The Sun Never Sets on Shuri’s Grief

It’s always golden hour in Wakanda. The light is always honeyed and slow-flowing with dust dancing in its glow, and the people are always smiling as they sample assorted items from street vendors, walk from building to building and down the street into the light, always brightly adorned and beautiful. Always, at least in the glimpses we get of everyday life there, including in Aneka’s stylish and airy house on stilts, as majority of the film focuses on the state’s royalty, and even then, those scenes typically play out in Shuri’s lab or in the throne room where the elders sit in council with Queen Ramonda. Almost always golden hour, unless they are preparing for or are in battle. Or, unless it is the deep night ideal for ritual or war strategy, or the seemingly never-ending midnight that is loss and grief.

I went to the movies ready to attend a funeral by way of Wakanda Forever, the sequel to 2018’s Black Panther, aware of the fact that a lot of the fanfare and excitement that surrounded the first installment would be muted this time, clad in white this time, head bowed this time, red-eyed this time, processing towards the burial site this time, sobbing softly this time. I was also bracing to be angry at the muddled Pan-African and Black radical politics bound to come out of the far-reaching and seemingly unshakeable propaganda machine that is Hollywood. I left thinking how dangerously seductive Wakanda’s onscreen world is, not only because Hollywood has lent it its glamour and shine, nor solely because of the high-cheekboned glory of the cast, but because my own internal, inextinguishable embers of rage were stoked by seeing powerful African women wielding violence against the literal foot soldiers of EuroAmerican empire.

I was thrilled to see those French soldiers on their knees, at least, until I remembered why Wakanda was at the UN in the first place and how participation in such “international” institutions entrenches the legitimacy of the white power structures and puts Wakanda in unnecessary contact and collaboration with its enemies; until Wakanda’s leaders call those same EuroAmerican powers on the phone to swop intel, or until they choose uneasy, unsustainable “peace” over solidarity and coalition with other indigenous people, in this case, Namor and is underwater kingdom, Talokan, against those same powers looking to destroy and rob these states for resources, as they have been known to do and are still doing today. I wished but knew I would never get the satisfaction of this film naming and fighting the real enemy with full-throated and unwavering boldness, not the defanged “colonizer” mentioned in jest, not vague references to “surface people” (though Namor and his people burning that Spanish colony down nearly had me in a one-person standing ovation), but the white hegemony who cannot rest until Black and indigenous people are dead, who require our death to consolidate their power and expand their empire. 

If, according to Toni Cade Bambara, the responsibility of the cultural worker from an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible, I am ashamed to admit that not only do I have no idea what that revolution would look like and what it would demand of us, but that I don’t know what I could possible write and say to convince people that “representation” and “seeing ourselves” through the glitter of Hollywood’s lens may feel like edification and humanity in the meantime, but that the meantime is a trap, a slow march to our own graves on a road paved with the “good intentions” of diversity and inclusion mandates, that entertainment that feels relatable and affirming does not freedom make. What could I possibly say that thinkers and artists much more well-versed in these matters and generally wiser than me haven’t already said and warned and sang and written, to convince people to hold on a little longer beyond the meantime, that something much sweeter and freer awaits us somewhere in a nebulous future?

still from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler.

But that is not this essay. Right now, I’m thinking about the white cloth Shuri wore to two different funeral ceremonies, stamped with a pattern that resemble the Adinkra symbol “Nyame Due” or “tree of God,” symbolizing God’s protective presence, the meaning of which I had to look up to confirm, though I have worn the symbol as a pair of gold earrings almost every day since my mum got them for me when I was eight or nine. (That small moment of recognition, also a seduction.)[1] Since seeing the movie on Thursday night with a friend, I have not been able to get the image of those mourning whites out of my mind, and more broadly, the ways the whole film is shrouded under the veil that is the death of the first Black Panther, played by actor Chadwick Boseman, and the collective grief of the past two years, and how this weight, this inhale between cries, shows itself in Shuri’s aesthetic and sartorial choices, and maybe even in those same choices of Letitia Wright, the actress who plays her.

