A Glamouring

I’m feeling very content with and within myself, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m not complaining that the ever elusive joy towards which I’ve been writing seems to have finally arrived, not at all. It’s a pleasant surprise after these weeks of feeling strangely “silent” and distant from myself. I feel like I’ve woken up from a deep, dreamless sleep and had a good, wide stretch. What’s most confusing about this shift is that nothing new in particular has happened to remove some of the worries I’ve been harboring. I’m still facing quite a bit of uncertainty, but as I usually do, I’m going to get on with the business of living.

I’m also still sorting through some of the things with which I walked away from grad school. I am the proud owner of a few certificates embossed with curly gold lettering, folders full of PDFs forever on my “to read an annotate” list, jeans that are now a little looser than I would prefer– neglecting oneself is costly, just ask my dental bills and my newly too large wardrobe– and a not insignificant amount of debt.

I won’t miss the condescension masquerading as concern; the fortified self I had to carry around constantly to ensure that no one saw my weakness and tried to use it against me. I won’t miss the being talked over, diminished and stepped on in conversation. I can’t miss any of these things partly because they are still around. I am still frustratingly the only Black woman™ (my summer reading list is helping me move around this isolation: Dionne Brand, Robin Coste Lewis, Tiphanie Yanique, Alice Walker) and I am still how dare you be “mean and impressive” in front of my mediocrity.

Anyway, I’m feeling good– and not just looking like it or pretending– and it feels good to say so.

I wrote the following piece as I was thinking about Toni Morrison’s Sula– as I often am– and how Sula was a sort of necessary evil for the people in her community. They needed her to feel and to act worthy and kind, and I’m wondering if that means we should question if she was really evil, or what it means to be evil at all.

***

unnamed

A Glamouring

“I like to say Black people do this thing I like to call glamouring, we glamour…What Black tend to do is we tend to mesmerize the person who’s acting on us. A lot of what we do, everything from shucking and jiving, to Michael Jackson moonwalking, it’s all glamouring.” -Arthur Jafa*

She told me every night, over after-dinner orange slices, the blue edge of the plate chipped so much it looked like part of the pattern. She told me if I kept swallowing whole orange seeds, I would grow a tree from the middle of my head, and then we would keep on growing– the tree and me– through the ceiling and the roof, splintering wood and metal alike.

Determined to become an expanse of living things, I grew.

I stretched my legs into the soil, my back turned black soil flower bed. Orange blossom curled out of my ears and over my shoulders. I became a whole grove, all flourish and sweet, and too much of me will ruin you.

My arms wrapped around myself as long as it takes generations of women to laugh and die and run and glamour. I stood there hugging myself, tall and unwavering, tree trunks draped then strangled by vines.

Then I came back, and this time I wasn’t so precious, so careful.

My high shoes planted their pointy heels between new shoots struggling toward life. She was watching from the window, louver blades drawing long darts of shadow across her frowning face.

I stood under the tallest tree I made of me

Me: one grand motherfucker

I lit a cigarette until fear turned molten in my chest and flowed out

Me: a wild fire

For years to come people would cough ash over their plates of after-dinner oranges, would swear that they could still feel the glow.

***

Image: Selfie by yours truly, “a glamouring” from June 2018.

*This quote comes from a conversation between bell hooks and Arthur Jafa at the New School in 2014, as part of a week-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: A Education as a Practice of Freedom. This text has become a sort of handbook for me as I try to learn more about teaching, and hooks’ dialogue with Jafa raised some really interesting questions about the camera as an agent of the white gaze, even when there is a Black person behind it, and about surveilling and performing Blackness in public spaces. Still, I disagreed with and was taken aback by some of  Jafa’s comments, especially around the analogies and ableist language he used to discuss the enslavement of Black people and white supremacist violence enacted against Black people.

