m still trying to scrape the remnants of this debris from the soles of my feet. 

Lady, like

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’t matter how close together I kept my 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 curtains closed 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, hides some of that skin from predators with claws for hands and a sense of entitlement as big as a court-mandated settlement check. Ladylike, it doesn’t matter how much you drink because if someone wants to conquer your time and your being, you will be laid to waste, no man’s land locked out of the gates of propriety.

I had five mothers and now I have four, and not one of them is ladylike. They are not interested in being liked or handed nods of approval as they process towards the altar, hands clasped in laps covered in white: I have sinned, Amen. Somewhere along the way I began to misuse the self with which I was anointed and entrusted. I believed that the width from my right hip to my left was the same length of the arm that would push me out of the door after the body it belonged to was satisfied and done with me. I took out all the tendons from my arms, my lower back, the backs of my knees, and used them to build a ladder for everyone to climb, one step closer to comfort, to freedom, to the candy land in the sky where nameless women like myself are dead during the day and wake up only at night to pleasure whoever demands it. My body is battered and bruised on these pages because the world has taught me that this body is all I have to dissect and give away. So now I sit, boneless in a heap of myself.

Lady, like the woman my five mothers do not want me to be. They are not interested in wringing their hands in muted despair, waiting their turn, watching mortals who are not even worthy of “demon” status tear souls to shreds between jaws fortified by privilege and light slaps on the wrist. My five mothers are not interested in being ladylike, and neither am I.

What I’ve been reading:

Our Hands are Tied because of this Damn Brother-Sisterhood Thing

Letter to Stanford Attacker

6 Women Allege that XO Senavoe Raped Them

(Image: My mum sent this photo of herself, in the sunglasses, and my two aunts and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever seen! Carefree and flawless before they were hashtags…)

Sharp Edges

Everything is sharp:

the corners of the mouth of the white woman sitting next to me on the bleachers, the ends of her bob and side-swept fringe, the angles at which her legs are crossed one over the other, the vertical lines on her blue and white dress bordered with small flowers, the slant of her body as she turns as far away as possible from my direction, the edges of my friends’ graduation caps, the sour vinegar tears threatening to escape my eyes to mourn my shame, the rough bench with the obvious space left between us that makes me wonder if I’m reading too much into her apparent disgust. She is probably just allowing herself, and me, some personal space.

There is a general attack being launched on my senses. I am seeing and feeling things that can’t possibly be there. Hot water from the shower drums my skin and bores its way inside myself, dissolving the hyperawareness my body produces, tilting but not breaking down the walls I constructed for my own protection. The voices in this meeting are too high-pitched, straining against the tension, attempting to disguise the contempt swirling in the mugs on the table in front of us. If I splash this hot tea over all your documents and agendas and over the fronts of your blouses, will you admit that you cannot, and will not, take orders from someone who should really be cleaning up after you?

Everything hurts much more than it should. What I have been taught to dismiss as over-sensitivity is actually an internal alarm, a natural self-preservation device with its fundamental flaw being that its user could still be doomed to untimely death on concrete just for continuing to exist. It reminds me to avoid eye contact with the beat cop who always tries to greet me in the morning, to beware of the brother–with an ‘a’– who hides my altar under his bed and only worships when the master is away, to run fast and far from anyone who encourages me to use my sister’s arm as a lever to pump up my own self esteem because somehow I am not like the others; don’t worry, that’s a good thing. It means I could survive.

(Image: View from my window. Dulles International Airport, May 2015)

Limited Access

I may have to take the veins from the side of your neck, empty out the contents and use them for ink to write back to you.

I’m one forced smile away from spitting in your face.

Inaccessible. Grant me access to your work. Grant me access to yourself. Grant me access I’m entitled to access grant me access to what I’m entitled to–

Access means your lifeless hands are attracted to the warm breath lingering around my half-open mouth. You want to be able to press down unhindered, until I cough and struggle and grow still.

I’m one forced smile away from spitting in your face, one clenched fist away from leaving the chipped corners of my own nails buried in the skin on my arms.

And you…are not safe just because what I meant to say passed over your head and dumped a bucket of seawater over your shoulders. You are straining against the complicated, non-linear, who do you think you are to do this, other writers do this well but who do you think you are to do something this complicated, non-linear lines of prose and verse I am wrapping around your upper arms to interrupt your blood flow.

You are broiling in the steam of your frustration, how dare you I demand access how dare you have no right to deny me what has always been mine.

This is disjointed and nonsensical, try again.

Again I will tell you have no idea what any of this means because my expanse is too wide to fold into the narrow channel of your understanding again I will tell you are not entitled to any more than I am willing to give again…

(Image: Taken by the loveliest of lovelies, Claytia Gonsalves, at the National Museuem of African Art in DC. Spring 2015.)