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.
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, even when I can afford it.
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 (was this irresponsible of me?), 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.
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)