the Black Femme/Feminist Sublime
The guiding question for the 2020 cohort of the Mother Mercy Call to Create incubator was “What are you willing to do?” to which I answered: “I’m willing to move through crisis with the love and the magic.” My medium is assemblage on page and screen, an attempt to evoke with text and video the sort of collaging that visual and textile artists use. This site is a gathering together of several ideas I have been wondering about over the past 9 months (and for months and years before this quarantine). Because “Process Is The Project” is a central principle of Mother Mercy’s work, I am trying not to be mortified by the fact that I’m presenting works in various stages of “completion.” Wondering and wandering through quarantine with this work has kept me sane and alive, and I’m trying my hardest to remember that moving through with my peace and self intact are far more important than presenting something glossy and easily “packaged” for consumption. I have tried to edit to the best of my ability but I know there will be typos, repetition, and inconsistencies. You will see where I change my mind about language and terms, femme/feminist, femme-inist (borrowing from Sydney Fonteyn Lewis), black women, black girls, b or B as in black? There have also been more of my sisters lost—murdered directly or indirectly by the state—since I started working on this project, more names to learn, to try to remember. Mercy Baguma. Evelyne Sincère. Angel Unique, and the names of those we didn’t see on the news but still miss dearly every day. After all that being said, will you wander with me? And another question: what are you willing to do?
A Note About This Site
In an attempt to refuse a hierarchy that places text higher than images, with the latter only an accompaniment or adornment for the former, you might notice that gifs, still images, and videos often take up large portions of the screen as you scroll. This might not be the best UX (shallouts the broski), but I really enjoy the way this layout engages different senses.
“Looking back: To try and see where the background changed places with the foreground. To try and locate the vanishing point: where lines of perspective converge and disappear.”
-Michelle Cliff, from the essay “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire.”
I will use the above image of Michelle Cliff and quote to signal moments in which I will temporarily step out of a particular flow of thought to provide more context about how or why the thought or idea first sprung forth. Because context is incredibly important to me and to this work, I should also point out that I am not applying Cliff’s work in quite the same sense. The two lines following this quote read: “Lines of color and class. Lines of history and social context. Lines of denial and rejection. When master. did we, the light-skinned middle-class Jamaicans, take over for them as oppressors?” Cliff is moving towards or reaching for some insight into how colonial powers position their subjects at different and ever-shifting levels of dispossession, whereas I use her words to move back and forth across memory and the now as they relate to my personal experiences and my creative practices. This is not to say at all that I am not concerned with “lines” of color, class, power etc.—impossible, considering my subject position and my creative and theoretical focus—but to emphasize that I’m borrowing from Cliff to explain my approach to narrative and form.
Along with the Glamouring, there is the lonely
For some months before I began working on this project, I thought I would fall in love. Does this seem childish or naïve? I hadn’t even met anyone new, nor had I reconnected yet with the person who would become the center of my longing, however quick to form and ill-advised it would be. Even with no immediate prospects in sight, I began performing all sorts of rituals in preparation, things like piling on any and all jewel-tone-colored things in my closet: green coat with giant sleeves, green velvet overalls, purple eyeliner, gold earrings that look like buttons from a brocade armchair not meant for sitting. I searched for podcasts about love, mostly romantic but in other forms, under the pretext of looking for shows that focused more on storytelling than the weekly round-ups of political and entertainment news of which I was growing bored. I listened to hours’ worth of strangers yearning for and breaking each other and themselves in the name of this yearning; stories about missed connections that spanned years and continents and could have been avoided had they occurred in the cellphone age; love stories twice removed told through the eyes of a florist; about a woman whose roommate romance replicated several details of her own parents’ meeting decades earlier.
I suspended disbelief, cynicism, and all other components of self-protection I had previously employed and proceeded to re-watch for what felt like the infinite to the infinite power time First, a web series inspired by the premise of the 1997 film Love Jones (without the stalking and disregard for consent) but with the same fear, pride, and poor communication threatening to keep two beautiful and artsy types apart from each other. I re-read and reposted over and over Ada Limón’s poem “What I Didn’t Know Before,” where the persona compares their love for another person to the born whole and “ready to run” colt; “A horse gives way to another horse and then suddenly there are two horses, just like that.”
I talked in my group chat about how much I enjoyed the feeling of knowing you are about to fall for someone and opening one’s self up to what [one hopes] will happen next. I made a playlist of music entitled “The Feeling Right Before,” and a playlist of podcast episodes, “In Love With the Idea,” so that I could immerse my self in the dream sequence I so desperately wanted to materialize. I accepted that my imagination had been curtailed and maybe even damaged by years of Hollywood endings and their mandate for instilling unrealistic and even violent renderings of pairs: pairs of lovers, parents, genders, children; binary measures of morality: good or evil. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I locked away the critical and even cynical parts of my mind, but I definitely tiptoed around them and pushed them into the farthest corner, beyond even sprinkled salt for protection, tufts of broken hair ends, and fluff, so that I could lean fully into fantasizing about sweetness, about being wooed, and about intimacy that felt easy. I wrote notes to myself expressing my wants and intentions, and I’m only now realizing that many of the things I wrote were negations born out of previous failed relationships and treatment I didn’t want. [Maybe that was the first problem.]
Home, Medford, MA
I want to be vulnerable with someone without the fear of it being thrown back in my face at a later date.
Listen: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
I want to be cared for, to care for, to be made love to, to make love with.
Listen: Girls Need Love
I want to admire someone without the fear of self-negation. I want to be admired without the fear of being destroyed. I do not want the fear of destruction at the hands of my admirer because they are intimidated by the very thing they admire in me.
Why can’t you see me? -Warsan Shire
I want to be held without the threat of obliteration in that person’s arms.
Mama Lorlormo, you want[ed] for us to be loved as our full selves and not as prized possessions. These days, I am a little closer to love and peace within. I am looking for the same without.
What I forgot was that I had already been trying to develop my own understanding of what it meant to practice love, at first for my novel, which centers on a place outside of time where the souls of formerly enslaved and otherwise oppressed Africans are able to fly to and begin life anew, essentially where freedom dreams are embodied. You can imagine that in such a world, falling mid-flight would mean irreversible catastrophe, and for this reason, the people there would describe a person as “turning Love’s Face” towards another rather than “falling in love.” While I wish I could take credit for the phrase, its origin actually lies with my great-great-grandmother Sarah Lorlormo, whose image I’m trying to piece together from family lore I only heard two years ago and fast-fading memories from elders. A more lyrical or sentimental translation of Lorlormo would be “love’s face,” or “the face of love,” or “love showing in the face.” Its actual meaning is a proverb and a warning along the lines of “things aren’t always as they appear.” As if this wasn’t almost too perfect for poetry already, she apparently died wishing that her women descendants would not be loved the way she was because of all the pain it brought her. I searched for loopholes: what if one wasn’t loved by a man? Then, in my imagination, I chose to understand turning or showing Love’s Face to another person as a deliberate and consistent act, one that moves intentionally beyond infatuation and desire to deep care, presence, and respect.
Now I know that you cannot turn Love’s Face towards a person who is not ready or willing to return the gaze with the same fervor, or whose gaze is filtered through their need to be held without holding back and their emotional unavailability. Most importantly and even more relevant to my situation, I’m learning that you cannot just decide and demand that someone should turn to you with Love because you are ready to do so with them. You cannot cast someone in the role you desire without their knowledge and consent. It’s possible I’m reverse engineering this second lesson where it does not belong, because I feel shame for desiring a connection with someone who had previously been a friend when there was no indication that his desires were the same. Wasn’t there? I repeatedly asked anyone who would listen: Was I asking for too much? It’s not like I asked him to come to Accra to pay my bride price? [You don’t need to know me personally to know that any reference to such things as bride price are used purely as hyperbole because never in this lifetime nor the next…just never]. Was I asking for too much? What was I asking for? Some openness, some respect, a text back? In spite of all my sentimentality and romantic fictions I was dreaming, I didn’t even want to date this person, but at least hoped for some honest conversation, and maybe a boundary or two? Rather than listing all the ways I “couldn’t” have been tripping, laying out the evidence that I was misled rather than being willfully misguided or silly, I’ll say that I don’t regret the sweetness I felt, nor the possibility that lingered in those moments, even if they never lengthened into anything more substantial.
It was in the indulgence in what felt possible between me and this person that I started thinking again about the loneliness I had previously held to the light and described from as many angles as were visible to me at the time, an experience I had lived and remembered several times in waking life and in my writing. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily felt my self in a robust enough mental space to pick apart my loneliness without falling into its associated despair. I think that my interest in thinking and writing more about it sprung not out of a need for catharsis, but from a slightly different place, a curiosity about how and why my self and so many of the Black women I hold dear echoed the same sentiments.
Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) helped me think through what I was feeling and struggling to express. The book is a post-9/11 examination of and meditation on a particularly American solitude. Throughout the text, a repeating image of a TV showing white noise evokes (for me, at least) the dream/nightmare-scape that comes to be at 3:30am when you awake to the TV watching you sleep, the latest horrifying news spilling ghostly light into the otherwise dark room where you dozed off. As I always do, I folded everything else I was reading, listening to, and thinking about at the time into my fixation on the subject of loneliness until the most urgent parts coalesced into something I could use: lists of bus and T stops where I had cried, Sza song lyrics, text messages, voice notes, Nina Simone song lyrics, Nina Simone’s public persona, Nina Simone’s face staring at me from a big screen at the Roxbury Film Festival in summer 2016 where I cried alone in the dark, surrounded by empty seats on either side.
Eventually, I settled on charting an affective map of Boston according to my experience of isolation in despair in the city. Excavating my little life for some stories that may be useful or at least resonant to other Black women would be nowhere near as groundbreaking or rigorous as LaKisha Simmons’ Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (writing through and battling with many a self-delusion as I am), but to Simmons I owe my understanding of what it means to draw an “affective map” of a location. Incidentally, I had read that book on my phone, highlighting passages and missing stops along the same commutes during which I cried and longed and simmered and stewed in my own perceived worthlessness. I did not intend nor could I dare to redraw the city’s lines nor reclaim any of the spaces in between without overstepping the boundaries of the visitor I am in the house built on stolen Pawtucket land by the hands of enslaved African people and maintained by the continued subjugation of both. Instead, I aimed to be the sort of careful witness to my own hurts that I have strived and at times failed to be for my own loved ones, and I felt prepared to do so after nearly falling for good over the edge of my own life and deciding that I would much rather keep living in every sense of the word.
Adopting the role of cartographer of my own experience involved [re]visiting and photographing several church doorways in the Somerville/Medford area—from the heavy gold-hinged ones to the ones that resembled convenience storefronts—that I passed on the walks I took to avoid going home to an apartment where I was becoming undone. I continue to feel strongly about these doorways for a reason I cannot yet explain; it’s been years since I went to church and I don’t plan on returning any time soon, but I hoped following my familiar routes to see them would help me find my words. My mapping would absolutely need to take me to that apartment building on Hemenway Street where I spent months grieving what I could not accept had happened to my body there—maybe I didn’t say no…maybe that didn’t happen.
On the best kind of Saturday, one where chores are abandoned in favor of the exhilaration of what-was-possible, I went to meet the yearned for person and eventual ghost. I didn’t realize until we were almost at our destination that he was accompanying me on part of my mapping and re-visiting, down Huntington Ave to Flames for lunch before an afternoon spent at the MFA, lingering in the hallway that passes for the Africa “section,” which, I’m entirely fine with if it means fewer stolen artifacts and sacred objects in that fortress of a building. I told him what happened in the apartment on Hemenway Street—maybe I didn’t say no…maybe that didn’t happen—and immediately regretted the potential overshare, in spite of his insistence that it was alright. So, I thought I was safe.
At the museum, I encountered Bahman Jalali’s “Image of Imagination,” a series of photos documenting the imprint Iran’s past has left on its present, each image a haunting. Jalali’s work was showcased alongside that of photographer Gohar Dashti, who he had mentored, as part of an exhibition titled “Reimagining Home.” Dashti created different sorts of dream/nightmare-scapes in “Home” staging natural landscapes inside abandoned buildings; desolation, grandeur, and blooming in collision. This encounter took place in another one of those museum hallways on the way to elsewhere, but I felt encouraged and electrified by the mutual recognition I experienced in my looking. At the time, I planned for part of my project to include superimposing images from different parts of my life to evoke my beloved loneliness of which I seem to have not yet grown tired of tracing, melding my history and my trajectory to try and better understand the well within myself I reached into in order to survive some of my personal horrors. Imagine: the façade of the Hemenway Street apartment, spotless white and too-perfect-to-be-real window boxes retreating behind an army of Dahomey warriors whose image I planned to paste over the doorway and on the pavement right in front. I didn’t know that I had the technique to materialize these thought pictures, but that I had seen my vision reflected in Jalali and Dashti’s visual dialogue was enough for me to believe it was possible.
[Top and bottom: two of the images I saw from Gohar Dashti’s “Home” series; center, the piece of Bahman Jalali’s “Image of Imagination” which I found the most striking that day.]
By the time the Call to Create cohort met for the first time, it wasn’t yet clear that this year would be washed over with wave after wave of horror and grief even more than we are used to, between the pandemic and sustained and unspeakable violence against us [Oluwatoyin, I cried for a week and barely spoke aloud to anyone when we learned how severely we failed to keep you safe], and I became less and less inclined to think about loneliness when I didn’t know when next I would get to share physical space with loved ones. After spending that day playing in the light with the other Mother Mercy cohort members, I walked from Brookline Village to the Mass Ave Orange Line stop, all the way down Huntington Ave once again, because the weather was cool enough to do so comfortably, and because I knew I would not see that landscape of my lonely for a long while. I didn’t know how long “a while” lasts in quarantine, nor did I know that the messages I exchanged with the ghost—me recording my voice, him texting—while I walked would be among the last interactions we would have until now, now being whenever you are reading this, now meaning I’m still wondering whether I had just been an emotional support plaything (again), now meaning we never spoke again.
