Unlooking

I had planned to write a short blurb to explain this piece, to provide some context about the education I’ve received and how it has led me to view whiteness and so on. I’ve changed my mind, not because I don’t care if you understand or not, but because I’m exhausted from talking about this constantly. There are three more names we’ve had to learn these past few days: Joyce Quaweay, Skye Mockabee and Korryn Gaines. There are probably so many more that didn’t make the news. Say Her Name. I’m exhausted, and I hope this piece speaks for itself.

***

There’s a young man on the train, very slim, maybe in his mid-twenties. For someone who spends almost all my time observing strangers moving about in their strange worlds, I’m terrible at estimating people’s ages. I blame that on the fact that all the older people I know have wrinkle-free faces frozen somewhere in their mid-thirties, with only a few flecks of grey at the hairline as evidence of their age. This man is wearing a grey suit, wrinkled in the back from where he has been leaning on the seat, with a pale blue shirt and a matching tie. He has red hair combed over to the left side of his head, a little limp because of the summer heat, or maybe from an overdue wash. He is having an energy drink for breakfast, and the can is the only thing he is carrying. He has on brown shoes that look cartoonish in their largeness, in the way that men’s shoes always appear to me. His white headphones loop over his collar to the inside of his shirt, maybe connected to a phone, maybe connected to nothing but giving the impression that he is unavailable for any kind of conversation. It could be that he got on the train at the other end of the B line, and that the look of irritation on his face is a remnant of dealing with the BU students crowding and shuffling on and off between stops. Maybe he didn’t get much sleep because he spent the night worrying about his old parents wilting slowly in a Mid-western town. Maybe he is just tired because he stayed up late drinking within his work buddies as if college ended last night, and not three years before when he moved to Boston.

There’s a young woman in blue pleated pants, with white squares dotted all over them. I believe they’re from the clothing store where I used to work. If I think hard enough, I may even be able to remember the exact name of the style: Ann, Kate or Devin? She has an orange shirt tucked into her trousers with a white belt to secure the outfit, and a black bag with the designer’s name and logo fixed on in gold lettering. She is wearing square tortoise shell glasses that she pushes back up her nose absent mindedly, and her hair is an indeterminate brown. Indeterminate because it doesn’t look like anything that I have known before. In all the books I read growing up, the children looked like the mischievous Cupid laughing jumping of the surface of gaudy cards in a filling station shop in February, and their hair was always the color of hay, or of sunlight filtered through thin orange curtains, or of a lake at night. This is none of those things, and I don’t have the words. I try to imagine a life for her, like I did the man. Maybe she is an intern at a shiny ad agency in the financial district, only in Boston for the summer before she returns to an elite college elsewhere on the east coast. She probably knocked her bag into the small of my back because the only faces like mine she registers are the ones fixing their eyes on mop buckets and dirty floors when she exits the shower of her dorm, even though there are probably many more in her classes, and in the city, than she notices because they are not supposed to be there.

I’m a disappointment to a curriculum that pounded lines of poetry into my skull to the rhythm of iambic pentameter. All I can remember is the absurdity of memorizing lines of drama from Hamlet on a boiling day in a school hidden by full hedges and tall gates from the gaze of people who were not international enough. I was obligated to concern myself with this Hamlet character who, if he were alive today, would probably be found posting terrible haikus on Tumblr and plotting how he was going to leave his parents apartment for good this time. Obsessing over the significance of Ophelia’s drowning when my own ability to stay afloat was going to be tested, dangerously so, in classrooms and residence halls and workplaces full of people who would not be able to hear my own cries for help. I have been called upon to jump into strange skins and to understand what it’s like to inhabit them, while looking at my own as a thing to be studied objectively, to be grateful for this redemption orchestrated by high culture and long-suffering Jesus with the freshly permed wave to his hair.

And yet, there is still something that obstructs the light of recognition before it reaches my eyes. There is a piece of stone blocking its way that now makes it difficult for me to see humanity in people that cannot see me. That the dehumanized eventually become inhumane is clear to me in the way I look at people on the train as flat pieces of canvas waiting for me to make half-hearted strokes on the surface. I left the empathy that was forced on me between pages of G.M Hopkins’ and Emily Brontë’s works, marking my place in histories of people winning wars fought over graves of the original wonders of the land, pages bled through with florescent pink highlighter ink. I don’t have any empathy left to give. I can look, disinterested, in the same way I glance at semester abroad students with cowries matted into the back of hair that isn’t made for locs, locked arms with their local friends, or the expat mothers moving in a cloud of Paris’ finest perfume and left over air conditioned cold, pulling naughty children away from their uncouth playmates with open pink mouths and dust trapped in the knots of their hair. I can look, but I have lost all interest in a human condition that is only human when it doesn’t include me.

