My aunt used to wear a jade bracelet—she wears one still—right or left wrist, I no longer remember; my memory has no sense of direction these days. To my childish eyes, It looked like liquid light turned molten in fire so I didn’t think that it could break, but that day in the kitchen I tried it on, it slipped smooth off my wrist and cracked clean in half on the terrazzo floor. Out of the two shining halves fell a shining child with dimples sinking so deep into his face that water welled in them, and honey; a serious child with long enough arms to reach around herself…I let her borrow my face but I’m now terrified that she hides behind it too well; an amethyst ring, a ruby ring missing its stone, a gold tooth, three laughing sisters, two more sitting at the table to share in the joke, a bottle of schnapps and a shot glass for Dada, ten perfect nail beds curved like the part of the road we cannot yet see, like the bend where I wait for a bus or a train, a pair of wings maybe, like the molten jade light fusing back to itself in a pair of feverish palms slick with sweat and an eagerness to be [re]made whole.
lady in red
i waz missin somethin
lady in purple
somethin so important
lady in brown
lady in blue
a layin on of hands…
-from for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
I’m now throwing away most of the things people have tried to teach me about art and writing and story structure and how things must be done. There is too much grief and too much death, too much misery for me to continue to use writing as another way to punish myself for my shortcomings; to hyper-fixate on the use or utility of my work to the point of inaction; to point out all the areas of failure, all the evidence that these words have no transformative or radical potential; or, how nobody cares to hear from another African international-school-to-abroad pipeline person who thinks their third eye has opened wide enough and thinks themselves brave for saying what must be said about other such people on this pipeline, power, neocolonialism, and incompetent, bigoted officials who wouldn’t know what “our culture” was if it came like an ancestor slapping them awake at night, yet still believe themselves just and traditional for calling death on the heads of queer Ghanaian people. There is too much misery, and I’ll get neither the approval nor the permission I crave from the speakers in June Jordan’s poems, the speakers in Ama Ata Aidoo’s poems, Toni Morrison’s unwavering eye from beyond this plane of life, my great-great-grandma who I endlessly seek in dreams, old friends and classmates, people who condescend to me at work and in leasing offices, black women artists I admire and follow on Twitter.
My plan is to be precious with these things called art, and by precious I mean in the Ewe sense of “listening to one’s self too much” and not precious as in growing so self-indulgent that I abandon all rigor or empathy in my work. I am just in pursuit of writing something lush and sweet for my self because I’ve been missing this sweetness all along. I’m going to repeat images because they are nostalgic and pleasurable to me and do whatever I want with sentences and flow. [This is no act of defiance. I am still lacking courage in so many of the most urgent ways. I’m just now realizing I can say or do anything I want with these pages while I’m still breathing.] This may sound elementary if you didn’t know I was bringing all kinds of neuroticism to the writing desk: what is useful and urgent and unflinching and what will liberate me or us or what will get the attention of the right contest judge or agent—all these things can’t be true of one piece of art at once because if we were all free and materially and spiritually abundant, then the art would be too, and the contest judges and agents and editors would all be out of a job.
Because I am ashamed and totally exhausted with my own self-deprecation and cynicism, moving forward, I will be practicing earnestness, sappiness, anything that is almost too much but not too far past the line that so that it seems insincere. I’m going to keep talking about my one aunty’s gold tooth and another aunty’s jade bracelet because my adoration for them and their quirks continue to expand the longer I am away, though I was already obsessed before I left. I’m going to write images that don’t make rational sense just because I love the way the sentences sound, like comparing forced laughter between a doomed couple to coins hitting a sticky restaurant tabletop, laughter ringing so sharp and loud that it turns into coins pocketed by one half of said doomed couple. I’m going to write about how much I love it when a black man with a New York accent refers to himself as “the kid” or when people from New Orleans say anything at all, about people going to work on Friday mornings in Dakar and how their clothes are still flawless white at 7pm that day. I’m going to do all this because I can.
The only point of view that matters is whatever self-indulgent one will allow me to write pages about ice lollies melting to a drip and then to a stain on my 4-year-old self’s dress and about my 7-year-old self in my first swimsuit on the way to the beach with my uncle. I resolve to be incoherent and illegible except to the initiated who inhabit the land beyond glamouring and who have an understanding of the sublime that only we can see and feel. I want to make my writing a series of unending ecstatic experiences just because I can, but also because I am in desperate need of some respite.
Desperate is the word, because of the state of our current world, and because my self-loathing passed joking on the internet about depression a long time ago; instead it took the form of denying myself food, new clothing, a social life (unless there was no cover, and even then) or anything that didn’t feel as essential as rent, bills, and T fare, because of the deep fear of coming up short, and because I believed everyone (read: classmates, “higher-ups,” performance reviews, manipulative exes, headlines spelling the impending murder of anyone like me) who reminded me that I wasn’t worth anything enjoyable in this world. Desperate is the word, because I’m trying to remember what my favorite food is and the kinds of dresses I like to wear in hot weather, and I’m tattooing myself so that I may believe my self a canvas worthy of adornment.
I want all my writing to feel like [re]-reading Ntozake Shange when I want to feel slices of said ecstatic experience. I want to stop picking my self apart on paper and calling it introspection, only to cast about in search of the discarded pieces of self, pretending it isn’t unhealthy self-absorption, whole time we’re all sinking slowly into the sea. I’m tired of caring so much what will be well-received by whoever I imagine is looking at me or at this—no one is looking—which presents the perfect conditions to do my work and revel in the process of its doing. The conceit of this is that I do actually care what anyone and everyone thinks, contrary to all these preceding lines. I care so much that I’m still typing. I have written more condolences and robotic emails about work assignments than I have about what 4pm on a Saturday feels like when your mum comes home smelling like the hair salon, like high perfume and something about to burn; about cold water hitting your scalp in the right places, or about the hyacinths spilling purple all over the side table I bought because it looked like something my grandma would have owned in the 70s. I resolve to change this.
