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)

Safe House

There is no home to go to. Where do you think you’re going? Right now you are living in the Western Hemisphere regional branch of a corporation that built itself up on the bodies of people who looked very much like you who were snatched at night, who were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, who learnt to endure because there was no other option. The right side of the sea for you is a place where the same monster breathes down your neck; it’s breath just stinks a little differently.

But there, your 4×4 smells like abroad. It is pristine and you can yell at the driver for leaving oily fingerprints on the steering wheel covered in beige leather just like the rest of the car interior. And you can use that car to roll over the hands and feet of the people on crutches and in wheelchairs reaching to your windows misted over from the condensation of the cold AC meeting the hot glass. You can toss a few coins to the children grabbing at the pockets of your designer jeans as you exit the club, and maybe you’ll donate last year’s clothes to an orphanage knowing that you’ve done your civic duty.

And there you are safe, and the police yes sah and yes madam to your slippery accent and their giant rifles might as well be water guns because they would never dream of turning them on a big somebody like you. There you are safe, and blackness is only remarked upon when your grandma complains you have stayed out in the sun too long, or when the finest girl in the class is the shade of the inside of the palm you will use to try and get a feel of her wavy hair, or when the waiter is rude to you at a luxury resort full of white people turning red in the sun and you will shout at him, spit flying and veins threatening to explode: “Heh do you know who I am???”

Back home you are safe, and you are not a try-too-hard laughing a little louder and sharper because you don’t want to kill the vibe when your white friends are at a house party singing along in unison: “at least a nigger nigger rich” and making sure you hear the R at the end. You will roll that ‘r’ onto the ends of words like “wadur,” and insert them unnecessarily in words like Sakumono– you are safe.

But you don’t know that now you are living in the West African Headquarters of Keeping up Appearances. Your parents will list all your Latin honors when you shuffle into the living room after rolling out of bed at 1pm on a Tuesday and you will threaten to slap the house help for burning a hole through your silk shirt. Or maybe you won’t even speak to her except for a curt “Thank you” with the ends clipped off, at least everything is dignified you see. She has a uniform and has been working for your family for years, and maybe she has kids in the village somewhere but you really don’t know or care, and you definitely didn’t see her crying in the pantry after your father denied her permission to go home and attend to some sick relative.

You are safe, and the driver will warn you to avert your eyes when the neighborhood people are about to burn an armed robber with some old tires and kerosene and you will shake your head and kiss your teeth, why do these people always have to resort to such behavior? And you will flinch when the front pages of Saturday tabloids are covered with the image of dead bodies of people who were only guilty of loving each other in a way that your parents’ Bible does not permit and you know it’s wrong but Ghana is safe, who asked them to display their love in public­–

Now you are safe and you don’t have to let the white girl get away with anything and everything because she’ll cry if you try to point out her privilege– you are in a dive bar and all her friends are hitting you with drunken, slow punches and you know if you don’t leave soon, you won’t be safe because you will definitely be painted as the aggressor and the police will ensure that you don’t make it to the next morning. But now you are safe and this white girl is different and she cares about Africa’s development with a big ‘D’ and she loves black people, until she has a black daughter she is terrified and envious of and will drag a fine toothed comb without water or coconut oil through the same curls you used to admire on the girl that sat in front of you in class. But you are all safe–

And you will wrinkle your nose when the drains are too ripe and there are parts of the city you will never see. The tires of your car cannot roll over un-tarred roads, but they have built in treads for crushing the backs of the people who have been bought and sold, who are still being bought and sold, so you can sit over drinks on Friday night and celebrate how far hard work has brought you.

And you are safe because on your way home the policeman will wave you past the checkpoint with a flash of the torch and his teeth, even though you both know your “something small for the weekend” is what allowed him to ignore your expired license and the Jack Daniels mist hanging around your head. There you are safe, because the only way you will become a hashtag is if you become a local celebrity known for taking girls on dates with the intention of raping them or if you develop an app that is only useful to tourists looking for a good time and Ghanaians who have data bundles and iPhones manufactured wherever it’s cheapest. And the only slur you will know is the average Ghanaian because you are definitely not average you are special and you are safe.

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.

xala
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…

Deep Conditioning

I would say this is a work in progress because it’s something that took only a few hours to write, but the reality, is I can probably edit it and re-use it for the next time. It’s frightening to know that there are so many white people and non-black people of color (I see you, black on black crime crusaders) who cannot recognize humanity in black people so much so that our deaths have become a spectator sport for the evening news highlight reel.

***

Cold water washes onto my scalp, cutting its own paths across the once clear parts I made for my braids, now blurred by traces of week-old hair cream and sweat.

I am washing out the dried flakes of the blood that splashed on my bowed head at the scene of the latest execution, where I was to be found mid-worship,

eyes fluttering between permanent sleep and nightmarish day,

praying to a God I have been told looks very much like the person pulling the trigger.

 

There are no new songs to sing while my hands dance to a routine they cannot forget

–good thing because my mind knows this wash and condition and repeat is an empty ritual–

I will never be clean.

The tune I am humming now sounds like sirens screeching in an eerie minor key, variations of families crying (the babies at a higher pitch) tires skidding on tarmac…

I’m not so much humming as I am screaming pain and desperation:

do you know what a gun shot sounds like when your chest is the speaker?