Miss Freda Pays a Visit

Since my last post, I’ve felt myself retreating further into myself, further into silence. I have been talking a lot, but I’m not saying anything of consequence, anything that matters, or saying anything I really want to say. I’ve typed and erased several messages and tweets, and felt the urge to call someone to relay some funny or frustrating or mundane subside as soon as I think to pick up the phone. It may seem odd that I feel so silent when most of my days involve interacting with other people, particularly when most of those people are eager high school students with a lot of fascinating insights to share. I had a really uncomfortable encounter with a stranger in public yesterday (I’m ok). I thought a good cry would help me feel less agitated, but I couldn’t get any tears out.*

But I’m still here, and still writing for myself, for this blog, and for you.

I submitted the following piece of flash fiction for the Afreada x Africa Writes contest judged by Warsan Shire (!!!) I made it to the penultimate round–15 out of 225 submissions– which is pretty encouraging. I’m so grateful to the Afreada editors for considering me and my work. I’ve had some other works published on Afreada, “Pain Control” and “Safe House.” I’m hoping to turn this into something longer, you know, as soon as I find more words.

***

On the third day she came to visit, all the sharp edges in my house fell to pieces. I discovered them hour by painful hour, as I moved from dusty corridor, to bath, to wood-floored bedroom dotted with several months’ worth of shed hair and fluff. Sewing scissors– their gold handle rusted over with neglect– sat scattered on my work table; screw, blades, and finger rests spread far from each other as though they had never been whole. The old-time straight razor I used to shave my head was also apart from itself, its cutting edge bent in half like it was made of paper and not steel. Even the keys jammed into my room’s locks were dull around their teeth.

“The keys too? Is that not a bit much?”

My voice scratched its way out of my mouth, hoarse from lack of use, but she behaved as though she hadn’t heard me.

“Miss Freda?”

She was still, just as she had been on her first two visits, careful not to make any forceful movements that would topple the unsteady kitchen stool she sat on. She usually stayed no more than three hours, sighing whisper-soft every few minutes, and rearranging her lean arms across her chest when she grew stiff.

“Girl. You are still mourning? Still trying to end yourself?”

Her voice lilted and chimed like a dinner bell, but there was some sort of distortion to the sound. It was almost as if my head was submerged in water, and I was listening to her through the muffle. I stood silent in front of her, watching the 4 o’clock sunlight spilling lazy orange warmth over the window sill and onto my feet, narrow and much-veined just like hers.

“Miss Freda, didn’t you die?”

She ignored me. We might as well have been taking part in two different conversations, running parallel and eventually away from one another.

“Anyway, I deadened the keys too, just in case. It would be torturous to go that way, but I thought you might still try.”

She laughed to herself like high heels kicking on concrete and added, “You this child of ours.”

“Of ours? I’m no one’s but my very own.”

Miss Freda kissed her teeth and rolled her eyes so far up and back I thought they would stick.

“Girl. You think you made yourself the way you stitch those clothes? You think you hold yourself together all on your own?

As she spoke, she adjusted the yellow film of fabric she wore for a dress. The way she called me Girl made me forget my real name. I knew she was the aunt that followed her sister, my distant and unloving mother into sickness and then death years ago, but I felt more lifeless before her brazen self. What did she want with me?

“Give the sharp edges a rest, girl. You are all of us. You are a wide sky inside too stifling a house. Let me show you–

***

*My current obsession, Alice Smith’s performance of “I Put a Spell on You” in Black Mary, the short film by Kahlil Joseph, helped me a little with the words and the tears this afternoon.

Black Mary
Still from Black Mary. Directed by Kahlil Joseph, 2017.

 

Intermission

The original starting point of this blog post went like this;

The lateness of this blog post is brought to [you] courtesy of a combination of staying up-to-date with the latest horrifying news and moving for a temporary job while trying to find a more permanent one for “the latter side of next.” I’m feeling this strange sort of distance from myself, where I know something is “off” in this hazy, undefined way, but can’t quite articulate why.

 The time is currently 1:19am, and I am sitting on my friend’s bed instead of dancing downstairs in the backyard with the rest of her guests (or helping to clean up now that the barbecue has just ended). I tried my hardest to rally myself into some sort of pleasantness– I even wore my new favorite yellow dress and my old faithful cartoonish pineapple earrings– but I eventually decided it would be best to go upstairs and think and write (and shower) rather than sniffling back tears on a crowded dance floor like the 90s teen drama protagonist I would hate to ever be.

