My Secondhand Lonely

I’m so grateful that my professor in the fall non fiction workshop, Jerald Walker, recommended my essay to be published in the May issue of Slice Magazine! My bio is just casually on the same page as Edwidge Danticat! I had a few more thoughts, because unfortunately the essay is as true for me today as it was when I wrote it in October. I’m doing alright for the most part, even though it may not necessarily seem like it. I’m grateful to be alive, and to have had the chance to focus completely on my writing in a way that I may not have done so easily had I not gone the MFA route. I’m just trying my best to navigate this thing called my 20s, along with everything else happening in the world right now, while still finding room for a little joy and some rest.

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My favorite kind of message to receive is from people who read this blog and tell me that my being open about my mental health, anger among other things resonates deeply with them, or that my words have expressed their own personal experiences in ways they hadn’t been able to do before. This has nothing to do with any potential massages to my ego, but is completely about the relief I feel that I am not as alone as I may think, and that this writing practice, this thing I love to do the most out of anything in this world, has been helpful in some small way for others. I had recently started to think that I got such a positive response on posts about all these raw emotions because people love to consume others’ pain, particularly if the writer or artist is a Black woman carrying many things on her back. This may be true to some extent, but mostly people genuinely appreciate seeing themselves reflected in art, and it brings me such joy to be a part of that process.

I still feel isolated, because “opening up” in writing and in person, and setting boundaries for what I can and can’t take from others doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. I’ve tried to shift from cries for help buried in jokes and sarcasm to speaking plainly about my needs and my hurt, but somehow the resounding response seems to be “You’ll be fine. You always are.” Loneliness seems to be the best way to describe the resulting state of being after the “just checking on you” messages stutter to a stop, or the person in need of my care or advice has found their solution or someone else to lean on. As I’ve said before, I don’t resent at all being called on at any hour to put out a little fire, but it would be amazing to hear from people just for the sake of a pleasant chat, or “just thinking of you.”

There’s this phrase in Ewe my mum says regularly, whenever a friend or significant other begins to take one for granted. Loosely translated it means “loosen the rope” or “loosen the thread,” as in, begin to distance yourself. She’s always reminding me that life is too short to endure more heartbreak than is necessary, when one can just uproot oneself and leave in pursuit of contentment and more equal and nurturing relationships, platonic and otherwise.

I understand where that advice comes from, but I used to wonder, if I start pulling away the minute someone disappoints me, won’t that mean I’ll eventually have no one left? If we all take this approach, where would that leave us? Self-absorbed and unable to see past our own noses, and miserable and unloved all at the same time? I find myself wishing that people would just actually listen and be a little more gentle, so that we wouldn’t have to resort to coldness and withdrawal in the hopes of getting our needs considered more seriously. (It hurts even more when the “loosening of the tie” goes unnoticed, almost as if you’ve ceased to exist unless to offer some humor or a word of advice.)

Which brings me to the essay I had published in Slice Magazine in May, “My Secondhand Lonely,” The title comes from one of the most painful moments for me (among many) in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. My piece is about keeping up the kind of performance I’ve learnt from my mother, to always pretend to be well-adjusted and available for others, no matter the pain I’m going through. The timeline of the essay ends right before my first visit to a therapist and learning about PMDD. I also talk about recognizing this always-on-top-of-things performance in Molly from the HBO show Insecure. I wrote this essay before the point in the TV series where they turned Molly into a walking think-piece and began using her character to showcase what felt like every problematic worldview possible; homophobia, classism, respectability politics, you name it. There was just something about her strutting her flawless self around the office, paralleled by her crying alone in the bathroom at her office that felt so familiar.

Ultimately, the essay is about feeling ashamed for yearning for the company and care of others, because according to Sula the fearless, and the trope of the independent Black woman I see everywhere, I should be enough for myself. On some days, I do feel like enough, unstoppable and self-sufficient. Mostly, I’m still human and in need of connection with others, just like other human beings, but unsure of how else I can make this known without becoming irritating or repetitive (I fear I already am the latter.)  I don’t think it’s sustainable to live this way, to weep privately, like I did while writing this post this evening, to grin and joke in public, and to keep loving and caring with little reciprocation while deteriorating on the inside. At the moment though, I don’t know how else to be.

You can read a preview of the essay and get a copy of the magazine here.