 

All the care I have been taught to rub into my dead strands is useless. My hair is brittle, crackling and falling into my lap by the fistful.

The strands are tangled with names I’ve seen splashed across white sheets and hung out to dry, stiff and still bearing the memories of people who were just trying to breathe, eat, make some money for the kids, love, curse, pray, gossip, cross the street…

I’m making new parts in my hair, maybe cornrows this time,

Nice and wide, room for all the names I am yet to learn.

 

 

 

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)

You in Black

You really need to stop looking for Accra in every pair of swinging hips. You will never be able to fit yourself into the gap between perfect enamel plates set against a starless midnight sky of a face. Why do you care so much? Only a few months and you think you have become entitled to the same petty excuses? I don’t know how it works where you come from, but that won’t fly over here. You in the black, take your hat off! Pull your pants up! Why is your voice so loud? This is not your war to fight. If anything, you are partially to blame, don’t you know your grandfather sold mine away to…

My friend was a midnight baby born to a mother whose golden skin is rivaled only by the sun’s farewell. She said she gets her black from her dad. She has aunts and uncles back home who are “so black, they’re blue”. And it’s beautiful. And tears teeter on the edge of my eyes every single time; what if those were my aunts and uncles too?

Your mother wrings her hands so much that the delicate brown skin on her fingers has began to rub raw and show the ungodly pink underneath. Always in black, what happened to the peace we planted in your heart, worth the seven days we waited to name you…Why are you always bent over? Head touching lap, soul spilling onto ground, ears covered. This posture has become second nature.

I do not possess the right bank balance nor do I have a high enough following of fanatics to discard my black whenever I please. This is not a housecoat or a headwrap that I can shed when it’s time to go out and look like people. Like people. What was I before? This is not a choice. But…you’re not bl− I don’t believe the people who are scared of me and my black lipstick will stop to find out how round my vowels are and what stamp my passport carries before creating a cavity in my skull filled with burning coals and centuries of inhumanity.

But−

The minute I begin to define myself purely based on someone else’s expectations, I no longer exist.

I no longer exist.

But−

This is not a choice. I can show off, sure. I can make this glow under the light, just rub on some extra shea butter to be sure. Yes for the hair too. I can smooth it out with powder and man-made perfection. But no one is going to take the time to figure out if I really am from Keta by way of Louisiana by way of a patch of black soil by the Nile. Which came first?

When did you learn to speak English? How did you learn to write like this? This is my English. I have declared it so by the order of the people who did not need to be taught the meaning of nobility and civilization. These lyrics are mine. I have stamped them with my own combination of verb tenses, because where I come from we hide yesterday underneath our tonsils and it bursts forth very time we speak. Mine. This is my kingdom. What did you say? What? You said what?

Wow, your hair and clothes are always so…fun! Why are you always so uptight? This isn’t your story. You’re so…different. It doesn’t matter to anyone that I clapped my hands and stomped my feet amidst dust clouds in games of ampe and not double dutch. I’m sorry, you look so much like- Let’s ignore the fact that my curls scream do-not-comb and hers have been pressed into stringy submission… I’ll pretend I don’t know I’m the only one you actually know…sort of. It doesn’t matter, to them you are all the same. Hey! You in black! What are you looking for in here?

On dirait un Toucouleur! You mean you only speak Ewe? Not only. I speak. I thought your mum was an Ashanti, she’s so black!

The minute I begin to define myself purely based on someone else’s expectations, I no longer exist.

I no longer exist.

I showed up late to class today. In all black. I decided to leave out the black lipstick, mostly because I don’t own any. But also because I didn’t want to intimidate anyone any more than my shiny African blackness was about to do. Someone said that poetry was supposed to be a thing of virtue and not a vehicle for hate and vengeance. He didn’t know he was talking about James Baldwin. Why is he so angry? I said: “Maybe because he didn’t ask to be brought here to begin with.” Do you think his ancestors were invited to take an all expenses paid cruise to the New World? Do you think the family he will never know has stopped mourning their loss? You are the reason I wake up with anger fighting to shoot out of my pores. You are the reason we wear anger laced through the spaces between our fingers. Look at my fist.

I no longer exist.

Your lily-white indignation means nothing in the face of pitch black rage. Your voice may try to stack decibels above mine, but black rage will explode hot lava all over your island, black rage will be the only pillar left standing in the middle of your crumbling colosseum, black rage will trample the relics of your stale accomplishments. Black rage has bigger problems than you. Stay out of my way.

You need to make your writing more accessible. How is anyone going to know what this means? They would need to have grown up exactly how you did. Besides, this is not your story. No, there are not enough Toni Morrison or Toni Cade Bambara texts in the world or on your bookshelf for you to claim otherwise. I don’t care that you went to sleep with Sula stomping behind your eyelids. Why are you always so angry? Why the obsession with white evil? Aren’t you tired of carting that hunk of rock around on your back?

I could stop, if only white evil stopped telling me how to be, stopped telling me to be at all-

This is a response to the phenomenal work “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine. You should definitely look it up if you have never heard of it. I had to submit this for my writing seminar, but after the class I went through and made some edits based on how the class went…but that’s another story.