My first answer to the question “What are you willing to do?” [How childish am I that I can’t help but hear this in Rihanna’s voice each and every time, even after all these months?] emerged from a need to adjust to sheltering in place without descending into an endless of wallow of the what-could-have-been of this year. I am willing to indulge in the pleasure of [art]-making meant for me a reaching back towards the only childhood where my imagination was my playground and my universe, just as I relied on that same self-sufficiency to carry me through the more mundane and necessary parts of continuing to make a life when so many parts of what life-making had been for us all could now lead to death if one was too careless. I pulled together fabrics and textures that felt indulgent and “too much”: my purple fleece blanket, my grandma’s brown and gold kente, the doing-the-most green fur I proudly relaunch each winter, the first frozen-dead then springing-to-life trees in the park where I would and still run and skate and wander and talk and cry on the phone to my therapist or whoever else I don’t feel I can talk to as freely when I’m indoors.
Needing urgently to avoid the despair spiral that is as alluring as it is repellent and terrifying, I leaned further into something my best friend Eliza and I had been calling a “Black feminist pleasure politic” first as a joke riffing off memes from our favorite Instagram account yung.nollywood, which features scenes and images of women from Nigerian cinema in their finest 90s leopard print halter necks and thin eyebrows [some of us are still rocking these because that’s the hand nature has dealt us] and making statements like “When you get to church, tell God I wasn’t meant to suffer.”
This politic of refusal (thinking with the wayward women Hartman writes about and the radical realities they designed for themselves as well as with my mum, who, quoting a friend, always reminds me “Suffering was not made for us alone.”) is trying to contend with what it means to lead a life of one’s own design in a world where Oluwatoyin was not safe waiting at the bus stop, where Breonna Taylor was not safe in her own bed, in a world where Uyinene was not safe at the post office, where Belly Mujinga, Dominique Fells, Riah Milton, Layleen Polanco, Ruth Abakah, Priscilla Blessing, Ruth Love, and Priscilla Koranchie were not safe, where African women migrant workers are in double exile, in a world that requires our precariousness and our dead bodies to fuel its greedy fires? How can I design this life without falling for the seductive but ultimately disappointing trap of hyper-consumption? A trending online conversation from this summer comes to mind, about Black women being “deserving of luxury,” although it appeared many were talking across purposes and across understandings of what is luxurious based on what we understand as necessity. While I’ve missed several iterations of these online conversations as they unfolded in real time and couldn’t always identify what sparked the discussion—most recently I believe it was Saweetie and birkin bags—, I feel it important to acknowledge that these questions and concerns belong to a collective Black feminist consciousness and body of work, not to me.
What does it matter that I can lounge in a silk robe when a woman who could be my cousin or aunty has permanently bent fingers in sewing position to make this possible? Why is my imagination so hampered by capitalism and the insatiable urge to consume all our troubles away or at least until we are numb to them? Why can I only dream a life of safety, peace, and beauty in relation to the number of objects I can accrue to achieve said life? What will it take, i.e. what am I [we] willing to give up in order for my safety and comfort to no longer require the death of other people? Why does the framing “what am I willing to give up” feel insufficient because of the danger of reinforcing the power dynamic in which easing harm and dispossession rests on the benevolence of a powerful few? It is probably better to ask, to whom am I accountable, what do they need, and am I willing to listen and act accordingly?
Further, how can I [without turning again to consumption] write a praise song and show appreciation for rituals of adornment and beautification both spiritual and physical that my mothers have shown me by example but at times in dreams, and, least desirable, between the lines of racist colonial accounts of our selves? And again, am I courageous enough to live the life of my own design that I have been talking, writing, and thinking about incessantly, knowing that it might be at odds with the pattern my mother and aunts have cut for me, knowing that we are all scared of the possibility that lies on the latter side of my tentative forays into a true belonging to my self only and first and foremost?
Needing to urgently sort through this continuous grief, this unrelenting reengagement of grief and trauma, mine and ours, my answer “indulging in the pleasure of [art]making” became “I am willing to move through crisis with love and magic,” a reference to a clip of Toni Morrison discussing the ways her work dwells on a sense of Black totality, the pain, the dying, the dancing, and the loving. I turned also to the idea of “glamouring” as described by Arthur Jafa in conversation with bell hooks at the New School in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of hooks’ Teaching to Transgress.
“I like to say Black people do this thing I like to call glamouring, we glamour…What Black people 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.”
I am curious about glamouring both in the more obvious or conventional sense of aesthetic beauty and too much-ness, and according to Jafa’s articulation. I’m interested in glamouring specifically as it can be understood and lived by Black queer women; glamouring as evasion, self-protection, self-defense, and rendering parts of the self opaque or inaccessible, especially to the insatiable beast that is white supremacist consumer culture; glamouring as the pursuit of beauty and sweetness in spite of and from within the ruin by which we refuse to be defined; glamouring as the practice of living a life of one’s own design. I will also be using this project to think through what I’m calling for now the Black fem[me]/feminist sublime, a way of looking that takes into account beauty and the aesthetic quality of a landscape or experience as well as the violence and abjection this beauty can obscure. “Process is the project” makes room for creative work as inquiry, so rather than making declarative statements about what glamouring and the Black fem[me]/feminist sublime are and are not, I’m eager to think and imagine alongside Sula, Daughters of the Dust (both film and novel), Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Demonic Grounds, The Black Shoals, Le baobab fou, Suzanne Césaire’s essay “The Great Camouflage,” the films Fast Color and the Giverny Document (Single Channel) among other works, drawing up a theory to converse with other artists and thinkers as well as an aesthetic and ethical principle to apply to and think about in my own prose and poetry.
In addition to my future self in a moment of insecurity where I may be tempted to sit in self-deprecation, I’m writing for and accountable to my mother, the three mothers preceding her, and the generations prior whose names I can’t verbalize but know somewhere deep within; I’m also writing for my class 5 teacher Ms. Sagoe, my class 6 English teacher Mrs. Baah, my secondary school Literature Teacher Mrs. Odamtten, and my professor-aunties from grad school, because I want so badly for them to be proud of me even now; for Black girls who might be looking for a way to orient themselves in relation to the world around us; for Black femmes who live daily by the assertion that “beauty is not a luxury,” but rather “an absolute necessity,” and who are or yearn to be ungovernable.
Despite turning away and running from my loneliness, glamouring and the Black femme/feminist sublime are not as far removed from the isolation I fear I continue to refer to though I do not feel it nearly as much as I once did; I have felt more loved and held this past year than I have felt in a very long time. Glamouring has also meant for me a very self-conscious and hyper-feminine performance of beauty or as close as I could get to it considering my lack of skill in the realm of face, a carefully constructed persona that allowed me to deflect or pretend to not feel daily acts of indignities and small and colossal acts of violence committed by assorted whites and by men that I allowed close enough to me to hurt (and those I did not allow who still hurt anyway). And what else is dreaming the sublime through a Black femme/feminist lens, or rather heavily tinted sunglasses, if not the charting of an “affective map” that details how we create space for “love and magic” from within and hopefully beyond crisis and violence? As always, I end at the beginning, proving to my self that neither point in the journey is more important or necessary than the other when one is wandering and wondering.
Extract from Week 1 Journal, March 22nd:
Eating Beauty As Though I Am Starved
Outside of my heart and mind, these ideas around pleasure and intimacy manifested themselves as what started as a joke between my self and my best friend. We started exchanging memes and images of Black women indulging themselves, each time adding the caption “a Black feminist pleasure politic” or “that’s what I call praxis!” A photo of Rihanna at carnival holding a huge mango and resplendent in pink feathers and bantu knots? A Black feminist pleasure politic! A fly 90s Nollywood babe saying to her friend, “You have to satisfy yourself without being guilty.” A Black feminist pleasure politic! It already felt irreverent at best and hedonistic at worst to embrace enjoyment as the standard for our lives, and even more so now when the pandemic is putting in harsh relief the brutality and unlivability of the current world.
The amount of fear involved in opening my self up to the pursuit of pleasure and of beauty has been almost too much to bear. As with most difficulties I have encountered in my adult life, the guidance I need is to be found first with my mother, whose middle name Obiageli means, “I came to enjoy life,” and then with the words and lives and worlds of Black women inside books. Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval has been on my mind since I read it last year, but every time I move to pick it off the shelf, the fear stops me; fear of what my life and my art would be like if I dared to live like the “wayward” Black women in those pages; women whose “too great a love of beauty was often the sign of ungovernable wants and errant ways (Hartman 117); women with profound yearning for the frivolous, the ornamental, the extravagant, even in the midst of an imposed state of social and moral ruin; women who compel me to keep this sentence rolling far past a reasonable length; women who lived an example of being too wide a sky to be crammed into somebody’s small house.
The title of this post comes from a proverb actress Lupita Nyong’o once quoted, and which I have also seen in the work of Ghanaian author Ayesha Haruna Attah, though I can’t remember which novel; “You can’t eat beauty.” I have taken this as a challenge, rather than the reminder that one’s spirit is of much more importance than one’s physical appearance and other people’s perception of it, which I think Nyong’o was trying to express. So, I am trying my hardest to be boundless in my living and my creating; to be a Sula kind of woman without harming my self or those around me [although I wonder how possible this is if one was to be a free Black woman in the way Sula was]; to set boundaries for how I will care and be cared for; to decide what of my self I will share in my art and what I will withhold; to eat beauty like I have been starving for it, because I have. Here, I am fighting the impulse to undermine what I have just said about being boundless and refusing martyrdom, but I wonder if there is a danger of romanticizing or trivializing starvation and lack by putting it into relation with beauty. How can I be careful with the pain of other people without swallowing or negating my own? How are we in relation to each other in pain and in beauty? How will my art trace the outlines and look inside these relationships?
“Looking back: To try and see where the background changed places with the foreground. To try and locate the vanishing point: where lines of perspective converge and disappear.”
-Michelle Cliff, from the essay “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire.”
Eating Razors for Breakfast: A Response
written in response to commentary from my former professor’s students, who read my poem in class, March 2020
Thank you all very much for reading and engaging with my poem so thoroughly and with so much care. Your responses brought a much needed lift to my spirit, and I’m glad my work resonated with you.
If my blog tells the truth, I wrote this poem in the middle of the night and posted it around 10am the next day, probably from the 10th floor of the Ansin building, hoping that no one would sit down at my table, but simultaneously wishing someone would. The blog post from that night, also titled “Razors for Breakfast,” opened with the following: “[Initial thoughts from 2:40am, essay for school abandoned hours ago in favor of watching and rewinding Lemonade and taking notes feverishly].” Because my pursuit of something like honesty in my writing is unrelenting even when most likely unnecessary, I checked the original Word document where I typed the poem, and it was created at 4:10am on April 24th. It feels critical to point this out for a number of reasons, the most important being that I want to be as open with you as is necessary for placing my poem in the context that made it possible without crossing the bounds of propriety; the last thing I would want to do is sharing too much when I am essentially a stranger to you.
That spring brought me all kinds of traumas, daily indignities in class and at work (referring to these as “microaggressions” sometimes feels inadequate), and upheavals in my personal life I only managed to share in full with people that care about me about 3 years after the fact. This was my first of many late nights—in fact I never slept a full night for the rest of that spring/summer until I moved to a new place in August—because my rage and despair kept me eyes wide open. Feeling denied of my agency, objectified, and discarded, I was desperate for anything that would fortify me or at the very least shore me up and get me out of the door, onto the train, and towards my various responsibilities. Beyoncé smashing car windows with a baseball bat and Rihanna closing the visor on a helmet covered in flames became my symbols of that rage-filled time as I tried to reclaim and reconcile my fractured self.
To that end, I sought out any images of and narratives about Black women wielding violence against those who had wronged or oppressed us. In this poem, and many of the other pieces I wrote that year, I tried to contextualize the images of Black woman’s anger presented in Lemonade (released a day before I wrote this) and the video for Rihanna’s song “Needed Me” within a broader history of Black women engaging in violent struggle. The first stanza was my attempt at positioning my self as the persona, watching these stylized images of rage flashing across my screen, while acknowledging that this rage was also ancestral and already within me and us. In the rest of the poem, the details I evoked about women at war were drawn from the warriors of Dahomey (now Benin), one of whom reportedly brought back the head of a French colonizer after a battle. I was channeling all the anger and pain I knew I couldn’t unleash on those I felt had hurt me into my words, reminding my self that I was not as feeble and defenseless as I felt, and creating personas in poetry and characters in fiction who showed the power and fearsomeness that I believed I was lacking.
These days, I’m a lot less angry (at least not for as sustained a period as I was that year) and I am almost frightened by the force behind a lot of the things I wrote in 2016 when I look back over them, which I don’t do often. I do not feel regret or shame, but I’m now able to appreciate the generative and transformative power of anger while also recognizing that anger cannot be my only fuel; I was nearly consumed by it. It’s force is seductive but unsustainable. I’ve also studied and listened more, and having attained some distance between the events of that spring and my self today, I can express gratitude for what these images of histories of Black women defending our selves with violent force, while also recognizing the uncomfortable nuances. What does it mean for me to use two wealthy, light-skinned women as the avatars of my power when there are ways I would not be able to get away with violent outbursts, and ways that I would, having attained certain markers deemed “respectable” if white people are the ones doing the gazing? How can I admire the Dahomey warriors for being the formidable women that they were, when I also know they were often fighting in service of brutal and power-hungry kings, and that they participated in raiding neighboring areas and selling people they captured into slavery in order to consolidate theirs and their king’s power?
The time is 11:28pm, and this was supposed to be “one or two paragraphs” according to Professor Gonzalez Seligmann’s instructions. I hope you will not be overwhelmed or annoyed by my rambling. Thank you again for talking to me through your readings of this poem. I’ll end by saying that I don’t know that I’m now team nonviolence, especially while bearing witness to the ways this pandemic is compounding pre-existing injustices and creating new kinds of violence every day. Razors still ready, and oyster knife sharpened, I keep at this art thing, and I hope you will too, continuing to serve as witnesses and steadfast scribes, while refusing the inclination many of us have to turn that rage inward and onto our selves.
notes towards a glamouring: a detailed outline
initial wonderings, posted on this blog on July 18th, 2018
“I like to say Black people do this thing I like to call glamouring, we glamour…What Black people 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*
*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.
today i did not dress for a funeral today i wear
the yellow dress & laugh with all my teeth
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.
