All Flourish and Sweet

Saturday 4/2–early morning on Sunday 4/3

First,

Because what would the point be if I didn’t have something to which I could respond, a starting block, however shaky:

“There are buds on my fingertips growing beautiful things…”

Aye, Mereba (from the album Azeb, 2021)

“My color’s green. I’m spring.”

Sorrow is Not My Name, Ross Gay

“Florals? For spring. Groundbreaking.”

-Miranda Priestly played by Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada (dir., David Frankel, 2006)

***

I’ve been working on my shoulder stand. It has been just over three years since my first yoga class, meaning that I am still very much an amateur, still awed when new muscles appear, still so giddy when I can stay in a pose for a little longer than the last time, so much so that I nearly fall out of it. I’m not sure that I have ever been physically stronger than I feel currently, though it remains a feeling, it’s accuracy only tested out by how much more powerful I feel dancing, lifting a heavy package, getting up off the floor, or how many miles I can walk before I start to ache (this is not new), or how many trips I can make up to the third floor where I live with 2–3 weeks’ worth of groceries.

In years of dance classes and swimming, I don’t think I was able to inhabit my body the way I do today, mostly because I was much younger and with a self very much in flux, glitching at every encounter with my own insecurities, external judgment, teasing, anything that looked like displeasure or disapproval directed towards me, sanctimonious church ushers, creeps at the butcher or at my workplace or on the street near my dorm or on the corner near my host mother’s house, or older boys whose attention I desperately craved. But I also think that I could not have squat as low or split as wide or “stood” on my shoulders, because at the first pinch of discomfort I would stop for fear of injury. I am still careful, but then, I was not caring for my self by stopping at my limit, I didn’t know what my limit was and how far I was from it sliding across the sometimes dusty, sometimes slick dance studio floor. I didn’t know how to breathe through stretches, to breathe fearlessness into the tight parts of my self, to expand.

“The Oppositional Gaze,” collage by me, 2021

(Read the essay by bell hooks after which I named the collage here.)

These days, my spirit is standing up inside my self, not to its fullest unfolding but as far as it can currently go, ten toes planted and arms stretched and reaching low and wide. I mean, I am full of my self. Would this count as a delusion? Or maybe an over-correction from all the times my soul bowed and stayed life-threateningly low? My delusions, or aspirations to or yearnings for plenty, for sweetness, for beauty running over and down the sides of clasped hands (I am trying to talk to and about my self with more kindness and less derision) show up in many forms, including buying more chains to wear next to my nameplate. My intention was to find a temporary replacement for my grandma’s Lilian chain until I can get the broken link fixed. I wore the two names all the time as soon as my grandma let me have it; I’m her junior in middle name, which was the argument she used to prevent me from taking it because, who knows you by that name? Pursuing beauty I cannot always afford puts me in lovely company: I come from women who wear perfume to bed whether or not they are alone, whose jewelry collection only increases in luster when they are most anxious about money they don’t have, who put their first names on plaques outside the houses they built. I would like to think my grandma’s grandma left us her love for shimmer and shine, as someone who lent [or sold?] gold to people for their special occasions, but it’s more likely than she rarely thought about us at all, beyond her [dying?] wishes that our lives would be less fraught with the desires of men who want us to belong to them and not to our selves.

(Third photo taken by my friend Mel in DC, March 2022)

I belong to my mother and her mother and all the mothers to the nth power, and to my aunts and uncles and cousins, in that I am loved by them, in that my feet end in my uncle’s toes, in that my big little cousin has the same dimples another uncle had as a child, in that my grandma gave her twenty-something-year-old face to my other big little cousin and I, in that I always have somewhere to go should my spirit crouch too close to six-feet-below again. This is not a threat nor a cry for help, it is the constant reaffirmation that I must do to remember that I am well, loved, and not alone, for which I am grateful.