(Image: Cover of Slice Magazine Issue 20: Corporeal. Artwork by Jenny Morgan, courtesy of Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York. Cover design by Jennifer K. Beal Davis.)

Wearing Nina’s Dress

I’m thinking about the ways I perform strength in public, with snark for days and the sharpest winged eyeliner since I started playing with drugstore makeup a few years ago. I’ve began to believe the myth of my own indestructibility, so much so that I continue to engage with people who make harmful statements diluted with well-meaning jokes and talking points because I shouldn’t isolate myself. I should be available. Shouldn’t I?

I was just asked by that anonymous villain who I’ve been referring to over the past few weeks, to dig deep down in my “graceful and giving” self to hear his side of a story to which I already know the end. As if all my grace has not been used up trying to keep my hurt private so I can perform strength for classmates who don’t really care about me, my well-being or my work, for friends who actually do care but need me to be there for them at different times, for people who prefer to dismiss me as anti-social or “You just don’t like people”  when I’m really just tired of sectioning different parts of myself for others like birthday cake, for strangers who routinely step on my toes and knock me in the chest with large bags and elbows because they didn’t see me there.

I’m not for everyone. I’m impossible to savor and digest. And you just have to deal with it. 

[I wrote the piece below a few weeks ago after watching the documentary “The Amazing Nina Simone” at the Roxbury International Film Festival in Boston.]

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Wearing Nina’s Dress

I’m sitting in a dark theater, grateful that I decided to attend a screening of the documentary “The Amazing Nina Simone” on my own. I’ve lost track of how long the film has been running for, and the point at which I gave up and let the tears form channels on my face. I can’t imagine taking in the life and legacy of the glorious Nina Simone in any way other than crying quietly by myself in public. Two and a half hours of magnificent and complicated black womanhood would have been soured by the awkward de-brief on the walk back to the train. No walk is long enough to give a crash course on black women’s bodies and the ways our art and our selves are scorned by most, and consumed by voracious appetites all at the same time.

“You know I made 35 albums, they bootlegged 70. Oh everybody took a chunk of me.”

Nina Simone is standing on stage at the Montreux Jazz festival in 1976, in a sleeveless black dress, no jewelry except for the silver choker around her neck. At this point, I have cringed repeatedly for each time she has been referred to as “scary,” “intimidating,” or “over the top.” I’m destroyed by the fact that her own personal revolution, her pursuit of her authentic self and her insistence of belonging wholly to herself are always bearing the weight of the desires of her fans and critics. A journalist speaks wistfully about how he wishes he could’ve been the “piece of toast” Nina sang about, and the audience laughs at his unashamed yearning for Nina and her body.

Later in the film, Nina Simone responds to a French journalist’s question concerning the career she never had as a classical pianist.

“Yes, I regret it. I’m sorry that I didn’t become the world’s first black classic pianist. I think I would have been happier. I’m not very happy now.”

The crack in her voice as she says these words, and her obvious attempts to swallow her tears hurt just as much as the awkward laughter rippling through the audience when Nina Simone is shown later chastising her concertgoers from the stage. Her unraveling is comedy for my fellow viewers. She is irreverent, breaking the conventions of performance etiquette and embarrassing people who dare to stand up while she’s on stage. She is sassy, spicy, even. And it’s amusing. All I can see is her piercing stare that seems to have no one at the other end of it.

I am forced to confront the fact that we, the theater audience, are also consuming Nina like a product, engaging with her story in whichever way suits us best. Goddess. High priestess of soul Fearless activist. Unstable. Difficult. Bad mother. Tragic, tortured soul. I feel a useless guilt for partaking in this feasting on Nina Simone’s life story. I’m picking out the parts that resonate with me the most, so that I too can cling to her like a life raft, or a prophecy of what becomes of black women artists who expire in the process of creating art that is misunderstood and torn into digestible morsels for a ravenous public. I keep black and white photos of her as my phone screensaver. I want stills from her stage performances as prints for my bedroom wall. I listen to “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on repeat while I shower. I use her as a warning signal for what can happen to me: a black woman artist who is determined to let my work eat me up as long as it benefits even one reader. I’m not much better than the eager fans that watched her decline with popcorn butter melting between their fingers.

