I’ve been finding it really difficult to separate the idea of my “worth” and my self from the dollar amounts that people are willing to pay me for my work. At times, it’s so difficult to remember that institutions don’t really care about you as an individual, so that the fact that there never seems to be any money for increased hours or pay has far more to do with the fact that they are trying to maximize the amount of productivity for the most reasonable (read: lowest) cost, than it does with you in particular. It’s not personal, and never has been, but it’s hard to believe when your personal well-being and personal bank account are directly at odds with how hard and how well you seem to be doing your job(s).
With this in mind, I’m trying to step up my compartmentalizing game. Work is just a place, and I am a whole person who belongs not to that place, but to myself. I am a whole person who is permitted to make mistakes (as long as other people do not end up being collateral damage to those mistakes), including but not limited to; sending a late-night text that will surely go unanswered in an attempt to figure out the reason behind someone’s ghosting, deciding 9pm on a Sunday is the best time to wash my hair, and continuing to purchase knockoff earphones even though I already know they will only last for about two weeks.
My writing life is also sitting in its own little compartment where it is flourishing in it’s own slow and steady way. Over the past few months, the following *cool writing things* have occurred:
My essay “My Secondhand Lonely” was included on the Notable List in the 2018 edition of Best American Essays.
I interviewed Ayesha Harruna Attah about her book The Hundred Wells of Salaga as part of the Boston Public Library’s Author Talk Series. I love watching artists give lectures about their work/take part in the “in conversation” sort of thing; sometimes I play them in the background at work to stay motivated throughout the day. It was such an honor to take part in an event like this, especially with a Ghanaian woman author interested in the afterlife of slavery as Saidiya Hartman puts it [and the domestic trade of enslaved people in Ghana in particular]. She was a delight to talk to. I hope I did my secondary school English Literature teachers proud with my close reading and questions.
I was accepted to do a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, which means in June I will have uninterrupted writing and research time, a huge luxury for any artist/writer trying to live life and pay bills at the same time!
I’m also trying to remember that even if none of these things had happened, and in spite of the rejections that have come in between these opportunities, I would still be a whole person worth more than the sum total of resume lines.
In my efforts to document not just my low moments, I must also report the following;
I took a trip to New Orleans (the place where I’ve felt the most at home in the US so far) with my mum. I’m back in Boston, but my spirit (and tastebuds) are most certainly not.
I’ve started going to a POC yoga class that apparently has been going on for about 5 years, a year longer than I’ve lived in Boston. It feels amazing to share that breathing space with so many kind people in a city that can feel rather stifling at times, especially when the cold weather drags on. If I may say so myself, I’m not half bad at it either. Every week, I’m surprised at how satisfying and freeing it feels to see how far I’m able to push my body in terms of the stretches and movements we are called upon to do, but not in a scary hyper-competitive way, just in a “ok, sis who knew we could do this” way.
Most importantly, I am reminded everyday that I am loved and not alone. Who knew that living somewhere for nearly 4 years would lead to so many meaningful and loving connections? Even when that somewhere is Boston, when the city’s latent and overt hostility to Black people and non-Black people of color and its high cost of living makes building community feel impossible.
Some of my snaps from New Orleans, including my mum living her best life at the Backstreet Cultural Museum and flipping her hair somewhere [on the quieter side] of the French Quarter.
Another important point: I am here. And choosing to keep on living.
I was planning to write to you about some things I’m bringing into 2019 that I wish I wasn’t, things like shame and insecurity and other such emotional experiences that often feel awkward to explain and almost untouchable when presented in front of other people. I was going to describe my teetering between constantly feeling guilty for often failing at being the compassionate and capable friend/daughter/colleague I would like to be, and trying to be more conscious of the effects of my actions on others without making myself the center of or solution to their problems when I am not.
Or more daunting; the guilt of seeking pursuits just for the sake of my personal joy, like writing, and dreaming; for potentially letting my mum down if I don’t make her work worth it, followed by the guilt of passing back over the same insecurities for the thousandth time, and the shame of not being over hurtful words and actions that are now years old.
you always use your emotions to justify your bad behavior; you’re selfish; you care too much what other people think; you were trying so hard to be perfect, weren’t you; you’re being irrational; you can’t handle someone like me; your feelings are less important to me than hers; you’re acting like this after a few weeks, how do you think she feels; you know I’m a bully, right?