The last time I knew anything or closely followed anything Marvel-related was when I still lived at home and watched with my mum who was more of a fan than I was, so I know that there are lots of connections I’m missing about other attempts at centering grief in other narrative that have come out in the aftermath of Thanos’ snap. To think through and write this, I tried to read profiles and interviews of director Ryan Coogler as well as other members of the cast and crew, often holding back tears any time one of them teared up as they recounted how they learned about Boseman’s death, how they had no clue the pain he was in the whole time they were getting to know him as a colleague, friend, and brother.

A podcast review from the Spectrum Lounge podcast gave me so much language to understand my viewing experience, and also confirmed my observation that regular Wakanda life is rarely depicted, though it appears that might be the focus of forthcoming TV shows. Host ReBecca Theodore-Vachon also describes the loss of innocence that is evident in the film. This is the film that we should probably expect after two years of a pandemic with no actual end in sight and the violence that is the neglect of people most vulnerable to COVID, police killings, nonsensical and frightening anti-queer legislation, attacks on bodily autonomy, environmental catastrophe, mass shootings, famine and deprivation, and the push to keep laboring and consuming like none of this is happening, among so many other horrors. In the universe of the move itself, there is also the afterlife of Namor’s mother’s grief over losing her home and land to colonization that he has inherited and seems to think it the secret to his formidable kingdom when he says, “Only the most broken people can be great leaders.” (At this point, my friend loud whispered “Is it every day? Is it every day glorify our trauma? Sometimes, some light romance,” which is still making me laugh.)

Wakanda Forever still has a fair number of moments of levity and sarcasm, but in Black Panther, Shuri is genius little sister snark personified, all scoffs and smiles and laughs and teasing, at least until Killmonger appears on the scene, all braided buns and chokers—a sort of 90s take on an Afro-futuristic look—and much more colorfully dressed than she is at any point in Wakanda Forever. This time around, the hard edge of a physical and fashion presentation is not lost on me or any of the number of Tik Tok, Twitter, and Tumblr users who are convinced that Shuri (and/or Letitia Wright?) is queer because of the way her style has leaned into more “masculine” silhouettes and performance. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every other video on my timeline for the past week has been a looping edit of Wright in a black suit jacket with square shoulders and white thread embroidery on the front, the camera positioned lower than her face so she is looking down as she shows of her grill. This is not the focus of this piece of writing, but I will just say that on one end I think people are enamored of her attractiveness and want to claim it or her for themselves (I’ve read several comments to that effect, “I don’t know if I want to be her or be with her”), and I also think there are ways even those of us who strive to refuse the “either or” trap of gendered and sexual binaries end up reinforcing them, because maybe not every daddy is a daddy just because they look like one, not like that, anyway. 

Left: still from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler. Both images on the right: stills from Black Panther (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler

Much of her clothing in the movie looks more athleticwear-inspired than it did in the first installment, even if it’s not necessarily dark in color, like the red and white jacket she has on when Queen Ramonda comes looking for her in the lab to ask her to go with her to the bush for a mourning ritual that Shuri is reluctant to participate in, ostensibly because of her “rational,” science-driven mind, but also because she doesn’t seem ready to actually confront the reality of the loss of her brother. Another much edited for Tik Tok moment is the purple tracksuit, square shades, and hand tattoos Shuri sports when she and Okoye go to MIT’s campus (why was I so excited to recognize parts of Cambridge on screen?) to look for another Black girl prodigy, Riri Williams, whose genius has inadvertently put her life in danger.

Left: Photo by Jon Kapaloff. Source: TeenVogue. || Right: Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic. Source: People.

Even off screen, the cut of Wright’s outfits is much cleaner and sharper. At the US premiere of Wakanda Forever, Wright has on a black Alexander McQueen suit with a jeweled harness over the jacket, a tribute to a similar embroidered outfit Boseman wore to the Oscars in 2018. She has worn many a suit before, but during the 2018 press run, they were more likely to be floral or multicolored, like the purple Prada suit that included a black bow tied behind her head and trailing halfway to the ground like a train. Back then, Wright appeared in looser-fitting and maybe even girlish outfits that you might expect Shuri to wear to a gala, with the same microbraids studded with beads or pearls or even straightened hair. These days, even her dress have edge, metallic and almost like chain mail, a more fluid piece of a larger repertoire of armor.