 (Image: The train stations in DC made for really good photo ops. Spring 2014)

Joyful Again

I was scrolling through my blog last night and thinking to myself: “Wow, why does anyone want to read this? I’ve been so angry lately!” Angry at myself for “letting” myself to be used and discarded by someone who is largely undeserving of all this glory *pauses and fluffs Afro while the crowd goes wild*. Angry at white people who hate black people but think they can cherry pick the “different” ones and expect these magical rarities to preen and curtsy in response to their attention.

Angry at people back home who ask “Why do you stay there if it’s so bad?” Angry at black people from other parts of the diaspora who think African-Americans are to blame for their own oppression. Let me break this down: if you are a postcolonial subject, you are facing global systems of violence and oppression, and if you don’t feel it it’s probably because in your country you are benefiting from the violence being enacted on someone else. Our colonial masters were replaced by elites who may have looked like “the masses” but acted and continue to act very much like their white predecessors. You can watch the movie Xala by Ousmane Sembène for an illustration of this.

xala
Still from Xala, Ousmane Sembène (1975) 

I’m angry at the preppy Boston bros who bump into me on the street on a regular basis because I must be invisible. Angry at the non-black men of color who don’t respect my personal space and pop up directly in my face, mumbling stuff I cannot and do not want to hear, chuckling and breathing heavily as they stare into my cleavage. Angry at the white women who can roll over my toes with their strollers and give me tight-lipped smiles as apologies, knowing that any outrage I express could be deadly for my wild self and vindicating for their fragility. I’m angry that my white friends will mistake my using humor as a way to cope as an invitation for them to participate. So when I say things like: “Listen, I’m terrified of the police. I’m one rude comment away from being a hashtag,” the last thing you should say in response is “Well at least you’re not a man so maybe it’s two rude comments.” I don’t want to spend precious minutes re-hashing the stories of all the black women who have been dehumanized and murdered but who are not always included in the narrative. #SayHerName. Angry at the fact that even as I try to express all this, there will be someone quick to remind me that I have nothing to worry about because I’m comfortable, as if a large part of my anger and despair at this shapeless thing we call “the system” doesn’t come from the awareness that my own comfort is contingent on someone else’s suffering.

My writing is an automatic reaction to anything that happens, painful or joyful. It’s something I need to do to keep living and it’s been that way since I was little. I typed a piece (which I’ll post later) on my phone last night while switching between texting one of the amazing black women I call my friends, laughing and crying because we can add another name to the list, and checking Twitter for news. I feel as though I’m on the “racism beat,” chronicling all these things that are happening as though I’m a journalist. I just want to write the fiction and poetry I want to write and send my friends videos of carefree black children for the fun of it, and not for the purpose of getting our minds off the feeling of being hunted.

I’d also like to give a special shout out to all my classmates in grad school who were silent in class because they felt uncomfortable with “racially charged” course material but made sure to take notes when I spoke, and the friends who try to  hit me with the “but all women though” when they can’t begin to wrap their minds around my insight about what it means to be a dark-skinned black, African woman in “these United States.” Thanks. You give me so much motivation to keep writing. You’re going to hear me one way or another.

Lastly, white feminists: you are not the ones to teach me how to “lean in” when I’ve watched my mother assert herself in male-dominated workplaces in Ghana for years and never, ever, backing down. I’ve heard enough stories about how my great grandmother left her disrespectful husband and went on to be a successful businesswoman, inspirational in so many ways, and most importantly, a complete woman who belonged to herself. I have enough examples of BLACK women leaning all the way in, usually far enough for everybody else, including white women, to walk across their backs. Let’s talk when you’re being hunted and kidnapped and denied access to your own land and sent back across the border in the opposite direction of your kids and killed for being deviant in your femininity and killed just because and buried and and…but the Internet is still late for your funeral.

Until I can write something joyful again…

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.