My Intention is to Survive

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.

In my personal relationships, I may not be as self-assured because I’m not very confident in my roles of daughter and friend, but at work and school, I truly am my mother’s daughter. I usually know what I’m talking about, and no one can tell me otherwise. But this day in the car park, just a few evenings ago, was not an isolated tantrum. It came out of weeks (or maybe even months, if I’m honest) of wallowing in desperation, of making room for misery to fester and expand. After completing grad school, I am still struggling with the feeling of being unmoored, and with the [false] belief that I am worthless without the right credentials and financial stability that would make me deserving of the luxury or privilege of peace of mind and time to research and write.

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.

Audre Lorde
“I love the word survival, it always sounds to me like a promise.  It makes me wonder sometimes though, how do I define the shape of my impact upon this earth?” reflection cut from an early draft of “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger” by Audre Lorde (Audre Lorde Papers, Spelman College Archive) (from “The Shape of My Impact” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs)

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)

A Reckoning

In several interviews, Q&As, and most recently in this conversation with Marc Lamont Hill, Kiese Laymon has talked about being the kind of Black writer whose love for Black people will not allow him to devote his art to pleading with “good” white people to change their ways. Each time he’s said this, I nod in self-righteous agreement. Same. I think to myself that my concern for Black people spans locations in time and space; luxury hotels and wealthy buyers displacing communities in Ghana, and in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, communities being lost to the relentless and raging Atlantic, African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, police brutality from Ghana to Brazil to the US, government neglect of or refusal to provide safe infrastructure, and so many other intentional cruelties. Yes, I think to myself, I am concerned, and my concern is justified and right and urgent.

And yet I am afraid that I have become a parody of a parody in the following ways:

 moves thousands of miles away from home

goes to grad school

encounters casual and overt racism in and out of the classroom

encounters Suzanne Césaire

encounters self

shaves a not insignificant portion of head

throws the phrase class struggle into casual conversation

My “concern” only goes as far as I will let it, so that I’m realizing that even if I’m not interested in speaking to white readers at all (I mean really, you all can take this or leave it and I’d be totally alright) I might be the writer who is making it her ministry to plead with “good,” “well-meaning” elite Ghanaians that they too must change, and to attack the ones who do not even try to pretend they mean well towards those who are affected by their hoarding of wealth . My situation and Laymon’s are not analogous; in my “us” and “them” scenario, I belong more closely to the group who is resting their feet on the backs of the large exploited majority.

“The race for economic fortune, diplomas, unscrupulous social climbing. A struggle shrunken to the standard of being middle class. The pursuit of monkeyshines. Vanity Fair.”

-from “The Malaise of a Civilization,” Suzanne Césaire

We—and if you feel yourself implicated in this we then I’m definitely talking to you—sat in the same classrooms together, accruing an obscene amount of social capital, together, even those of us who see ourselves closer to the “middle,” those whose parents who had it like that some years and didn’t at other times, those whose parents didn’t not clear school fees checks with ease. You, whose grandfather’s face is on Ghana’s banknotes, and you, whose parents own several businesses most Ghanaians do not have the money to patronize, and you, who felt bad that most Ghanaian children lacked what we had in such excess we barely sniffed at but carried on in blissful entitlement anyway, and you, self-obsessed writer who is preoccupied with how often you write about the sun and the moon in all these precious and sentimental ways as if we aren’t all so close to burning alive. I’ve also been worrying about how basic, unexpansive, and decidedly not breathtaking my writing is. I’ve been reading a lot of Dionne Brand and every word I’ve written has felt unworthy ever since.

I’ve been talking a lot about people wearing white and sipping champagne at 2pm at the polo match, and I need a new image—I’ve used this one so much I might as well have it tattooed—but you know who you/we are. It’s not that I think I’m superior, more “radical” or more forward thinking, or that a few self-righteous blog posts equal class treason (but in the right direction, in solidarity with those most oppressed) or some other pretentious exaggeration, nor do I feel that  now I have read Claudia Jones I’m ready to tell everyone how ridiculous and terrible we all are, how grotesque and excessive your “high society” is and has been.