It’s possible I’m over-identifying with celebrity (itself another seduction), and with what I perceive to be the shift in Shuri/Wright’s style post- (or rather in the meantime of grief), but after days of obsessing over the film, I recognize the way I have been forever changed by particular traumatic experiences and the ongoing grieving process of who I was or could have been. Before 2016, before maybe I didn’t say no, maybe that didn’t happen, I didn’t wear anywhere near as much black, nor did I own as much my twisted into the shapes of snakes, dragons, knives, and a pair of earrings that looks like my ears are in the beginning stages of being gauged with gold screws when I have them on. Before 2016, friends and classmates alike would always comment on how colorfully turned out I was, and I never even cursed, self-censoring swear words out of lyrics as I sang along. After passing through the threshold that was 2016, I hardened in all sorts of ways: I shaved both sides of my head so that about a third of my hair was gone, my lipstick darkened (partly because I still took a lot of my style cues from my mum in the 80s and 90s), and more recently, acquired several tattoos. “Edgier” clothing wasn’t my only armor. I performed a particular bravado, convinced my self I was reclaiming the word “arrogant,” wrote so many sharp edges (razors, knife edges, swords) into my work, started cursing freely and often, trying to fashion a self that might be untouchable, or at least impossible or less likely to scar.

In the sharp lines and sharper shoulders of suit jackets, in the rapper-esque bravado she seems to put on in front of all the flashing lights, in the grills, and chunky signet rings, I read in Shuri/Wright the same kind of reinvented aesthetic that has characterized how I’ve been dealing with my own lonely, my own darkness, my own private and painful breaking. A lot of her style evolution seems to have taken place as a result of her collaboration with stylist Shiona Turini, who was also responsible for so much of the memorable style in the TV show Insecure. Maybe the premise of this wondering or wandering is shaky, and Wright’s sartorial choices are due to her being a few years older than she was the first time she played Shuri and with access to better tailoring and a new stylist. This essay might not be much better than all the social media fantasies in that I have to gloss over the fact that I am projecting and theorizing around the self-presentation of a total stranger, and it’s probably safer to focus the more pointed analysis on the fictional characters and not the people who portray them. Still, I’m inclined, or maybe I need to, interpret the suit jackets and jewelry as an outward manifestation of the loss of someone you loved and admired (sometimes that person is you) and almost losing your self, a glamouring in the form of the realization that you were never and will never be a certain version of your self again. I’m even wondering if the short haircuts both Shuri and Queen Ramonda wear are part of their mourning rituals, which, were that the case, would again speak to the ways grief externalized can sometimes look like a glamouring.

In “The Case of Rihanna: Erotic Violence and Black Female Desire,” Nicole Fleetwood analyzes Rihanna’s own hardening and sharpening in the form of her aesthetic choices and expressions of sexuality and pleasure seeking after the way Chris Brown’s assault of her played out in public, and how her self-presentation was not coherent with widely accepted expectations of what the “perfect” victim and survivor of domestic violence should look and act like. I was such a fan of Rihanna pre-2009 that I cut several inches off my hair for that Umbrella-era bob, and my mum and I would belt out “Shut Up and Drive” while she drove in traffic jams on the way to school and work each morning. My relationship to the newly minted “bad gal” Riri eventually changed and leaned closer into confusion and judgment, especially when I was in college, because I think I was grappling with the tension between my desire to carry my self in similarly brazen ways and the conservative Christian values I had internalized, not from home, but from church youth leaders, public commentators, teachers, and all kinds of men who managed to be both lecherous and sanctimonious at the same time. In 2016, Anti and the “Needed Me” music video specifically brought me to a renewed, more mature appreciation for Rihanna at that time, and I reached back to that post-2009 version of her persona and her body of work as well, because I needed the release of imagining my self in vengeance, wielding power and pain against the object of my desired retribution.