–Canary, Rita Dove
well I wanted to braid my hair
bathe and bedeck my
self so fine
so fully aforethought for
I wanted to travel and read
and runaround fantastic…
…But I had to remember to write down
margarine on the list
and shoepolish and a can of
sliced pineapple in casea company
–The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones: Poem # one, June Jordan
…Let it be said
while in the midst of horror
we fed on beauty—and that,
my love, is what sustained us.
–Transit, Rita Dove
…let me stop, because at this rate my epigraphs have epigraphs…
In thinking about what it means to glamour as a verb, I am tempted to fixate on adornment, on what is most comforting and pleasing to my various senses, on shiny and fragrant things which appeal most to my yearning for instant sweetness even if it dissipates as quickly as it is experienced; ecstatic experiences that leave little lasting impression of any significance beyond more yearning, stale breath, and a dry throat. My first and strongest inclination is to describe glamouring by waxing lyrical about the photo of my mum I took with me to college and still keep even though the frame is damaged and the glass threatens to slide away if you pick it up the wrong way; the one where she is on her way out to a New Year’s celebration and I’m lingering in the background wearing a red and white striped dress, out of focus and head bowed playing with my the giant crystal necklace my mum would use to complete her outfit in another frame from the same night. There’s so much I could say about rifling through the unlocked drawers in my grandma’s room in search of perfumes and lotions she received as gifts and will never use herself, before convincing her to get the key for the second chest so I can take a look at the kete and gold that are only for looking and not for wearing. I would like to share the wonder I felt seeing a photo of my grandma on her wedding day and then seeing the actual dress in waking life, and to talk to you about my mum’s fluffy Afro in the early 70s and the rollersets she wore in the latter part of that decade, hairstyles I have tried to emulate by cutting off inches of my hair and bantu knotting it out.
To discuss glamouring, I would also have to describe to you my Aunty Ama’s gold tooth and how much I miss seeing it appear for split seconds between laughs and my Aunty Lynda’s jade bracelet which she never took off until she let me try it on only for me to break it. In order to understand glamouring, I would need to understand something about Nina Simone and Phyllis Hyman; about La noire de’s Diouna, about her perfectly matching outfits and her quiet yet riotous demise (or escape?); about Motown and Detroit, about capitalism and the exploitation and unsustainability that is fast fashion; about seeking out the “too much” when one is a black woman with more bills than income; about women walking to work on Fridays—or any given day—in Dakar, stunning with ease; about the fact that I never heard about Felicia Abban until this year and African women’s gazes; about the reason my grandma asks if something is wrong when I would try to leave the house without earrings on; about those little ass shades Rihanna wears on the bridge of her nose; about Nollywood fashion from the 90s and early 2000’s, wigs dyed across the color spectrum, long nails, and shades that Rihanna would probably wear today and call it Fenty; about roller discos; about ballroom scenes across the African diaspora; about bathtubs with gold claws feet; about the silver beret Toni Morrison wore while working on the publicity tour for the autobiography of Angela Davis which Morrison herself commissioned and edited.
This beginning is not a throat clearing; it’s really important for me to explain what constitutes my wonder about glamouring. So again:
There was almost no beginning, as in I was ready not to wonder at all about glamouring, because there is nothing I can say or write or photograph or collage that will breathe life back into Oluwatoyin Salau or Belly Mujinga or Riah Milton or Breonna Taylor or Uyinene Mrwetyana or the girls whose names rest in the mouths and prayers; whose names I don’t know but dream of every night without fail. On April 21, my process notes read:
And I don’t feel afraid, so I cannot blame fear for blocking the ecstatic moment where thought transforms into what I can see on the page. Of course there is the reality of our horrifying now, and the horror that preceded and made this present possible and even inevitable, but I don’t think that I’m suffering from the inertia of panic, nor do I feel afflicted by the anxiety of how “urgent” or “useful” my work will be to other people, not because I do not care about this, not at all, but because I’m trying to remember that even one person is too precious to lose, so that the one person that might see something painfully or pleasantly familiar in my writing means that I have done something “urgent” or “useful” by creating this work.
I was lying to my self, trying to will my self out of the very panicked inertia I claimed to not feel. The spirit of self-awareness reminded me that no one expected a writer they did not know to resurrect loved ones wrenched from their lives by the state’s force acting through police and catcallers and partners who had vowed to love them, vowed to love us. Grief however, was so all-encompassing and impossible to surmount, leading to helplessness and a turning inwards and against my self. I couldn’t bear to look at my novel draft; of what “use” was a story set on an island outside of time that is a refuge where the souls of formerly enslaved African people fly to be free, where the inhabitants are essentially the embodiment of hundreds of years of freedom dreams. What can we do with that? My grief turned spiteful and nihilistic, reminding me that nothing I would every say or write or photograph or collage would be significant of beautiful enough to matter to anyone in this death-dealing world, that my consistent evocation of the artist as witness and recorder of painful truths in the spirit of James Baldwin was just an excuse to remain shiftless. I cried, left voice notes to friends while crying, skipped meals, and stared at (but did not move to attend to) the never ending Excel spreadsheet with due dates trailing down the screen like a ticker tape counting all the more urgent ways I could be using my energy and spirit than this job. And then I decided that whether I got to work or not, I was self-obsessed, casting strangers as tragic causes in my imagination too far gone for me to save even though no one had asked, but at least if I wrote something I could clear my own cluttered mind, attend to my own life rather than continuing to despair (I despair still, but making art makes it easier to swallow), and maybe in the process write down some words that might be enjoyable or at least familiar to someone. None of the girls and women I have been mourning from afar nor their loved ones asked to be martyred at the blood-drenched hands of the state nor to be remembered only as such. There are also favorite songs, that one dress, bottles of perfume only half-used, last hugs steadily turning cold and turning into memory. In making art, we will remember for the ways they loved and were loved, and not as symbols of white supremacist violence.
This project, as is much of my other writing, is an attempt to document my self and our selves, my n= Black women I adore and with whom I try to be careful just as they do with me. Previously, the compulsion behind my work has been to assert an embodied self against the constraints of the idea of the self that other people prefer to experience and consume, a shapeshifter conveniently rendered in whatever form the consumer feels they need. Reading Evelyn Hammonds’ “Black (W)holes and the geometry of Black female sexuality” shifted my point of departure and ultimately my focus. Published in 1992, Hammonds paper points to the way white feminist and queer studies discourses give only cursory acknowledgement to and ultimately reinforce the silence and invisibility of Black women. She also cautions that in trying to write against this erasure and trying to describe this “place that resists telling,” Black feminist thinkers trying to navigate the discursive and material violence of “respectable” academic spaces also run the risk of double erasure of Black lesbians and queer women, relegating them to a double silence and displacement. Rather than focusing on forces that threaten to and depend on disembodying Black women, I want to see what I can create if I focus on the possibilities that arise when we create lives according to our own design, not against invisibility but towards wholeness on our terms. My goal is not to make believe as though we do not move through the world according to various matrices of domination, but to take care to understand the expanse of elsewheres and otherwises that we chart for our selves in various ways.
I have been wondering or wandering; engaging in flanerie like strolling and taking the long way on the way back from an errand; Sula sauntering away from Nel’s wedding smiling, wandering away and towards a ten-year absence from the bottom) on the page and in my imagination) in the following ways:
Glamouring as Hypnosis, Dazzling, Mesmerizing
Whenever I am curious about an idea or an image that could turn into a piece of fiction, I tend to find references that deepen my curiosity or affirm whatever the idea is everywhere I look, to the point where I start to question whether I am not just folding everything I read, watch, and/or listen to into my fixation even if they don’t fit. One more obvious instance of this alignment or serendipity came while I was doing one of our assigned readings from Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy. She makes reference to “glamouring” as a way of using charisma or charm to evade authenticity and vulnerability. She borrows the term from the TV series True Blood in which vampires with this power are able to hypnotize people via eye contact. In the context of black feminism and black femme worldmaking in which I’m wandering, glamouring as a way to hypnotize or mesmerize is neither empty artifice or pretense, nor is it a means of committing harm or violence against the subject of dazzling gaze. Rather, I’m curious about glamouring as self-protection and self-defense for black women in a white world enamored, terrified, seduced, and disgusted by us and by themselves for their obsession with us.
Glamouring as the Pursuit of Beauty Out of Ruin or Crisis
I’m interested in glamouring as a black femme craft, creating a life of one’s own design out of the ruin that is presumed to be both our birthright and deathbed-mate. Glamouring in this sense involves a deep interest in and commitment to one’s own pleasure and its fulfilment, a Sula way of life: “…she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her” (Morrison 107). A life of black feminist glamouring might inquire about the possibility of forging a Sula-esque path for one’s self—in consistent pursuit of the sort of sensual “ecstatic experiences” that Kathleen Collins’ protagonist Sara Rogers was seeking in the film Losing Ground—without the prospect of isolating and destroying one’s self and those around us, where our desire to fashion our most fantastic selves is not accompanied by cruelty. (More on Sula later). In “Alain and Esthetics,” Suzanne Césaire quotes philosopher and subject of her the essay Emile-Auguste Chartier: “Everything in beauty is spontaneous and at the same time carefully chosen” (Césaire 15). Césaire’s analysis of Chartier’s (known to her as Alain) ideas around the artist’s encounter with and struggle towards the “unknowables” of the universe contains a foundational element to the practice of glamouring, beauty that is created and encountered in infinite surprising ways, but also sought after and cultivated with care. In parallel with Saidiya Hartman’s work, glamouring could also be understood as a “wayward” practice, a dreaming and running towards what Hartman calls “the possible” or the “otherwise” as manifested by the girls looking wistfully through the store window at shoes they would like to buy for their lovers (observed through the judgmental gaze of W.E.B. Du Bois): “In the girls longing for beauty lurked something criminal and promiscuous. Too great a sign of beauty was often the sign of ungovernable wants and errant ways. Crime and ornament were bedfellows” (Hartman 116). The criminalization of what is perceived to be excessive and/or non-normative adornment of the self is a form of material and institutional violence I am familiar with in a Ghanaian context, with tattoos, anklets, piercings, locs, and other forms of presentation—beautiful to the wearer—understood as signals of queerness, sexual immorality, and other “deviant” ways of being. There are also the countless stories of Nigerian people harassed and murdered by the state for daring to live every day as a “beautiful experiment.” In other words, being oppressed for appearing to chop life, to be a bon vivant, a vagabond, an enfant terrible too grown up for their own good, is one of many pieces of evidence of the long reach of the neocolonial African state in the lives of the ungovernable and the wayward. Chopping life is a refusal of colonial morality disguised as “African tradition” (unless of course you are doing so with public funds, but that is another matter…)
Glamouring as Evading Surveillance, as Opacity
Jennifer Nash opens her essay “Writing Black Beauty” with a description of her mother’s copy of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf which includes a note from someone named Peter, someone her mother has never mentioned. Her curiosity turns into a reluctance to have her questions met with her mother’s forgetting and a realization that the story behind Peter’s gift and note are not for Nash to know. In my own search for details of lives lived before me and reflections of my self in my mothers, I have also felt my self on the line of treading too far into “…a history I do not know and that is not mine to know, a history I might not ever be able to access” (Nash 102). I don’t even have to go as far as my elusive great-great-grandma Sarah Lͻlͻmo before experiencing these traces of obscured memory. There’s a page of photos in an album somewhere with my mum and two aunts on the beach laughing and drinking, heads thrown back and shorts high-waisted, alongside two men I don’t recognize. I’m so enchanted by the photos and the joy they depicts that I was trying to find a way to connect it in some way to this project. I asked my mum about the photo, hoping she would give me a sort of oral history of the day, but there was something in her response that tempered my excitement and gently suggested that I might be intruding.
Not every memory or past iteration of life is fodder for my creative experiments, especially for my mothers who are deserving of the peace keeping one’s own counsel or being selective about what to share and what to keep tucked behind one’s ear after lifetimes of navigating other people’s persistent demand for care and attention. Nash calls for “beautiful writing,” referring to research and writing practices that take seriously and treat with care the ethics of “develop[ing] cartographies of black women’s losses” (Nash 103). Writing beautifully for me requires listening when my mother answer’s “I can’t repeat that, it was too hurtful” when I ask her something like “And what did grandma say to that?” To write beautifully about my mothers, I must recognize that great-great-grandma Sarah Lͻlͻmo was more than the tragic character we had understood her to be. My mother’s visit to an elderly relative who knew Lͻlͻmo in waking life revealed that she was financially independent and a lover of gold things who would sell and lend jewelry to people for their special occasions. Jennifer Nash’s work encourages me to channel my desperation to recover as many unknowables about Lͻlͻmo’s life (the possibility of finding a photo of her is one I’m not yet ready to give up) as I can into a different way of accounting for the relative silence about her compared to the extensive information available about my great-great-grandfather, a man who the historical record seems to praise equally for his participation in war against British colonial forces and for his later amassing of wealth and enslaving people before agreeing to “freeing” them with his last name and access to education and resources that his wealth made possible.
As a strategy of preserving one’s peace and sense of self, glamouring can be understood as a way that black women render parts of the self inaccessible depending on who desires access, claiming the right to opacity and privacy from piqued interest that is prurient and objectifying. Shaadi Devereaux asks several pertinent questions about the surveillance of black trans womanhood and black women’s performance of femininity in her essay Rollersets and Realness: Black Womanhood Defined as Drag Performance:
“The question becomes, Whose femininity do we seek to question and most obsessively seek to uncover its “dirty secrets”? Are other women’s beauty so readily dissected and probed in private boundaries made public? Whose beauty is a deceit, needing to be uncovered, and whose is seen as simply an extension of an inherently beautiful and awe inspiring womanhood? And finally, what does it say about the way we view not only Black women, both cis and trans, but women across the board? What does it say about how mistrustful we are of our own femininity and unsure of our own standing in the context of a patriarchal gaze?”
Being visible and having one’s image and presence consumed and ostensibly admired does not result in safety; on the contrary it can mean your person will be monitored and picked apart; your death livestreamed, retweeted, favorite, and ultimately forgotten by most apart from those who saw your whole self with loving eyes. In a conversation with scholar, activist, and archivist Che Gossett entitled “Existing in the World: Blackness At The Edge of Trans Visibility, artist Juliana Huxtable describes the ways she uses her work to assert her right to be “a fantasy” rather than “documentary” or “literal,” refusing the pressure from the art world and media institutions to carry out surveillance veiled as interest. Huxtable also discusses the context of her well-known and much gifed answer to a question during a photoshoot: “What’s the nastiest shade you’ve ever thrown?”, to which Huxtable answered: “Existing in the world.” Glamouring means existing as one self beyond demands for easily packaged renderings of the self, “being the shade” as Huxtable says, self-possessed and with one’s back turned to cishetero patriarchy’s desire to monitor, to suppress, to extinguish the glamouring subject.
