My Intention is to Survive

This post is full of a lot of “my mother always says.” She can’t help being so wise. One of these sayings is “Start as you mean to go on.” I can’t be silent until I’m an important enough somebody to speak up. What’s the guarantee I’ll speak up then, if my silence is what helped me to “make it” in the first place? As Queen Zora Neale Hurston, said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

***

I sometimes have these moments where I’m convinced Issa Rae is going to jump out from behind a pillar and yell, “Cut!” It’s very possible I’m just narcissistic because I’m a Leo (if you believe in what the stars have to say), or because I’m an only child and a writer (if you don’t). Let’s consider the stats for a moment: irritating mid-twenties millennial, owns brightly-colored coats with ridiculous sleeves that are always too extra for any given weather or occasion, acts like she’s too feminist for Migos but secretly knows her fair share of Takeoff verses. And honestly, I would probably be at brunch more often if I lived somewhere that wasn’t Boston and if I could afford it. You see where I’m coming from?

Anyway, on this particular evening, I was on my usual walk through the covered car park on my way home, hysterically crying on the phone to my mum. Sadly, Issa didn’t jump out—she never does—and that’s because the scenario was more bleak than I have tried to make it out to be with the slightly cheesy Insecure-themed humor. “I’m exhausted,” I said “I don’t know what giving up looks like, but I’m ready to do it.” At this point my voice is bouncing off the walls and all around the car park, but in my experience people tend to give crying strangers a wide berth no matter how hard to ignore they might be. I can’t say I blame them. After all, Effie we all got pain.

As always, my mum is wise and calm in a way I’m not sure I will ever be. She asked, what does giving up look like? Moving home? I would absolutely find something to do. It’s not like people aren’t making incredible art in spite of the difficulties around structural support (I’m also not saying it’s easy to do so). I would be home, there’s nothing shameful in that. Except it implies that home would somehow be more tenable, that I would automatically be more at peace in a way that isn’t always possible in Boston.

As soon as the words are out of my mouth I realize how twisted it is for me to perceive “moving home” as a sign of failure, as if those who are striving, thriving, making their art and making their way in the world are somehow carving some lesser path than the one on which I find myself because I happen to be abroad while they are not. And as my mother reminded me, there would be nothing necessarily easier about being a young woman with lots of opinions and little fear to express them just because I would be in Accra and not Boston. My mother is brilliant, and  has always been unafraid to refuse orders she takes issue with. She spent most of her career at odds with “big men” who could not stand anyone who wouldn’t toe the line, let alone a woman. She has been punished for her brilliance and her refusal over and over again, and yet has always remained uncompromising and solidly in possession of herself.

In my personal relationships, I may not be as self-assured because I’m not very confident in my roles of daughter and friend, but at work and school, I truly am my mother’s daughter. I usually know what I’m talking about, and no one can tell me otherwise. But this day in the car park, just a few evenings ago, was not an isolated tantrum. It came out of weeks (or maybe even months, if I’m honest) of wallowing in desperation, of making room for misery to fester and expand. After completing grad school, I am still struggling with the feeling of being unmoored, and with the [false] belief that I am worthless without the right credentials and financial stability that would make me deserving of the luxury or privilege of peace of mind and time to research and write.

I have worked hard, I have “gone above and beyond” which usually means finding solutions to problems I didn’t create, I have spoken up and out for myself and other people, I have tried to be brilliant, to refuse when possible. I have also been feeling depleted, nursing old hurts, spending weekends depressed and teary after weekdays trying to be my shiniest and most impressive self at two different jobs and in social settings, exhausted from this relentless pursuit of financial stability that I am finding it increasingly difficult to socialize, attend dance classes, visit museums, volunteer, write, imagine; to do anything really that is spirit-sustaining for me.

I am slowly accepting lack, exhaustion, and precariousness as necessary for my journey in writing and life.

This runs deeper than the harmful “one has to suffer for one’s art” cliché. Through actions, words, and also the silences, I have encountered deliberate efforts to convince me and other Black women and queer people that we are unworthy of care, of living and working in places where we are not treated as though we are disposable.