More daunting still, the guilt of daring to look down on myself after all my foremothers have been through to give me life, for my weakness next to their fortitude, as though they would be ashamed of me if they could see how easy it was for my self-worth to be tossed around on the tides of circumstances and the changing whims and opinions of other people.
I would continue by detailing all of my flaws I am deeply aware of, (I won’t because I’ve done so over and over on this blog, as you know) the missteps, personal and professional, that in my mind have proven that I am an irredeemable mess. All this followed by the guilt induced by Toni Morrison’s disapproval, definitely imagined because of course I don’t know her in person. I assume she would disapprove of my incessant chorus of “I’m terrible and unworthy, and here are all the reasons why” because I once heard a clip from an interview where she explained how she would tell her students that she doesn’t want to read about them or their grandmas, encouraging them instead to inhabit and write about the lives of people very different from themselves, to build empathy and to concern themselves with human experiences beyond themselves. But instead, here I am doing this, fixated on the tip of my own nose. So, I’m also failing the “What Would Toni Morrison Do” test in my mind at least.
As always, I turned to books for comfort and advice, not wanting to bother anyone else with problems I believe are imaginary or “not that serious” on most days. In her latest work, Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life, Kim McLarin writes about what it means to be a Black woman who loves herself and is fully in possession of that self, about what it means to be womanish. She also has an essay aptly titled “On Self-Delusion” which I have returned to several times since finishing the book in just over a day. Following a series of “I” statements she refers to as “self-deceptions” that include “I am more misunderstood than the average person,” “I am angry but my anger is righteous and thereby justified,” and “I don’t hurt others, others hurt me,” she writes,
“These seven sentences share a common theme and a common word: I. This both is and is not egotistical, in the sense that all human beings are egocentric and all writing is egotistical…and yet, if that writing is worthwhile, it endeavors to point to something true beyond itself.” (Womanish, pg. 103).
This passage means so much to me because it arrived in a moment where I seemed to need to read it the most, as most of Kim’s words often did when she was my thesis advisor. I don’t think I’ve ever told her how I would re-read her writing on her mental health when I felt most like it would be better for everyone else if I wasn’t around, and even on days when I didn’t feel that way. She recognized how low I was feeling in grad school as I continued to sink lower, and she printed out things for me to read, sent me a therapist’s contact information, and gave me her cellphone number. I knew I wouldn’t use it because I didn’t want to be a bother, but it was a huge comfort to know that she saw me. I definitely haven’t told her that I was always wishing I could prolong our thesis meetings beyond the one-hour we had just so I could hang out with her— Did you see that article? Oh God did I tell you what this classmate said to me?
Maybe “her advice was right on time” is a little cliché, especially when she is the person who has given me some of the most vital guidance about the sort of writer I want to be in the world. But that’s how it feels, especially coming from a woman I admire who is actually grown, and not what grown looks like according to my *yikes-I’m-three-years from thirty-and-still-a-mess* perspective. I’m trying to learn how I can re-orient the ways I think about myself, to be honest to myself without being cruel, and to use my writing “to point to something true” for those who read it. (The intensely negative thoughts and self-perceptions might be delusions too.)
So instead of continuing to dwell on how I’m failing as a person, I’m deciding to think about Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk which I saw with a dear friend recently, and about how much Jenkins loves Black people through every frame, and about how I felt loved in each moment as I watched, and how I want people reading my work to feel loved in the same way, and about how I want the light in every scene of fiction I write to be as perfectly illuminating of beautiful and painful parts of Black people’s lives as the lighting in Jenkins’ work. I want to show to myself and to others the same kind of fortifying love that Ernestine shows when she says to Tish, “Unbow your head, sister.” Even as much as I allowed myself to be caught up in the beauty of the film and its soundtrack, I’m also thinking about Baldwin’s portrayals of women, and about how Kim, who knows more about his work than anyone else I know, loves him enough to recognize that the women and mothers in his work are somehow incomplete, their images distorted through the patriarchal lens that even Baldwin saw through.
