Love and Vengeance

When I started writing this, the “Sex for Grades” documentary had not yet been released, but there had already been hours and hours of conversation on- and offline about gender-based violence and exploitation in Ghana’s arts community, in academia, behind the locked gates of private homes, and in every facet of Ghanaian society where women dare to exist. I scrolled my timeline endlessly trying to see what Black and African feminists sharper and braver than myself were saying and doing about these terrors we all face, and I drafted tweets I never sent, not trusting myself to say anything incisive or even coherent. I think I need to remain in my lane for a while moving forward. My lane being fiction and something like poetry. As much as I read and admire the Black feminist essayists and theorists, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to join their ranks, no matter how much I study. Writing fiction that attempts to fit into the same universe that the organizers, theorists, and thinkers are imagining feels more within the reach of my abilities.

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Between March and August of 2016, I’m not sure I slept a full night, not even with the help of chamomile tea and sleep aids, not even when my mum came to stay with me for two weeks. It only occurred to me very recently that the first full night’s sleep I had that August was made possible by the fact that I was now in a new room in a new apartment, away from the memories that stood against the walls of that old room, watching and taunting my un-sleeping self.  All this because I was feeling used and discarded by someone whose actions and their effects still lurk in parts of my self close enough to the surface that I’m still writing and thinking about them three years later.

I became obsessed with the idea of vengeance, pouring over images of and articles about the warrior women of Dahomey and the fierceness I perceived in them that I felt I so desperately needed at the time, and conveniently (and regrettably) sidestepped the parts of these materials which discussed the role these women played in capturing other African people to be sold into slavery. I needed so badly to believe that I could wield power and do deadly damage, at least metaphorically, and historical context and networks of dispossession, power and, violence were of little consequence. My hurt was self-centered and all-consuming. I wrote this poem as well as an essay entitled “Fuck Your White Horse and Carriage,” my homework for a nonfiction workshop that will probably never see the light of day.

I know for sure that I’m still angry. I started thinking about my past (or ongoing, to be honest) fixation on those images again recently, because cishet men’s violence against women and queer people continues to be exposed and examined in all its dimensions online and in person for what feels like an unending time period. What does it mean to wield a fictional bat or gun, to eat razors for breakfast, to collapse hundreds of years of African and Afro-diasporic women’s history into a tweet or a poem in pursuit of even a speck of some of that strength in order to keep living in this violent world? What do accountability, healing, retribution look like in a world where Uyinene Mrwetyana never returned home from the post office; or where men in a trotro in Accra attacked another passenger because he “sounded like a girl;” in a world where Ruth Abakah, Priscilla Blessing Bentum, Ruth Love Quayson, and Priscilla Koranchie* are lost forever?

All I have are questions, but here are some answers: I spent most of my life until a day some months ago believing that what I thought were the outward signs of my great-grandmother’s aging in fact constituted the aftermath of her husband’s physical abuse. Actually, another question: can you imagine how hard you have to hit someone so that they lose teeth? And another: how many of us are wondering what the line is between “you just weren’t on the same page,” “an awkward sexual encounter,” coercion, and assault? How many of us have thought at least once a day, “Maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe I didn’t say no. Maybe I should’ve said no flat out instead of ‘no not really.’ ” And another: am I next? How do we understand emotional abuse, manipulation, and physical violence along a spectrum of patriarchal violence when all our testimonies, pleas for the recognition of our humanity, defiance, protest, and so on, are met with condescension and dismissal at best, and mockery and more violence at worst?

In an interview with Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison once said that she didn’t worry about depicting Black men doing harm to Black women in her fiction because she wrote from a place of love for the men. I don’t know how I understand this love when the most I am able to muster is cautious admiration for almost any man except my mother’s brothers, my former roommate, and a few honorary uncles. I realize that most of my distant admiration rests on observing the ways Black men carry and adorn themselves: the precision of a fade or the cut of a jacket or the sway of a gait. That is not love. What does love look like when you are expected to be in unquestioning solidarity with or even indulgent of the very same people who hold your own destruction in the palms of their hands?

While I’m writing from the U.S., the question is also racialized when I think of myself in relation to Ghanaian men. Even if you might be tempted to argue that the omnipresence of the “little white man on your shoulder” is not felt in the same way as with our counterparts in the diaspora, the anxiety of being watched and judged, of looking “uncivilized” in front of white people is undeniable. We are neocolonial subjects after all. I cannot hold you accountable for actions that have harmed me, my “brother,” in case I commit the ultimate treachery of confirming white people’s fears that you are dangerous, violent, hyper-sexual, irresponsible, and more.

I have been suppressing a resentment that shows itself every time I tried to write characters who were men for my grad school thesis, when I really tried to think of their interiority and realized I was uninterested and did so begrudgingly because I couldn’t bring myself to that place. I believe my resentment grew from constant reminders that I, we, must continue to capitulate to Black male genius no matter how otherwise terrible the person might be; that I, we, have to sacrifice our dignity and even our humanity at the altar of the egos of men who cannot stand our glory; that I, we, must continue to create infinite room for men’s growth at the expense of our own well-being and even our lives; that I, we, must endure the flattening of the tops of our spirits so we can give man-children places to stand while they learn to uplift themselves. And if the “lesson” they had to learn involved us dying first, then rest in power. It was for a noble cause.

Stills from Moonlight (2016), dir. Barry Jenkins. The screenplay was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue.”

Resisting the bothersome urge to reassure the reader that the Black feminist “agenda” does not in fact include the denigration or destruction of Black men, I still feel compelled need to say that the address to and focus on Black men at points in this post are because you actually are my brothers, because I have chosen to be in community with you, because I have chosen to partner with you romantically, because “accountability” is not just a buzzword.

The film Moonlight helped me think with more intention and care about the inner lives of Black men and the perils of particular kinds of masculinity. I re-watched it often during grad school and still do, partly for the exquisite visuals, but also for the scene near the end where grown-up Chiron says, “I haven’t really touched anyone, since.” I only recently stopped crying at that point. I don’t intend to argue that Jenkins’ and McCraney’s film is the definitive commentary on Black masculinity; it’s just one that continues to echo in my mind and spirit. In all honesty, I think my returning to the film over and over became more ritual that I believed put me in the mental space I needed to commune with my characters, and a little less about the actual content of the film. The beauty of the portraits presented simply made me want to imagine wider and think more carefully about the things my characters leave unsaid.

Lastly, I haven’t yet learned enough about transformative justice since the one Justice and Peace Studies course I took during my first year of college, nor have I developed the generosity of spirit I am told is necessary to “wish well” towards someone whose mistreatment I’m still trying to understand and mend three years later. If the completion of healing means forgiveness, then I am still hurting. I wish that person nothing but hardship in ways as mundane as scratching his throat with a tilapia bone severely enough that he will only be able to consume lukewarm food and drinks for the rest of his life so as not to disturb the scarring, and more significant, like the continued struggle and eventual failure of his scamming ass, so-called “social entrepreneurship.” One more time for the scammers in the back: “capitalism for the greater good” is an absolute contradiction in terms. Just say you want a taste of white men’s world domination and be free. I digress. I don’t wish you well. And my ancestors know your name.

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What I’m thinking about: 

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*I didn’t put a hyperlink here because I couldn’t find news coverage I felt was appropriate to remember them by. If anyone has read any thoughtful articles, please let me know.

 

A Reckoning

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

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

 moves thousands of miles away from home

goes to grad school

encounters casual and overt racism in and out of the classroom

encounters Suzanne Césaire

encounters self

shaves a not insignificant portion of head

throws the phrase class struggle into casual conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)