Sometimes I wonder if I am clinging to victimhood and fixating on the past self lost to me forever, that maybe it’s time to burn the mourning clothes (in a symbolic sense) like Shuri does, to bring back some more bright blues and greens in more than just the few tops I have for work in the summer and a few of my winter coats. I don’t know if I still need the armor. I don’t know if it’s closing me off from more possibility than it is protecting me. I don’t know if it’s now clunky and uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to be brighter, with my teal fleece and head wrap to match, and I also want to continue to be mindful about whether or not I actually need new clothes and where I purchase them from. The byproducts of my growing and loving of self does not need to end up unusable and wasted in my own hometown or in other locations elsewhere enough that Western consumers do not have to consider their pollution and destruction. At the same time, I’m so much more in love with or at least more appreciative of the me I am today, still soft and open to possibility and growth where I need to be or where it feels safe, still trying to remember that in Ewe, sadness is not something you “are” but that either happens to you or that you “hold,” meaning that it will surely pass, and that you can put it down. At the end of Wakanda Forever, Shuri is wearing a cropped black hooded top, even though she finds her self on the beach in Haiti, where it is, as you can probably guess, golden hour, where, even as she recognizes that the self she was before is lost to her forever, she is hopefully open to a future of possibility and healing, a softening, a smoothening of some of those sharp edges.

Some of what I’ve been reading and listening to:

Official Black Panther Podcast, Chapter 1: Ryan Coogler

The Spectrum Lounge: Wakanda Forever Review

Wakanda Forever Gets Lost in the Marvel Machine

Black Panther star Letitia Wright: ‘Since Chad died I’m so afraid to lose people’

Rebuilding ‘Black Panther’: How the ‘Wakanda Forever’ Family Fought Through Grief and Injury to Create a $250 Million Superhero Tribute

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Doesn’t Have the Answers

With Namor, Wakanda Forever Does What Latine Media Will Not

Nikyatu Jusu and Ryan Coogler in conversation at the African International Film Festival 2022


[1]I’ve been in two minds about the cultural landscape of this onscreen world since the first film. I attended a talk that production designer Hannah Beachler gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the fall of 2018 and gained a deep appreciation and admiration for the depth of research and painstaking detail it took to build that world. And, I’m also wondering what harm could come from depicting an assemblage of accents, customs, and aesthetics for audiences who may still be thinking about Africa as a country and viewing people of African descent without nuance and complication. And then I remember the world I have tried to build for my novel, which largely takes place in an imagined elsewhere that feels vaguely like Keta, and like Haiti and Louisiana, and also like none of those places at the same time, so maybe I’m sitting in a glass house with rocks by the bowlful.

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 nigga 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 set a thief on fire 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…

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.

rihanna needed me.gif
“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.

beyonce lemonade 3
“Why do you deny yourself heaven? Why do you consider yourself undeserving?”

***

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.

***

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

beyonce lemonade2
“Baptize me, now that reconciliation is possible. If we’re going to heal, let it be glorious.”

Transnational Bad Woman

I wrote this piece a few weeks ago for my Cuban Literature class in response to the novel, Cecilia, and its movie adaptation. It would take me an entire dissertation to express my feelings about Cecilia and how difficult it was to read for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the amount of violence depicted in general, but also the way black women were portrayed as a shameful specter hovering over anyone of mixed ancestry, as well as sex object, workhorse, the list goes on…There was also a moment in the text where an enslaved woman was banished from the house she worked in and sent for punishment on a plantation for daring to breastfeed her own child at the same time as she was supposed to be nursing her mistress’ baby. At that point, I had to put the book down for a few days.

I wasn’t going to post this on my blog, because frankly I just wanted to move on from any kind of engagement with that text. I changed my mind, mainly because I feel like a lot of the conversation about color privilege and colorism turns into a debate over “who has it worse.” We didn’t create the system of binaries that rules our lives, but it exists and we are responsible for perpetuating it in so far as we have internalized it. I’m not attempting to point fingers or to make anyone feel they must account for a privilege that at times comes with a horrific history, and one that is beyond their control. The assignment was to write an address to the title character, Cecila Valdes, a mixed race Cuban woman, with a darker skinned friend, Nemesia, who often plays the sidekick role complete with the suggestion of envy of her “more beautiful” friend. I’m not interested in shouting over someone else’s suffering, and I hope that comes across in the piece.

Note: The phrase “worst kind of woman” comes from the film, during  a scene in which a white woman insults Cecilia presumably for being immoral and a temptress.

***

You are the worst kind of woman. You are fluid in more ways than I will ever be. A toss of your hair over a bare shoulder is a lazy curl of your lip is an almost imperceptible crook of your finger is a higher arch of your foot than the flatness of mine. You are always liquid over whichever terrain you pass and I’m the rock cracking under the heat of people’s disgust and pity, impervious to the coolness of your water. You are the worst kind of woman because I’m supposed to hate you.