With or without the new necklaces on and independent of all the people who make me possible, I am full and brimming over, and all this self belong to me, and I have been cultivating this too-much in a growing garden of tattoos along both my arms. For many months it was just a fern I had been planning for years on my right forearm and an orange rose from a long-gone version of my grandma’s garden on my left were my everlasting strings of beads used to sit. Eventually, the frangipani flowers we call forget-me-not, from the tree I would climb without thought for my fear of getting back down, grew further up my arm. The feathers from the peacocks that used to screech in my primary school playground if you were early enough to meet them fanned out over my left shoulder and upper arm. From that garden at home, two different views of the flame-of-the-forest flowers burnt into the space between the feathers and the first blooms.

I don’t think my mother minded the tattoos so much until they became plural, began to multiply. Yet, worried about the immorality and deviance people might project onto my person[a] because of them and knowing firsthand what it means to be punished for daring to be deviant or to be perceived as such, she warned me against getting more. (Zalika U. Ibaorimi’s “Jawn Theory” has given me so much to think through around deviance and shame, not just in these pages but in the living sense of releasing fear of the former and the hold of the latter[1]). I’ve tried to waft away these concerns with half-joking references to ancestral scarification and body modification practices, the joke being that I am being extra or tongue-in-cheek, a discredit to people like Temple of Her Skin who have made it their business to connect contemporary African women’s tattooing to the context colonization obscured with the heavy, itchy veil of Christian ideas of propriety. “Our ancestors were the original punks” is a real sentence I have uttered, because it is easier to hide totally serious sentiment about pre- and early colonial practices of adornment and general flyness behind a humorous or even lazy turn of phrase, to poke fun and belittle the self before someone else gets the chance, unless, you agree and would like to hear what I really mean?

(Left and right: Guezo Foundation via Instagram. Center: taken from my bedroom window in my old apartment, quarantine 2020)

I have employed even more jokes to try and turn respectability on its head or at least point out its absurdity, the way it is a snake eating its own tail forevermore because unless white supremacy falls tomorrow, I don’t know what a Black girl who grew into this woman’s body can do to convince people whose house of sand is built on the assumption of our excess, our inhumanity, our too-much, that we are otherwise.

You see me? I’m boring, I’m at my desk, I’m on the couch reading. Shouldn’t that tell you maybe the person with neck tattoos your eyes slide over on the train could work at the bank or the hospital? Don’t you see? Powerful people get zipped and buttoned into designer suits and crop their hair respectably close to their scalps before it springs, only to order the innocent deaths and pump poison into wetlands and coastlines now coated in slime where there was once coral. Too far? Who is making these rules, and where can we send a petition or torches on fire to burn their headquarters down? You taught me to fold other people’s opinions and judgments and burn them with incense or birthday candles, and now I am finally powerful enough to do so. You see me? I’m safe and mentally well, so why does this matter?

These are not accusations, but a longing to be seen in whole and without condition.

Now I’m asking my self: why would any of these talking points matter? Does working at a desk or behind someone’s counter make you more of a human being? Does being small girl/ashawo/sugar baby/slay queen/no better than you should be make you less of one? Why do the same people who “borrowed” tattooing and body modification from indigenous peoples across the world get to dictate what is presentable and professional while simultaneously making millions of stylized versions of what they “borrowed?” Why do we, the people who have had our selves and our practices of adornment stolen, accept these standards without question? And if all one’s respectable accomplishments, collected along the long course of a life like gold tokens that are in fact wooden underneath, can be called into question by altering one’s appearance in ways deemed unacceptable, then where those accomplishments not thinner than stale communion wafers all along? I know what the answer is, but please humor me. What if the person with the neck tattoos is as dirty and daring as they might look? What if they are indeed no better than they should be? What is that really doing to anyone? What if it isn’t that deep?

Or, what if I escape into metaphor, an attempt at a more poetic approach at explanation, or justification, if I’m totally honest: I can make things grow in the winter, if the plants I have been keeping since 2019, at my lowest point, are any indication. Granted, they are in the artificial climate that is my apartment and not in the ground of one of the courtyards in the maze that was my great-grandma’s house (I only recently found out that these existed). That my plants are not in the actual ground should not deter you from allowing me this romanticizing. (Delusion, again?) Let me try instead a lesson learned: I can sit for hours in conversation with the artist while my new tattoo burns, stings, grows numb, take shape with only occasional breaks, but my skin is too sensitive and will threaten to scar even if the pain never crossed the threshold into being unbearable. Just because I can bear it, doesn’t mean I should. Sometimes it is necessary to be too precious with one’s self (especially if you are to heal well and full), in Ewe we would say precious as in, “listening too closely to one’s self,” but that is supposed to be another essay. I have also found that my only scar happened were there was a tiny stroke of white ink, a detail that might be dismissed as too obvious or cliché had I written it into fiction.