I’m wearing Nina’s dress. It’s a yellow halter-neck with black diamonds dotted all over it. There is a hungry crowd grabbing handfuls of the hem and trying to shove it into their mouths. This makes it very difficult to stand, to walk tall. I stumble every few steps, trying to resist the gravity that is trapped in these people’s fists. I try to snatch back the dress, but it disintegrates into yellow powder flecked with the burnt ends of matches in my hand. I’m naked, graceful, and available for everyone.

Image: Portrait of the singer Nina Simone, October 1969.  (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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.

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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…

Sharp Edges

Everything is sharp:

the corners of the mouth of the white woman sitting next to me on the bleachers, the ends of her bob and side-swept fringe, the angles at which her legs are crossed one over the other, the vertical lines on her blue and white dress bordered with small flowers, the slant of her body as she turns as far away as possible from my direction, the edges of my friends’ graduation caps, the sour vinegar tears threatening to escape my eyes to mourn my shame, the rough bench with the obvious space left between us that makes me wonder if I’m reading too much into her apparent disgust. She is probably just allowing herself, and me, some personal space.

There is a general attack being launched on my senses. I am seeing and feeling things that can’t possibly be there. Hot water from the shower drums my skin and bores its way inside myself, dissolving the hyperawareness my body produces, tilting but not breaking down the walls I constructed for my own protection. The voices in this meeting are too high-pitched, straining against the tension, attempting to disguise the contempt swirling in the mugs on the table in front of us. If I splash this hot tea over all your documents and agendas and over the fronts of your blouses, will you admit that you cannot, and will not, take orders from someone who should really be cleaning up after you?

Everything hurts much more than it should. What I have been taught to dismiss as over-sensitivity is actually an internal alarm, a natural self-preservation device with its fundamental flaw being that its user could still be doomed to untimely death on concrete just for continuing to exist. It reminds me to avoid eye contact with the beat cop who always tries to greet me in the morning, to beware of the brother–with an ‘a’– who hides my altar under his bed and only worships when the master is away, to run fast and far from anyone who encourages me to use my sister’s arm as a lever to pump up my own self esteem because somehow I am not like the others; don’t worry, that’s a good thing. It means I could survive.

(Image: View from my window. Dulles International Airport, May 2015)

Holding Hands with Becky

I’ve been reading some interesting analysis on Twitter (from all kinds of women) about the danger of some of the lyrics in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and their potential to promote women enacting violence against other women. In light of the recent tragedy involving 16 year old Amy Joyner-Francis who was beaten to death by classmates in what has been said to have been a fight over a boy, and the online bullying Rachel Roy has faced over a reference she made to “good hair” in a photo caption on Instagram, certain critics are posing important questions. What is the artist’s responsibility to ensure that her work doesn’t fuel negative behavior? How does any artist give their audience the tools to understand and appreciate their work in a way that will not take it out of context?

An examination of Beyoncé’s visual album must take into account how the different interludes of Warsan Shire’s poetry interact with the visuals and song lyrics at any given point. I’ve seen the poetry from the “Anger” section of the video interpreted as an invitation for women to attack other women who have wronged them, specifically under the circumstances of infidelity. Consider the following lines:

If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine. Her hair over mine. Her hands as gloves. Her teeth as confetti. Her scalp, a cap. Her sternum, my bedazzled cane. We can pose for a photograph, all three of us. Immortalized, you and your perfect girl.

holding hands with becky3 

Mind you, there is no mention of Becky at this point. The fact that the main message of the video is being taken as a fight between us versus them, black women versus Becky, is a manifestation of the ways we are constrained by a patriarchy that deals in binaries. Where did that system come from, and who benefits from it the most? Let me give you a hint. If you sailed around the world, claiming entire swathes of land and the people living there as your property, you would need a sort of system, no matter how pseudo-scientific, to justify your actions and to back up the fixing of positions of superiority and inferiority that allow you to colonize and control at will.

When Beyoncé says “If it’s what you truly want,” she isn’t expressing her resolve to go out and murder the other woman and use her remains as clothing and accessories. She is illustrating an old pain that many women have experienced, of not being good enough for a romantic interest, of trying to transform into a more lovable, more worthy version of herself for that partner. That section ends with “Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can.” She could be seen to be expressing confusion and hurt because her partner is not able to see or appreciate her efforts to be the best that she can be for him. Since this section is about “Anger,” I’m inclined to read these lines less as a despairing plea for attention and more as the quiet rage that comes from someone who has been taken for granted for far too long.