But I am not convinced. The other day, I read this incredible essay by Alexis Pauline Gumbs titled “The Shape of my Impact,” and I have since posted quotes from it on my office wall opposite some other quotes of hers I put up after reading her book Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. She articulates all my fears and misgivings about giving myself and my brilliance over to institutions that do not care about my well-being or my life. In the essay, she writes,

“Let us be clear. Universities keep huge endowments, money on reserve, because they are supposed to keep money.  They will always tell you they cannot afford you. They will not spend their money to save the life of a Black feminist.  Poet Laureate though she may be.  Let us be clear. The universities that we mistakenly label as our bright quirky only refuge for Black brilliance have worked our geniuses to death, and have denied us help when we asked for it. The universities that employed June Jordan, Audre Lorde and so many others, watched cancer eat away at our geniuses, as they simultaneously ate away at black women’s labor. An institution knows how to preserve itself and it knows that Black feminists are a trouble more useful as dead invocation than as live troublemakers, raising concerns in faculty meetings. And those institutions continue to make money and garner prestige off of their once affiliated now dead faculty members.”

I have had this exact conversation with people working across industries. We are being depleted, but it is “for our own good.” We are reminded that somehow the places that cause us harm are also exactly where we need to force our “seat at the table” in order to do our work.

It is not hyperbole when I say to you that I have been in some of my worst health over the past few years in graduate school and immediately after. I am 26, and in the space of a few months in 2017 I had a surprise root canal, several fillings, and two eye infections (one in each eye), all ailments I had never ever struggled with until then. I’ve had panic attacks right before going out into the world with fake-slay intact. I have random knee and back pain that pop up on non-Zumba class days, and sometimes stay longer than must be normal. I may not have the medical credentials to say for sure that these are directly related to academic and professional stress as a grad student, but I am saying that being paid inadequately [sans benefits] for doing some really vital work including teaching [as an adjunct], means that you might not realize that tooth pain can turn into teeth falling out of your mouth, or rather that you might have to ignore those aches and pains in the hopes that they will disappear on their own.

I am not convinced that it’s normal for me to feel so undeserving of good things that even signing a lease for a lovely new apartment with a roommate who laughs and bakes and has the Bronx all over her sarcasm and sense of humor feels “too nice” for me to deserve. Every rent payment feels like an unnecessary splurge, because somehow I have come to believe that I don’t deserve the joy of looking forward to returning to my own living space.

In a recent conversation, I admitted to my mum that when I first started grad school, I used to feel so anxious about my finances that I would spend the barest minimum on groceries. She had given me money for my rent, and I felt so guilty that I had failed for not being able to pay on my own despite working multiple jobs, that I had failed for deciding to take out loans to attend graduate school because I didn’t get a scholarship (an irresponsible pursuit of a luxury we couldn’t really afford), so much so that it didn’t matter that I had always tried to be as self-sufficient as possible after leaving home because I felt she had already done more than enough for me, and because I knew she would give whether she had or not. So, snacks were non-essential. Fresh fruit and vegetables? Unnecessary. My fridge might as well have been an arctic wasteland until payday, and even then it was hardly any better.

Audre Lorde
“I love the word survival, it always sounds to me like a promise.  It makes me wonder sometimes though, how do I define the shape of my impact upon this earth?” reflection cut from an early draft of “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger” by Audre Lorde (Audre Lorde Papers, Spelman College Archive) (from “The Shape of My Impact” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs)

I am not romanticizing the “struggling artist” trope. It is not just some cute aesthetic. I’m trying to tell you that I watched my physical and mental health fall all over the place because I believed the lie that I didn’t deserve any better. I still feel so much shame in speaking about this publicly because of the constant reminders, subtle and explicit, that “making it” has more to do with wealth, class status, and returning home to attempt to climb Accra’s rickety social ladder than it does pursuing a path that I find joy and fulfillment in despite the (largely structural) obstacles, and trying to do work that might benefit other people no matter how small the effect may end up being. All her brains, and this is what she is using them for?- a direct quote, as if making art and cultivating concern for other people beyond oneself in thought and action is inferior to raking in money for doing an exploitative corporate job…

I am not silly or presumptuous for seeking health, peace of mind, space, and time to do things that bring me joy. I am not ungrateful for requiring appropriate credit and compensation for work that I do, most of which is usually at the service of other people. I am not a “just for the time being until we have squeezed out all we can from you.” I am nobody’s negation or blank-space-until-filled. I am not disposable. I am trying to remember that desperation is not my default, that my peace lives with me and not where I have the most elite co-sign.