Thank you for reading, and for letting me know that you see something about yourself in what I write, and for bearing witness as I attempt to turn that loving gaze on myself while lying to myself (and to you) a little less.
So, I graduated with my masters, but this won’t be a long, dramatic post. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drama, not in the slightest. I mean, you read this blog. You know. I’m only trying to be as concise as I can be because I fear that if I go on too long I will only allow the usual fear and self-doubt to take over. I will start to spiral into the usual sequence of unproductive (and untrue) thoughts that follow any significant accomplishment; I could’ve worked harder, written more pages, been kinder, been far better at keeping in touch, been a better person overall.
My entire last semester was characterized by constant apprehension about the near future, and now that I’m here– or there– it’s really not as scary as I anticipated. I’m here, and pretty proud of myself, considering all the simultaneous chaos that often seemed to run me behind and beside me during the past three years of working towards my MFA. I’m also incredibly grateful and lucky to have had several mentors and professors who let me overstay my welcome in office hours or use up their lunch breaks with my latest teary dilemma. I’m also thankful for friends and family who endured my long-winded explanations of my research and writing projects. Self-deprecating commentary aside, it means more than I’ll be able to explain here that so many people I love and admire see me and are actually there for me, since I’m somewhat “allergic” to asking for help.
Clockwise from top left: Lloyd, my brilliant and kind Laura, and Katerina and Erika, two of my absolute favorite people at Emerson.
Keenah boo! (photo by Melissa, who managed to escape taking a single photo with me that day *side eye*)
I used to think that when I got older, my self-esteem would somehow become healthier. My idealistic notion of what it meant to “grow up” involved me turning into someone who thought of herself more highly than I did at the time, someone who was self-assured and belonged to herself wholly. Essentially, I hoped to turn into the kind of woman my mother is. I’m still pretty young– bill collectors and student loan services appear to disagree– but I am unfortunately as down on myself as my insecure past self has been.
Arriving at the other side of next, that is, after the graduation fanfare has subsided and all the work is momentarily “done,” also means realizing that I have no idea how to be still. I have calculated my worth by tallying completed tasks against what is left “to do” in my agenda. I never feel enough for myself, let alone for anyone else. I don’t know how to give myself room to just be, considering that there is so much I urgently need to write about, so many events more complicated and more monumental than my usual anxieties. I don’t know how to let myself just be, without feeling as though I’m not worthy of breathing up all this air and taking up space on earth, unless of course I’m working hard, and unless that work is mostly to benefit someone else. This may sound a little hyperbolic, and I know “objectively” that none of it is true.
I’m trying to learn how to be kinder to myself. My self-esteem has been subterranean for quite some time, and I would love to bring it above ground, at the very least. I would love to experience some joy, even against the backdrop of so much horror and so much uncertainty in the world. You can find me in the sun these next few weeks, breathing up all the air (and pollen), and writing as if my life depends on it.
So much for brevity and no drama…
I wrote the following post about halfway through the semester but didn’t feel comfortable posting it at the time on the off chance that any of my students came across it and felt as though I was teaching them with a bad grace. I put in all the effort and care I could muster to make space for them to express and debate their ideas and to grow as writers. My restlessness had little to do with them and more about the impending uncertainty of postgrad life. I realize now that it reads a little like a riddle, an effect I wasn’t going for at all and don’t much care for. I guess it’s an indication of how confused and outside of myself I was feeling. In any case, I’m here. I made it!
My Self Every Elsewhere
I feel as if I’m living everyday on a deep inhale, except without the promise of an exhale’s sweet relief at the end. I am not present. Some of me is sitting in my grandma’s living room watching the fan waving around with the same content laziness I feel as I sink deeper into the flattened foam of the sofa cushions. Another piece of myself is waiting to cross the street somewhere in New Orleans where I would love to be living, scattered with potholes and lined with shaded verandas that might as well be Accra. There is also the no-place I’m longing to be, one that exists only in my imagination, or at the crossroads of my favorite novels and scholarly writing about the African diaspora.