We glamour, as in we move underground, just out of reach of invasive gazes and out of the scope of surveillance cameras. We glamour, as in we turn convex mirrors flat and useless to those doing the surveillance but perfect for us; subjects in mirror are so far out of view they are unavailable. We do not glamour out of shame but out of the right to keep close to our chest that which we do not wish to be consumed or fashioned into misidentification of our generosity as martyrdom. We glamour, as in we are careful about what we reveal, we “redact” as scholar and multidisciplinary artist Zalika U. Ibaorimi does in her audiovisual piece “Jawn Theory,” being very selective about which salient details we reveal and which we conceal from the uninitiated; some things are only for black femmes to see and understand. We glamour and we glitch as Legacy Russell writes in Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto: we inhabit a “state of opacity [that] is ripe with error to reach toward” (Russell 104). We exist and wander in the in-between beyond algorithm and archive, experimenting with lives and selves unhindered by the oppressive now. We glamour, as in we are:
“…so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
[we] cannot be comprehended
except by my permission”
The collective of thinkers and artists (or electricians, as they self-identify) Taller Electronic Marronage lays out four principles for fugitivity in digital realms, the first of which is as follows:
How do you escape?
Escape: “Break free from confinement or control”
Actions include: run, flee, flight, abscond
Proposition: if you escape, you get free
Question: where do you run, when there’s nowhere to hide?
We steal away with our time—unquantifiable by timesheets and bus schedules—our imaginations and our selves, “thiefing sugar” as Elizette and Verlia do, right under the nose of the white supremacist capitalist order. When every device, every institution, every prying white neighbor and too-talkative seatmate on the train are deputized and bestowed with the power to police and destroy us, hiding may prove impossible. So, we glamour.
This has been an outline in essay form, or an announcement about all the different ways I plan to keep thinking through the act of glamouring. There is so much more I have to study, to sleep on, to backspace several times, to begin again, again, and once more. There is even more that will remain unsaid and unwritten for self-preservation, but also for the mere fact that I can withhold and share according to my own whim.
Brand, Dionne. In Another Place, Not Here. Vintage Canada, 2011.
Césaire, Suzanne. “Alain and Esthetics.” The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941–1945), edited by Daniel Maximin and translated by Keith L. Walker, Wesleyan University Press, 2012, pp. 11–18.
Collins, Kathleen, director. Losing Ground. Milestone Films, 1982.
Devereaux, Shaadi. “Rollersets and Realness: Black Womanhood Defined as Drag Performance.” BGD, 24 July 2014, https://www.bgdblog.org/2014/07/rollersets-realness-black-womanhood-defined-drag-performance/. Accessed 24 June 2020.
Figueroa, Yomaira C., Jessica Marie Johnson, Christina Thomas, Stephany Bravo, Halle-Mackenzie Ashby, Kelsey Moore, Ayah Nuriddin, and Jada Similton. Taller Electric Marronage. https://www.electricmarronage.com/. Accessed 13 November 2020.
Giovanni, Nikki. “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why).” Poets.org, https://poets.org/poem/ego-tripping-there-may-be-reason-why.
“Glamour.” True Blood Wiki, https://trueblood.fandom.com/wiki/Glamour. Accessed 24 June 2020.
Gossett, Che and Juliana Huxtable. “Existing in the World: Blackness at the Edge of Trans Visibility.” Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. MIT Press, 2017, pp. 39–55.
Hammonds, Evelyn. “Black (W)holes and the geometry of Black female sexuality.” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. Duke University Press, vol. 6, no. 2–3, 1994. Gale Literature Resource Center, https://link-gale-
com.proxy.emerson.edu/apps/doc/A17250598/LitRC?u=ecl_main&sid=LitRC&xid=48a1acb8. Accessed 29 June 2020.
Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.
Ibaorimi, Zalika U. 2020. “Jawn Theory.” Visual and New Media Review, Fieldsights, June 18. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/jawn-theory. Accessed 13 November 2020.
Nash, Jennifer C. “Writing Black Beauty.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. University of Chicago Press, vol. 45, no. 1, 2019, pp. 101–122.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Grafton Books, 1972.
Russell, Legacy. Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. Verso Books, 2020.
 Not the elitist evocation that “Afropolitan” or “citizen of the world” imply, where one’s passport and wealth afford easy wandering over borders that cause displacement and death for so many more people.
 Playing in the Dark
 From “Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible,” in Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
 Maybe this is a lie.. Maybe it is only half true for me myself. There are things that I have not said in this essay or anywhere on this blog, there are things I will never say explicitly, even to those who know me best. In some instances, are my failures to disclose borne out of shame or a lack of courage? I am not able to say.
 “Thus, by the seizure of our uselessness, we make the reading of our bodies more difficult. Wandering in-between, we become dangerous data. In this happy failure, we reconstitute reality” (Russel 117).
 From the poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why) (1968) by Nikki Giovanni
 Dionne Brand’s 1986 novel In Another Place, Not Here traces the experiences across time and space of two women; Elizette, a cane-cutter, a community organizer whose love comes to be during political upheaval in an unnamed somewhere in the Caribbean. The novel opens with an image that speaks to the radical possibilities of queer Caribbean women loving each other in the context of a violent, neocolonial world; “Grace. Is Grace, yes. And I take it, quiet, quiet, like thiefing sugar.”
Notes Towards a Black Femme/Feminist* Sublime
Mother Mercy Journal Entry Prompt: “What you pay attention to grows.” -Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown
What have you been paying attention to?
My journal entry (May 30th, 2020):
I’ve been paying attention to, or growing my interest in an idea I’m calling [for now] the Black fem[me]/feminist sublime. All week, I’ve been mulling over the thought of a different way of looking that takes into account the near-idyllic beauty and aesthetic quality of a landscape and the violence this beauty can hold and/or conceal. In other words, a sublime landscape has the power to glamour, so that its desolation and abjection is obscured to the uninitiated eye, the eye of one who is not looking through a Black fem[me]/feminist lens. I’ve been thinking about how the Black fem[me] sublime can account for, subvert surveillance and assault on our bodies and psyches as well as the rendering of our deaths as spectacle, and open up our already expansive subjectivities in a world that insists on us being objects. I’m thinking about queer Black women as experts in glamouring and opacity, and in the sublime as a profound understanding of the necessary[?] interplay of pain and pleasure. Our way of knowing and looking far surpasses and transcends “duality,” or “juxtaposition” because we are too vast, our understanding of power and dispossession is in an open space in the dimensions beyond the second and third to which the uninitiated have access. This is interplay, this is the matrix of domination broken to pieces, this is alchemy, this is sublimation.
If I’m being honest, I’ve been thinking about the sublime since I encountered the idea in my first semester of graduate school via readings in a travel literature course that examined the sublime as a particular [colonial, one-dimensional, white] way of constructing and narrating nature (often in a “foreign” land the narrator had no business trespassing to begin with). This wasn’t the most interesting entry point into my understanding of the idea, rather, it was the professor’s alternative explanation of the sublime as the thrill of the proximity to another person’s danger versus the comfort and relief of one’s own safe distance from that danger. I grew so obsessed with this definition of the sublime that I began to apply it [mostly overdoing it] to different situations in which I found my self. Am I constantly thinking about this friend’s problem because I’m genuinely concerned, or is my interest a twisted experience of the sublime? Am I consuming this pain and gawking at someone else’s precarity because it reinforces my relative safety and comfort? Is it that deep?
As always, the questions abound, multiple times more than the answers I will most probably never find: what does it mean to feed these ideas while sheltering in place from a pandemic, while I am relatively safe, still employed, and able to meet most of my material needs, while the virus takes from us sisters who are classified as “essential” but without the essentials to stay healthy and alive, while the police or “unidentified” strangers still murder us asleep in Louisville or standing at a traffic light in Lagos or at home in Sikeston or in a car in Rio de Janeiro? What am I mapping with this list of locations? What does it mean that this idea began to germinate during the course of an at best fraught, at worst hostile graduate program? [Looking back through my notes on the sublime from that class in the fall of 2015…“Notes on Readings 9.22: Today I learnt that I am not allowed to be an authority even on my own experience.’]
Thankfully, the Black femme/feminist sublime accounts creates space for all these questions, for the crisis, the love, and the magic. Thankfully, “we were not invented yesterday,” so that cartographers, gardeners, carers in the forms of Black women artists and theorists have already described what this kind of looking and seeing is. There has already been a Dawtuh Island, Sula sauntering back into town—the original Black flaneuse [no Afropolitanism parallels here please, this is the farthest thing from blue/green passport discourse], and generations of Black women who can tear open the sky, Suzanne Cesaire, Katherine McKittrick, Tiffany Lethabo King, and Sandra Greene. How I will read and process all this in the midst of all this crisis and all this doubt remains to be seen.
The following was added on November 3rd, 2020
The Black femme/feminist sublime lives in a house with yellow siding and purple shutters [you wouldn’t believe the colors matched so well unless you saw it for your yourself] on Burgundy Street in New Orleans. The correct pronunciation of the street name [whatever you thought is not what it is] is on the inside of her left cheek right above the place her wisdom teeth used to cut deep enough to bleed. The danger of embodying this idea in this particular body is that like her, the idea might become subject to or object of the deathly matrices that determine how said body exists and is understood in the world. I was so reluctant to name the location as New Orleans for a number of reasons, many valid enough to warrant that I stop the paragraph here to consider a more thoughtful way of wondering.
My intent is not to make of New Orleans a playground for my writerly flânerie the way so many tourists and the cannibalizing and opportunistic wealthy treat the city. The truth is that I am here in my bedroom in By A Highway Somewhere, Massachusetts, but I am actually waiting to cross the street in the Tremé. I don’t know how to describe to you that for a city that I have only visited twice, there is a self of mine that remained there waiting for me to reconcile all my selves on a rainy day we will decide to experience from the veranda, all the better to smell and feel the air. If this seems contrived and insincere, I will understand, because if after all these years of longing to be there permanently and not just for short visits, I haven’t found a satisfactory way to describe how New Orleans feels like home in both sweet and painful ways.
I have chosen to situate my wandering towards the sublime in New Orleans for another reason: the fact that the sentence “Black New Orleans is the Center of the World” has been echoing in my mind since I first read it in the title of an article by Jessica Marie Johnson, a Black Studies and Digital Humanities scholar whose work amazes and gathers me beyond the beyond. Published in a special issue of the Journal of African American History marking the tricentennial of New Orleans, Johnson’s essay was part of a forum reflecting on historian John Blassingame’s body of work about the lives and freedom struggles of enslaved black people in New Orleans and across the south. Johnson describes New Orleans as a place that holds all the tensions between “resistance, kinship, community, childbearing, the body, violence, pleasure, and more” as experienced by enslaved people in the antebellum era and resounding in our now. Without turning the complicated history of New Orleans into a spectacle to be pitied or gorged on, emptied of its people and histories in order to serve as a backdrop for whatever my longings are, I will say that the sweetness and the pain that accompanies my feelings of comfort and belonging in the city come from feeling the spirits raging and dancing and clashing and suspended between worlds which might be familiar to people from around the Black diaspora. I’m trying to tell you that I spent hours walking around the city feeling as though I wanted to break down and weep, and also that I had walked down those streets before (colonial architecture will do that to you), and also that I was in pursuit of something that I still can’t quite articulate but that I am absolutely sure I found.
My introduction to the sublime in graduate school came via reading colonial travel narratives and [white] feminist analyses of Euro-American, masculinist engagements with and writings on sublime experiences of natural landscapes. A chapter on Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters by Sara Mills cited Gillian Rose’s reframing of the idea of “landscape” that accounts for not just object as fixed in place by the viewer’s gaze but also the “way of looking.” The professor’s description of the sublime as an experience that contains the thrill of witnessing someone’s precarity as well as the relief of one’s own relative safety also fascinated and troubled me, but I didn’t quite know how to relate these ideas to each other at the time.
Was Sula’s apparent “interest” in her mother’s burning an experience of the sublime according to this definition? Was she thrilled by the sight of the blaze and relieved at the same time that she was safe from it? Was she feeling vindicated for the moment she heard her mother Hannah admit to loving but not liking her as a daughter?
“When Eva, who was never one to hide the faults of her children, mentioned what she thought she’d seen to a few friends, they said it was natural. Sula was probably struck dumb, as anybody would be who saw her own mamma burn up. 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.”Sula, pp. 74
The prospect of Sula’s morbidly sublime watching of her mother’s death horrifies me and is one of the moments that stops me from falling completely over the edge of Sula hagiography or full-blown stanning. Sula scares and delights me, and I think her character as well as the setting of the Bottom—where “the laughter was part of the pain” (Morrison 12)—are invaluable to my wondering about the black femme/feminist sublime.
I kept thinking about the sublime when Bridgetown, Barbados felt so familiar to me—the flame trees and enthusiastic “good evening” and “good night” had me feeling nostalgic whiplash about Accra—while I also felt a deep unease and wondering about the violence that broke onto those shores where I was standing, hundreds of years before, and about what those ancestors might have felt, seen, and thought of that landscape. I hadn’t read or even heard of Suzanne Césaire (even as an undergraduate French major, I am ashamed to admit) until grad school, and her essay “The Great Camouflage” broadened the scope of my musing just a little more and gave me some more language I could use. She described the violence and colonial dispossession concealed by what the uninitiated gaze might experience as Martinique’s idyllic landscape,
“It is thus that the Caribbean conflagration blows its silent fumes, blinding for only eyes that know how to see…if my Antilles are so beautiful, it is because the great game of hide-and-seek has succeeded, it is then because on that day, the weather is most certainly too blindingly bright and beautiful to see clearly therein” (Césaire 45).