One of my favorite sayings I’ve borrowed from my mother is “I didn’t come into this world to come and suffer.” One of her middle names is Obiageli, loosely translating from Igbo to mean “she came to enjoy life.” Usually, in my mouth it turns into something along the lines of “My mother didn’t give birth for me to sit down and suffer quietly.” She definitely didn’t bring me into this world to be beholden to people and institutions that would love to see me kill myself slowly for their benefit. I am formidable and curious and kind and  hilarious.

And I intend to survive.

(Image of Audre Lorde: Wikimedia Commons)

On the Latter Side of Next

So, I graduated with my masters, but this won’t be a long, dramatic post. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drama, not in the slightest. I mean, you read this blog. You know. I’m only trying to be as concise as I can be because I fear that if I go on too long I will only allow the usual fear and self-doubt to take over. I will start to spiral into the usual sequence of unproductive (and untrue) thoughts that follow any significant accomplishment; I could’ve worked harder, written more pages, been kinder, been far better at keeping in touch, been a better person overall.

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My entire last semester was characterized by constant apprehension about the near future, and now that I’m here­– or there– it’s really not as scary as I anticipated. I’m here, and pretty proud of myself, considering all the simultaneous chaos that often seemed to run me behind and beside me during the past three years of working towards my MFA. I’m also incredibly grateful and lucky to have had several mentors and professors who let me overstay my welcome in office hours or use up their lunch breaks with my latest teary dilemma. I’m also thankful for friends and family who endured my long-winded explanations of my research and writing projects. Self-deprecating commentary aside, it means more than I’ll be able to explain here that so many people I love and admire see me and are actually there for me, since I’m somewhat “allergic” to asking for help.

With my dear mother and aunty (photos by Lloyd K. Sarpong)

Clockwise from top left: Lloyd, my brilliant and kind Laura, and Katerina and Erika, two of my absolute favorite people at Emerson.

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Keenah boo! (photo by Melissa, who managed to escape taking a single photo with me that day *side eye*) 

I used to think that when I got older, my self-esteem would somehow become healthier. My idealistic notion of what it meant to “grow up” involved me turning into someone who thought of herself more highly than I did at the time, someone who was self-assured and belonged to herself wholly. Essentially, I hoped to turn into the kind of woman my mother is. I’m still pretty young– bill collectors and student loan services appear to disagree– but I am unfortunately as down on myself as my insecure past self has been.

Arriving at the other side of next, that is, after the graduation fanfare has subsided and all the work is momentarily “done,” also means realizing that I have no idea how to be still. I have calculated my worth by tallying completed tasks against what is left “to do” in my agenda. I never feel enough for myself, let alone for anyone else. I don’t know how to give myself room to just be, considering that there is so much I urgently need to write about, so many events more complicated and more monumental than my usual anxieties. I don’t know how to let myself just be, without feeling as though I’m not worthy of breathing up all this air and taking up space on earth, unless of course I’m working hard, and unless that work is mostly to benefit someone else. This may sound a little hyperbolic, and I know “objectively” that none of it is true.

I’m trying to learn how to be kinder to myself. My self-esteem has been subterranean for quite some time, and I would love to bring it above ground, at the very least. I would love to experience some joy, even against the backdrop of so much horror and so much uncertainty in the world. You can find me in the sun these next few weeks, breathing up all the air (and pollen), and writing as if my life depends on it.