At some point this year, I realized that the angst (familiar to many artists) about the “use” of one’s work, or the question to who it will be of service could easily turn into hubris. What may begin as a genuine concern for the fact that making art on its own will not improve the material conditions or alleviate the suffering of other people can easily become a desperate need to hear that what you think and have to say are “important,” “urgent,” or even “necessary.” (On a tangential note, you should watch Residue on Netflix, especially if you’re a black artist in need of something to get you together).
Deciding to lay down these anxieties and get on with my work was not a turning away from the death and dispossession that characterize this unsustainable world. Rather, it was a slight self-drag and firm reorientation of purpose; get on with your work because you need it stay alive and in the process of making and sharing, maybe one other person might find something resonant, if even for a brief moment.
So here’s what I’ve been working on to maintain my peace of mind during quarantine. The site is a gathering together of what I’ve been thinking about and making. There are parts where I am unsure of myself and maybe a little whiny. As many times as I’ve combed through, there will be typos. Almost all of the visuals are combinations of old instagram vides from my phone and clips I took in my apartment during quarantine as my initial plans had to adjust to the conditions created by 2020. But is’s all there, because “process is the project” is one of the guiding principles of Mother Mercy’s work. My project will be available to view until the end of this year. I have so much more work to do before this work comes back into the world at some point in the future.
I’m so grateful to JME and the amazing members of the Call to Create cohort for creating this space for dreaming and making. After all that being said, will you wander with me? And another question: what are you willing to do?
Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, and I open up a new workbook in Excel to tally the points I must earn for my completed tasks. Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, around us, and I count feverishly so maybe I will be rewarded with a raise that will leave my account at a comfortable $45 overdraft instead of $150. Hundreds of thousands of people die, and I apologize: sorry for my oversight; I took some time off and I am now behind; I took some time off and I missed your email; I took some time off and now I must be punished. Hundreds of thousands of people die with saltwater where their lungs should be, hundreds of thousands of people die as the land burns and the shore sinks below itself, hundreds of thousands of people die and the horizon’s promise retreats further out of reach.
Millions of people walk to the edges of their own lives and jump over, no longer able to withstand the discord between and subsequent fracturing of self, spirit, and body. Meanwhile, I apologize again: I’m sorry I’m a little overwhelmed, a little behind, a little out of step with reality, a lot incredulous that I am to carry on tallying points and meeting quotas as if Belly Mujinga made it home from work to hug her baby, as if Breonna Taylor was early enough for work this morning to stop for an iced coffee, as if Uyinene and Priscilla and Ruth and Ruth and Priscilla just sat down at their desks for a new school year, as if Nina Pop waved good evening to her neighbor before settling herself in for a quiet evening in front of the TV.
“Big Men”—their appetites bigger than hundreds and thousands and millions can satisfy—where I am from move their masks down their chins to declare that they are sending schoolchildren to their deaths, but not their own, their own children will put on their whites,not for a wedding (read: business merger) nor for an outdooring (read: delivery of luxury European car paid for in cash and in full), but for a charitable cause, to “raise funds and awareness” for problems their fathers have created and could solve with a little less “procurement” and a little less greed. [All these quotation marks, even in rage I can only speak in euphemisms about the wealthy few toasting and taking tequila shots on top of the coffins on the rest of their “fellow Ghanaians.” And again, with the euphemisms…I first learned this tactic from the news on GTV with my grandma’s impatient teeth-kissing in the background]
We are asked to talk small about favorite books, foods, things we are most proud of, I can’t say:
I don’t have one right now because my tears have melded the pages together and turned them into mush;
I don’t have one because too high a cost will always overrule taste and nostalgia for what we used to have for Friday afternoons at grandma’s–some cousins prefer shito and others ketchup;
Today I am most proud that I haven’t looked directly into the screen and cursed the meeting host and everyone that loves them, or asked them one or two questions:
Do you know that this is dehumanizing? Do you know that whiteness itself and your commitment to it has compromised your own humanity, and that your capacity to feel more strongly about quotas and deadlines and points than you do about human life is an aberration? [The Big Men where I am from are afflicted with the poison of whiteness too, ever since their fathers brokered our freedom in exchange for suit trousers too-small seats, ever since military men and mindless intellectuals fought each other for the right to rule and the right to murder the ruled.] Do you know that your imagination has been so deprived of space to stand up and stretch wide that you are resigned to the reality that how well you meet quotas and deadlines and amass points will determine how well you eat or comfortably you sleep, or if you get to eat or sleep at all? Do you know that I am somebody’s child? Do you know you are?
I’m trying not to talk about this year in past tense, as in I was going to start a new project; I was going to learn more about visual media; I was going to look into moving to a new city etc. because I’m still alive, still trying to imagine and to bear witness. So instead, I’ll share my gratitude for being included in the 2020 Call to Create cohort of Mother Mercy, an incubator and a community of incredible women artists. You can read about the project I’ll be working on this year here.
[Image: my great-grandmother, Alwin Mana in a collage I made using the VSCO app]
New decade, same old tricks, including extended meditations on loneliness (again), this time as a sort of thinking alongside Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me Be Lonely and this playlist, one of many I’ve made while in my feelings where I appear to have taken up permanent residence. (This isn’t necessarily a negative thing.)
“In my dream I apologize to everyone I meet. Instead of introducing myself, I apologize for not knowing why I am alive. I am sorry. I am sorry. I apologize. In real life, oddly enough, when I am fully awake and out and about, if I catch someone’s eye, I quickly look away. Perhaps this too is a form of apology.”