(All taken by me March 2022)

There is also the fact of taking my body back from people who tried to bend it in their imagination or to break it in waking life, like the time I could no longer sleep a full night in my house because someone told me that place was too nice for me and maybe I didn’t say no…I love that these pieces compel me to move with the knife edge and boldness I have previously only pretended to have or that I have only had the courage to render on paper and screen. These tattoos say my oyster knife is never dull; they do what my previously five (or ten), now three (or six) ear piercings did and do, that is marking moments of restlessness and/or growth and/or self-celebration; they say I am still trying not to believe the lie that I am unworthy of anything sweet just because it is Tuesday and I exist, they say I am all flourish and sweet, and too much of me will ruin you, they say I can withstand and have withstood pain that might rend the givers of that pain clean in two even in its tiniest doses, they say I have made a garden of my self that I tend to with diligence and delight. I also take pleasure in the fact that they are a revelation to other dark-skinned people who previously thought our tone too dark for colors that heal bright, and in forgetting they are there until I reach to stop a book from falling off a shelf or to pick up a stranger’s something from the ground.

Belonging to one’s self is not the declaration of that self an autonomous entity without need for tending and care and approval from others, but it can be threatening or even terrifying to other people who have folded various parts of themselves into compliance, at least as long as the sanctimonious church people and the creeps—they are often one and the same—are watching. I don’t mean that having the ability to put aside money to adorn the self in different ways makes me radical or more free in some way than those who choose other modes of self-expression, or what those who count themselves among the holier might call vices.

“Suffering was not made for us alone,” collage by me, 2021

I’m not free because I have money to spare for tighter clothes and more ink, depending on the month and what side jobs I have energy and time to take on, or take on anyway even if I am short on sleep and hours in the day. I’m not free so long as my indulgences are fueled by the labor and lives of people toiling the land or the factory floor. I’m not free just because [I think] I do whatever I want with impunity, if that was true, these words would unwrite themselves. Stretching further into myself is a chance to learn that I have to allow those I love their contradictions just as I try to make sense of my own, and also that my courage cannot only be bravado I wear like tattoo-covered arms and earrings shaped like swords and dragons and snakes, it sometimes means crafting a self that departs from what my loved ones would have chosen for themselves or imagined for me, from what the anonymous yet overbearing “society” deem appropriate, beyond aesthetics, and whatever their reasons for disapproval may be.

I’m not free, but I’m practicing, and this is how I imagine it could feel. 

***

Some thoughts from years prior, from my ongoing project, Glamouring As a Way [Not] to Live:

The criminalization of what is perceived to be excessive and/or non-normative adornment of the self is a form of material and institutional violence I am familiar with in a Ghanaian context, with tattoos, anklets, piercings, locs, and other forms of presentation—beautiful to the wearer—understood as signals of queerness, sexual immorality, and other “deviant” ways of being. There are also the countless stories of Nigerian people harassed and murdered by the state for daring to live every day as a “beautiful experiment.[2]” In other words, being oppressed for appearing to chop life, to be a bon vivant, a vagabond, an enfant terrible too grown up for their own good, is one of many pieces of evidence of the long reach of the neocolonial African state in the lives of the ungovernable and the wayward. Chopping life is a refusal of colonial morality disguised as “African tradition” (unless of course you are doing so with public funds, in which case your excess is God-ordained, but that is another matter…)