So much for brevity and no drama…

***

I wrote the following post about halfway through the semester but didn’t feel comfortable posting it at the time on the off chance that any of my students came across it and felt as though I was teaching them with a bad grace. I put in all the effort and care I could muster to make space for them to express and debate their ideas and to grow as writers. My restlessness had little to do with them and more about the impending uncertainty of postgrad life. I realize now that it reads a little like a riddle, an effect I wasn’t going for at all and don’t much care for. I guess it’s an indication of how confused and outside of myself I was feeling. In any case, I’m here. I made it!

 ***

My Self Every Elsewhere

I feel as if I’m living everyday on a deep inhale, except without the promise of an exhale’s sweet relief at the end. I am not present. Some of me is sitting in my grandma’s living room watching the fan waving around with the same content laziness I feel as I sink deeper into the flattened foam of the sofa cushions. Another piece of myself is waiting to cross the street somewhere in New Orleans where I would love to be living, scattered with potholes and lined with shaded verandas that might as well be Accra. There is also the no-place I’m longing to be, one that exists only in my imagination, or at the crossroads of my favorite novels and scholarly writing about the African diaspora.

Everywhere else but here.

I wouldn’t be so concerned about this longing if I didn’t have 18 students expecting me to be with them for 3 hours and 45 minutes a week, and an immense and unspecified number of additional hours on email, or online reading, grading, fixing, always giving. I would hate for them to have the slightest feeling that this is about them, and that I am staring over their heads and into a distant elsewhere that is most appealing at the moment not because of what it is, but by simple virtue of the fact that it is not here with them. Wherever I am, it is definitely not 9:26 on the green line in Boston where I have just lost my ID card as well as my eagerness to stand with a smile fixed on my face as I try to cajole the class into understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s genius (and the importance of citing one’s sources!!!)

My restlessness starts on the same spot towards the back of my scalp, where I scratch between the once-precise parting for my braids until the skin feels raw and bruised, until I am convinced I am one more scrape away from coming away with blood under my nails. I am ashamed of it, because it fidgets and jostles my careful mask out of the way, intruding into every conversation I have about what I plan to do next.

The part of my attitude that troubles me the most is that I am trying to wish away the unbearable present, marking time like a teasing metronome or a clock that is always trying to catch up its lost minutes. I’m trying to wish away my now as if I know that what will come next will somehow be more satisfying, when I can’t actually know that for sure.

I feel like the bratty child I never was, whining at the more-than-enough spread out before me, before pushing it onto the floor with sticky, greedy hands, the same hands I try to grasp at the better time everyone else seems to be having.

When we say “I can’t wait for this to be over,” the implication seems to be that whatever lies at the other side of “over” is more desirable, but that just isn’t true. That should be my consolation.

Yet, I’m wondering where else I have to go if both now and the latter side of next are equally uncertain and even terrifying–

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Photos courtesy of the man, the myth, the broski, Lloyd K. Sarpong, some selfies, and other people I was too excited to remember unfortunately!

I had nothing to do with this cap except for wearing it. Laura and Jeeyoon designed all the little details and I just held the glue gun and passed them scissors etc. Katerina came up with “Best revenge is your pages” based on the line from “Formation” All my own ideas for cap phrases were (more) rude/confrontational song lyrics… 

Sometimes, Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

Doing the Most (and Never Enough)

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

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

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

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

 I just need to write.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s urgent.

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

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

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

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

***

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

 

 

 

 

This Is Emerson

Nothing that I have to say is particularly new. If you’re tired of hearing it, imagine how tired we are of saying it over and over. 

***

Being a graduate student-instructor means that I must now call “colleagues” some of the same classmates whose racist and generally problematic writing and feedback I had to endure in workshops, whose microaggressions (the cumulative effects of which are anything but “micro”) I had to swallow and smile away, or bite back, in literature and theory seminars.

“I feel like you talk so much in class because the professor loves you. Or you know, maybe you talk so much because of where you sit.”  It’s not like my brain is attached to chair. (This was my actual response). But sure, we can switch seats. It just won’t change the fact that your real gripe is that you’re now struggling in graduate school with the same Aimé Césaire text I read in the original French as an undergraduate. So maybe examine why exactly it is you’re so pressed?