Early in 2019, I thought I learnt a lesson about vulnerability and what happens when you share too much too soon, but I’m starting to think that was the wrong lesson. It might be true that you can’t spill some of your unspoken and unspeakable pain very early into getting to know someone without the possibility that they will be overwhelmed and retreat from you, which they are wholly entitled to do. It is also true that some people are just trifling and will reappear after six months of ghosting with the excuse that they lost their job and their pet died, not insignificant life events, but none of which impede the ability to text or call for six months…but I digress.
More importantly, I spent a fair amount of that six-month period berating myself for committing what I though was the foolish mistake of allowing myself to be vulnerable, for trusting someone I didn’t know that well, for ignoring the “obvious” warning signs one is inclined to identify only after the fact to try and make sense of the hurt. I also felt shame, most of it related to and caused by the details of the thing that I shared, which I am still incapable of explaining straightforwardly except for the vague repetition on this blog of maybe that didn’t happen. maybe I didn’t say no. But some of this shame came from the belief that I had no one else to blame than my self for thinking that it was safe to lower my emotional walls, and that I was actually deserving of care from someone who I wanted to care for as well. Please let me know if this is too much. I completely understand and would rather you said so than disappearing...
How could it be/ 20 something/ all alone still/ not a thing in my name/ ain’t got nothing, running from love/ only know fear -“20 Something,” Sza
Even the nebulous “societal/gendered expectations*” we always refer to in conversations around how people relate to each other somewhere along the scale of romantic vs. platonic (I don’t know if I believe that these things are polar opposites or mutually exclusive) can’t seem to agree. On one level, as long as you are acceptably relentless in the pursuit of material wealth—not only for personal advancement but towards the enrichment of your family, especially in cultural contexts where the collective sacrifice comes with an unspoken assumption of mutual responsibility—cultivating a varied and exciting social life, a promising career or one that will inspire approval and maybe a little envy when your parents brag, you don’t need to be worrying about all that romance stuff…until you do, most probably when that same collective who helped with school fees, medical bills, childcare etc. decides that it is indeed time to start worrying. At the same time, any expression of loneliness or yearning for different sorts of intimacy are met with a figurative averted eye, secondhand embarrassment for the person who is presumed to feel themselves inadequate on some level, they must, otherwise they would not be looking for completion in someone else.Girls Need Love (2018), dir. Lacey Duke
Girls can’t never say they want it/ Girls can’t never say how/ Girls can’t ever say they need it…-“Girls Need Love,” Summer Walker
And then there is the further complication of what happens when you meet someone you find attractive for any number of reasons, but don’t want to be the one to remove the facade of nonchalance first, don’t want to be the one to send multiple texts in a row, to invite out, to ask to be held, to call on the phone, to be left on read. I hope these lamentations are not mistaken for the sort of rhetoric that blames millennials (an often amorphous demographic rarely identified according to the wide differences across which we walk in this world) for our own despair when fascism, white supremacy, the cruelty and greed of capitalism, and pretty much everything about the world as we currently know it are right there deserving of a large portion of the blame. I don’t even think that the fear of vulnerability or intense self-protection which may also resemble self-sabotage in the context of relationships is something that is unique to our generation. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was easier to ghost when your only options were letters or landlines, and I also know of 100% certified adults (i.e. around our parents’ age) who chose to disappear rather than be upfront with their ex-partner about their changed mind or circumstances.
“You spoke aloud?
I said, God rest me.
You’d let me be lonely?
I thought I was dead.”
It’s possible that if I was a historian, economist, sociologist, or some other sort of social scientist who also happened to have a solid grounding in Black feminism, critical race theory, and maybe psychology**, I would be able to make a more meaningful connection between capitalism, how we care for one another (or not), how consumption defines our lives to the extent that we are disposable to one another, the rate at which we consume all kinds of information without necessarily processing what we’ve seen***, how many of us fear appearing too earnest or too soft (millennials did not invent sneering at sentimentality, for the record), how everything we do and are has been priced and sold along with our personal data and our persistent hope of finding genuine connection with other humans who will try to be as careful with us as we try to be with them.Terence Nance
“That’s too much…
Maybe, or death is second.
Second to what?
loneliness (noun): a state of being or a fear of being seen that leads to feigning cynicism and nonchalance, or running and hiding from that person or situation requiring more vulnerability than feels safe. a secondhand**** imposition, so that even if one is vulnerable and willing to be seen, one can be left with open hands and open heart letting in all the whistling wind. a place where we spend our time despairing and desperately seeking something or someone to hold on to.
But I don’t think it is a coincidence that I have had very similar conversations with Black women who are very dear to me, all in their mid- to late 20’s, who have described a sort of loneliness that doesn’t disperse even in the face of the deeply loving friendships we maintain with each other and busy lives that include making art, political advocacy work, doing something one hates because rent is due, and other preoccupations. Even the acknowledgment of the extent to which societal pressure (there they go again)* dictates mandatory partnership***** when a woman reaches a “certain age” is not enough to diminish the longing to be seen and cared for in ways that are still inarticulable, precisely because some of the dimensions of this loneliness are inarticulable as well.Planet U (2018), dir. Dawit N.M.
These contradictions manifest in the music we dance and cry to, from the soulful to the at times derisively described as “whisper-singing.” In “Planet U,” my new musical obsession Mereba raps “Never feel alone cos I’m getting to the stacks” chasing money > chasing a text back in the same verse as the earnest statement, “your gold heart keeps away my blue.” The same SiR who echoes Zacari’s line, “I ain’t in the mood if I ain’t in my bag” also starts “John Redcorn” with the question, “Why am I alone/ Every night alone when I know that you want me too?”