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When Becky is finally mentioned at the end of the song “Sorry,” the listener can assume that she is the infamous “other woman.” The listener cannot, however, reduce Becky solely to the position of “girlfriend of a married man.” Becky is a concept, a national inside (bittersweet) joke and dismissal only known to Black women and women of color, a representation of centuries of Eurocentric ideals that for some will forever remain unattainable. Think about familiar tropes from film and literature that have framed women who are closer to whiteness as more desirable, particularly in  the context of heteronormative portrayals pf romance. How many times have you seen the pleasant love interest with her “sassy” sidekick snapping and cheering from the sidelines as she goes on the date, gets the guy, gets married. Consider also that throughout history, white women have taken out on black women the violence they also experience as result of living in a patriarchal society. I previously cited an example of this from the novel Cecilia by Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde in this blog post.

Another more recent instance of violence from white women directed at black women can be seen in the photo of Russian art promoter Dasha Zhukova sitting on a chair fashioned to look like a black woman lying on her back with her legs in the air. This Guardian article tries to deny the racist imagery of the piece created by Norwegian artist Bjarn Melgaard by pointing out that it was more of a commentary on earlier controversial works by British artist Allen Jones that portrayed white women in a similar position. “Are you offended by this black woman’s abuse? Then why is it OK for white women to be similarly humiliated in a respected pop art icon in the Tate collection?” I’m sure any womanist/black feminist/afrofeminist would stand up and condemn Jones’ work as appalling and degrading to white women, but why does the black woman’s body have to be the site of undoing for violence against ALL women? Art that is meant to be subversive can often recreate the violence it is trying to parody or critique.

Yet, somehow white women are now able to present themselves as benevolent representatives of global sisterhood without having to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from the subjugation of black women. Meanwhile, any expression of anger from black women is met with criticism and calls for levelheadedness and calm, sometimes coming from black women ourselves. The white woman can enjoy her fair trade Starbucks coffee and smile with satisfaction at the portrait on the wall of the African woman who is supposed to have harvested the beans without considering the working conditions and difficulties of that woman. Black women are called upon to swallow and forget the history of physical violence and the constant over-valorization of proximity of whiteness in media and on a day-to-day basis.

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It is very true that the Beyhive does the absolute most at times and should not take it upon themselves to fight a fight about a situation they have little to no knowledge about. Yes, Beyoncé has an immense influence on super fans and casual listeners alike. Yes, art does not happen in a vacuum, and artists have the power to influence discourse and shape the public’s consciousness on many different issues. I can only speak for myself when I say that I do not feel that Beyoncé’s latest release is giving me leeway to scratch and punch any other woman who makes me feel small or offends me in some way. The way I see it, if a listener takes Beyoncé’s lyrics as a green light to commit assault or murder, that person was already intent on taking that particular course of action and needed a final little push or a scapegoat.

This is not a case of revenge against any and every “Becky” who has done a black woman wrong. This is not about Becky at all. It’s important to note that most of the lyrics are directed at the partner who has been unfaithful and NOT the other woman: “This is your final warning. You know I give you life. If you try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife.”

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I want to give myself room to be messy and poised and complicated and angry and brave and to take to task anyone that undermines or underestimates my strength. I can’t hold hands if my hands are still burning.

Be quiet, and let us rage.

Note: The politics of black women’s hair and the distinction between “good” and “bad” hair is another topic for another day. All I will say is that it is NOT just about straight hair, but is rather a reference to the glorification of looser curls and waves on black women as being more desirable (as they are closer to whiteness) than tighter curls. The term I grew up with was “quality” in place of “good,” but the idea is the same. People on the internet, stop claiming the title “Becky with the good hair.” Trust me, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you don’t want these problems.

(Images: Lemonade. Directed by Beyoncé Knowles, Dikayl Rimmasch, Kahlil Joseph, Jonas Akerlund and Melina Matsoukas. Parkwood Entertainment, 2016)

Razors for Breakfast

[Initial thoughts from 2:40am, essay for school abandoned hours ago in favor of watching and rewinding Lemonade and taking notes feverishly]

I’ve seen a few attempts at “Violence isn’t the answer” responses to Rihanna’s latest music video for her song “Needed Me,” similar to the critiques of her videos for “BBHMM” and “Man Down.” I won’t be the least bit surprised if the same cries for “why don’t we hold hands and sing kumabaya instead of protesting loudly and hurting each other” come from the white feminist camp and the coalition of all people who can’t let black women celebrate themselves after Beyoncé’s hour-long history lesson/poetry reading/letter to every ex/African diaspora vibes epic “Lemonade.” Visuals and lyrics like what these women have given us leave one feeling incredibly badass for lack of a more literary term. Actually, on this blog, badass is a perfectly acceptable term. Canonical, even. (Not exactly the right use for the word “canonical,” but I make the rules around here.) I’m readying my eye rolls for the next article I see that tries to condemn media that “glorifies” violence, as if black women grabbing the barrel of the gun and turning it outward is a new phenomenon.