Not my problem.

It’s even more infuriating that I feel the need to position myself in this way before saying what I really want to say, to shore up my credibility by name-dropping Césaire, and gesturing to how all my Black girl magic is never quite enough. And this is just one mild example.

At the moment, my most urgent concern is no longer this kind of comment directed towards me, because, well, I’m *me* and I’m not intimidated.

I’m concerned because some of my colleagues think it’s enough to sprinkle some James Baldwin here and some Gloria Anzaldúa there, a few extra credit points for a dash of some social justice buzzwords there, and shake to serve.

I am disheartened by this strange insistence from some people in the MFA that we are “writers and not academics,” here to work on our writing and not engage with “dense” theory, as if our creative work exists in some vacuum beyond the reach of scholarly pursuits.

I am frustrated because certain people think it’s enough to cherry pick works by people of color to use in their writing classes, without grounding their teaching in any clearly defined radical intellectual tradition.

I am distraught because an arts school such as Emerson College actually has the potential to create classroom spaces that are truly transformative, that threaten the empty complacency of our own institution, and push us all to more just and sustainable futures. Instead, we call it radical when students get to write essays about music videos (extra points if the artist is Black or brown!) and then we keep it moving.

And I am exhausted, because instead of expending my energy on attending to my mental health, and on my work that celebrates all there is to love and mourn in the Black diaspora, I am writing this post. [It’s 10 to 1 in the morning and I should be asleep.]

Just focus on the writing.

Meanwhile brilliant students are using their precious time to organize and march and sit and chant and cry, instead of working on the art they came here to perfect. Focus on the writing, but we are not pushing students (especially those who have never had to think deeply about how their comfort may depend on someone else’s strife) to unlearn the harmful ideas they may have already absorbed before getting to us.

I come from a place where it’s commonplace for textbooks to list the “advantages and disadvantages” of colonialism, and so can do no more than laugh a bitter laugh when I see false equivalences and ahistorical arguments used to try and hush any kind of dissent or critique.

Hold hands and love each other. But my Black friend told me…This hurt my feelings and I will no longer listen, how dare you call me racist? 

And beyond this kind of ignorance, so generic and unoriginal it makes me bored rather than enrages me, we have the pièce de résistance; a direct quote from a classmate’s feedback to an essay I wrote in which I discussed, among other things, how white women are afforded space to play helpless victims of the scary Black person, even after saying and doing vile things. I may or may not have also witten the phrase “Fuck forced sisterhood with white women,” and *that* my dear friends, was my  ultimate sin:

I absolutely understand that Black women have entirely different struggles and might need a different type of feminism than white women [We might? How kind of you to notice!]…Who’s forcing the sisterhood? I encourage the author to think about the way she views feminism/womanism…

As if I am not the daughter of a mother that considers Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens a guiding light in the form of a thick book with long-yellowed pages. As if I would need a white woman to explain womanism to me… Feminism is about gender equality and women helping other women…Alright “sis,” so how exactly are you helping me, when your response to my critique of white women wielding their femininity like a weapon, is to essentially dismiss me as divisive and too angry, or angry at the wrong things?

In the humanities, in our stale rooms packed to the ceilings with books, we have pages upon volumes of information about the slippery way in which power moves, years of careful analysis that explain how and why it is possible for one to benefit from a system that is resting on someone else’s bent back, without recognizing the invisible powers at work.

What are we really doing with the knowledge we have? What is the political engine driving our acting and writing and filming? What else needs to happen for us– for you– to realize how high the stakes are?

I have sharpened my oyster knife at Emerson, but my spirit is dull, and I am absolutely fed up.

***

Read more about what’s happening at Emerson College in the students’ own words.

Petition: Demand Action from Emerson Administration

Unlooking

I had planned to write a short blurb to explain this piece, to provide some context about the education I’ve received and how it has led me to view whiteness and so on. I’ve changed my mind, not because I don’t care if you understand or not, but because I’m exhausted from talking about this constantly. There are three more names we’ve had to learn these past few days: Joyce Quaweay, Skye Mockabee and Korryn Gaines. There are probably so many more that didn’t make the news. Say Her Name. I’m exhausted, and I hope this piece speaks for itself.