Because I have made far too many generalizations than I am comfortable with, I should probably point out that me my self, I am used to romantic relationships in which I have felt objectified, belittled, or picked apart for what seems like the fun of it but was most probably because the picker-apart was threatened by the very parts of me they claimed to admire and wanted to break them. This means that the fear of being (or rather appearing) thirsty or desperate and the reluctance to trust other people remains next to the self-doubt and insecurities left over from those encounters, even years after the fact. Even as I continue to grow more comfortable and even enamored with my self and the body she inhabits, I am also tired of being bombarded with reminders about colorism, ableism, classism, statistics on who is swiped right on the least on dating apps, and all sorts of other seemingly larger than our lives structures which suggest that loneliness or private admiration/fetishes concealed by the public performance of scorn are our lot in life as Black women, no matter our age.
Girls need love too
Girls (and by girls I mean this writer and anyone else who might recognize themselves in these words) need to find work that allows them to meet their material needs without also crushing their souls in the process; girls need to stop hiding if they want to be seen and cared for with intention; girls need to stop hiding and feeling hurt and abandoned when they are not seen in the way they would like to be; girls need to stop hiding.
Girls need love too
Girls need to love and be loved without the fear of obliteration of the self, girls need to be cared for without the fear of that care being thrown back into their faces when it becomes difficult, girls need to love and be loved in healthy ways that do not involve manipulation and martyrdom. Girls need to disabuse themselves of the idea that seeking care and intimacy is a trivial pursuit just because this desire to see and be seen is not necessarily contributing to the (presumably more urgent) well-being of other people.
So what’s a girl to do when she needs loving too
*I describe social norms and -isms as “nebulous,” not because I believe in the slightest that these violent forces are somehow intangible or cause no real threat in our lives, but because I’ve realized how easy it is to list, as I did, without really getting to the heart of what these forces do and how they subjugate and confer power at the same time. What am I so afraid of saying that I’d rather conceal it with the -ism checklist?
**I don’t know that I think these credentials are absolutely necessary to attempt to comment on these matters, but I could see how the personal experiences I’m able to name and explore could be given more context had I more of an ability to connect the dots with the help that rigorous study and training can provide.
***On a regular day, my Twitter feed reads something like the following: snarky tweet about living in Boston—climate catastrophe in the Amazon/Australia/on the coast of Senegal and Ghana—what this incredible Black woman artist is up to—African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean—Rihanna’s cleavage—celebrity worship is a plague—eat the rich—self-deprecating tweet about failing as a dutiful African daughter because I cannot yet pay back all the financial sacrifices and contributions that have been made for me—what does solidarity across diasporas look like in the face of American imperial horror—pleas for Rihanna to release her new album—who is the real leftist anyway?
****It has only been two years since “My Secondhand Lonely” was published, but I feel so much more mature, and I’m trying hard not to condemn my past self too harshly but damn, the martyrdom. I was expecting things from people I wasn’t willing to open my mouth and vocalize, burning myself out with other people’s trouble out of love, sure, but also out of a sense of duty—I thought if I didn’t, who would—and a fear that if I didn’t, they would abandon me.
*****Partnership specifically with a cishet man, as anyone else would be a different sort of taboo even more unimaginable than remaining single…
When I started writing this, the “Sex for Grades” documentary had not yet been released, but there had already been hours and hours of conversation on- and offline about gender-based violence and exploitation in Ghana’s arts community, in academia, behind the locked gates of private homes, and in every facet of Ghanaian society where women dare to exist. I scrolled my timeline endlessly trying to see what Black and African feminists sharper and braver than myself were saying and doing about these terrors we all face, and I drafted tweets I never sent, not trusting myself to say anything incisive or even coherent. I think I need to remain in my lane for a while moving forward. My lane being fiction and something like poetry. As much as I read and admire the Black feminist essayists and theorists, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to join their ranks, no matter how much I study. Writing fiction that attempts to fit into the same universe that the organizers, theorists, and thinkers are imagining feels more within the reach of my abilities.
Between March and August of 2016, I’m not sure I slept a full night, not even with the help of chamomile tea and sleep aids, not even when my mum came to stay with me for two weeks. It only occurred to me very recently that the first full night’s sleep I had that August was made possible by the fact that I was now in a new room in a new apartment, away from the memories that stood against the walls of that old room, watching and taunting my un-sleeping self. All this because I was feeling used and discarded by someone whose actions and their effects still lurk in parts of my self close enough to the surface that I’m still writing and thinking about them three years later.
I became obsessed with the idea of vengeance, pouring over images of and articles about the warrior women of Dahomey and the fierceness I perceived in them that I felt I so desperately needed at the time, and conveniently (and regrettably) sidestepped the parts of these materials which discussed the role these women played in capturing other African people to be sold into slavery. I needed so badly to believe that I could wield power and do deadly damage, at least metaphorically, and historical context and networks of dispossession, power and, violence were of little consequence. My hurt was self-centered and all-consuming. I wrote this poem as well as an essay entitled “Fuck Your White Horse and Carriage,” my homework for a nonfiction workshop that will probably never see the light of day.
I know for sure that I’m still angry. I started thinking about my past (or ongoing, to be honest) fixation on those images again recently, because cishet men’s violence against women and queer people continues to be exposed and examined in all its dimensions online and in person for what feels like an unending time period. What does it mean to wield a fictional bat or gun, to eat razors for breakfast, to collapse hundreds of years of African and Afro-diasporic women’s history into a tweet or a poem in pursuit of even a speck of some of that strength in order to keep living in this violent world? What do accountability, healing, retribution look like in a world where Uyinene Mrwetyana never returned home from the post office; or where men in a trotro in Accra attacked another passenger because he “sounded like a girl;” in a world where Ruth Abakah, Priscilla Blessing Bentum, Ruth Love Quayson, and Priscilla Koranchie* are lost forever?