I’m solely and deeply interested in making myself[3], in denying access to any and all who feel so entitled to my self that they will argue that my “no” is a sign of my coldness or selfishness or a personal affront to them, in choosing not to concern my self with what I “should” be doing at any given stage in my life. I want to be the sort of woman who elicits the question “What will they think if I bring you home?” I actually don’t want to be brought home at all if it is by someone who would have such a concern to begin with. Moving beyond reproach towards a Sula-esque life, I want these things for black queer women, for all of us to inhabit a world where it is no longer the case that dangerous freedoms are exclusive to those who can pay to live in a gated, tree-lined part of Accra, where the ability to wander towards a pleasure-filled existence is not simply consumerism dressed up as caring for one’s self. I want it to be so that our freedom goes without saying rather than being a threat to a world that thrives on our repression. I want it to be that this repressive world is no more. I want to make my self without having to explain “what happened” to make me this way, without being punished and ostracized for turning towards my self with care and admiration. I want my eyes to continue to “open wide to the moon” rather than having them “bent into grimy sickles of concern”[4]. I want there to be no price, whether social or material, for us claiming the right to our selves, the right to glamour, to withdraw from and deny those who presume to use us for their own ends. I want dangerous freedom for all of us.


[1] Zalika U. Ibaorimi recently gave a two-part teach-in, “The Bottom Dwellers: On Spiritual, Material, and Ontological Sites of Deviant Making, about Black femme being and deviance with the School for Black Feminist Politics that you can watch here and here.

[2] From “Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible,” in Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

[3] After 10 years of wandering away from the Bottom, Sula returns to this question from her grandmother, Eva: “When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It will settle you,” to which Sula replies: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

[4] Morrison, Toni. Sula. Grafton Books, 1982.

A Laying Down of Sorrows

lady in red

i waz missin somethin

         lady in purple

somethin so important

         lady in brown

somethin promised

         lady in blue

a layin on of hands…

-from for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange

I’m now throwing away most of the things people have tried to teach me about art and writing and story structure and how things must be done. There is too much grief and too much death, too much misery for me to continue to use writing as another way to punish myself for my shortcomings; to hyper-fixate on the use or utility of my work to the point of inaction; to point out all the areas of failure, all the evidence that these words have no transformative or radical potential; or, how nobody cares to hear from another African international-school-to-abroad pipeline person who thinks their third eye has opened wide enough and thinks themselves brave for saying what must be said about other such people on this pipeline, power, neocolonialism, and incompetent, bigoted officials who wouldn’t know what “our culture” was if it came like an ancestor slapping them awake at night, yet still believe themselves just and traditional for calling death on the heads of queer Ghanaian people. There is too  much misery, and I’ll get neither the approval nor the permission I crave from the speakers in June Jordan’s poems, the speakers in Ama Ata Aidoo’s poems, Toni Morrison’s unwavering eye from beyond this plane of life, my great-great-grandma who I endlessly seek in dreams, old friends and classmates, people who condescend to me at work and in leasing offices, black women artists I admire and follow on Twitter.

My plan is to be precious with these things called art, and by precious I mean in the Ewe sense of “listening to one’s self too much” and not precious as in growing so self-indulgent that I abandon all rigor or empathy in my work. I am just in pursuit of writing something lush and sweet for my self because I’ve been missing this sweetness all along. I’m going to repeat images because they are nostalgic and pleasurable to me and do whatever I want with sentences and flow. [This is no act of defiance. I am still lacking courage in so many of the most urgent ways. I’m just now realizing I can say or do anything I want with these pages while I’m still breathing.] This may sound elementary if you didn’t know I was bringing all kinds of neuroticism to the writing desk: what is useful and urgent and unflinching and what will liberate me or us or what will get the attention of the right contest judge or agent—all these things can’t be true of one piece of art at once because if we were all free and materially and spiritually abundant, then the art would be too, and the contest judges and agents and editors would all be out of a job.

