At a Stranger’s Funeral

The back of the pew is the only thing holding up your spine, and so you bear the discomfort in silence. The sounds of mourning hang around your head like the sheet of hair you chopped off that day you decided you were looking for a reawakening. How does it feel to attend a stranger’s funeral? It feels like someone close to you died and everyone forgot to tell you, so that when you got home and saw the slippers still perched at the threshold of the door and Our Daily Bread folded on the bedside table you didn’t suspect anything. The deceptive warmth of the mug of coffee in the kitchen and the indent in the cushion on the left side of the sofa led you to believe that this did not happen. This is what it feels like to attend a stranger’s funeral. It’s something like waking up in a hospital bed and reaching to scratch an itch on your arm only to snag your nails on the threadbare bed sheet. Or maybe you lost everything in a fire, except it can’t be because you are cradling an armful of your grandmother’s faded photo albums, and your mother is smiling at you from a sepia-tinted frame, and so are your aunts and uncles, and they have a dog called Popsy, and your grandfather is calling you to sit on his lap and tell him what you learnt at school today. So the smell scratching the walls of your lungs must be the egg you left on the stove because you had your face buried in a romance novel. You did not just come back from a long day spent in traffic and your house is still upright and not crumbling around you. Your arm is still there, and so is the person you loved, and so is the armful of ash that you insist on calling your memories. And the edge of the pew is digging into your thighs, but it is actually the side of your bathtub. It is 1am and you are in your apartment that is empty of everything but an overnight bag and the comforter that has been passing as your bed. You supposedly have “amazing things” ahead of you but right now all that exists is your naked self shivering since the towel dropped to the floor about four wails ago, and your phone won’t stop vibrating and lighting up. You don’t pick up because you have run out of ways to steady the wobble in your voice. So you will reach for their arm, or your arm, or that one treasured pile of ash that used to be a family portrait. You are not really here and everything is as it should be.

Say Her Name

(from Grayscale, You in Black)

Less like fertile soil and more like battlefield. Black gold, with stocks rising higher and higher everyday. Highly desired, yet grossly overlooked. Where is my ceremony? Why is black twitter not mourning for me? Where are all the socio-political commentators, armchair activists, senators and bloggers to scratch each other’s faces in anger over my death? My funeral march is a rap song. You know the one I’m talking about. With a girl that looks so much like me that her empty smile and even emptier eyes haunt my waking nightmares as I watch her bouncing her bubble butt for this new black with his neck weighed down with costume jewelry. I am canvas splattered with blood and entrails; I am a glossy magazine cover gleaming with the appeal of “Black Girls Rock!”; I am Thursday nights and a boat-like glass of red wine and a billion dollar price on my head for America’s entertainment. I am TV ratings, and BET after midnight, and your babysitter, your ex-girlfriend. I am yo shawdy in the black, swing that ass my way! I am your grandmother’s hands mangled by arthritis but still able to beat you into sheepish submission. I am the headline that never made it to print. I am all and none of these things. Mostly, I’m just scared that I could vanish and you would not notice.

 

Love Like Pepper Spray

(from “Grayscale, You in Black)

She had been screaming for nearly two hours without breaks, to the point where there were only faint traces of her voice remaining in the back of her throat. Tears flowed unchecked down her face and onto her chest. There was some jostling in front of her, as there always was at one of these marches. A man had dropped one end of the giant banner he was carrying splashed with the words “No Justice, No Peace” in red paint, and he was struggling to pick it up before other protesters started to step on it in their haste to keep up with the crowds marching towards the White House. She bent down to pick up one end of the sign and straightened up to hand it to him. And she thought to herself, what if this was him? Him of the glaringly white eyes threatening to release a flood of anguish and pure rage at any moment. Him of the muscular back and the smooth baritone that belonged on her grandmother’s record player. Black love. They could pose like one of those paintings of half-naked couples draped in some printed fabric that Muhammed, her Afrocentric neighbor was always trying to sell her. And they would laugh at how silly it all was. But then she looked at him. She realized that they could be very happy together, and perhaps produce a few little ones. But then these babies would grow up, and they would have to have the talk with a capital ‘t.’ About how their overdose of melanin made them susceptible to squint-eyed suspicion and groping and hate being spat out constantly, and actual spit. She looked at him, and was about to ask if he would like to get together and make mini-freedom fighters like themselves. But she was struggling with the urge to wail to the sky, so instead she said: “Great night for a riot, isn’t it?”