In Accra you are striding over open drains and floating above the smell of over-ripe vegetables, you are that half-co one dey be waaa…the black one no shedda be bad but some time she be too dark. You are Ceci Yellow you’re too fine ooh come let us look at your hair! You are bony fingers knocking your scalp in disbelief while they marvel at the absence of thread and tracks to keep your locks in place, running over the smoothness of your skin as if it is butter that has merged with your muscle to disguise the undesirable blackness below the surface. In Accra, you are the jealously guarded crush-girlfriend-mistress-turned-wife, you are the one who bakes to a pleasant warmth in the sun like the crumbling edges of a slightly overdone pastry. You are to be possessed and reviled and glorified and stamped onto the pages of notebooks shoved in the backpacks of desperate teenage boys who cannot see past their own reflection shining in your forehead. You are the worst kind of woman for them because somehow they will aspire to your brightness while rubbing hatred deeper into their own chests, and the worst kind for me because I’m supposed to hate you.

In Havana, you are close enough to white to flow in through the windows of grand mansions and from one set of pale arms to another. Mulatta, you are also far enough from me that you can storm through the termite-infested door of my house before ripping it off its hinges and breaking it over my head. My helmet of cottony wool hair is not enough to shield me from the oppressive radiance of your smile. You are the worst kind of woman, they say, with loose limbs and an even looser grasp on good Catholic guilt. You are the worst because the white men lie in icy bed sheets next to their wives coated in lace and inaccessibility and imagine that they are grabbing handfuls of your light, because the black men spit in the faces of women who look like their mothers and imagine they are kissing yours, because we are all supposed to bob and courtesy and despise your grace.

I don’t know that I actually believe that you are as terrible as they say– nyornu bada, puta, bad woman. I have been trained to stare into your light brown velvet covering trying to find the seams so I can snatch it from you and sew it onto my own body. I’m supposed to crave the innocent, swirling hairs that stick to your forehead and the nape of your neck, while snagging the harsh reality of my dry coils on zippers and unattainable beauty standards. I cannot be who I am without spending hours staring back at a reflection that harbors too many shadows, one that is always already disappointing before I have even pried open my eyes to take a look at it. There is no way for me to exist without making your existence about me. There is a cavity inside my chest devoted to you where I can squeeze every last drop of the special treatment you enjoy, so that I too can flow and sway and waft into rooms with the scent of jasmine and stale sweat.

Cecilia, I keep you in the spaces behind my knees, and on the flatness of the back of my neck, so that it is increasingly difficult to walk. I do not envy the bitter taste clinging to your lips, the lingering memory of being created out of a bit of me and a bit of those who hate me intertwined with your veins. The fact that I am attempting to distil you into your constituent parts is more evidence that I have indulged in the addictive syrup of a system that blurs our vision and does not wish us to see each our reflections in each other’s pupils. You body is more than a site for national myth creation and pornographic fantasy. You are more than a backboard off which I can bounce off my insecurities and my desire to be a little less touched by the sun. I do not hate or pity or even love you just because your mother could’ve been mine. I cannot even claim kinship solely based on the fact that they ultimately see us as the same black bitches when it is convenient for them, only drawing lines according to color gradients and nose width when it serves a higher purpose of entrenching power.

We are the worst kind of women because we transcend the deviance of our own beings, because we rip gaping holes in the fabric that keeps our arms strapped down so we can’t reach for each other. We are the worst kind of women because we are perpetual reminders of unadulterated arrogance that cannot be snatched out of us no matter how hard they scratch or grab, standing astride their notions of purity and respectability, smoking the ash of the conflicts they imposed on us and blowing them in their faces.

Image: Still of the actress Daisy Granados from film Memories of Underdevelopment (which we also watched in class.) She also played Cecilia in the film adaptation of the novel.