The text Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies by Tiffany Lethabo King and Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle will be absolutely essential to the continuing life of my project. I also plan to engage with Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter: A History of Meaning and Memory in Ghana by Sandra Greene, though I must admit that I don’t have anything coherent that I can say about these works at this time. Having only read King once and still working through McKittrick and Greene, all I know is that my understanding of the Black femme/feminist sublime as an alternate and fugitive space will be grounded in African and diasporic feminist thought even if my initial interest started with Mary Wollstonecraft.
As is my tendency when I’m fixated on a new idea, I have been seeing the black femme/feminist sublime everywhere, considering whether everything I listen to, read, and watch can fit into the frame I’m trying to create. Even after 9 months in the Mother Mercy incubator, I am still very much in the wandering stage of my work, so that I can tell you I plan to write about what it meant for me to feel unease and sorrow in Congo Square on my own, my only company the school library’s copy of the novel Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward in my bag, and to sit there in shared joy and ease with my mother two years later, but I’m not yet sure what those moments have to teach me about the black femme/feminist sublime. I think I have recognized the black femme/feminist sublime in Julie Dash’s novel Daughters of the Dust, which follows the events of the film of the same title. In the book, there is a scene where one of the Peazant daughters finds bones and shackles in a field she has been cultivating diligently. Following a ceremony to put these spirits to rest with respect, flowers begin to bloom on the land, tended to by a neighbor on the island. I believe the film Fast Color absolutely belongs in a discussion of the black femme/feminist sublime, as it follows a family of black women who can control and remake the physical world with their minds—there is a stunning scene where we see a cigarette disintegrate into its sparkling component particles, suspended in the air—and in some cases involuntarily, where a daughter’s seizures cause earthquakes proportional in size to the severity of the seizure. Another film I would definitely need to read alongside the black femme/feminist sublime is Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document (Single Channel), a film I adore and am also terrified by because it involves Gary interviewing Black women and girls she stops on the streets of Harlem, NY; “Do you feel safe? Do you feel safe in your body? In the street? In the world?” I adore the film because of all the women who answer yes, of course, and I am terrified because I can’t remember the last time I would have been able to answer the same way without hesitation. When 7-year-old Ti’Jhae asserts that she never feels like she’s in danger and feels protected by her parents and grandparents, I am appalled at my self, because my first thought is “Wait until she finds out what it’s really like.” What has happened to me that I can’t imagine Ti’Jhae in a near future where she doesn’t have to “learn the hard way” what walking the world in a black femme body means? [I know what has happened to me, but I can’t tell you here.]
Do I seem lazy? As in, does this work seem lazy to you? It has been three years since my last graduate workshop or seminar, but I am still not fully deprogrammed from the idea that my near-perfect finished “product” is much more important than the process, the meandering it took for me to get there. I suppose I can’t expect to deprogram when I am currently scrambling to amass enough points for the work I do on my day job (I mean this literally, we amass points based on how much we copyedit; please read this) so that I can keep making ends move slightly closer to each other even if they never meet during several converging global crises. I can assure you my performance review would not accept “Process as the Project” as an explanation for why I have fallen short. [The weeks I fell short, it was because all I could do was cry for Oluwatoyin Salau and for us, and for my self]. And because this same ideology that focuses almost exclusively on “output” and not process also enforces a sense of scarcity and a cutthroat approach that encourages stepping on your neighbor to get yours, I’m also wondering, what if this is my only good idea? What if someone steals it? Is it even worthy of stealing? If not, that means it’s worthless, right?
So do I seem lazy? After all, I am telling you what I plan to do with these ideas, not applying them immediately. I have talked so much only to say that I still have much more studying to do. I can show you my notes; I’m serious about this. My soul continues to bow down because of work, because of the world, because of trying to “pitch” my novel—the most complete thing I have made to date— in ways that will make it appear “marketable,” to convince someone white to “sell” it to someone else who is also white so that all of them will have their cut before leaving me a little to pay off some of my student loans. I thought I had overcome the impulse to undercut my self in my writing, and yet. And yet, thinking about the black femme/feminist sublime has given me so much to delight in, especially in a year full of grief and violence compounded over and over, and I’m trying to remember that the beauty I have eaten via word and film and music is important, at least as far as my own creative process and state of mind are concerned. At least for now.
*As you can probably tell from the variations in spelling and framing, I haven’t quite decided on how to name the Black femme/feminist sublime. Sydney Fonteyn Lewis offers an exciting possibility with Black femme-inism, which she describes as making possible “rich new forms of queer and feminist inquiry and acknowledging its indebtedness to those methodologies.” This allows for a kaleidoscopic way of looking that includes foundational black feminism and womanism as well as wonderings and wanderings into “something else to be” (as Sula and Nel sought) or into a vast otherwise.
Césaire, Suzanne. “The Great Camouflage.” The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941–1945), edited by Daniel Maximin and translated by Keith L. Walker, Wesleyan University Press, 2012, pp. 39–46
Gary, Ja’Tovia. The Giverny Document (Single Channel), 2019.
Johnson, Jessica Marie. “Black New Orleans is the Center of the World.” The Journal of African American History. University of Chicago Press, vol. 103, no. 4, pp. 641–651.
Mills, Sara. “Written on the landscape: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.” Romantic Geographies: Discourses of Travel, 1775–1844, edited by Amanda Gilroy. Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. 19–33.
Rose, Gillian. Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. Polity, 1993.
 I think it is that deep, if one wants to treat other people with the utmost care. I’d rather overthink than be inconsiderate or cruel…
 This is from Elizabeth Alexander’s foreword to Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, a collection of short fiction by Kathleen Collins the incredible and incredibly versatile. The full quote is one I love: “Our minds are intricate. Our desires are complex. We are gorgeously contradictory in our epistemologies. We were not invented yesterday.”
 I wrote these opening lines in the back of an otherwise full planner and forgot about them, so that when I went to start typing, I initially described the pronunciation of Burgundy Street as a Nana Benz speaking French. I decided to return to my original description because it felt insincere, like a forced way to signal diasporic relation when in reality I don’t actually know what a Nana Benz speaking French sounds like, let alone what she would sound like saying “Burgundy Street.”
 “Black New Orleans Is the Center of the World,” Jessica Marie Johnson. pp.649
 Sara Mills quoting Gillian Rose’s Feminism and Geography.
 I don’t know that I will ever get over her murder, because she tweeted on a public profile that she was in danger, but no one got her to safety.
Glamouring and the Black Femme/Feminist Sublime: A Wondering*
*wondering: as in I’m wondering about you, but hope I do not pry too much; a “questionnaire” in a sense, but without the institutional coldness
keywords: glamouring, pleasure, sublime, desire, black feminism, femme, opacity, sweetness, what is your favorite word; is it someone’s name—your own?
At the center of my project is curiosity and wonder about “glamouring” both in the conventional sense of aesthetic beauty and too much-ness, and according to the definition Arthur Jafa provided during a talk with bell hooks to commemorate the 20th anniversary of hooks’ Teaching to Transgress:
“I like to say Black people do this thing I like to call glamouring, we glamour…What Black people 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.”
I’m interested in glamouring specifically as it can be understood and lived by Black queer women; glamouring as evasion, self-protection, self-defense, and rendering parts of the self opaque or inaccessible, especially to the insatiable beast that is white supremacist consumer culture; glamouring as the pursuit of beauty and luxury in spite of and from within the ruin by which we refuse to be defined; glamouring as the practice of living a life of one’s own design.
Black Femme/Feminist Sublime
I am also using this project to think through what I’m calling for now the Black femme/feminist sublime, a way of looking that takes into account beauty and the aesthetic quality of a landscape or experience as well as the violence and abjection this beauty can obscure. In other words, a sublime landscape has the power to glamour, so that its desolation is obscured to the uninitiated eye, the eye of one who is not looking through a Black fem[me]feminist lens. I’ve been thinking about how the Black fem[me] sublime can account for and subvert surveillance and assault on our bodies and psyches as well as the rendering of our deaths as spectacle, and open up our already expansive subjectivities in a world that insists on us being objects. I’m thinking about Black [queer] women as experts in glamouring and opacity, and in the sublime as a profound understanding of the necessary[?] interplay of pain and pleasure. Our way of knowing and looking far surpasses and transcends “duality,” or “juxtaposition” because we are too vast, our understanding of power and dispossession is in an open space in the dimensions beyond the second and third to which the uninitiated have access. This is interplay, this is the matrix of dominiation broken to pieces, this is alchemy, this is sublimation.
Because the sample size of this study is n = some of the people I love most in this world, you can probably conclude that this questionnaire is less scientific inquiry than it is love letter. I feel that I cannot write to, for, and about you if I don’t find out more about how you are orienting your selves in relation to this world that requires our suffering and our death in order to continue its orbit. You are not required to answer all (or any) of these questions directly. You are rather invited to read and sit with the questions, noticing which aspects strike you as intriguing, sweet, uncomfortable, unanswerable, or resonant in whichever way you experience. We will schedule a video call during which I hope you will share your impressions and feelings. The call will not be recorded—Toni Morrison has already warned about folding real lives into fiction, and I do not want to be a scavenger—but I plan to take notes and ask follow-up questions as the need arises during the conversation. Afterwards, rather than recording the details of what we spoke about verbatim, I will use my notes of both what was said and the silences to write a “report,” a short fictionalized prose piece that will attempt to hold, think with, and respond to the desires and concerns expressed in our conversation.
Think of something delicious; a taste or experience. Can you think of it without it coming from a place of scarcity or the guilt quickly following the thrill of the forbidden. What would it mean to access the sublime daily and not just as an occasional treat? What are some ways we experience the sublime on the daily, without the need for material wealth, exploitation, or [hyper]-consumption? Some examples that come to mind for me: cool water on a scalp washed with someone else’s hands; sun showers; the as yet undisturbed surface of a body butter. This is not a prompt or questionnaire that would hold up to an internal review board. I am feeding you the answers because I believe we do not allow our selves the sublime except in small furtive grabs and I want to remind my self and us that this is not a way to live if we want to be well (Thank you, Toni Cade Bambara), if we want to be whole.
- What do you understand by “a life of one’s own design?”
- What would you be doing/eating/wearing/listening to/etc. right now/tomorrow/next week if you had absolutely no fear of repression or judgment? How do you think you would feel?
- When was the last time, if ever, that you felt totally uninhibited or free of anxieties that prevent you from experiencing fullness and sweetness?
- Rhetorical: Can we agree that highly suggestive questions heavy with metaphor are probably very problematic survey design?
- How do you like to be cared for? When was the last time you experienced this kind of care?
- Do you often feel like you are hiding? Why or why not? What would it mean for you to be fully seen?
- Rhetorical: Do you know that you are sublime?
 “bell hooks and Arthur Jafa Discuss Transgression in Public Spaces at The New School.” YouTube, uploaded by The New School, October 16, 2014, https://youtu.be/fe-7ILSKSog?t=758. Right before his explanation of “glamouring” Arthur Jafa asserts that Black American people have “a series or set of emotional or expressive modalities that are completely tied to their proximity to the white gaze.” He adds that there are equivalencies for women and queer people, as if to say that queer Black women don’t exist. Some of us are brave. Also note that I have chosen the British spelling (much to my own neocolonial dismay) because the “ou” gives me Diahann Carol–may she rest in peace–or Rama Brew.
 I’m still thinking about how to name my/our selves, as I came across arguments about the counter-productiveness of the commonly used formulation “women and femmes.” How do I signal the capaciousness of gender and its performance without reinforcing binaries? “Women and Femmes’ I Not As Inclusive As We Want It To Be” by Danny Renee.
Extract from “musings*”
*written for the Mother Mercy site in April 2020
I have been exhausting my self, denying my self rest and calling it “method.” That this post starts in media res is just one indication of this unsustainable habit of mine. Apparently, my inclination to start my writing “in the middle of things,” is not a one-off occurrence but rather a tendency that a professor pointed out to me in graduate school, and not necessarily as a criticism, just an observation. I should have told her that it was because I hadn’t taken a breath in between the words on the last essay/poem/reading response/text message/scream into the void that was behind my shower curtain before beginning my next assignment, never allowing exhaustion to simmer down into some stillness.
I would find out eventually that being unrelenting with my professional and creative commitments would be harmful to my physical and emotional wellbeing, but the day after my graduation from my master’s program, no one could have warned me, even my mother who was shocked that I was already drawing up reading lists, lists of jobs, lists of fellowships (the ones I hadn’t already been rejected from), lamenting the hindrance to typing caused by the length of my bright yellow graduation acrylics. [These days I’m finding it hard to type without them.] What was a break when I didn’t have a job beyond a part-time summer position or a new lease, with the awareness of tens of thousands of dollars in debt hovering somewhere over my left shoulder, just out of sight but close enough to feel its heavy, anxiety-inducing presence? In subsequent months, every book I read, film I watched, Black visual artist I studied had to be in service of “my project,” the novel I was trying to complete [And now, have completed] and weekends were to steal back the time jobs 1 and 2 had taken from my writing and studying, my social life being confined to fairly rigid time slots decided on far in advance. What was leisure?
If only I could say that this story turns when I realized the ongoing and ultimately deadly scam that is capitalism, that my issue was nothing more than the hubris of a writer believing that being willing to sacrifice reliable healthcare, teeth, dignity, cracked fingernails, sleep and so on would ultimately lead me to the elusive promised land where I could live comfortably on my art alone. If even I believed that “paying my dues” and steeling my self through a little misery would allow me to create more “authentically,” this would be an easier, less long-winding story to recount.
I’m trying to tell you that the question “What are you willing to do?” was terrifying to me, because I used to believe that the answer to that question meant whatever it took, even if at the expense of my wholeness. I’m trying to tell you that beyond growing accustomed to operating from a place of deprivation and scarcity, I sincerely believed that I was undeserving of anything enjoyable, that if I would do something as self-indulgent (or so I thought) as trying to be a writer or daring to live a life of my own design, I would have to bear every difficult consequence on my own. I’m trying to tell you that I can’t even name what my favorite meal is today, because I have disciplined my self into an unbending strictness where I only buy what is cheapest and will last longest, only what is essential and on the grocery list. I’m trying to tell you that I wasn’t just trying to live some sort of romanticized life of a struggling artist; I’m trying to tell you that what I was doing felt like dying. I’m repeating my self because this is a ritual that I cannot afford to see fail.