All I have are questions, but here are some answers: I spent most of my life until a day some months ago believing that what I thought were the outward signs of my great-grandmother’s aging in fact constituted the aftermath of her husband’s physical abuse. Actually, another question: can you imagine how hard you have to hit someone so that they lose teeth? And another: how many of us are wondering what the line is between “you just weren’t on the same page,” “an awkward sexual encounter,” coercion, and assault? How many of us have thought at least once a day, “Maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe I didn’t say no. Maybe I should’ve said no flat out instead of ‘no not really.’ ” And another: am I next? How do we understand emotional abuse, manipulation, and physical violence along a spectrum of patriarchal violence when all our testimonies, pleas for the recognition of our humanity, defiance, protest, and so on, are met with condescension and dismissal at best, and mockery and more violence at worst?
In an interview with Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison once said that she didn’t worry about depicting Black men doing harm to Black women in her fiction because she wrote from a place of love for the men. I don’t know how I understand this love when the most I am able to muster is cautious admiration for almost any man except my mother’s brothers, my former roommate, and a few honorary uncles. I realize that most of my distant admiration rests on observing the ways Black men carry and adorn themselves: the precision of a fade or the cut of a jacket or the sway of a gait. That is not love. What does love look like when you are expected to be in unquestioning solidarity with or even indulgent of the very same people who hold your own destruction in the palms of their hands?
While I’m writing from the U.S., the question is also racialized when I think of myself in relation to Ghanaian men. Even if you might be tempted to argue that the omnipresence of the “little white man on your shoulder” is not felt in the same way as with our counterparts in the diaspora, the anxiety of being watched and judged, of looking “uncivilized” in front of white people is undeniable. We are neocolonial subjects after all. I cannot hold you accountable for actions that have harmed me, my “brother,” in case I commit the ultimate treachery of confirming white people’s fears that you are dangerous, violent, hyper-sexual, irresponsible, and more.
I have been suppressing a resentment that shows itself every time I tried to write characters who were men for my grad school thesis, when I really tried to think of their interiority and realized I was uninterested and did so begrudgingly because I couldn’t bring myself to that place. I believe my resentment grew from constant reminders that I, we, must continue to capitulate to Black male genius no matter how otherwise terrible the person might be; that I, we, have to sacrifice our dignity and even our humanity at the altar of the egos of men who cannot stand our glory; that I, we, must continue to create infinite room for men’s growth at the expense of our own well-being and even our lives; that I, we, must endure the flattening of the tops of our spirits so we can give man-children places to stand while they learn to uplift themselves. And if the “lesson” they had to learn involved us dying first, then rest in power. It was for a noble cause.
Resisting the bothersome urge to reassure the reader that the Black feminist “agenda” does not in fact include the denigration or destruction of Black men, I still feel compelled need to say that the address to and focus on Black men at points in this post are because you actually are my brothers, because I have chosen to be in community with you, because I have chosen to partner with you romantically, because “accountability” is not just a buzzword.
The film Moonlight helped me think with more intention and care about the inner lives of Black men and the perils of particular kinds of masculinity. I re-watched it often during grad school and still do, partly for the exquisite visuals, but also for the scene near the end where grown-up Chiron says, “I haven’t really touched anyone, since.” I only recently stopped crying at that point. I don’t intend to argue that Jenkins’ and McCraney’s film is the definitive commentary on Black masculinity; it’s just one that continues to echo in my mind and spirit. In all honesty, I think my returning to the film over and over became more ritual that I believed put me in the mental space I needed to commune with my characters, and a little less about the actual content of the film. The beauty of the portraits presented simply made me want to imagine wider and think more carefully about the things my characters leave unsaid.
Lastly, I haven’t yet learned enough about transformative justice since the one Justice and Peace Studies course I took during my first year of college, nor have I developed the generosity of spirit I am told is necessary to “wish well” towards someone whose mistreatment I’m still trying to understand and mend three years later. If the completion of healing means forgiveness, then I am still hurting. I wish that person nothing but hardship in ways as mundane as scratching his throat with a tilapia bone severely enough that he will only be able to consume lukewarm food and drinks for the rest of his life so as not to disturb the scarring, and more significant, like the continued struggle and eventual failure of his scamming ass, so-called “social entrepreneurship.” One more time for the scammers in the back: “capitalism for the greater good” is an absolute contradiction in terms. Just say you want a taste of white men’s world domination and be free. I digress. I don’t wish you well. And my ancestors know your name.
What I’m thinking about:
- Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation Between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde
- Chanel Miller’s Statement
- “Y’all Mean” and “Kanye West is Better at His Job Than I Am at Mine (But I’m Way Better at Being a Fake-Ass Feminist” by Kiese Laymon
- Moonlight by Keguro Macharia
- Mothers and Men by OluTimehin Adegbeye
- Speaking My Truth by Dr. Sionne Neely
*I didn’t put a hyperlink here because I couldn’t find news coverage I felt was appropriate to remember them by. If anyone has read any thoughtful articles, please let me know.
I didn’t know you well enough to know what you were going through, but I really wish you had stayed around a little longer. I hope that you have found peace.
For the past few weekends and a few after-work evenings in between, I have spent time in the presence of some of my favorite people in Boston and in general, wearing the same grin almost the entire time with them, and on the inside for hours after. I have been feeling so much joy that I am always tempted to apologize to the people who have the misfortune on the receiving end of my excited chatter, even faster than my usual high-speed speech. My grandma still gets frustrated trying to decipher all my running together words, and tells me to speak Ewe because she knows my brain unfortunately moves much more slowly when I have to translate thought to speech in Ewe.