Goodbye, My Temporary Lover

More thoughts from Dakar…

I wanted you to sing to me. I had grown accustomed to hasty lullabies flung over my mother’s shoulder while she fanned a reluctant flame, or loving strains whispered to me long after I had fallen asleep, another hard day of work completed. I wanted you to sing to me, to speak to me tenderly, to bring offerings of fabrics and drinks to my family, humbly asking for my hand. Instead, you spoke to me in a bastardized mix of phrases and predicates, faint traces of grammar lessons you never paid attention to. You shrugged your shoulders when I delicately pointed out your mistakes, ready to applaud your efforts to correct yourself. You carried on, contorting the names of all my beloved places. The haunts of my childhood, towns with melodic names, appellations lovingly bestowed eight days after birth, corrupted in your bitter mouth, hacked apart with your lackluster accent. Popenguine. Ziguinchor. Sangalkam. You didn’t bother to learn the names of my children, they were just props in your collection of rare objects. Aïssatou. Ndeye. Moustapha. I wanted you to sing their harmonies, but you were never quite on key.

Why did I try? I invited you into my world, laid all my wares before you. Your hands invaded all my nuances, manipulated my curves and felt every crevice. You were trying to see if I was worth the “bon prix”, worth taking back and being put on display in your ivory tower for all your people to ogle and admire and criticize. I was exotic enough for the moment, the highest of cheekbones and the longest of necks. Beauty incarnate, elegance itself. I would do. In the same way you chewed up and spat out words in a twisted mess, you mangled the parts of me that suited you and discarded those that were too mundane. Your greedy, sweaty hands roved and roved over all my goods, and picked what looked most authentic to accessorize your pale life.

And yet, when I tried to introduce you to my aunts, the one who was not wanted and the illustrious Madame Bâ, the disapproving Uncle Leopold and the eccentric neighbor Soyinka with his shock of white hair, you offered a wan smile out of courtesy. Your hands had barely grasped theirs in greeting before you turned away and sought more exciting things to satisfy your wanderlust. You wanted to explore with me…explore me, exploit… You carried on with your expedition, taking and taking. You said you needed souvenirs to remember me by, and I foolishly obliged. I knew you did not fully understand, nor would you ever, but accorded the privilege of guest status you gained access to all the secret trappings of my being. I unraveled lengths of beads from around my neck, my wrist, my waist. I smudged the kohl from my eyes, extended my palms free of their red stain. I wanted you to experience me in my truest form, in my multitude of realities. I offered you the finest mbazin, but the ill-fitting garment you produced did not do it an ounce of justice.

I wanted to dance with you. I wanted us to sway together as the strings plucked our pleasure in liquid form, harmonies deliciously languid and painfully expectant. I wanted you to fly feet off the ground driven wild by the escalating rhythm. We would disappear into a cloud of dust and emerge laughing and arguing about who fell first. But instead, you stayed firmly planted in the sand, your joints creaking and complaining as they were not accustomed to moving in that way. Your hips remained immovable, but I loved you for trying. At least I did, until you whispered to me with your mouth curved in that cruel smirk, more disjointed words about how this wasn’t a “real” dance anyway.

The sound of drums grated your nerves. You failed to see how this could be considered music. You failed to notice the exhilarating effect they had on my sisters surrounded by a circle of eager spectators. You failed to listen to my stories of ancestral triumph and defeat, to the ways my cousins reclaimed their compromised nobility and built shaky nations where empires had stood just the other day. My stories of cultural movements and newborn intellectuals in impeccably fitted suits failed to tickle your fancy. You failed to perceive the romantic wistfulness in my eyes, the nostalgia for a time I had never known. Or lack thereof. You did not even sniff at my apathy, my longing to be more like you and your own, nor did you understand your role in my cracked mirror reflection. You failed.

Please tell the others. If they are only looking for sweet mangoes and wide hips, for immaculately starched boubous collecting red sand as they sweep along, for chivalry and chauvinism wrapped in a confusing dark and handsome package, for “cute” little keepsakes to collect as ransom for my forgotten history, tell them not to come. It is not the right season for mangoes, and I am fresh out of cheap tricks.

All Rights Usurped®

You can probably tell that my mind has been all over the place since I’ve been in Senegal. Or maybe you can’t because I’m so good at acting like I know what I’m doing 🙂 In any case, this particular post isn’t entirely based on my experiences here. It’s more a collection of things over a long period of time that I’ve only recently started seeing with new eyes. Recently I’ve been writing these stream of consciousness not-really-fiction posts but I hope you enjoy reading! 