I’m just wondering if I’m making it my job to do this cajoling and convincing, and if I even have the words to be successful. There’s always something prickly to me about aligning myself with people who have done or benefit from so much harm to other people, even if this alignment is a device put in place to point out that I’ve seen you up close and you need to be stopped. Power acts and consolidates in ways writers far more impressive and diligent than myself have not succeeded in stalling, or is that too narrow-minded, too pessimistic? Laymon expresses this same sentiment in the conversation I reference earlier, citing Toni Morrison and James Baldwin as examples of people who haven’t quite been able to coax the “good” white people away from their racism and the power it confers upon them. [Although I don’t know that Toni Morrison was ever interested in doing so…] If I were to stand in the center of Accra and scream about proletarian revolution, wouldn’t someone ask me, so you’ve finished enjoying in America and now you want to shout about equality?

I am standing at an important point in my writing, not a crossroads (too over-traveled) more like a dusty no-place in the back of my own subconscious. I have decided that I cannot afford the indulgence or the audacity of losing hope when other writers who have made me and my writing possible have written under threat of harm or death, in times maybe more bleak than these. Reckoning with the dangerous power you wield doesn’t mean that you are solely responsible for all of Ghana’s inequality. (This caveat also feels prickly to me. Why do I feel the need to give you this small wriggle room?) It means that your life is being made possible by exploitation and death, yes, the cost is in human life, and I feel I must say so again, this is not hyperbole. So reckon with this, and then decide what you will do. I’m reckoning and writing, as always, even as I know this is not nearly enough. So what next?

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Safe House

I’m sharing this again with a special dedication to those of us who are strangely fixated on “The Africa They Don’t Show You.” Even without going full pretentious writer with the “let me deconstruct real quick,” I’m really just curious…what exactly is it that we’re trying to prove? That brunch cocktails taste the same in Osu as they do in DuPont Circle? (It’s also possible that in addition to my writerly concern, I’m a little salty because my bank account says I can’t afford brunch in either of those places.)

But again, I ask, what are you trying to prove? To who? And why do you think they care? That our swimming pools gleam with the same kind of blue as that one delightful boutique hotel in Portugal? That we too know how to do social inequality with the best of the other “global citizens,” with the right amount of class and an extra healthy offering on Sunday to thank God for all the blessings our parents “worked so hard for?” (I too, used to be one of those people…)

At the same time I know it’s difficult for you to look down at those new suede boots and see that you are using them to stand on someone’s back, or that your penthouse apartments and island getaways are paid for money that a rundown clinic somewhere will never see. We’re all held up by the collar, yes, you too in the Prada, some far more tightly than others, so what can you/are you going to do?

I’m not interested in any kind of “global citizenship” that doesn’t acknowledge how much further a blue passport will carry you than a green one, and why that is (or carrying both, as I do), nor do I want to become numb to the sound of European cars rolling over the hands of “those people would make it too if they studied and worked hard like we did.” Aren’t you horrified? Do you not think you lose little slices of your humanity when you see and treat others as less human too?

I also do not mean to suggest that you deny yourself enjoyment for the good of those whose suffering props up your comfort. After all, one missed club night will not magically redistribute resources and recognize the humanity of every single person across our country. But be responsible. Or rather, be honest with yourself, no matter how much it stings to look at yourself without the veneer of wealth as virtue, virtuous wealth, that you have been wearing all your life.

I want to add that with the following piece, “Safe House,” I imagined the persona I was addressing as a cishet man for various reasons. It’s true that may women who have access to education, healthcare, social status among other resources are able to wield their power in terrible ways. Most of the time though, at least from what I have seen in my short life, this power isn’t enough to remove these women from the reach of what Flora Nwapa’s Efuru recognizes as a “conspiracy,” the patriarchy, quite simply, where men can harm and destroy and somehow evade accountability altogether.

What I’ve been reading;
The Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl, The New Yorker
Slavery’s Last Stronghold, CNN
Italy Holds Funeral for 26 Nigerian Women Drowned in the Mediterranean, Reuters

a blog by her wildness, zoë gadegbeku

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 bodies that looked very much like yours that were snatched at night, that were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, that 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…

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Kiss the Ring

Happy New Year! And we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming…

***

It has been a long 8 years, but Sunday morning has finally arrived and your white linen is hanging stiffly around your body, hardened by starch and lack of wear. The congregation mumbles their way through the hymn before the sermon, and you try to ignore the sweat dripping down the side of your face into your collar, the smell of perfumed powder cut through with sweat, and the back of a dusty wardrobe-old cloth shaken out and worn only for special occasions such as this