Usually, I will undercut my own joy with a sense of foreboding, with the fear that my rightful fate lurks around the corner ready to yank me back into the misery which I deserve and in which I belong. As unsettling as this type of joy can be when it is accompanied by anxiety, I also feel most like myself, like the little self with the Afro puff or 2-4 braids (the extent of my mum’s hairstyling prowess when I was little) winning dancing competitions at your birthday party and your cousin’s too, like the me who would not be skipped ahead to the next class because I couldn’t be contained in my seat after I sped through all my work (the teachers thought I was too immature, but in my defense, I was five) the me who earned the nickname Dizzy because that’s how I made everyone in the house feel.
This isn’t the temporary euphoria of the “I took my meds, now I’m healed, let’s hang out” variety. I feel deeply at peace and able to tackle the difficulties of building a life as an adult thousands of miles away from majority of the people who love you the most. Two years ago around this time, four wisdom teeth out, a pinched nerve—sit up straight at your desk beloveds—and wrongly processed insurance claims leading to hundreds of dollars in bills where there should only be tens would have sent me into a downward spiral of self-loathing, of feeling stuck and unworthy of anything positive.
I would’ve been feeling as though the universe was conspiring to ensure that I would receive the punishment I surely deserved, which in turn made working through challenges even more difficult, leading to the spiral extending further downward and so on. I’m almost tempted to go as far as saying that what my mother and my therapist both call “the vicissitudes of life” feel easier and nowhere near as insurmountable when I’m not trudging through depression’s swamp. I am less inclined to apologize for things I didn’t do, to state plainly when I feel offended and better at expressing myself without the anxiety of trying to figure what the other person wants to hear, to recognize when I’m wrong without it turning into self-loathing, to believe that my low moments are some void of misery threatening to swallow anyone who gets too close. I feel more capable of staying at the surface of my life. Who knew this would be possible?
When my mother came to visit soon after what happened had happened, I was newly on the mend, and I was talkative, and energetic, and dizzy. She kept telling me to calm down, and I folded into myself, offended at the suggestion that I was being too much, manic (not in the clinical sense) even.
“Why are you telling me to calm down? Isn’t this better than me being miserable?”
“Baby, it’s about balance. You just need to find a balance.”
At the time, I didn’t think to tell her that I am not and probably never will be a laidback person, and that if I have appeared laidback or reserved on and off over the past few years, that is what my misery looks like. I didn’t think to tell her that if balance means risking talking too much, slightly grating even, uncontainable joy and where I was that evening in March, then I don’t want balance. I was not upset with her, because I think she just forgot how Dizzy could be. I know I had. Because I’m blessed to be the daughter of a wonderful mother, I was able to explain to her how unsettled I was feeling about her reminders about balance. She apologized and admitted that her advice was coming from a place of concern that I might have been experiencing mania; what she described as an “armchair diagnosis” on her part, an attempt to make some sense out of a state she had never seen me in prior to that week in March.
I’m feeling dizzy, and joyous, and loved without condition or caveat. I’m feeling more like myself than I have since the Afro puff, like the painted-on self I have been pretending to be in order to get by and to appear untouchable. There are certain kinds of balance that I’m seeking; between rest and work; between enjoying retreats into my inner life and closing off from other people completely. I’m also seeking to open myself up to people and to love without fear of saying or being too much.
And here are some more things in which I delight:
Orange line, rush hour, conversation between a mother and child:
Child: It’s a rainbow!
Mother: Where do you see a rainbow?
Child (undeterred by the mother’s doubt): Rainbow!
Mother: Ok, I’ll take your word for it, but mommy doesn’t see nobody’s rainbow.
A baby wearing a T-shirt featuring a picture of a sloth along with the words “slowly but surely, I’m going to bed.” It brings me great pleasure to add that the baby’s name was Zoë!
My therapist using the phrase “feminist utopias” during a session
A woman on the phone with small hands and lots of silver rings who reminded me of my friend Philippa
A house on my new commute with bushes growing over its white wall that look like bougainvillea; reminds me of home
Random parts of Cambridge that look like New Orleans (and I don’t mean gentrifiers whitewashing and taking over historic Black communities and make everything soulless glass and metal)
A Black girl with amazing boots and a T-shirt that says “radical and soft”
The swelling sound of the strings on “Eros” from the Beale Street soundtrack
Small talk with a Liberian woman who had lived in Ghana for years that started because she complimented the beads on my wrist and showed me her similar bracelet
A person wearing a T-shirt that says “Love is still the most powerful force on the planet”
A person wearing a T-shirt that says “I nap periodically” where I N-A-P was spelt with the periodic table symbols for iodine, sodium, and phosphorous
(I realize a lot of these are babies and T-shirts.)
Note: For those who might need a heads up, this post discusses suicide and suicidal thoughts.
(VCCA grounds, June 2019)
for someone I know who ultimately chose a different way
I’m sure I’ve written before about how terrified I am about wishing away time, of not being present even when the circumstances are difficult. The sort of presence I try my hardest to practice feels impossible while I working at a place where the desperation is not quiet, and most bonding between people is done in whispers–at times bitter, at times distressed, many times both– about such things like “higher ups” family trips abroad and holiday homes outside the city. Meanwhile a trip out of state is a stretch for most everyone else, or God forbid, an unexpected medical expense. Meanwhile dignity is synonymous only with title and power, a distorted order of things made more frustrating and even more painful by the almost mandated performance of enthusiasm, gratitude, and community, and the belief that all the “good” the work is presumed to be doing out in the world allows room to sidestep the irony of bloated grants and paychecks that could directly transform the lives of the people about who we claim to care so deeply. Have I described the non-profit where you work?