***

There’s a young man on the train, very slim, maybe in his mid-twenties. For someone who spends almost all my time observing strangers moving about in their strange worlds, I’m terrible at estimating people’s ages. I blame that on the fact that all the older people I know have wrinkle-free faces frozen somewhere in their mid-thirties, with only a few flecks of grey at the hairline as evidence of their age. This man is wearing a grey suit, wrinkled in the back from where he has been leaning on the seat, with a pale blue shirt and a matching tie. He has red hair combed over to the left side of his head, a little limp because of the summer heat, or maybe from an overdue wash. He is having an energy drink for breakfast, and the can is the only thing he is carrying. He has on brown shoes that look cartoonish in their largeness, in the way that men’s shoes always appear to me. His white headphones loop over his collar to the inside of his shirt, maybe connected to a phone, maybe connected to nothing but giving the impression that he is unavailable for any kind of conversation. It could be that he got on the train at the other end of the B line, and that the look of irritation on his face is a remnant of dealing with the BU students crowding and shuffling on and off between stops. Maybe he didn’t get much sleep because he spent the night worrying about his old parents wilting slowly in a Mid-western town. Maybe he is just tired because he stayed up late drinking within his work buddies as if college ended last night, and not three years before when he moved to Boston.

There’s a young woman in blue pleated pants, with white squares dotted all over them. I believe they’re from the clothing store where I used to work. If I think hard enough, I may even be able to remember the exact name of the style: Ann, Kate or Devin? She has an orange shirt tucked into her trousers with a white belt to secure the outfit, and a black bag with the designer’s name and logo fixed on in gold lettering. She is wearing square tortoise shell glasses that she pushes back up her nose absent mindedly, and her hair is an indeterminate brown. Indeterminate because it doesn’t look like anything that I have known before. In all the books I read growing up, the children looked like the mischievous Cupid laughing jumping of the surface of gaudy cards in a filling station shop in February, and their hair was always the color of hay, or of sunlight filtered through thin orange curtains, or of a lake at night. This is none of those things, and I don’t have the words. I try to imagine a life for her, like I did the man. Maybe she is an intern at a shiny ad agency in the financial district, only in Boston for the summer before she returns to an elite college elsewhere on the east coast. She probably knocked her bag into the small of my back because the only faces like mine she registers are the ones fixing their eyes on mop buckets and dirty floors when she exits the shower of her dorm, even though there are probably many more in her classes, and in the city, than she notices because they are not supposed to be there.

I’m a disappointment to a curriculum that pounded lines of poetry into my skull to the rhythm of iambic pentameter. All I can remember is the absurdity of memorizing lines of drama from Hamlet on a boiling day in a school hidden by full hedges and tall gates from the gaze of people who were not international enough. I was obligated to concern myself with this Hamlet character who, if he were alive today, would probably be found posting terrible haikus on Tumblr and plotting how he was going to leave his parents apartment for good this time. Obsessing over the significance of Ophelia’s drowning when my own ability to stay afloat was going to be tested, dangerously so, in classrooms and residence halls and workplaces full of people who would not be able to hear my own cries for help. I have been called upon to jump into strange skins and to understand what it’s like to inhabit them, while looking at my own as a thing to be studied objectively, to be grateful for this redemption orchestrated by high culture and long-suffering Jesus with the freshly permed wave to his hair.

And yet, there is still something that obstructs the light of recognition before it reaches my eyes. There is a piece of stone blocking its way that now makes it difficult for me to see humanity in people that cannot see me. That the dehumanized eventually become inhumane is clear to me in the way I look at people on the train as flat pieces of canvas waiting for me to make half-hearted strokes on the surface. I left the empathy that was forced on me between pages of G.M Hopkins’ and Emily Brontë’s works, marking my place in histories of people winning wars fought over graves of the original wonders of the land, pages bled through with florescent pink highlighter ink. I don’t have any empathy left to give. I can look, disinterested, in the same way I glance at semester abroad students with cowries matted into the back of hair that isn’t made for locs, locked arms with their local friends, or the expat mothers moving in a cloud of Paris’ finest perfume and left over air conditioned cold, pulling naughty children away from their uncouth playmates with open pink mouths and dust trapped in the knots of their hair. I can look, but I have lost all interest in a human condition that is only human when it doesn’t include me.