The “increase” you have been fasting and praying for is here. Later, the celebration will take place in a pointed white tent, its interior draped with chiffon and washed in purple light. Gospel songs will be remixed to include the name of your benefactor: we thank God that he has showered you with blessings. You have done your duty, worn the right colors, lobbied outside locked doors in ministries for hours for 5 minutes to pay your respects, to pay for your forms to be considered for a little longer before they are tossed in the shredder or at the bottom of the big man’s out tray beneath invoices

per diem for staff training payable to

Your time is now; you deserve this. Contracts that have stalled will now come complete with a narrow sign board stamped with your name and that of your company, school fees will no longer involve shifting around funds from other parts of the budget, or borrowing from relatives who are better off but begrudging. You will see appointments to a small advisory board for deciding the color of street name signs, maybe even scholarships and opportunities for your children to study abroad, or at least at a private university somewhere on the outskirts of Accra, invites to the most talked about weddings and opportunities for your white linen to loosen up from frequent use and proximity to luxury

The pastor screams POWER IS MOVING! The church rumbles in chorus Amen! Meanwhile, you, sitting at the back in your righteous disdain for all the people you dismiss as social climbers, you typing this account at a frenetic pace, trying to atone for sinful acts you didn’t have a choice but to partake in. You tell yourself, it’s just the way things are around here, you say, it’s a question of survival. You are usually law-abiding and resistant to the decadence festering about you, you will sit in the waiting room at DVLA with the air conditioning sputtering and groaning to cool a room full of increasingly restless people for 3,4,5 hours with a book you’re reading for the second time, have I really been waiting this long?

But you see, this time is different. You’re hoping to travel to Lagos in the new year and you need this passport before then and you just *hate* to do this…so you will give a regretful grimace-like smile to the mother whose child will not stop crying, the man whose lunch break is almost over and pretend you don’t see their eyes rolling in frustration, they know how this works, they owe you no pleasantries

It doesn’t matter how

uncomfortable you are how

deferential you are how

many “good mornings” and how

much earnest eye contact you make you can’t ignore the way jammed doors creak open, how impatient frowns ease into knowing smirks, this is HIS niece and no one ever has to utter his name for all the officials to follow the other protocol for people with your sort of connections

No one knows or cares how many jobs you’re holding down outside, the difference in status elsewhere for someone with your blackness and woman-ness.

The single digits dwindling in your bank account still come out green when you withdraw cash

You will only be able to disassociate yourself so far from the power pulling out thrones from under certain backsides and placing velvet pillows beneath others, power that operates silently in the background no matter which colors fly from the majority of windows and rear view mirrors

It’s Sunday morning, and you can keep your pretentious musings to yourself, like the fact that even where we worship is determined by how many zeros we write onto our tax returns (if we pay them) and how well we can roll r’s on demand in front of the window at the US embassy. Or how odd it is for us to be nostalgic for a time when we would not have been able to dirty the polished marble floors of the kinds of hotels we now enjoy, even in our best shoes: Gold Coast City, Villa, Manor, Castle, Colonial Suites… Power is moving in the same halls it has always adorned with its presence by way of framed black and white portraits of “freedom” brokers, it is trapped tightly in the fists that will punch the shoe shine boys and street hawkers in the stomach and the pocket, it is a generational blessing the leftovers of which you can only taste when those who are most “blessed” and most “hardworking,” most deserving and in possession of the most contacts have had their share

keep quiet and unfold your white hanky, wave it high, give praises to democracy working to kill as it always has and always will

(Image: Ghana Independence overprint on Gold Coast 1s stamp, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghana_Independence_overprint_on_Gold_Coast_1s_stamp_1957.jpg)

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.