Because I am ashamed and totally exhausted with my own self-deprecation and cynicism, moving forward, I will be practicing earnestness, sappiness, anything that is almost too much but not too far past the line that so that it seems insincere. I’m going to keep talking about my one aunty’s gold tooth and another aunty’s jade bracelet because my adoration for them and their quirks continue to expand the longer I am away, though I was already obsessed before I left. I’m going to write images that don’t make rational sense just because I love the way the sentences sound, like comparing forced laughter between a doomed couple to coins hitting a sticky restaurant tabletop, laughter ringing so sharp and loud that it turns into coins pocketed by one half of said doomed couple. I’m going to write about how much I love it when a black man with a New York accent refers to himself as “the kid” or when people from New Orleans say anything at all, about people going to work on Friday mornings in Dakar and how their clothes are still flawless white at 7pm that day. I’m going to do all this because I can.

The only point of view that matters is whatever self-indulgent one will allow me to write pages about ice lollies melting to a drip and then to a stain on my 4-year-old self’s dress and about my 7-year-old self in my first swimsuit on the way to the beach with my uncle. I resolve to be incoherent and illegible except to the initiated who inhabit the land beyond glamouring and who have an understanding of the sublime that only we can see and feel. I want to make my writing a series of unending ecstatic experiences just because I can, but also because I am in desperate need of some respite.

Desperate is the word, because of the state of our current world, and because my self-loathing passed joking on the internet about depression a long time ago; instead it took the form of denying myself food, new clothing, a social life (unless there was no cover, and even then) or anything that didn’t feel as essential as rent, bills, and T fare, because of the deep fear of coming up short, and because I believed everyone (read: classmates, “higher-ups,” performance reviews, manipulative exes, headlines spelling the impending murder of anyone like me) who reminded me that I wasn’t worth anything enjoyable in this world. Desperate is the word, because I’m trying to remember what my favorite food is and the kinds of dresses I like to wear in hot weather, and I’m tattooing myself so that I may believe my self a canvas worthy of adornment.

 I want all my writing to feel like [re]-reading Ntozake Shange when I want to feel slices of said ecstatic experience. I want to stop picking my self apart on paper and calling it introspection, only to cast about in search of the discarded pieces of self, pretending it isn’t unhealthy self-absorption, whole time we’re all sinking slowly into the sea. I’m tired of caring so much what will be well-received by whoever I imagine is looking at me or at this—no one is looking—which presents the perfect conditions to do my work and revel in the process of its doing. The conceit of this is that I do actually care what anyone and everyone thinks, contrary to all these preceding lines. I care so much that I’m still typing. I have written more condolences and robotic emails about work assignments than I have about what 4pm on a Saturday feels like when your mum comes home smelling like the hair salon, like high perfume and something about to burn; about cold water hitting your scalp in the right places, or about the hyacinths spilling purple all over the side table I bought because it looked like something my grandma would have owned in the 70s. I resolve to change this.

Crisis, Love, and Magic

click the image…

At some point this year, I realized that the angst (familiar to many artists) about the “use” of one’s work, or the question to who it will be of service could easily turn into hubris. What may begin as a genuine concern for the fact that making art on its own will not improve the material conditions or alleviate the suffering of other people can easily become a desperate need to hear that what you think and have to say are “important,” “urgent,” or even “necessary.” (On a tangential note, you should watch Residue on Netflix, especially if you’re a black artist in need of something to get you together). 

Deciding to lay down these anxieties and get on with my work was not a turning away from the death and dispossession that characterize this unsustainable world. Rather, it was a slight self-drag and firm reorientation of purpose; get on with your work because you need it stay alive and in the process of making and sharing, maybe one other person might find something resonant, if even for a brief moment. 

So here’s what I’ve been working on to maintain my peace of mind during quarantine. The site is a gathering together of what I’ve been thinking about and making. There are parts where I am unsure of myself and maybe a little whiny. As many times as I’ve combed through, there will be typos. Almost all of the visuals are combinations of old instagram vides from my phone and clips I took in my apartment during quarantine as my initial plans had to adjust to the conditions created by 2020. But is’s all there, because “process is the project” is one of the guiding principles of Mother Mercy’s work. My project will be available to view until the end of this year. I have so much more work to do before this work comes back into the world at some point in the future.

I’m so grateful to JME and the amazing members of the Call to Create cohort for creating this space for dreaming and making. After all that being said, will you wander with me? And another question: what are you willing to do?