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“Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?”

I don’t imagine that the women in the Haitian revolution sat quietly at home with their hands resting in their laps waiting for the men to return, or that during the rebellions led by enslaved people all over the Americas the women just remained on standby with warm cloths for their husbands’ wounds. There were entire armies of women in Dahomey who were renowned for their military prowess, and in Ghana Yaa Asantewaa didn’t just say: “Ok oooh, I hear. Let’s not fight. We can’t beat them anyway.” Musicians, and artists in general, may not be picking up real guns and overturning oppressive government systems themselves, but they are inspiring all those watching to lead rebellions in their own fields, throwing away the fear of being perceived as being too aggressive and chewing and swallowing the bit of forced humility we have been clenching between our teeth for years.

beyonce lemonade
“Motivate your ass, call me Malcom X.”

One can argue that we have a legitimate problem of making violence appear sexy and glamorous in film, music and video games etc targeted at young people, but when I see black women swinging baseball bats and shooting no-good men in the back of a strip club, I’m not compelled to go and pick up my longest knife and hurt the next person that tries to hurt me, and I don’t think that’s the message these artists are trying to send. It’s very convenient to forget that a huge component of the colonial project was brutal violence and suppression, bending people -body and soul- to submit to the authority of the master arbitrarily justified by his supposed superiority. Black women continue to face violence at the hands of the police, militant groups, relatives, romantic partners, and strangers who feel threatened by women’s queerness and trans identity. Do not ask us to “rise above” and sway softly to hymns and quiet songs for peace when our art provides us the perfect space to spit back the violence inherited as an unshakeable birthright.

My badass and my revolution looks like writing late into the night to make sure no one cuts of my tongue and my fingers, excusing their actions with a dismissive shrug. Zora Neale Hurston put it best when she said, “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” These portrayals of black women blowing gunpowder in the face of respectability and fighting for the right to exist unapologetically are not new. You just forgot, and we’re here to remind you.

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“Why do you deny yourself heaven? Why do you consider yourself undeserving?”

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Razors for Breakfast

This isn’t something new I have just added to my diet. Neither is it a trend, nor another shortcut to the kind of beauty that mocks and berates those who don’t possess it, one that taunts from screens that sting tired eyes with their glow late at night. My jaws have been galvanized for this very purpose, teeth fixed in place like steel bolts in the neck of a crossbow, a roar for a voice like a high-powered engine.

I have always kept razors in my mouth, turning them over and over with my tongue, but long before me, there were women picking thorns out of their palms, bringing back royal heads wrapped in a tattered tricolore. They soaked gunpowder in hot water and rubbed it into aching muscles, and used it to wash their feet crusted over with mud and the crushed souls of the enemy. These women dragged timid men to war and trampled the pages of a history that forgot their names, their strides drumming up the same dust that will eventually settle on the books I will write and leave behind.

This isn’t something new I’ve recently learnt to do. Neither a twisted party trick, nor an illusion to make you squirm and wonder how I made it look so effortless. The blood dripping from the point of my chin onto my chest is yours and not mine, theirs and not ours. It is the last remaining hint that we once sliced them in half and licked away the evidence. Today I had razors for breakfast, and the taste of victory still lingers on my lips.

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The work of one of my favorite poets, Warsan Shire, serves as a beautiful backdrop for Lemonade. Here is my favorite quote from her. I’m sure I’ve posted it on this blog before, but I still love it just as much, so here you go!

“If you think I’ll be the dark sky so you can be the star, well the sky is vast and have you seen the sky in the morning? Have you seen how it looks against the sun? I’ll swallow you whole.” -Warsan Shire

Another favorite quote of mine:

“No, I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” -Zora Neale Hurston

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“Baptize me, now that reconciliation is possible. If we’re going to heal, let it be glorious.”

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)