I must also add that this self-deprecating comment is not an attempt to dismiss anyone else’s very real and painful feelings of anxiety and isolation in the middle of a crowd. Humor is just how I cheer myself up, as harmful as this sort of belittling of self may be. (See also my constant repetition of the “joke” that my life is at the moment a poorly written episode of a *insert Black young woman web-series here*, and that I need the writers’ room to get it together because the current storyline is looking a little bleak).

I’m rambling, but this rambling is as close as you can probably get to how I think and speak outside this blog post entry box. Basically, I’m worried about a lot of different things– many of them somewhat out of my control– and it appears that I have worried myself into silence. This silence is the real reason why there was no post last week, and why I can only seem to speak and write in riddles instead of putting into words what these worries are.

So, I’ve been busy with all the moving and job-hunting and planning and working, but beyond that, I also find myself unable to speak anything meaningful or true. I have turned to other artists’ work, not for some sort of empty “healing” or “care” in the ways these terms are often used to mean just a different sort of momentary gratification. I’ve been reading and watching and listening a lot, to hear other people speaking to each other, and to be confused and excited and emotionally invested in other people’s worlds and lives, whether imagined or otherwise. I can’t say more (I’m really struggling with my words, as I said)  except that these works mean a lot to me at the moment, even those I don’t quite fully understand as yet. I really want to share them with you.

Reading

where the line bleeds

I adore this book because as Jesmyn Ward herself has said in a number of interviews, she loved her characters so much that she felt she protected them from any fate too cruel for them (or her) to bear. Her writing is so detailed that I can see where the freckles are on characters’ faces, and the color of the sand beneath the surface of the water they dive into at the beginning. There is beauty and there is hurt, but Ward doesn’t torture her characters to reveal either.

Read also: Interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah by Chloe Wayne Sultan

To remember:

“How do we create altars in society for black female genius? And not just the women who are artists or authors. But the women who contained art and who were never afforded the space to express it. It’s not about me as a writer, it’s about: Who authored my life? It is fascinating how so many artists of color often feel as if we are a processional of legacy, and often we enter into these rarefied spaces of art through familial or localized bonds. And yet, outside our intimate memories, who knows the names of these women who made us?”

-Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Listening

  • “I Put a Spell on You”- Alice Smith rendition of the Nina Simone Song (watch the stunning short film, Black Mary, directed by Kahlil Joseph for the song here.)
  • “Come to Me”– Daymé Arocena (If you have the chance to see her live, please do. I’ve seen her twice in Boston, and both times felt like what I used to think church was supposed to feel like, free and easy.
  • “Nguwe”– Nomsa Mazwai
  • “I Wonder If I Take You Home”– Meshell Ndegeocello
  • “Django Jane”– Janelle Monáe
django jane.gif
Django Jane. Directed by Andrew Donoho, 2018. (GIF Source: GIPHY)

Watching

***

Header image taken by yours truly, Amherst College, June 2018. I’m working as a TA in a pre-college program on Amherst’s campus for the next few weeks. I love it already, and when I find my words I will tell you why.

 

 

 

 

Wearing Nina’s Dress

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

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

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

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

***

Wearing Nina’s Dress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Famous Last Words

What could’ve been tastes like

Shoulder with a hint of salt against eager tongue

Feels like tears pooling between your face and your pillow, settling in the heat of your right ear

Sounds like why did you say the exact opposite of what you meant

Is basically like wow you’re so pathetic, it really isn’t that big of a deal says inner voice

If only you would let me show you

Famous last words

I’m years behind, but I finally watched an Oversimplification of her Beauty (written and directed by Terrence Nance) after missing all the showings they had in obscure theaters around DC one summer I was there. Very inspiring, and also a little depressing as most of my inspirations often are. I’m still trying to figure out how to write poetry that’s somewhat tolerable, that’s actually good…