This distorted conception of self-punishment as “my lot” and my acceptance (which I’m trying to refuse) of the idea that “this is just how Black women artists have it,” (and by “it” I mean moving from one violent institution to another because “better the devil you know”) has led me to the answer: I am willing to delight in the pleasure of [art]making. From the beginning of the Call to Create, I stated my intention to work on an extended meditation on loneliness—a state of being I learned to hold dear—in the form of a “literary assemblage,” borrowing the idea of collaging and blending from visual artists to create a multimedia work anchored by prose and including photography and video elements. I have been saying I’m thinking about loneliness, but everything I’ve been doing in preparation for my project has been turned towards beauty and what is “too much”; thinking about what I have at my disposal at home, plants, fabrics, family photos, cut flowers, jewelry that hurts to wear for more than a few hours, and the scenes I can create out of these…
…I’m [also] curious about the silences in the lives of my mother, her mother, her mother, and her mother, the desires and indulgences left unspoken, my own misreading of my great-great-grandmother’s life that took account only of her suffering without knowledge of her love of gold jewelry and her thriving business. [I have been writing in this direction all this time, over all these pages I’ve written about my mothers as unwilling martyrs*, about women who eat razors for breakfast, about women who wear each other’s faces, women who live in a house to narrow and low-ceilinged for their spirits]. I hope to find a way to understand and navigate my own glamouring—putting shiny coats of high femininity over my bowed-down spirit and a body in pain—in hopes of finding a more sustainable way of being.
My project feels urgent to me because the other day on the phone my mum expressed concern that I am so “sensible and serious” and slow to laugh at some of her jokes. To an extent, I can trace part of this seriousness to the point where our sense of humor diverges; I simply haven’t lived long enough to shed the hot-headed self-righteousness of a 20-something somebody with strong yet ever-evolving political convictions in favor of the healthy irreverence that comes with age. Then, there is also the fact that by the time I talk to my mum on the phone, I have already spent my light and wit and jokes elsewhere, texted all the memes, one-liners, witty words of encouragement, and can only present my self to my mother as this person with a prickly disposition she can no longer recognize.
I don’t want to be unrecognizable to the person who always brings me back to my self no matter how detached or disunified I feel. I want to be full and whole all day, not glamouring when I need to and burnt out and flat when I don’t. I need to recognize that misery and exhaustion are not necessary parts of artistic practice nor my life at large. I’m trying to center the feeling of pleasure that comes when I sit with my work, trying not to despair, trying not to dwell on the impossible weight of the responsibility I feel to write and create things that are immediately recognizable as urgent, useful, and “important” to other people. Sometimes we grow tired of suffering and would like to admire our selves and each other. Sometimes we understand that we experience crisis without being of it, that we can bear witness to and care for each other’s pain without dwelling there eternally, that we have access to “love and magic” as Toni Morrison reminds us. Sometimes we imagine a world where we are glamouring because it brings delight and joy and not as a shield against lack and violence. Sometimes we are too much and loving it.
*This line comes from an essay I wrote in the spring of 2018 about realizing that I urgently needed to stop using the traumas of the women in my family as a measure of my own [perceived] weakness. The full piece is below.
“Looking back: To try and see where the background changed places with the foreground. To try and locate the vanishing point: where lines of perspective converge and disappear.”
-Michelle Cliff, from the essay “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire.”
Out of My Mothers, Unwilling Martyrs
written in March 2018
All it takes is some private crisis, be it tangible or manufactured out of the most obscure and most paranoid parts of my imagination. These may appear in varying degrees of gravity: students whose mental health difficulties I try to carry alongside my own; a dental bill with more digits on it than my latest paycheck; an ever-growing loneliness that swells around myself to the point that I fear suffocation. Any internal worry, spectacularly minute, is still seemingly infinite in its ability to induce pain, or at the very least to bring forth a bout of tears at the most unsuitable moments, in a work meeting or over an over-priced and under-seasoned pastry in a crowded café of people trying not to stare. It is in these moments that I think most about my mothers, my own mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and all the women before them who made our existences possible. I am ashamed to admit that I occupy myself with the memory of them most when I am in trouble, their struggles sorted and arranged in no particular order for me to compare with my own. I conjure a morbid mental parade of my mothers’ many traumas: being on both sides of abandonment, children dead before they had names, and ambitions distorted and forced along undesired trajectories. I turn to them for “perspective” on how petty my worries appear in comparison to theirs, to place in sharp relief my relative weakness in opposition to what I perceive to be their immense fortitude.
It is perhaps because private crisis is my current normal, that I have continued to feed this recent fixation on uncovering definitive details about the women in my family, a tireless and tiresome fact-finding mission for evidence that they really lived.
My need to know and to retrieve and hold on to memories I didn’t create shows up in various ways, at times as unrelenting as the needle of a sewing machine hammering at the same point of the machine’s plate, maddening in is precision and refusal to let up. Do you think we can find great-grandma’s birth certificate? Do you know what her mother looked like? Are there pictures of her? How old was she when she died? Why can’t grandma remember? That’s her grandma…I pour my impatience down the phone line to my mother at home in Accra, rushing past her inquiries about the weather in Boston, about my roommates’ well-being, about my uncertain near future waiting on the other side of graduation. Her voice is even and low, undercutting my whiny desperation, as she answers, No, I don’t think so. No, I don’t. That would be wonderful but I don’t think so. I don’t know. Grandma doesn’t know either; she just can’t remember…My mother isn’t the real target of my irritation, mostly because what I feel is not irritation at all, but rather an acute longing to have some records that reach further back beyond my maternal great-grandmother whose love and company I had the rare and incredible privilege to experience until she died the year I turned 11.
Finding nothing substantial enough to satisfy my yearning for these women, I decide to write them into fiction. My maternal great-great-grandma was named Lͻlͻmo, an Ewe name I choose to translate as “Love’s Face.” The nothing I know about her life becomes the ideal space to spin a story about Love personified, walking around earth and turning her face towards those who need to see her the most. Lͻlͻmo’s daughter, my great-grandma, Alwin Mana, becomes a fearsome character who uses her pocketknife to divide up the fabric she prints and sells, to cut away the lives of men who harm any of the women under her protection, to cut open paths into other worlds. I attempt to bend my lack of a cohesive history of these women into stories where this current reality doesn’t have to be the only one.
Flattening these women between pages and hands turned clammy for typing too long, I fear that I am also denying them the complication I allow myself, with my own internal tangle of insecurities, ailments, fears, and aspirations. I write about these women with a sentimentality they would most probably reject, if they are indeed the source of the unwavering and at times harsh pragmatism that all of their descendants, including myself, have within us. As writer, narrator, and the one attempting to filter my family history through my imagination, I position myself as the three-dimensional presence, the center, while my mothers remain faint projections of the past around me, their images smiling and flickering and fading like the few black and white photos of them I have been able to find. My project feels devoid of the kind of reverence and deep love that Alice Walker reminds Black women artists of in my one of my mother’s favorite pieces of writing, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” Walker calls us to live the creative lives “our great-grandmothers were not allowed to know,” to tend and to honor our mothers’ gardens “guided by [a] heritage of beauty and respect for strength.” Meanwhile, I have been choosing instead to fashion out of my mother the heroines I believe I need. I ascribe moral value to the actions of my mothers, rejecting and looking away from the weakness and anxieties they might have had so as not warp my conjuring of their power.
In choosing to respect my mothers in all their complexities, I have to refuse my own urge to make them martyrs in my fiction and in my own personal narrative, and to cease using their stories of suffering and sacrifice to shame myself into thinking that my challenges are inconsequential compared to theirs, and that I have no license to break down nor should I be begging for respite. I’m trying to accept the more accurate translation of Lͻlͻmo’s name – not quite “Love’s Face,” but rather “things are not as they appear on the surface.” I must work to accept that she was no mythical symbol for me to render in fiction, but rather a woman who endured so much suffering at the hands of envious co-wives for being her husband’s most beloved that she prayed that none of her female descendants would ever be loved the way she was, so they might avoid the kind of painful price she paid for love.
If I am going to write about my mothers, I must remember them responsibly, realizing that great-grandma Alwin Mana, or Dada as everyone called her, was a full human being and capable of feeling fear. She must have been terrified as she delivered a baby at home, her only witness being her other young child. What might she have done had a neighbor not happened to hear the baby’s cry? How might I hold this story and her courage to leave an abusive husband to travel far in pursuit of financial and personal autonomy? My own mother, Essie, will occasionally muse about how much more stable and at peace she might have been had she never met, married, and divorced my father. She often cuts those wonderings short by saying “But then I wouldn’t have had you. You would have been someone totally different.” It is tempting to revel in our lives as a result of divine pre-destination, but the truth is that my mother wasn’t actively planning to have me. She was once the age I am now with hair in the fullest, most luscious rollersets and her laugh so open in the photographs you could see back to where her wisdom teeth should have been. She looked nothing like the on-edge, neurotic woman I am on most days. She was the kind of person I would have probably openly despised and secretly longed to be.
I am prone to turning the sharpest edge of critique towards my thin writer’s ego, so that it is highly likely that I’m being too harsh by casting my constant narrative memorializing as some sinister, scavenging act, some grotesque excavation and reassembling of my mothers’ stories in whatever order I choose. Beyond all my weighing myself against my mothers and falling short, I am really looking to connect myself to their lineage, to write about and to them to say, I am here, and I am choosing to live, and we never met, but I hope you would have loved me.
In the absence of written records and archives and boxes of old letters, the girls and women in my family carry traces of ourselves in one another. I have my grandma Lilian’s name as one of mine, her gold nameplate necklace I’ve been begging to “borrow” for years, and the same winking mischief in my face before making a crude joke. We all have the same high cheekbones, but I still insist that people around me confirm by looking at the old photos with me, breathing heavy impatience down their necks until they admit, Yes, you look so much like her. Even as I continue looking for them and myself in these traces of memory, I have to be respectful in my re-inscribing and re-writing of family history, remembering my mothers with care, in the thorough way we—their daughters—know they deserve to be.
I’m terrified at the prospect of other people desiring me, particularly because of how quickly and violently I have experienced its abrupt transformation into unhealthy obsession into entitlement into rage into urge to destroy that which was previously desired. I’m terrified of other people desiring me, especially if those people are cis men, but honestly my terror has a wide wing-span far beyond the gender of the one desiring me. The possibility of another person being so enamored with me that they are willing to do whatever I like does not make me feel powerful, because I have experienced such intense desire as the person using the idea of me to fulfill or mend some broken part of themselves, and as soon as I deny access to any aspect of my being, admiration turns to deep resentment. It’s why “there’s just something about you” reads not as compliment but as threat because of the feat of this same irresistible “something” being the very thing that will lead to my own destruction.
It’s easy enough to say I should’ve “seen it coming” when people showed up
to the airport to tell me they were willing to try after too short of a getting-to-know-each-other time, people who kept messaging and calling under the guise of expressing regret that we didn’t work, who were ready to profess love again-too-soon because it “felt right,” who call you “playfully” Karaba la Sorcière after you assure them that you will not be better off leaving your boyfriend for them. (Ironically, Karaba was only so cruel because she was in constant excruciating pain, a reality that didn’t occur to anyone until Kirikou, the “tiny yet mighty” baby, was able to get close enough to discover the source of the pain.) I wonder if this is cynicism or self-protection on my part.
My fear might appear a little more reasonable if I explain that other people’s desire terrifies me because I have been trained to believe that anyone who desires my body is entitled to a grab, a comment, a plea or demand for a taste, a taking by force especially if they are a man, especially if I present my self in a way that I should’ve known would be desirable or even irresistible to any given man whose path I happen to cross, even if I am 12 in a school uniform, or 16 in my dance class outfit, or 23 in leggings and a leather jacket on the way back from a quick errand, or 23 in pajamas and maybe that didn’t happen, maybe I didn’t say no.
The message was clear: when I was 12 at the butcher’s with my mum on Christmas Day and a group of North African men (the butcher included) jokingly “warned” my mum that someone would steal me away for my beauty if she was not careful. The message was clear: when my uncle looked at the bright green and black cheetah print tights I had picked for plain clothes day at school and said with a contempt I had never heard nor would never again hear in his voice, “You want men to look at your body; you want men to want to touch you?” The message was clear: when a man—maybe that didn’t happen, maybe I didn’t say no—told me to be grateful for encountering street harassment at night because one day I would no longer be attractive enough to warrant such attention; when he wondered aloud why he was so vulgar with me in ways he usually wasn’t (maybe because I wasn’t the white women he usually dated, but that’s an already written essay that might never see the light of day). The message was clear: any sexual interest towards me, specifically from men, unwanted or not, was my own blessing, my own curse, my own ruin to carry.
This may be the reason why I am attempting to write about season 1 of the British television show “Misfits” without re-watching any of the episodes. The show follows the lives of a group of teenagers who all develop superpowers during a severe thunderstorm and have to navigate various precarious situations including their accidental murder of the officer supervising the teenagers’ court-mandated community service. Alisha is the only Black girl in the group, and her “power” is inciting intense sexual desire in anyone who experiences skin-to-skin contact with her, to the extent that the one doing the touching is unable to control themselves unless their desire is satiated or they let go. That this ability is framed as a “power” that she could wield to her advantage when necessary (that is, once she learned how to harness it) horrified me at the time I first watched and even more so now in the wake of certain experiences of my own, and I couldn’t bring myself to re-watch her escape rape at least once per episode.
The show’s Wikipedia entry describes Alisha as “a woman who is extremely comfortable with her sexuality and body,” a very convenient euphemism for the presumed sexual deviance of Black women. How “comfortable” or powerful can one really be if our agency ends where another’s desire begins, if the very surface of our skin conducts “sexual frenzy” or “intense sexual arousal” with no prospect of slowing unless the one doing the touching—the one with the power—releases the desired body or reaches their orgasm? In her coining and theorizing of jawn theory, scholar and multidisciplinary artist Zalika U. Ibaorimi offers a perfectly precise analysis that allows me to read with and deeper into Alisha’s portrayal: “The flesh is not legible to the person who seeks to thingify the body. The flesh signifies the object’s subjecthood, which for the Black being or object their subject hood is misrecognized.” Alisha’s character becomes the literal embodiment of insatiable desire as a result of her own perceived “comfort” with said desire and what she arouses in those who come into contact with her. Her body is a touchstone onto which only men—if my memory can be relied on, we do not see people of any other gender presentations being attracted to Alisha—are able to play out their fantasies and affirm a heterosexuality and masculinity that demand total subjugation of a [Black] woman’s body. Even when sexual attraction between Alisha and other people is mutual, any sexual interaction takes on a heightened sense of danger. What happens if she changes her mind while her partner refuses to let go of her?