You do not own the copyright to anger. Righteous indignation is not your birthright. As far as I’m aware, no one handed you a large manila envelope, official wax seal still drying, containing a patent to that particular brand of condescension that you call justice. Thank you, the sentiments you have expressed are a “nice” gesture at best. “Nice”, like a stranger helping you pick up your now ruined papers from the dusty roadside. “Nice”, like someone saying they are sorry for your loss as they rush you off the phone, ignoring your sniffing and tears on the other end of the line. You are not the first, nor will you be the last to be appalled. “How could they do this? How could anyone let this happen? How?”

Let me tell you a secret. No, not here. Not under this sacred tree where women cried out to resolutely silent ancestors for salvation, where old men handed out  wisdom in bite-sized proverb-shaped portions, where tired farmers simply sat and sat until it was time to coax food out of the stubborn dry earth once more. You are not invited to this gathering, not welcome here. Not unless you shed your coat of “knowing better” before you arrive. I repeat, for this is highly important; you are not the first, nor will you be the last to feel the way you do. A host of others before you have come, seen and felt disgust. Bravo, you are able to empathize with your fellow humans. You are indeed, human. Here is your ID Card. Don’t be confused, this does not grant you access to an entire history. You will not immediately understand, not in a week, not in two  months, not in four years. Please try to understand this, these people are aware.

It doesn’t take critically acclaimed documentaries produced by a man in tortoise shell glasses,nor socially conscious bloggers who purchase Fairtrade everything to create awareness. Your concern is appreciated, but you do not have the right to pick and choose where to direct your outrage without bringing an offering of respect, nestled humbly in a bag of kola nuts. You do not get to apportion blame, nor do you earn the right to share in ancestral resentment leveled at former masters. Solidarity grows out of an understanding that someone’s suffering could easily be your own, and as a fellow human being you are deciding to support another human in their struggle, while respecting their agency and their efforts to transform the situation.

I imagine that you are growing more and more perplexed. How does one scold another for caring? Child, and yes, I call you child because in the eyes of this most regal and most ancient land you remain in your earliest stages of infancy. I do not condemn you for caring, again I extend my congratulations. You are indeed, human. But when your caring leads you to shut your ears to any further explanation, or to believe what UN official reports tell you, and what college professors preach as gospel, then your cause is lost. At least you are mature enough to realize that buying a pair of comfortable shoes from a “socially conscious” business creates more problems than it solves. Again, the blogs (and some common sense) have served you well.

Caring, the softest and sweetest of emotions, turns ugly when you do it the way you do. A firm, warm hand on a shoulder heaving with grief turns into a sharp slap across the face. Do you assume that the person you are attempting to comfort does not know the situation they are in? Do you presume to teach someone how to grieve, and how to move on from grieving to re-building? There is a faint waft of supposed superiority on your hot breath. You are angry. How could they? Your anger veils your eyes in thick black mourning cloth. You stuff your ears with cotton, you refuse to listen further. Instead, you decide to do your best to counteract this corrupt, broken-down system you have come to meet. You clap and sing and “Repeat after me!” and you are convinced this is going to blow away the sands of time and exploitation that have settled in the cracks of a once well-oiled machine. Your shaky hands touch wounds they have not yet been taught how to heal, reach places they should not be authorized to enter, and you go home satisfied that you have done an amazing thing.

Again, this is not an indictment on your actions. It is not your fault. Your arrival was marked with outstretched arms, with people ready to bestow undeserved responsibility on your naive shoulders. Where you were met with quiet dignity and resistance, you failed to recognize it. These people all need help, whether they know it or not. And yet you long to feel at home. The fanfare of culture entices you, as it is prone to do. Perhaps you feel as though you are peeping through the window, watching a party you were not invited to. Or perhaps you misplaced your invitation, or you misunderstood it. You wade through market after market, sifting through trinkets and fabrics and hair pieces. With the right costume you can integrate…right? Admiration or appropriation, where does one draw the line?

Come, child, sit down on this mat. You have much to learn. Come, let me show you how to tie that wrapper tightly around your waist. And you, with your sun-burnished skin, you also have much to learn. Your language rises and falls with the same musical cadence, your round hips sway to the same rhythm, but you remain a child. Come. You are welcome.