Everywhere else but here.
I wouldn’t be so concerned about this longing if I didn’t have 18 students expecting me to be with them for 3 hours and 45 minutes a week, and an immense and unspecified number of additional hours on email, or online reading, grading, fixing, always giving. I would hate for them to have the slightest feeling that this is about them, and that I am staring over their heads and into a distant elsewhere that is most appealing at the moment not because of what it is, but by simple virtue of the fact that it is not here with them. Wherever I am, it is definitely not 9:26 on the green line in Boston where I have just lost my ID card as well as my eagerness to stand with a smile fixed on my face as I try to cajole the class into understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s genius (and the importance of citing one’s sources!!!)
My restlessness starts on the same spot towards the back of my scalp, where I scratch between the once-precise parting for my braids until the skin feels raw and bruised, until I am convinced I am one more scrape away from coming away with blood under my nails. I am ashamed of it, because it fidgets and jostles my careful mask out of the way, intruding into every conversation I have about what I plan to do next.
The part of my attitude that troubles me the most is that I am trying to wish away the unbearable present, marking time like a teasing metronome or a clock that is always trying to catch up its lost minutes. I’m trying to wish away my now as if I know that what will come next will somehow be more satisfying, when I can’t actually know that for sure.
I feel like the bratty child I never was, whining at the more-than-enough spread out before me, before pushing it onto the floor with sticky, greedy hands, the same hands I try to grasp at the better time everyone else seems to be having.
When we say “I can’t wait for this to be over,” the implication seems to be that whatever lies at the other side of “over” is more desirable, but that just isn’t true. That should be my consolation.
Yet, I’m wondering where else I have to go if both now and the latter side of next are equally uncertain and even terrifying–
Photos courtesy of the man, the myth, the broski, Lloyd K. Sarpong, some selfies, and other people I was too excited to remember unfortunately!
I had nothing to do with this cap except for wearing it. Laura and Jeeyoon designed all the little details and I just held the glue gun and passed them scissors etc. Katerina came up with “Best revenge is your pages” based on the line from “Formation” All my own ideas for cap phrases were (more) rude/confrontational song lyrics…
The list of PMDD symptoms on the clinic’s website are clearly separated with bullet points marching down the page like ants following a trail to their nest. “Psychological Symptoms: Anxiety. Feeling overwhelmed or out of control. Sensitivity to rejection. Social withdrawal. Physical: Abdominal bloating. Appetite disturbance (usually increased). Sleep disturbance (usually hypersomnia.) Behavioral: Fatigue. Forgetfulness. Poor concentration.”
The list may as well be a roll call of old friends from my contacts list. They explain why I have been known to snap my reply to my roommate’s simple question, “Are you the one boiling water?”
I am becoming increasingly fixated on and disgusted by my bloated belly during the weeks leading up to my period and remain unsatisfied when it reverts to its usual and lesser roundness in proportion to the roundness of my hips and thighs.
I got home early from work a few days and was driven by this latest preoccupation to spend all afternoon trying on all the fancy dresses I wore during my graduation season in 2015 to make sure they still fit.
I spend entire days in deep sleep and unable to complete the simplest of tasks when I wake– send that email, reply that text message, braid your hair, take a shower. Every single mundane obligation seems to require effort that I can’t find in any corner of myself.
The dependable memory I often brag about feels more like a mosquito net with huge holes in it, details of stories I heard just days before immediately escaping after I hear them; Ah, didn’t I already tell you this?
My messier, more complicated states of mind defy the order of any list. The minute I start searching old text messages and emails for hurtful or unprofessional things I said, no matter how many years have passed since, I can bet my entire student debt that it’s two weeks before my period.
Two weeks of picking through past mistakes obsessively, the time I was a terrible student leader and sacrificed a team member’s well-being for the “reputation” of our organization, or when I ended up hurting and losing a friend for venting about ways she irritated me to everyone but her, or the time at morning assembly circa 2010 when I made a rude comment about a girl’s outfit loud enough for her to hear. I now feel compelled to provide a disclaimer that I’m not rolling out these memories in some complicated attempt at self-deprecation, to paint myself as the supremely self-aware person who has grown for her past mistakes.