I’ve been trying to remind myself that me being disposable in the work machine does not make it so in real life. In real life, I have agency, and should be able to move beyond whispered grievances in someone’s office doorway to a place where I decide how to seek and hold on to joy and work with meaning. Unfortunately, depression also exists in real life, as evidenced by the average of 45 minutes it takes me to get out of bed on most work days, and the frequent stepping away from my desk for a quick cry, or a moment to sit outside the building and just breathe. Even with Beyoncé’s Homecoming on a loop, or interviews with Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, Jesmyn Ward, Julie Dash, and other Black women whose work sustains me playing in the background, I am increasingly absent. So much so, that I can go days before realizing I have lost track of the date, and that I have worn the same combination of black leggings and black shirts far more drab that what used to be my usual. But I can no longer afford this sort of absence from my own life. As hard as I have tried and laughed and joked and made grand pronouncements about “surviving,” I am not able to successfully insulate myself from the discontent (justified and understandable though it may be) that coats the office walls and the feelings of being stuck that keep me fixed to my swivel chair.
On the last Tuesday of March, a few days before my mum was due to fly into Boston before our trip to New Orleans, I tried to end myself. It was in a small way, relatively speaking, but the despair and feelings of worthlessness behind my actions were not small, and neither was the harm I was working myself up to, one which a growing part of myself hoped would be more final. This wasn’t the first time I had seriously considered and even planned suicide, like 2017 4th of July weekend when one of my roommates coming home earlier than expected save me from my own mind, or the summer of 2014 where I drove my mum’s car faster and way more aggressively than I usually would dare because I didn’t care what the outcome could be, or all the times before I left home where I explained away my own sorrowful feelings as being “moody” or “dramatic.” But this time, what terrified the larger part of myself that loves life and wants to continue living it was that for the first time I had the means to succeed, namely three months’ supply of an anti-depressant that I now know was not doing its job. Everything I’ve said prior to this point might point to work as the primary source of my misery, but the conditions I have tried to summarize are just the backdrop against which so many other low moments converged in my mind on that Tuesday night. I honestly can’t remember what happened that day, all I know is I was on the train trying to sniff back my tears until I could get home to let them out.
All at once, I was standing and walking in all the public places I have cried; the 80 bus, the road sloping down towards Medford Street from the corner of Highland Ave and School Street, a significant stretch of Broadway from Powder House Square to the CVS in Magoun Square, the 86 bus, the entire length of the red and orange line platforms at Downtown Crossing, the 86 bus, the car park in front of the giant Kappy’s that would be so much more convenient as a supermarket, the 88 bus, on Cambridge Street down the road from the nail salon and the dentist, the Lechmere-bound green line platform at Park Street, the complicated highway I have to cross to get to my otherwise wonderful apartment, any number of places in Harvard Square and Boylston Street downtown, and the beginning of yoga class in Dudley Square while everyone’s eyes are supposed to be closed. There was the weight of reflections of myself I didn’t recognize and with which I’m constantly struggling; selfish, needy, demanding, burdensome (whether you think you are hiding well or not), and waves of grief about things I have been terrified to reckon with, things like “Maybe I didn’t really say no. Maybe that didn’t happen.”
(Downton Crossing, Wellington, Home, Savin Hill)
Mostly though, I was exhausted in every way one can be, just wanted so badly to sleep, and was not really concerned with whatever lay on the other side of that sleep. Recognizing I was putting myself in danger, I called my therapist’s voicemail box, and she called back right away because she happened to be working late. I refused to check myself in to the hospital no matter how much she insisted, because even more terrifying than what I was trying to do was the prospect of checking myself in on my own. I promised to go in to see her the next day, and I did, after going to work and before going to a yoga class that I feel strongly helped me save myself that week. My therapist could not convince me to go to a psychiatric ward, and I think the only reason she stopped insisting was because I promised I could hold on until my mum’s arrival on Saturday, and more importantly that I wanted to live, that I had been making plans for my future, as uncertain as it all seemed.
(Swimming back to the surface + candles and some high-maintenance plants)
I spent the rest of the week swimming furiously back to the surface of my own life. I took a personal day from work and bought the plants I’d been meaning to get for a while, as well as an overpriced tea from a café on the way, I called my mum and told her about the plants, about the much better tea I could have had for free at home, about the spring weather finally coming in, about how healthy my hair was looking, but not about Tuesday night. I wrote this in an effort to ask for help while still remaining partially in hiding, I brushed off any concerned messages following that post about silence with a mention of “work stress,” I cried on the phone to my friend Mel and yelled back at the rude neighbors who complained that I was crying too loud. By the time Saturday arrived, I was feeling stable enough to make my café date with my gem of a friend Abigail (we meet every few weeks at a different café and sometimes in between for film screenings, author talks, museum trips, general catch-ups etc.), and then on to the airport to wait for my mum. By the time my mum walked through the arrival gates, I was in tears, a mix of relief that she had made it and fear of what I was about to tell her.
(Myself and a gem: Abigail and I a few days after what happened had happened, and again this summer)
New Orleans could not have come at a more perfect moment, and before she went back to Accra a few weeks later, she was sure to tell as many of my Boston people as possible that she needed them to check on me because she knew I wouldn’t call. I was grateful she did, because I would have just kept hiding and got on with it as is my wont. My swim to the surface included actively looking for a new job (which I now have and will be starting at the end of August), writing, Zumba-ing, and yoga-ing because it really did feel like my life depended on it, and most importantly, trying not to be silent about what I tried to do. People who I love and who love me, especially those I have not yet told about this in person or on the phone, I hope you will understand why I had to write this. Saying everything out loud gives the silence and the low moments far less power over my self, and I promise you with every part of this self that I am ok now. Moving back home isn’t what I want to do right now even as I see how much that might put you at ease, and as much as I would love to be there right this minute. There is still so much I want to do out here, such as it is. I need to choose to live everyday for myself, because that is what I want to do, and not only because of the fear of letting other people down. I hope you will not be angry with or disappointed in me.