 (Image: The train stations in DC made for really good photo ops. Spring 2014)

Laissez les bons temps rouler

In today’s installment of “screaming into the void,” I’m attempting to release myself from the feeling of always having to explain or give insight about myself or to be present in spaces where I feel incredibly isolated. During a class discussion the other day, I attempted to describe how burnt out I’ve been feeling less than a year into this MFA program, after constantly having to engage with texts and theories which trace and retrace in painstaking detail the suffering of anyone whose way of life was flattened by the weight of the only kind of “civilization” that mattered and continues to matter today. I made a comment about how tired I am of looking for myself in these texts only to find blank space, an emptiness characterized by the lack of women with whom I can relate or the confusion of strange caricatures that look nothing like me or any of the women I know. I must say that these classes align with my personal interests, so I’m grateful they even exist and that there are professors specializing in postcolonial theory and “Third World” feminism among other things, but it doesn’t make it any easier to face just because I find these topics intellectually stimulating.

I went on to talk about how I just want to write sunsets and happy endings, ironically of course, because if you read this blog you know I have no concept of what that means at all. The expected response to this statement was laughter (which I got) because it was a joke, after all. I also heard: “Why? That’s so boring!” which is fair, happy endings are often a little disappointing in their predictability. What I meant to say was that even my joy is political, an act of resistance in the face of so many forces trying to convince  that I cannot belong to myself, that I can never just write whatever I desire without feeling compelled to make the void collapse onto itself, and that the continuous consumption of pain and brokenness expressed through artistic production is deemed “interesting” or “edgy”.

When I try to discuss these feelings of exhaustion with my peers, the reaction which stings the most is “What did you expect?” even when it’s meant to be taken as a joke. I’m not trying to play oppression Olympics with anyone, because I’m fully aware of the great privilege I enjoy which enables me to pursue higher education and to work on my writing in an environment exclusively designed for this pursuit while only working part time. (At the moment I have to pretend I don’t know who Sallie Mae is in order not to become even more sleep-deprived than I already am.) Besides, people have rarely achieved much from arguing over who has it the worst. There are people here and people at home–wherever that may be– staring down the nose of death, and my writing always bears the weight of this knowledge. In order for my work to be significant, it has to be more than catharsis, it has to mean something, which probably explains why the word “thoughtful” is often used to describe pieces of my writing which I wasn’t even aware were making some sort of statement to begin with.

I’m not even suggesting that my position is particularly exceptional or surprising. Yet, I am constantly tripped up by the fact that I feel the need to include this disclaimer to minimize my own position because it cannot be that bad to feel invisible in the classroom when people are having to reaffirm daily that they are human to people looking at them through the barrel of a loaded gun. I shouldn’t have to weigh struggles against each other, but I guess I have internalized my position as an African woman writer to chronicle and soothe the suffering of others because I’ve learnt how to swallow mine from every aunty and cousin and mother who has had to do the same. What I do know is that I’ve had trouble sleeping because my brain keeps whirring away with all the rebuttals I should’ve made to comments that took me by surprise with their ignorance and the mouth they came from, that I’m desperate to avoid the possibility of becoming yet another decimal point who doesn’t make it to graduation because I couldn’t quite hack the system. My point is, if you are not a black woman that plasters bottled confidence in Dark 2 Cacao all over her face every morning before marching out into the world, you don’t get to tell me how to feel about anything. If you can speak as little to me as possible, that would be even better. I have a lot of rest and a lot of joy to catch up on.

(Image: https://digitallibrary.tulane.edu/islandora/object/tulane%3A21638)