Not Nice, Actually

I can’t quite remember the first time I heard the words “Wow, you’re actually a really nice person!” Actually. It has been repeated enough over the years, especially when I reach the point in a friendship with someone where they feel comfortable enough to reveal their surprise. Actually. It appears that being perceived as “nice” is somehow one of the most important things to which I’m expected to aspire. So, I’ve adapted. Biting back sarcasm because it could be misinterpreted as rudeness, exchanging empty pleasantries with classmates because I know that the day’s discussion is going to involve me pointing fingers at people, literally and figuratively. I’ve learnt to affect a self-deprecation I almost never feel inside myself, for fear of being seen as intimidating. I’ve considered changing my middle name to whatever the Ewe translation of “intimidating” is, instead of the name I have at present, Dzifa– “my heart is at peace.”

I’ve learnt that a woman with a “bad attitude,” one who is supposedly mean-spirited for no apparent reason and always has something negative to say, becomes an easy scapegoat in an unpleasant situation, especially when there are men involved. It’s not that a man has behaved badly, but that my reaction is rude and/or over-the-top, uncalled for. So I put another clamp on the parts of my personality that are too abrasive, clipping away at my dry humor to leave in its place a more digestible, less threatening version. An even safer option is to remain quiet. In silence there is no danger of a harsh tone or comment offending another person. There is, however room for more misinterpretation– Why are you mad? Why didn’t you say hi? What’s the problem now?

I remain, dancing on tiptoes through almost every part of my life, shakily balancing  the fragile self that I’m being forced to dash to the ground and sweep into a corner because other people’s sensitivity is more important than me projecting my self, unrestrained and unashamedly. It doesn’t matter if I try to file away the edge in my voice, or if I tease and joke the way I feel most comfortable, with sarcasm, because who I actually am and what I actually intend to say is not up to me to decide. I remain, with not a single desire to be nice, but rather to be fierce and fiercely loving, to rid myself of any stubborn strips of self-doubt that won’t let go– maybe I was a bit too harsh– to just be without the need to always explain and defend, or to use my existence as some insurance policy that whichever white person, or any kind of man, isn’t as bad as they think they are. Actually, I don’t want to be nice if that means contorting my personality, my wants and my frustrations to wind more easily around others’ needs. My mother isn’t “nice,” none of my aunts are “nice,” my grandmother is not “nice” and her mother was definitely not “nice.” They are generous and wise and hilariously funny, they break and they persevere and are many far more interesting and inspiring things than just “nice.” “Nice” is a trap. Fuck that.

(Image: I would like to take credit for capturing such a dramatic shot, but this photo really happened because my cousin –not so little anymore– was fed up and ready to get to the wedding reception. Being a flower girl is hungry work.)

Joyful Again

I was scrolling through my blog last night and thinking to myself: “Wow, why does anyone want to read this? I’ve been so angry lately!” Angry at myself for “letting” myself to be used and discarded by someone who is largely undeserving of all this glory *pauses and fluffs Afro while the crowd goes wild*. Angry at white people who hate black people but think they can cherry pick the “different” ones and expect these magical rarities to preen and curtsy in response to their attention.

Angry at people back home who ask “Why do you stay there if it’s so bad?” Angry at black people from other parts of the diaspora who think African-Americans are to blame for their own oppression. Let me break this down: if you are a postcolonial subject, you are facing global systems of violence and oppression, and if you don’t feel it it’s probably because in your country you are benefiting from the violence being enacted on someone else. Our colonial masters were replaced by elites who may have looked like “the masses” but acted and continue to act very much like their white predecessors. You can watch the movie Xala by Ousmane Sembène for an illustration of this.

Still from Xala, Ousmane Sembène (1975) 

I’m angry at the preppy Boston bros who bump into me on the street on a regular basis because I must be invisible. Angry at the non-black men of color who don’t respect my personal space and pop up directly in my face, mumbling stuff I cannot and do not want to hear, chuckling and breathing heavily as they stare into my cleavage. Angry at the white women who can roll over my toes with their strollers and give me tight-lipped smiles as apologies, knowing that any outrage I express could be deadly for my wild self and vindicating for their fragility. I’m angry that my white friends will mistake my using humor as a way to cope as an invitation for them to participate. So when I say things like: “Listen, I’m terrified of the police. I’m one rude comment away from being a hashtag,” the last thing you should say in response is “Well at least you’re not a man so maybe it’s two rude comments.” I don’t want to spend precious minutes re-hashing the stories of all the black women who have been dehumanized and murdered but who are not always included in the narrative. #SayHerName. Angry at the fact that even as I try to express all this, there will be someone quick to remind me that I have nothing to worry about because I’m comfortable, as if a large part of my anger and despair at this shapeless thing we call “the system” doesn’t come from the awareness that my own comfort is contingent on someone else’s suffering.

My writing is an automatic reaction to anything that happens, painful or joyful. It’s something I need to do to keep living and it’s been that way since I was little. I typed a piece (which I’ll post later) on my phone last night while switching between texting one of the amazing black women I call my friends, laughing and crying because we can add another name to the list, and checking Twitter for news. I feel as though I’m on the “racism beat,” chronicling all these things that are happening as though I’m a journalist. I just want to write the fiction and poetry I want to write and send my friends videos of carefree black children for the fun of it, and not for the purpose of getting our minds off the feeling of being hunted.

I’d also like to give a special shout out to all my classmates in grad school who were silent in class because they felt uncomfortable with “racially charged” course material but made sure to take notes when I spoke, and the friends who try to  hit me with the “but all women though” when they can’t begin to wrap their minds around my insight about what it means to be a dark-skinned black, African woman in “these United States.” Thanks. You give me so much motivation to keep writing. You’re going to hear me one way or another.

Lastly, white feminists: you are not the ones to teach me how to “lean in” when I’ve watched my mother assert herself in male-dominated workplaces in Ghana for years and never, ever, backing down. I’ve heard enough stories about how my great grandmother left her disrespectful husband and went on to be a successful businesswoman, inspirational in so many ways, and most importantly, a complete woman who belonged to herself. I have enough examples of BLACK women leaning all the way in, usually far enough for everybody else, including white women, to walk across their backs. Let’s talk when you’re being hunted and kidnapped and denied access to your own land and sent back across the border in the opposite direction of your kids and killed for being deviant in your femininity and killed just because and buried and and…but the Internet is still late for your funeral.

Until I can write something joyful again…