Here I am at the surface of my life, present and accounted for by Alwin Mana and by her mother Lolomo who loved me even before she knew who I would be. I have been actively trying to re-orient the way I think so that I don’t sink to those depths again. I had bloodwork, a general check-up, an appointment with a psychiatrist, and a change in medication. Bank accounts, work drama, the inhumanity of borders, and the rising sea levels are still on my mind daily, the last two far more urgent than the first two, but I am loving and listening to the inner self assuring me that I must hold on, and that I must keep choosing life daily. I can no longer afford self-deprecating humor about depression; I can’t afford ironic pessimism; I can’t afford to keep hiding behind sarcasm, although I do not at all intend to shame other people who use these as coping devices. Personally, I just cannot do it any longer. I am choosing life. There is nothing to joke about.
Choosing life also looks like trying to find small things in which I delight as often as I can. I got the idea from a lovely person I met during an Alternative Spring Break program in college, who posts “small and beautiful things” she observes as she moves around New York City. Trying to do this daily over the past few weeks has shown me that Boston can truly be as miserable as people make it out to be (seriously, there is nobody as mean and abrasive as someone yelling at their fellow passenger on the MBTA at 8:45am), and especially if you are not a well-off white cis person. A lady at the hair salon once described Boston as “Atlanta for white people” and I have never heard anything more accurate. Trying to find things to delight in where I can instead of every day has made it much easier and much more pleasant than putting pressure on myself to find any hollow thing to be happy about every single day. Because this is already so long, I will only post some of my favorites for now. I am choosing to continue living this life, and in this life I will delight.
An [initial] list of things in which I delight:
A wide-eyed little girl wearing a t-shirt with the words “Small Wonder” printed across the front
A woman with a New Orleans accent making pleasant small talk with her neighbor on the train
The words “fly blackbird” carved into the brick on the platform at the Davis T station (and running into other lines of poetry on unexpected pavements and platforms around the city)
A new shoot finally pushing through after my asparagus fern’s sickness
Surprise “Have a good week” texts from a dear friend who was just on my mind
A baby giggling on a bike ride (although I generally find it frightening to see small children strapped behind their parents on bikes)
In someone’s front yard, a sunflower taller than me with a bee kissing up to it
Love. Tar Baby. A Mercy. Home. Beloved. In this order, I revisited and in some cases read for the first time these works by Toni Morrison. My mum had all the books she had published up until the 80s, and I felt this urgent impulse to fill in the remaining gaps. I spent the entire month of July doing this, leaving Beloved for the end of the month near my birthday. I can’t say I would recommend doing what I did, reading several of her works in quick succession, unless you can spare significant amounts of time to catch your breath. I finished a few weeks ago, and I’m still breathless from the language, hypnotized by her brilliance, and unsettled by the aspects of human nature that she revealed and compelled her readers to reckon with. Even as I went from book to book knowing I should take a break, I kept going because I felt so strongly that I couldn’t stop. I left work a little early one afternoon to catch the documentary The Pieces I Am as part of the Roxbury Film Festival, and enjoyed it thoroughly while also feeling as though I had seen it before after spending hours watching any interviews and archival footage of her that I could find. Probably because I was spending so much time thinking about her and reading her work, I also dreamt one night that she was my teacher, literally, standing at a white board and writing out a lesson for me to take notes. My best friend said something in my spirit must have known.
Hey, Celestial! Hey. Celestial. Hey Celestial (Photos by Warring Abbott, 1974)
Toni Morrison, Toni the gawd, Toni Morrison as in one of the greatest to ever do it, became an ancestor on Monday night. This news was the first thing to greet me when I sat at my desk at work on Tuesday morning, on time for once and feeling unusually optimistic about the day. Toni Morrison is now an ancestor. Hey, Celestial! I don’t know what else to say except that I have never felt so deeply about the death of someone I didn’t know personally. I don’t know what else to say that people far more eloquent than me are already saying about what it has been like to live on this earth at the same time as someone so legendary. I don’t know what else to say except that I wrote nearly 2000 words last night which is far more than I’ve written in one sitting in weeks. I don’t know what else to say except that we are now living in a world where Toni Morrison is no longer sitting by a window somewhere laughing that distinct laugh and being wise and hilarious and sarcastic all at once. Except we are. She is still with us. Hey Celestial.
Here’s what I posted on my social media accounts last night:
I talk about her all the time. As it is with so many other people, her name usually comes first for me as one of the writers who made it possible for me to imagine widely and to attempt to put that imagination into words. The yet to be finished book project I turned in as my masters thesis would literally be nowhere without Song of Solomon.
I’ve lost count of the number of application essays, reflection papers for class, and casual conversations in which I reference reading my mum’s copies of Morrison’s books when I was too young to fully understand, and yet somehow I did, and kept reading and re-reading her for years after that, trying to understand what kind of mind produces the sort of sentences she puts together.
She gave a series of lectures in Boston in 2016, at a time when I was feeling burnt out and discouraged at school and at work, and violated and angry in my personal life. I went to four of those lectures to hear her speak, and the way her presence filled the room was nothing short of divine. I’m still feeling discouraged these days, and especially today, but I guess because of Toni Morrison and what she has made possible, it is my responsibility to keep trying to do this thing called life.
RIP to one of the greatest to ever do it.