I [would love to] love myself when I am laughing*…

laughing1

…but mostly I’m in a forever panic hoping no one can tell how cowardly I have become, or how ashamed I am that I haven’t listened:

[Toni]

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.

[Flora]

not a piece of wood

letting down– Cécile, Sanité, Dedée

Warrior mothers I can only imagine hurling bodies over fortified walls– war prisoners and weak soldiers alike– just hush up your whining we’re in charge now!

[Zora]

Girl, your knife is as dull as a short plank and WE ARE NOT TRAGIC, do you hear me?

***

I would love for my laugh to be a festival

To live a life in which I could say that and mean it

Beyoncé surrounded by assorted flower arrangements rubbing her rounded belly

Rihanna blowing smoke straight into the camera

Rihanna shaking white feathers and rhinestones at carnival

Rihanna at any time of day or night, frankly

***

Actually

Not anyone who is light-skinned and wealthy

I would like to be the two girls I saw on the train this morning, one with Afro puffs parted by a sharp zig zag down the middle of her head, the other with cornrows swinging past her shoulders, sharing headphones and dancing their joy onto the platform and out into the world

Or the me who hadn’t yet started to fake humility until it became a nervous tick

When I was all

Itchy frilled socks filling with dust after church, and still twirling for frame after frame of photographs

Fluffy ponytail balanced on top of my head in the only way my mother new to style my hair

 ***

Especially in these times, I realize I need to be

 [Alice]

outrageous, audacious, courageous

To write us into revolution

Ink for poison, pen tips for murder

and other kinds of delusions

***

Instead I am here

crying through rain at the bus stop at 6am

jaw twitching resistance of false exuberance by 2 in the afternoon

By 10pm, roommates have to sweep up the shreds of my sorry self

And let me tell you about how in class white girls get to be basic and then offended by that label

“And isn’t this postcolonial stuff so dense?” means “Tell me you didn’t understand the reading either because there’s no way you can be better than I am at my own game…”

“Wow I’ve read your writing about colonialism. So powerful. Here’s more work for you. I want more.”

We’re all women first, sisters even

Empire wears an adorable pink hat with lopsided ears, don’t you know?

Out here struggling over words like Emecheta and bildungsroman

and ordinarily I would not judge and dismiss others by who wields this basic language best

But

For the sake of Black baby Jesus

I’m the one who isn’t making sense?

***

[Toni]

Alright, but what did we say about distractions? 

 Listen, I’m trying, ok? I’m finally over that guy and Becky with the split ends

[All sing refrain]

Oh honey, Daavi, not this again. Men absolutely do not treat us like that, and definitely not those with knuckles of that ashy nature. I mean at least let them be moisturized.

Are you listening? Look at me! And look at you:

Expending energy in self-doubt, crawling through the Internet for words of affirmation circled by hand drawn daisies and clouds, and supply store glitter

Unthreading at the seams,

you might want to get your fraying checked out,

mended

But at least your self has more trouble to write about, right?

Tragic

*****************************************************************

*In a letter to photographer Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston said the following in reference to some photos he had taken of her, “I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” This quote is also the inspiration behind the title of an anthology of extracts from Hurston’s works edited by Alice Walker.(Go to the library and borrow that book, now. Or you know, wherever you get your reading material. Just read it!)

Image: This was taken by Lloyd  K. Sarpong, best photographer this side of Dansoman, Somerville, and everywhere in between. I needed a headshot for a journal that will be publishing my work later this year, and it turned into a whole string of pictures because “we need to catch the light” *strong side-eye.* It wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t long-suffering and sarcastic, but I actually loved how these pictures came out especially because most of them weren’t posed.

I have two stories and a personal essay coming out this year, AND your girl is going to Barbados in May for the Callaloo Writing Workshop! It feels so early in the year to  have this many exciting writing-related things to look forward to. I’m trying to put my joy in my pocket and keep on working, instead of feeling guilty for being wrapped up in personal pursuits when a lot of us are terrified of what Suntan Satan is going to do next. I keep reminding myself that everything I’m doing currently is helping me to improve my writing. As I’ve said before, my writing is the best thing I have to offer others, and I can only hope that it will be meaningful for whoever gets to read it.

Sharp Edges

Everything is sharp:

the corners of the mouth of the white woman sitting next to me on the bleachers, the ends of her bob and side-swept fringe, the angles at which her legs are crossed one over the other, the vertical lines on her blue and white dress bordered with small flowers, the slant of her body as she turns as far away as possible from my direction, the edges of my friends’ graduation caps, the sour vinegar tears threatening to escape my eyes to mourn my shame, the rough bench with the obvious space left between us that makes me wonder if I’m reading too much into her apparent disgust. She is probably just allowing herself, and me, some personal space.

There is a general attack being launched on my senses. I am seeing and feeling things that can’t possibly be there. Hot water from the shower drums my skin and bores its way inside myself, dissolving the hyperawareness my body produces, tilting but not breaking down the walls I constructed for my own protection. The voices in this meeting are too high-pitched, straining against the tension, attempting to disguise the contempt swirling in the mugs on the table in front of us. If I splash this hot tea over all your documents and agendas and over the fronts of your blouses, will you admit that you cannot, and will not, take orders from someone who should really be cleaning up after you?

Everything hurts much more than it should. What I have been taught to dismiss as over-sensitivity is actually an internal alarm, a natural self-preservation device with its fundamental flaw being that its user could still be doomed to untimely death on concrete just for continuing to exist. It reminds me to avoid eye contact with the beat cop who always tries to greet me in the morning, to beware of the brother–with an ‘a’– who hides my altar under his bed and only worships when the master is away, to run fast and far from anyone who encourages me to use my sister’s arm as a lever to pump up my own self esteem because somehow I am not like the others; don’t worry, that’s a good thing. It means I could survive.

(Image: View from my window. Dulles International Airport, May 2015)

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.

Bibliography

Add me to your collection

Put me on a dusty bookshelf in an office stinking of cigarette smoke

Push me to the bottom of a mold-infested trunk

Rip out my pages and sprinkle me over a funeral pyre

Add me to your collection

Break and bruise my spine

Drown my wealth in the kerosene of greed and condescension and set it ablaze.

Tell everyone “There’s nothing worth seeing, move on”

MOVE ON

Make me believe it too

Smudge the ink on my pages

So I too buy into your secondhand lies; like there’s nothing worth knowing.

Let the termites eat away at my history

So all I find is a tattered net of forgotten dreams and

once great men grabbing at first-world coat-tails.

Add me to your collection

Trade my fireside tales for a pair of shoes (for charity of course) and a call to action

Tell me to let go, move on

MOVE ON!

Add me to your collection

Of bitter bureaucrats and crumbling bungalows in a struggling city.

Grind my story into dust beneath your heavy boot, it is done.

 

*The revolution has been colonized*

Skin on Skin on Skin

The deepest ebony of piano keys in a smoky jazz club

The fieriest caramel sizzling over a flame

The richest ochre, perfectly matte like clay in a potter’s rugged hand

The sweetest milk chocolate adorned in ribbons and pink paper

The warmest red wood scarred by nails and hammers, and pocketknives carving;

“So and so forever”

The lightest whipped cream, fluffy and inviting resting atop succulent strawberries

What is there not to love?