You in Black- Skin Sold Separately

***

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

I no longer exist.

***

Toni was the first one to show me- don’t call her Toni like you know her, respect your elders- it was Toni that showed me that people could look at my skin and see breakfast tables and candy counters. Caramel with nougat swirl. The richest unprocessed cocoa, 0% fat. Cocoa cream puffs drenched in chocolate sauce. Flan. Flan? But that’s not bl− You should be careful. This coating of nerves and cells is actually artery-clogging sweetness, it is cloying sugar water coating your intestines. You have been warned.

 ***

“Girl! Haven’t you heard that black people don’t swim?!”

“What do you mean? I’ve been swimming since I was 6!”

“But, you’re not really black!”

I’m sorry? I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that somewhere on that cross-continental journey my skin transformed from one color to another. Purple? Yellow with green polka dots? Red, yellow and green with a giant black star right where my nose should be. Ghanaian and proud. Tell me again how I will never know what it’s like to really be black in America. Black is a cultural experience you said. Black, you said, is cornbread and collard greens and grits, not banku and viscous okro soup or oxtail and rice. Oh, you mean your grandma doesn’t wear hats adorned with plastic baby’s breath and carnations to church every Sunday? That’s weird, it’s such a black thing. More than a thing. These are profound markers of the black cultural experience in America. You definitely don’t belong.

“Girl! I love how black skin looks in that fabric! I could never pull it off. So…ethnic!”

“What do you mean? I bought this at Zara.”

“Oh, I’m sorry I thought it was a bl− I mean, African thing…”

You in Black- My Language, My Rules

***

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

I no longer exist.

***

You find my accent sexy. I know. Maybe it’s my voice. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard this. Yes, really. Especially from Americans. I must say you all are very easily impressed by anything that sounds like it comes from across the Atlantic, or even across the border, as long as that thing is accompanied by all the appropriate immigration documentation. Therein lies the fundamental difference between illegal and exotic. Yes, I do speak another language.

Je t’appartiens. Me lo wo. Rafet na, mashallah. Arrête de me dire des bêtises!*

My voice is sexy. I know it makes you feel uncomfortable. All I said was “hello”, and I can already see the perspiration bubbling at your temples. I could insult you in three languages but you wouldn’t understand, and you would think I was inviting you to bed. You see, I have taken this English you forced on me and have made it better than you could ever imagine. I can conjure scenes with my words that your mind would not be able to translate. You have caught your shirt on the rasp in my throat. You are now having difficulties untangling yourself. You do not understand why. I sound like Sunday mornings that should’ve been spent atoning for ancestral sins, like jagged nails dragging down the length of your back. I sound like the old piano in your grandparents’ basement, the one that hasn’t been tuned in decades but sends out haunting notes when you touch just one key. Only the black keys though, obviously. You are enthralled by me, because I laugh my mother’s laugh, the one that comes from my stomach and reminds me of someone that Maya knew. You can’t get enough.

*I’m yours. I love you. It’s beautiful. Stop saying stupid things. This is a random sampling of phrases I have used or plan to use when someone asks me to say something in another language for their entertainment.

You in Black- The Body Chronicles

I spent fifteen minutes talking about the problem of objectifying and sexualizing African women’s bodies. Fifteen minutes in French, and I’m actually une anglophone. I even ironed the pretty church dress my aunt sewed for me, the one with the red and yellow wax print, sun sets over Africa? Pink palms turned red in applause. You were pleased. With who? Sapphire. Cleopatra. Yaa Asantewaa. Beyoncé. Foxy Brown. Video vixen #39 with the botched boob job. A disembodied pair of juicy hips and thighs walking down the street with nothing but a puff of smoke where her head and shoulders should be. L’Africaine. I know it’s a function of the language to turn adjectives into nouns, nationality and individual interchangeable. But I stood before you today, teased my tongue and cleared my throat to manipulate all the guttural r’s and slippery s’ of your language. To show you that une Africaine est capable de maitriser la langue Francaise.* But you were hypnotized by the projector lights flashing on my nighttime skin, you were thinking nighttime thoughts. Strobe lights and a stripper pole. It was 11am in a conference room, generic cream table, generic cream hands. But I was African Paradise with the thunder thighs. Step right up and feast your eyes. But whatever you do, you can’t touch the dancers.