Sydney Fonteyn Lewis interrogates constructions of black femininity in terms that echo the idea of a “touchstone:” “When femininity is attributed to black femmes, it is an instrument for white sexual pleasure” (Lewis 105). In her book Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World, Jessica Marie Johnson makes a similar assertion in a way I find equally apt and useful to the violent uses of black women’s sexuality. Of African women enslaved during the Transatlantic trade she writes, “African women and girls were valued as more than trade goods. They were valued as receptacles of licentious misuse” (Johnson 83).
My use of touchstone is an incredibly sly (so sly you would’ve had to be there to know) reference to the white Latinx person in a graduate seminar who described Cecilia Valdes, the titular character of Cirilo Villaverde’s 1839 novel, as a touchstone against which the colonizers are able to “sharpen” their own constructions of self, his rationale being that a touchstone by definition is a black stone that when used to sharpen metal leaves the metal unmarked while the stone itself emerges scratched and scored. From my classmate’s perspective, Cecilia Valdes was necessarily flattened, rid of the dimensions that make her human so that the power and humanity of Cuba’s colonial class could be further entrenched.
Alisha’s sexuality or personal desires about how she would like to be held or touched are completely erased—or as Ibaorimi would put it—rendered “illegible” so that the men may have their way. I wonder if it is possible to understand Alisha’s power through the idea of glamouring, because rather than conferring her the ability to entrance or enchant (vanish?) in order to evade the grasp of lecherous men, her power placed her in deep danger where the men who touch her would stop at nothing, even when met with her protest or refusal, to experience her body the way they wanted and felt they “needed” to. Alisha, and my self, and maybe you, my reader and temporary confidant, are what happens when the archetypal Black femme fatale has her fatal force turned inwards by artists and viewers and men on the train or in the corner who wish to destroy the very thing in her, me, you that they crave so intensely.
Hobson, Janell. Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. Routledge, 2005.
Ibaorimi, Zalika U. 2020. “Jawn Theory.” Visual and New Media Review, Fieldsights, June 18. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/jawn-theory
Johnson, Jessica Marie. Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.
Lewis, Sydney Fonteyn. “Everything I Know about Being Femme I Learned from Sula or Toward a Black Femme-inist Criticism.” Trans-Scripts (2012): 100–154.
Misfits (TV series), Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misfits_(TV_series). Accessed October 20, 2020.
Overman, Howard, creator. Misfits. Clerkenwell Films, 2009.
 This is absolutely not good practice for any kind of rigorous engagement with a work I’m trying to write about, and I know that in order to make more meaningful commentary, I will eventually have to revisit some episodes. For now, I don’t know that I have the mental energy or the fortitude of spirit to do so. I recognize that this might render my commentary unreliable or overwhelmingly shaped by my own traumas and fears. One major failing that I hope to rectify once I watch is to quote Alisha, so that we can listen to her speak herself into being and understand how she perceives her own body and sexuality.
 Janell Hobson’s book Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture offers a study of Sara Bartman and how Euro-American commodification of her body, fascination, desire, and disgust toward her body informed constructions of black women’s sexuality and claim to or lack thereof to “womanhood” from the colonial era and into its afterlives. Sydney Fonteyn Lewis also examines how the “deviance” of Black femme sexuality poses a threat to white cisheteropatriarchal attempts at controlling our bodies and desires.
 There’s a connection I really want to make between Alisha and Angel in the FX tv show Pose and the awe and eventual recoil with which Stan (the cis white man she meets while doing sex work), treats her. This would require me to rewatch Pose in addition to doing a lot more study about black queer women in the sex industry.
“The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner”
[started June 15th, 11:36pm; completed June 16th, 1:30am]
Now I am crying, but when I first remembered this journal entry was due, I was happily placing a third piece of plantain next to the rice I was having for lunch, and I told my self I would make sure to have it done before the weekend and week 13 of the C2C were up. But someone wicked took Oluwatoyin Salau from us and I have continued to unravel from when I found out last night after Insecure [I don’t watch the show anymore, but I so enjoy following along with the live tweets] and throughout today, which I spent switching between staring at Outlook and staring at Excel for my “job.” I’m crying and I don’t feel safe even with all the incense I have burnt [I’m worried I might be damaging my plants but burning something makes me feel like I’m not just sitting and waiting for my own demise], all the salt I have sprinkled in my doorways…I didn’t grow up with this practice, but something told me to do it while my roommate was away for the week], and all the prayers I have whispered by my altar. So I don’t know whether I can speak about the “essence of our liberation” today, but I know I keep thinking about Saidiya Hartman’s book chapter “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner,” about a Black woman named Esther Brown who hated and refused work, and Black women whose forbidden pursuit of leisure and luxury earned them arrest on charges of “vagrancy” and eventually, incarceration. Thinking thro’ve been working on a list that I’m hoping will turn into a piece of my project of glamouring, as part of my vision of what the essence of our liberation feels like.
My professor left two little red question marks next to a phrase in my final paper draft that read: “to navigate situations in which my personhood comes second to my choice to present myself in a hyper-feminine manner and my perceived overactive sexuality.” I was trying to describe how Ken Bugul’s novel Le baobab fou had given me new language to understand the way my body moved in the world. What I didn’t say was that my reading of that book changed from what it had been when I first studied it as an undergraduate—with a lot of the same fraught understanding of and shame around my sexuality as my younger self. I felt myself caught in a shame spiral that stretched beyond that moment in office hours back to teenage years where I relived the dissonance brought about by contradictory advice and pronouncements…
If you’ve got it, flaunt it. If I looked like you, I would—
That my mother “must be a man” because only a man could have the strength to build the kind of life she had
Not to mention continuously hearing: those are too short, meant that for years I wouldn’t wear shorts in the summer even in the swelter of Accra and DC, with the much-rehearsed excuse “Do you see my body? I’ll look like I’m trying to be in a music video,” the subtext being that I believed this was a look to be avoided. Now I’m able to think more clearly about how my personal shame projected outwards turned into a learned class contempt and self-loathing turned outwards—borne out of all the Euro-American media I was exposed to—because I was understanding the “video girl” to be an American figure, and more precisely a Black American femme figure, while also longing to look like them and to be desired the way they appeared to be in my teenage eyes.*
My professor didn’t know that two months earlier someone had walked away from my apartment with the shards of my self-perception in the back pocket of his ill-fitting trousers, someone who confirmed what I already believed to be true, that my body was not an autonomous place for me and me only, but a shape-shifting fantasy realm, a place where this man, black and Ewe just like me, could talk and act how he never thought he could with the usually white women he dated. “Is it bad that I’m so vulgar with you? I probably answered no, but what came to mind was “yes, but that’s what must I deserve for showing up in the world in this body, right?” That shame constitutes the metal rods in the foundation of a wall that stands between anyone else who has wanted (or pretended to want) to draw close to me. Physical acts I can perform with ease and sometimes with pleasure, but intimacy that requires actual words to be understood pose a challenge. I have self-indoctrinated with the idea of my “use” as a conduit for other people’s enjoyment to the extent that I can only “do” but cannot say what that drawing close and doing of intimacy makes me feel, if I have any feelings to articulate at all.
They hyperfemininity I have been taught to revile, to blame for any violence I endure, has also been a shield, meaning that I am never fully settled, or fully safe in my body. I run towards the tight pencil skirt with the mesh bottom and thigh high slits (worn with leggings during Boston winters) and the form-highlighting body suit tucked in, the earlobe-stretching earrings chosen from racks of other costume jewelry that will eventually turn green or brown from sweat, hair oils, water, hair undone from bantu knots and picked out to its fluffiest and most Harriette Essie-like glory, because my preferred aesthetic, much like many other things about my self, I have modeled after my mother. I run towards these things, the rings on every finger, the long natural or even longer acrylic nails, the coats with giant and nearly impractical sleeves as armor and fortress, I live in that glamour, and I also run from them, towards black joggers and hoodies and bulky jackets with lumberjack print; maybe running towards Underneath either costume there is still my ever-shifting self, never fully at ease, almost always feeling endangered.
Maybe if I had read Our Sister Killjoy more carefully or with more mature eyes and with the help of Hortense Spillers’ explanation of ungendering, specifically for the scene where Sissie faces the masculinization of her self as an African women when faced with the sexual advances of Marija, a white German woman whose femininity seemed to require the masculinization of Sissie ; and had I written a better constructed sentence, my professor would’ve seen a discomfort and a fear that could not be cast off with the day’s outfit. I never asked her whether those red question marks where because my sentence was poorly punctuated, or whether they were mean to express concern; my professor was also the department chair and might have been worried that I was experiencing harm within her jurisdiction of which she was not aware. Perhaps she just couldn’t understand because the white woman body she was sitting in could not see my Black woman body clearly or at all, even as she genuinely cared for my well-being.
Sydney Fonteyn Lewis’ paper “Everything I know about femme, I learned from Sula” has helped me think through my recent past and my now with a little more grace for my self a little less shame. She discusses clothing as another contested and contentious site of Black femme identity formation and policing of Black women’s sexuality,
Precisely because of the historical difficulty for women of color to mark their own bodies and their already-lack of proper femininity, I particularly want to address the ways in which femmes of color utilize a disruptive hyperfemininity in order to insert themselves into a feminine identity that has been denied to them. Through claiming and naming their own femininity, femmes of color defy patriarchal structures that define femininity as a lack of power and racist structures which define women of color as lacking acceptable femininity (without gaining any power in exchange for their lack).
I don’t know that I am personally interested in disrupting or “inserting” my self into any particular space, whether hyperfeminine or ambiguously “tomboyish”/masculine, where both mean only violence, the consumption of and confining my image and sexuality in a particularly cishet frame, or the denial of my femininity and broader subjecthood in the latter. [I also know that I don’t necessarily have a choice in this particular iteration of the world.] Mostly, I’m trying to hide or even to disappear, to glamour myself into non-existence or into a space where I can no longer be easily accessed by the grabby hands of the uninitiated and the undeserving. [I’m wondering if inaccessible and nonexistent might end up being nearly the same, considering this world built and relying on my body as fodder, as touchstone, as weapon, as plaything, as of “use,” so that withdrawing access to my body means that I vanish altogether.]
Ultimately, I don’t think my professor’s [un]seeing matters to me as urgently as it might appear from this essay. That moment was an opening to my wondering about the self (or selves) I am trying to construct from within the rupture between the conflicting codes that intend and attempt to determine how I should appear as black and woman.
*I don’t know that I’m capable of describing all the dynamics at play in this neocolonial Ghanaian context. There is the particular way Euro-American media comes to dominate our imaginations, but that doest not mean that I didn’t grow up seeing Ghanaian and African women entertainers vilified for their performances of sexuality.
 I was almost done with this piece when I realized to my horror that I’ve lost my copy of Our Sister Killjoy somewhere between apartment moves, so that I am once again relying on memory rather than direct and precise reference. A more substantial, more thought through and sat with version of this writing will include this reference and a closer reading of its meanings.
 Things were a lot simpler for the 4-year-old me wearing a T-shirt and trousers printed with drawings of zebras and other animals, amidst a sea of frilly socks and frillier dresses. For the sort of child I was who climbed and got stuck in trees and run with and sometimes faster than the boy cousins, my mother argues that these clothing choices where the most practical. She wasn’t and still isn’t a frilly sort of woman, but she kills a tailored miniskirt suit with sharp shoulders and a sharper heel any day.
“Looking back: To try and see where the background changed places with the foreground. To try and locate the vanishing point: where lines of perspective converge and disappear.”
-Michelle Cliff, from the essay “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire.”
A Kind of Woman
originally posted on this blog on November 7th, 2016
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
First, The Fire
originally posted on this blog on April 11th, 2018
“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, but also 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 but rather end up in the jealous Ruby’s pocket that lead to Cocoa’s painful deterioration. (There’s something I think Sula and Mama Day are saying to each other. I’m still thinking it through…)
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–
gETTING A lITTLE BIT OF LIFE IN PRIVATE
Mother Mercy Journal Entry from July 30th, 2020
Because I feel as though I have little control over much else in the world, I’m trying to withhold access to any and all parts of my self that I can. And because I am still very insecure, unwilling to give my self grace, and unable to fully appreciate that what I might recount about what happened to me on a given Thursday might be resonant to someone else, I pause here to ask what the use is of what I am about to say? What do I mean by saying that I want to say something “useful?” And who do I think will “use” this? Beneath the performances of grandiosity and sense of humor, I am increasingly unconvinced of the significance of my little life, and often berate my self with what Toni Morrison and Nikki Giovanni have both said in different ways, that writing from “what you know” is not the most urgent approach, but that a writer or artist should be writing with empathy for other people beyond the boundaries of one’s own person. That I am feeling this unsure of my self and starting this piece of writing with so much self-deprecating throat-clearing is taking me back to a time and place where I found my self threateningly close to the edge of my sanity. I am nowhere near that space currently, but a week of pressure to “meet goals” for a job that I do not find essential for my spirit nor as an adequate response to the convergence of crises through which we are living has approximated that soul-bowing-down feeling I became too familiar with over the years.
So, I begin again: […]. There is nothing groundbreaking in this statement, even if you know that I have been denying [slowly and subconsciously at first, and now intentionally] access to my self as it is one of the only things I feel I can control while sheltering in place during this pandemic, or that perhaps there are people who should never have had access to me in the first place. While I fear the use of the “personal-as-political” reach as a rhetorical tactic—an attempt to make some sweeping and hopefully poignant statement about ~all black women~ and how the matrix of domination converges in our lives [damn, why am I being so hard on my self today?]—a well-documented and analyzed reality is that white people feel entitled to unlimited access to the bodies, time, sexuality, woo woo woos, and various other “uses” about which they lie to themselves by naming theses uses as care. Whiteness does not know what to do with the black women it resents and desires so much, yet depends on us to jump forward as exotic and monstrous Other, or to retreat as a background for its saviorism and superiority complexes as and when it becomes necessary.
