Love and Vengeance

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, not 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.

Stills from Moonlight (2016), dir. Barry Jenkins. The screenplay was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue.”

Resisting the bothersome urge to reassure the reader that the Black feminist “agenda” does not in fact include the denigration or destruction of cis-het Black men I will share instead that 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. 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: 

***

*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 [would love to] love myself when I am laughing*…

laughing1

…but mostly I’m in a forever panic hoping no one can tell how cowardly I have become, or how ashamed I am that I haven’t listened:

[Toni]

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.

[Flora]

not a piece of wood

letting down– Cécile, Sanité, Dedée

Warrior mothers I can only imagine hurling bodies over fortified walls– war prisoners and weak soldiers alike– just hush up your whining we’re in charge now!

[Zora]

Girl, your knife is as dull as a short plank and WE ARE NOT TRAGIC, do you hear me?

***

I would love for my laugh to be a festival

To live a life in which I could say that and mean it

Beyoncé surrounded by assorted flower arrangements rubbing her rounded belly

Rihanna blowing smoke straight into the camera

Rihanna shaking white feathers and rhinestones at carnival

Rihanna at any time of day or night, frankly

***

Actually

Not anyone who is light-skinned and wealthy

I would like to be the two girls I saw on the train this morning, one with Afro puffs parted by a sharp zig zag down the middle of her head, the other with cornrows swinging past her shoulders, sharing headphones and dancing their joy onto the platform and out into the world

Or the me who hadn’t yet started to fake humility until it became a nervous tick

When I was all

Itchy frilled socks filling with dust after church, and still twirling for frame after frame of photographs

Fluffy ponytail balanced on top of my head in the only way my mother new to style my hair

 ***

Especially in these times, I realize I need to be

 [Alice]

outrageous, audacious, courageous

To write us into revolution

Ink for poison, pen tips for murder

and other kinds of delusions

***

Instead I am here

crying through rain at the bus stop at 6am

jaw twitching resistance of false exuberance by 2 in the afternoon

By 10pm, roommates have to sweep up the shreds of my sorry self

And let me tell you about how in class white girls get to be basic and then offended by that label

“And isn’t this postcolonial stuff so dense?” means “Tell me you didn’t understand the reading either because there’s no way you can be better than I am at my own game…”

“Wow I’ve read your writing about colonialism. So powerful. Here’s more work for you. I want more.”

We’re all women first, sisters even

Empire wears an adorable pink hat with lopsided ears, don’t you know?

Out here struggling over words like Emecheta and bildungsroman

and ordinarily I would not judge and dismiss others by who wields this basic language best

But

For the sake of Black baby Jesus

I’m the one who isn’t making sense?

***

[Toni]

Alright, but what did we say about distractions? 

 Listen, I’m trying, ok? I’m finally over that guy and Becky with the split ends

[All sing refrain]

Oh honey, Daavi, not this again. Men absolutely do not treat us like that, and definitely not those with knuckles of that ashy nature. I mean at least let them be moisturized.

Are you listening? Look at me! And look at you:

Expending energy in self-doubt, crawling through the Internet for words of affirmation circled by hand drawn daisies and clouds, and supply store glitter

Unthreading at the seams,

you might want to get your fraying checked out,

mended

But at least your self has more trouble to write about, right?

Tragic

*****************************************************************

*In a letter to photographer Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston said the following in reference to some photos he had taken of her, “I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” This quote is also the inspiration behind the title of an anthology of extracts from Hurston’s works edited by Alice Walker.(Go to the library and borrow that book, now. Or you know, wherever you get your reading material. Just read it!)

Image: This was taken by Lloyd  K. Sarpong, best photographer this side of Dansoman, Somerville, and everywhere in between. I needed a headshot for a journal that will be publishing my work later this year, and it turned into a whole string of pictures because “we need to catch the light” *strong side-eye.* It wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t long-suffering and sarcastic, but I actually loved how these pictures came out especially because most of them weren’t posed.

I have two stories and a personal essay coming out this year, AND your girl is going to Barbados in May for the Callaloo Writing Workshop! It feels so early in the year to  have this many exciting writing-related things to look forward to. I’m trying to put my joy in my pocket and keep on working, instead of feeling guilty for being wrapped up in personal pursuits when a lot of us are terrified of what Suntan Satan is going to do next. I keep reminding myself that everything I’m doing currently is helping me to improve my writing. As I’ve said before, my writing is the best thing I have to offer others, and I can only hope that it will be meaningful for whoever gets to read it.

On My Soapbox

Please enjoy the last two extracts from my mini feminist manifesto. I realize that these may not make complete sense since you’re reading them outside the context of the full essay. Full disclosure: I’m really just trying to distract everyone from the lack of new blog posts as I drown in school and work, trying not to panic or cry out for help so I don’t run out of breath even quicker. I really didn’t mean for that to become as morbid/melodramatic as it did…

 waves

“Nous stimulons le déferlement de vagues enfantines qui emportaient dans leur pli un peu de notre être.” Mariama Bâ’s lyrical French plays over and over in your mind, its smooth course uninterrupted by the Wolof words you will not understand until you actually stand on the beach near your home in the same city she was building in your imagination. It’s 11am on a Thursday in October 2012, and you are having trouble understanding wave after wave of theory and ideology being presented to you in hands you do not recognize. Grandma was there, I’ve seen her in the faded photographs, fraying at the edges, with the same smirk on her face that I saw in the mirror yesterday. But she wasn’t burning her bra or breaking lipstick tubes in half. She was not able to participate. I believe she had geographical coordinates that were a little off-center and skin that had absorbed too much of the sun’s light. It’s 12:15am in November 2012 and the walker-hooks-lorde trifecta is supposed to comfort you into thinking that there is someone looking out for your interests. Someone who is working for you to be free at all before you can think of freeing the nipple. I am trying to carry a little of ba-bugul-aidoo- in my curled toes and clenched fingers, but the wave is breaking just a little short of where I stand.

my feminism won’t be contained: a “conclusion”

Last night I dreamt that I walked into a big room with a table that seemed to stretch farther than I could see. It may have been grand once; but when I looked closely, the chandeliers were missing some bulbs, and the place settings were strewn with crumpled paper instead of polished plates edged in gold. I looked at the faces of the women seated around the table, and realized I knew them well. Maiguru shook my hand firmly, but I couldn’t understand how such an accomplished woman seemed so empty. Esi Sekyi planted words on the inside of my skull like the other woman and you can rape your wife. Sula folded her lusty laugh into the pocket of my brown school pinafore, escaping at break-time so that I had to scramble to conceal her before I was found out. Shakuntala swung round her heavy braid soaking in coconut oil and looked at me, daring me to dare. Ramatoulaye pulled out a chair for me and patted indicating that I should join them. You live in fiction, in English sitting next to Ewe songs and French idioms, but your voice will be heard here, and here and here–

(Image Source: portrait of Ken Bugul by Antoine Tempé, 2014)