In Transit

Her hips were too wide for the bus seat, and the weight of embarrassment that hovered above her head pressed downwards, its weight growing unbearable as she shifted in the inadequate space. She mumbled apologies each time her fleshy thigh rubbed against that of the sinewy one of the slim girl next to her, and flinched every time the arm rest dug into her side. Her humiliation expanded to fill the air around her, as she sensed her neighbor’s looks of disgust flashing in her direction. The bus eventually paused somewhere between Maryland and Philadelphia, and she watched as two young women climbed onboard with bright wax print tied around their heads in a style she had never seen before. Their oversized beaded bracelets rattled loudly, competing with the peals of their self-conscious laughter. She noticed their eyes slide past hers immediately after they made eye contact, almost as though they were guilty of an offense they were convinced they had left behind in a flurry of college acceptances and green cards. She was a reminder of their hidden pasts and unwanted futures; the slow-moving, wide-hipped mothers they had abandoned to tend the weak fires of rusty coal pots. She was a symbol of their most profound fears, the kind of unsophisticated African womanhood they were attempting to fight off every time they preached the danger of stereotypes in their classes, the sing-song tones they erased from their clipped, flat English, the kinks they stretched and elongated or twisted out and pressed in an effort to show that glamour also had an African name, and it was Ngozi, not Blessing. For them she represented a counter-ideal, a monument which may have been a foundation for their very existence but one which they only now grudgingly claimed. She was the smell of onions and wood smoke lingering in a faded wrapper, a stench they chased away every day with shower gels and body butters infused with a hint of shea. Her stare was an accusation, a death sentence, a piercing ululation in the middle of the night. Their glossy coating of pride and #carefreeblackgirl concealed a more sinister layer of self-hatred, one that had also fallen victim to the same Western gaze it tried (and failed) to reject.

Not all African women live in villages and carry pots of water on their head from riverside to hut all day long.

 Not all African women are mutilated and oppressed, not all of them are somebody’s third wife.

 But my mother did, and she was, and still is.

 What is this woman staring at? Do we owe her money? Mtchew. She’s one of those bush women that can’t mind her business. Probably with no papers. Don’t mind her. We don’t owe her anything at all.

Air Conditioned Denial

He rolled up the sleek, tinted windows of his brand new, elegantly understated car, his status symbol, the signal that he had finally “arrived” in Accra.  Ivy league degree firmly tucked in his back pocket; he was poised on the edge of success much like a nervous bird teetering on the tip of a frayed tree branch.  He had very lofty but very vague ideas about “urban development” and “corruption in the Third World” and he was convinced that his senior seminars with titles such as these had equipped him with enough knowledge to turn the whole rotten system around. “Just give me 5 years, I have this all figured out!”

He was bolstered by the support of his doting parents who never missed an opportunity to slip him into the monotonous conversations held with cold acquaintances during fundraisers at the African Regent. “He has foresight, vision, you know. And he actually cares about Ghana! Our boy is going places!” Their boastful encouragement buoyed his ego like indulgent ocean waves lovingly propelling a little tugboat along. He was the little canoe that could.  Energized, he donned his white button-down shirt ironed and starched into submission by the house help.  He sped off through the tree-lined streets of East Legon, optimism bubbling forth as he looked around at all the “progress” and “potential” ready and waiting for him to tap into. Somehow he missed the droves of homeless and mentally ill knocking pitifully on his tinted windows asking for some money for the day’s lone meal. After all, if they worked hard like he did they would be where he was. As far as he was concerned, the American dream came wrapped in a fresh green plantain leaf.

Interview after interview, in buildings that all began to look alike with their stuffy rooms and dust-coated fans ticking away until lunchtime, and he still had no job offers. Irritable public servants, and non-profit workers, and bank HR managers scoffed at the affected American drawl and the gleaming cufflinks. “Look at this small boy too. He thinks his father is a big man and so what. Mtchew. NEXT!” His broad shoulders began to lose the confidence and strength they exuded, four years of varsity rowing gone to waste. He began to moan bitterly about the heat, the mosquitoes, the eternity spent waiting in line to pay phone bills. His parents grew more and more agitated, watching their wunderkind turn into just another failed returnee. He spent many more nights slumped over the bar at Republic, guzzling stylized locally-inspired cocktails and reminiscing with college classmates about the subway, and that one Moroccan restaurant in the Meatpacking District. His tank of enthusiasm was running below empty, his high school girlfriend no longer picked up his calls. What did she need him for? She’d started seeing a minister, yes that notorious minister with gold teeth flashing in his lascivious smile and a shiny European car. She had no time for dreamers.

The dusty streets of Accra lost their luster, and our dear boy began making plans to return to the States. Sorry young man, you don’t have all the answers.  Perhaps you should’ve rolled down the windows years ago and let the scent of fried yam and clogged drains waft into your nostrils.  You were never as in touch as you thought you were. The African kid on the rowing team, yeah he’s mad chill. The returnee waiting for Mother Ghana to embrace him with open arms? No, not so much.