Again, I begin, because I have such little interest in whiteness and the various pathologies ascribed to try and explain, excuse, destroy it, yet find my self going on and on about it: I feel most powerful when I can close my face like an iron gate; when the blank but harsh look my little-no-longer teen cousin and I have both perfected comes in handy; when I can participate in team meeting ice-breakers without revealing a whisper of the me I do not bring to work, which is all of me; when I can […], which is all of me; when I can disagree and make up, be turned down, berated at work, achieve zero goals because I was mourning Oluwatoyin Salau; all without breathing a word. This self-withdrawal matters so much to me because surviving a crisis surrounded [only in the physical plane, I am held by Black women across the airwaves every day] by strangers, by white people you mistrust first before giving them a chance to prove your suspicion right no matter how long you have known them, surviving this latest world-upending has shown me that I have been too careless with my woo woo woos and my humor and my encouragement, and that access and consumption are not the same as presence and care. Prurient interest is not the same as care. Curiosity will not get you killed per se, but you might find your self sliced for continuing to pry where you are not welcome.
I begin to try and tell you: how I have been snatching my writing out of the hands of uninitiated and undeserving people since graduate school, while also smiling politely at white women who paid for my attention in the clothing store where I worked, ignoring their projections, insecurities, and shaky and imagined superiority, but I will pause here before this devolves into a list of daily indignities [damn, devolve. why *am* I so hard on my self today?]. In lieu of eternal run-ons and obscuring what is plain behind metaphor, I should just say: […], all you want to do is consume and call it care, condescend and call it consideration, swoop in to assuage your guilt with empty performances. Imagine getting your life from seeing black women cry and thinking that means you have been invited to the land beyond glamouring?
One more beginning because I am so frustrated that this writing has gone in this direction: I reclaim the right to opacity. My jokes and woo woo woos are not available or accessible to those who do not also care about my humanity in a deep way and not in the abstract sense they have gleaned from a few curated black feminist reading lists. Because whiteness is also a cowardly endeavor, I do not anticipate fielding any questions about my well-being unless they are poorly disguised attempts to find out if the white at hand has done something wrong and how they can stand at the center of pain that is not theirs. I want to say something more meaningful about what entitlement to Black women’s bodies and humor and woo woo woos and care and labor mean in a pandemic when many more of us are facing mortal danger daily than are working from home without children or relatives to care for, but I feel much of that has all been said, and I fear mentioning this so late in my run-on sentence-laden post only relegates women I claim to care about to a similar sort of “useful” backdrop for my personal drama. I assure you this is not the case. I do not believe that mundane manifestations of white audacity are evidence of larger systemic goings on, but I do know they all exist in the universe conjured from the white imagination, which has proven to be a most cursed and terrifying place.
I begin once more to say: that I sincerely wish I was the black women in my groupchats and video calls could climb out of these quarantine screens and that we could move into neighboring apartments in some dream landscape where we all felt safe and weren’t dealing with back pains, lower abdomen pains, and other people’s messes, and that we could just visit and laugh with each other all day. I won’t begin again, but I do want to add that I feel shame for letting whiteness rent so much space in my head when my disposability is an integral component of its continued perpetuation. There are far more urgent things to which I must attend.
 As I work at a scientific publishing house, certain people might disagree. Me, personally? I feel so detached from most of my day-to-day tasks that I find it hard to see the urgency or “use” of what I’m doing.
 This is something I cannot say out loud, even if my withholding will make what comes next more difficult to understand for you.
 I attended a series of lectures Toni Morrison gave at Harvard in the spring of 2016 (I think I should remind my self that this happened more often) which was later published as a collection of essays titled The Origin of Others. In “The Foreigner’s Home,” she writes the following of how the Euro-American literary imagination writes Africa: “It could withdraw as scenery for any exploit, or leap forward and implicate itself in the woes of any foreigner; it could contort itself into frightening, malignant shapes upon which Westerners could contemplate evil, or it could kneel an accept elementary lessons from its betters.”
 This is something I cannot say out loud because I never say in public what I haven’t first tried to express “to whom it may concern” in private. I don’t think it’s fair to do otherwise.
 This is something I simply choose not to say out loud because I can.
AS FREE, AS DANGEROUS,
A fear I used to entertain was that I was far more Nel that I was Sula. At the time, I thought along rigid binaries far more than I do now, so that I was also terrified of being more Esi Sekyi than Sissie, “Our Sister Killjoy,” but neither Ramatoulaye nor Aïssatou. I projected the timidity or even powerlessness I was ashamed to find in my self onto those characters I thought to be the lesser of these pairs of characters—I’m sure there is a post somewhere on this blog or a grad school workshop submission lurking somewhere on my hard drive about this—and I picked at and ran from them and from my self for as long as I continued to believe that growing from girl into woman involved making a strict either/or decision about what kind of somebody (or nobody) I would turn out to be. My adolescent imagination couldn’t quite grasp the power of the women I had cast on the opposite end of the spectrum from fearsome, because I was still wading my way through a growing consciousness about the very narrow possibilities patriarchy tries to use to curtail the horizons of black women around the African diaspora, both in art and in the material, visceral plane.
Of late, my fear has taken a different shape. The longer I stay away from home, the more carefully and with pleasure do I design a life that is non-normative according to the incredibly constraining standards that characterize Ghanaian morality (which honestly isn’t saying much). I don’t think it would be hyperbolic of me to state that body modifications like tattoos, multiple piercings beyond the acceptable two (if one is perceived to be a woman) anklets, and other choices like loc’ed or partially shaved hair could elicit judgment or concern, the summoning of a battalion of praying aunties, anointing oil…In all seriousness, any outward appearance of what could be read as wayward or queer in anyway could mean real physical and even mortal danger for the person. The threat of danger extends beyond aesthetics. I’ve written before about the price my mother has paid for daring to be mostly unpartnered after divorcing my father—it is daring because after a certain age, you are expected to be married and at church every Sunday for the rest of your life—, for both refusing and name loudly unfair treatment and sexual harassment from men at work, for cursing when she is angry, for striding into whoever’s office with anklets and skirts inches above code. [As an aside, I hope I do not seem like I have contempt for the people who marry and go to church every Sunday. I do not, I just don’t know that I’m able and willing to choose that personally, especially if it means compromising or shrinking so many parts of my self to be an acceptable wife.] In my eyes, my mother is widely loved and admired, with several people eager to be in her presence should she allow them, but her worry for me is that should I continue on a certain course, I will eventually face the punishment that is judgement and solitude for daring to seek this kind of beauty and abandon for one’s self as an African woman.
The other day, my therapist pointed out with some concern that I have tried so hard to live a life that would be considered “beyond reproach” in the hopes that I will find some leeway, a gap, or a concession where I can slide past the hypothetical judgmental aunties and uncles with a few transgressions to my name, the blow softened by my previous compliance: good grades, “hard work,” institutional rubber-stamps in the form of pricy degrees, the “straight” and narrow. While she used gentler terms, I think my therapist was trying to remind me that there is no such thing as “beyond reproach” for me, and that trying to ask permission in order to break a few small rules is a losing game. There’s something arrogant about my assumption that this is possible, to think that somehow only I have the cheat code that generations of black women couldn’t crack, as if I don’t live in a world that holds as one of its key premises that I am an object available for anyone’s use, as if there aren’t black queer women whose perceived waywardness is not a coat to be shrugged off and put on as and when they feel like it. I’m thinking of times in my early teens when my friend’s aunty used to lean out of her car window cheering “go sister, go” at sex workers in Accra on weekend nights. I wonder if she thought she was “empowering” or encouraging them? And even more importantly, did they interpret that moment as mockery or support? What did it do for their peace of mind and material conditions for my friend’s upper class aunt to insert herself into that moment only to go back to unseeing those women in the morning? What if she had asked them a question like, “Do you feel safe?” or “What do you need?” or better yet, “May I please ask you a question?” so that they had the room to decline and withdraw from her intrusion? I think too about how “slay queen” (used as a noun) has in many instances become synonymous with “ashawo” and its variations in parts of the digital Africas, a new way of doing an old thing, that is, signaling the kinds of women who are deserving of ridicule, punishment, and even death for adorning their bodies in particular ways, for their size, their sexuality, for daring to exist and embody their own desire rather than being objects of the desire of men.
What has this got to do with Sula? After all, I am no one’s “necessary” evil in the way that Sula was for her neighbors in the Bottom, though I may or may not be “the kind of woman the baker doesn’t let near the bread” depending on where I find myself. Yet, I am also so far beyond reproach in the sense that I no longer care about its potential to crack down on my life or my choices. I want to be dangerously free, leading a life that has as its foundational principles my curiosity and my desires, to operate out of “whim and whatever mood [that] strikes,” as Toni Morrison said of Sula in a 1978 interview. In the same clip, Morrison describes Sula’s self-interested nature as a “deplorable” exaggeration on the opposite end of the notions she examined in The Bluest Eye where “one’s…dentification, self-value, feelings of worth” are all dependent on an external world that despises you. She also describes Sula as the whimsical figure to Nel’s “salt of the earth,” and makes a distinction between a freedom that is dangerous and potentially destructive to one’s self and to others, without “connection” or responsibility, and a freedom that involves “being able to choose your responsibilities…[and] which things you want to be responsible for.” I’m wondering, a black woman choosing the things for which she would like to be responsible, is that not as dangerous as a Sula type of freedom to the current iteration of this world? I can only speak for my self when I say there are so many people I have been holding on to or shoring up who deserve neither of these things as unwilling or unable to reciprocate as they are, and who I would gladly let go did I not feel a twisted sense of obligation to offer my care and presence. There are so many people, institutions, and movements benefitting from our “grace” [Is it really grace if offered under out of obligation, necessity, and concern for one’s own survival?] which would otherwise collapse if we chose to let those responsibilities go.
I’m solely and deeply interested in making myself, in denying access to any and all who feel so entitled to my self that they will argue that my “no” is a sign of my coldness or selfishness or a personal affront to them, in choosing not to concern my self with what I “should” be doing at any given stage in my life. I want to be the sort of woman who elicits the question “What will they think if I bring you home?” I actually don’t want to be brought home at all, especially if it is by someone who would have such a concern to begin with. Moving beyond reproach towards a Sula-esque life, I want these things for black queer women, for all of us to inhabit a world where it is no longer the case that dangerous freedoms are exclusive to those who can pay to live in a gated, tree-lined part of Accra, where the ability to wander towards a pleasure-filled existence is not simply consumerism dressed up as caring for one’s self. I want it to be so that our freedom goes without saying rather than being a threat to a world that thrives on our repression. I want it to be that this repressive world is no more. I want to make my self without having to explain “what happened” to make me this way, without being punished and ostracized for turning towards my self with care and admiration. I want my eyes to continue to “open wide to the moon” rather than having them “bent into grimy sickles of concern” (Morrison 110). I want there to be no price, whether social or material, for us claiming the right to our selves, the right to glamour, to withdraw from and deny those who presume to use us for their own ends. I want dangerous freedom for all of us.
Aidoo, Ama Ata. “A Young Woman’s Voice Doesn’t Break. It Gets Firmer,” An Angry Letter in January. Dangaroo Press, 1992, pp. 86–87
Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” The New Yorker. June 26, 1978.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Grafton Books, 1982.
Morrison, Toni. “Toni Morrison (1978).” YouTube, uploaded by Reelblack, 13 July, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ2Th3jeC6Y&t=904s.
 I borrowed this line from one of my favorite poems by Ama Ata Aidoo; “But/ if yours/ is anything to go by,/ then surely,/ as she grows from child into woman,/ a girl’s voice doesn’t break:/ it gets firmer.” From “A Young Woman’s Voice Doesn’t Break. It Gets Firmer – for Kinna IV,” An Angry Letter in January, pg. 86–87.
 I always marvel at colonial era images of people in Ewe land, specifically because of the way they adorn themselves. If one of those people climbed out of their photographs and into today, they would ironically hear, “This is not our culture…” Maybe that rejection would not be ironic at all, if you consider that “our culture” now includes heavy traces of Victorian England and conservative American evangelism.
 I’m almost embarrassed to link this essay at this point, but felt it would be helpful for “context.” Every few months someone online finds it and tells me how much it resonates with them, which I love. What I dislike about the essay is that it reminds me how much growing up me and my writing have done since that publication. I also feel a way that I edited out a long disclaimer about how awful Molly’s character became soon after the tv show Insecure realized they needed an antagonist (that’s what happened, right???) I mean, she was a teachable moment for every negative thing: classism, biphobia, homophobia…but that’s not the point of this essay, or that one for that matter. But I still feel some way.
 If you think class markers and the power they endow are slippery, wait until you meet a Ghanaian who self-identifies as middle class. I chose to use this term here because it was shorthand for a level of comfort and access that I hope most people familiar with Accra’s social stratification will understand.
 I learnt to start thinking about Africas and the diasporas in plural, as in multiple and infinite in possibility from writer and software engineer Ann Daramola.
 This footnote comes to you from Tuesday November 10th: as I edit, I come across news reports that Ghanaian actress Akuapem Poloo is facing charges of “publication of obscene material,” and domestic violence for posting a photo of herself partially nude with her son on social media. This photo is not obscene or sexual in any way, and these charges and GH¢100 000 bail speak more to the Ghanaian state’s determination to punish women for existing in their bodies, particularly if they are perceived to be “uneducated,” “immoral,” promiscuous, or otherwise lacking in the social capital of that dubious Ghanaian middle class.
 “…you mean after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?” Girl by Jamaica Kincaid. The New Yorker, 1978. This piece reads like warning/admonishment or challenge/inspiration, depending on your gaze and your commitment to belong to your self…
 Do I sound as though I’m trying to confer martyrdom onto myself? I don’t know how to explain this without wandering into that territory; but I know that as hard as I have tried to define and enforce boundaries between my self and other people, I have also betrayed my own needs many a time for people who were looking for emotional support sex toys, for someone to take charge and clean up while also partaking in the charade that the situation is mutually supportive, for someone to woo woo woo their tears away. You, reading this, maybe you can relate?
 After 10 years of wandering away from the Bottom, Sula returns to this question from her grandmother, Eva: “When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It will settle you,” to which Sula replies: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”