*This translates my determination to prove myself during my French studies at Georgetown. It is the verbal manifestation of my dismay and defensiveness every time someone responds with a wide-eyed: “Wow I didn’t know you spoke French that well!” Literally translated it means “that an African is capable of mastering the French language.” I must also add that I’ve been studying French since the age of 7. Let’s also remember that there are millions of Africans who speak French not because they like the sound of it, but because they didn’t have much say in the process of their “civilization”. 

You in Black- Grayscale

You may remember You in Black, my passionate (to say the very least) response to Claudia Rankine’s work Citizen. Or you may not, but that’s alright. I realized I had a lot more to say, so I extended it for a final project and was semi-satisfied with the results. Over the next few days I’ll be sharing some extracts from the work with you. I divided it into 4 segments: “Skin Sold Separately”, “The Body Chronicles”, “Grayscale” and “My Language, My Rules”. I don’t want to explain away the writing, so I hope it will speak for itself.

***

Introduction

You in Black is a creative response to Citizen by Claudia Rankine. It is an exposition on the black experience (one of many) in the United States as told through the fingertips of a young African woman attending university in this country. This work is an attempt to convey the triumphs and suffering of someone who can never claim to represent a whole race but is often called upon to do so. It incorporates re-telling of micro-aggressions and macro-tragedies, both fictional and non-fictional, in order to express the persona’s resilience and rage. I have used footnotes to explain certain terms and references that may be unfamiliar to you if you are not Ghanaian or know nothing about Ghanaian culture, but have tried to ensure that I don’t use a heavy-handed academic style in my explanations. Consider the footnotes as the persona whispering in your ear to help you to avoid being impolite or looking foolish at dinner.

***

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

I no longer exist.

***

On a scale from 1 to Gray, in how many places did your spine snap? Did you wake up this morning clutching your lower back, firm fingers pressing into the skin in a useless attempt to massage away the ache? Probable cause and indictments are back rubs to cure bullet wounds. Patrolled by blue tin men who were never quite able to retrieve their bleeding hearts. I had a neighbor whose name was Eric, but he looked a lot more like an Amadou. The lilt in his voice sounded like a kora I heard in Bamako, but before the griot could start his haunting song, an ugly cry interrupted the melody. You have the right to remain silent. Or not. The choice is yours. In any case, you are not going to survive. My cousin’s name was Trayvon, but it could very well have been Emmett. His chestnut smoothness could have been an oware board carved from a sturdy tree trunk. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised when I saw him riddled with holes.

***

Listen to me. The problem with you people is that you are too extreme. And you have this sickening sense of entitlement. The worst possible combination of traits! Every single time one of you behaves badly, we must have this argument. You spend all day and night killing each other in the ghettos, and when you get what you deserve, you burn down and steal from the very businesses put there to give you a livelihood. Honestly, you people are unbelievable! And one day, I will escape the sanctuary of the anonymity afforded me by the world of internet comments to teach you a lesson!

***

Miss, I didn’t bring my homework in today, but I have a really good excuse.

There was too much black on black crime outside my window and I couldn’t concentrate. There were too many young thugs with their pants around their knees standing on the street corner slingin’ dope and I got distracted. There were too many hos click-clackin’ up and down the alley next door and I couldn’t hear myself think. My mama was out too late snorting lines with her friends and she couldn’t help me. That’s not enough? There was not enough food on the table, there were not enough jobs, there was no way out, there was 300 years’ worth of baggage, there was no way out. There was you telling me I don’t have a way out. You see, I could have been so much greater, but my chance was given to someone else the minute I was born and my skin started to blacken.

***

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

I no longer exist.