The kind of guilt I feel at these and a multitude of other mistakes sits on my chest at night like a bully daring me to get up, to fight back, knowing that I do not have the strength to. The list of wrongdoings extends before me, off the edge of my bed and into the shadows of my room; like the time I missed several office hours meetings with a professor I respect greatly because I just couldn’t make it out of bed and didn’t fully understand why at the time. I’m just burnt out, I thought. Senior spring after all, I thought.
The bully’s voice gives way to a more sinister one, something like a hiss, working hard to convince me that this collection of evidence affirms what I ready know, that I am undeserving of care or even the right to exist at all. Where do I fit these on the approved symptoms? How much of this is regular human obsession over cringeworthy moments? How much should I worry?
Again, I feel compelled to interrupt myself, to point out that I use metaphor not simply to grab your imagination, but to express that I hear myself being hateful to myself, sometimes like a schoolyard enemy, annoying but mostly harmless, sometimes like something much more cruel and dangerous. I’ve taken to carrying out painstaking scrutiny of my past self, dedicating whole essays to tearing down my half-formed politics from years past. (I’ve done that once here, and there are a few other posts I never put up on this blog.) Mean-spirited navel-gazing, if you will. I mean, girl. how can you claim any kind of radical feminism when your CV includes an organization founded by THE feminist imperialist herself, and another named after Woodrow Wilson? How? And those study abroad blog posts you wrote, girl…
This song improves my mood almost instantly and motivates me to get work done, despite containing the lyrics “Who needs a degree!”
Paranoia is another state of mind that refuses the precision of a bullet-pointed list.
Are the whispers in the next room about me? Did I do something? What did I do?
This is why you are trash.
What does this text message really mean? Was it clear that I was having a hard time, or is this person being dismissive because they can’t pinpoint the gravity of my tone?
This is why you’re trash.
Am I breathing too loudly in this elevator? Did I seem interested enough in that conversation? Am I talking too much? Am I wasting their time? Why aren’t they talking to me? Did I do something?
This is why you’re trash.
Was that story too personal for this setting? Have I used the term PMDD too many times in this conversation? What is self-care, and do I deserve it?
The conclusion to all these unrelenting questions is always, I’m trash, and everyone is just pretending they don’t already know. See? This is why.
What scares me is not being able to draw a straight line through all these elements, to categorize what is “normal” for my at times scattered emotional experience and what isn’t. I would hate to find out that there are more acronyms and names previously unknown to me that describe some other mood disorder. (Is it presumptuous of me to even hint at a self-diagnosis so casually? Am I being too casual?)
It’s been a while since I decided to leave the curtains open to my performance. I offer full access to what happens behind the scenes in the name of full disclosure. I’ve been trying to transcribe the terrible questions circling around inside my head like some nightmarish carousel. In this spirit of full transparency, a few more realities I’ve been trying to share instead of hiding–
I sometimes cancel plans because I can’t bear to leave the house again once I return from work, and not because I have too much homework to do. I’ve chosen to say hidden in my room, hungry and thirsty because I can’t bare to face any human being, purposefully isolated but wishing someone would check in on me. It’s so frustrating to feel completely stuck, craving company and flinching from it at the same time behind my closed bedroom doors. I once spent an entire weekend in intermittent panic, self-loathing and bouts of crying because I felt so awful for not finding it in myself to be as welcoming to a person dear to someone dear to me as I was expected to be. Selfish. This is why you’re trash.
I detest the saying “something’s gotta give.” Of course, I can manage. Keep in touch with everyone, run your errands, calm your nerves if you need me to. I’ve only recently realized, after dropping some of the many conversation threads and obligations I’ve been juggling, that more often than not that “something” is me. For every time a friend reminds me that someone or something in my life is demanding too much time and energy, or is being neglectful and careless, I am often left confused when that friend isn’t able to apply those boundaries to their own actions. “Prioritize yourself, except when it comes to me. And if you don’t hear from me, well. I’m sure you’ll be fine. You always are!”
I almost resisted at this point, but am inevitably giving in to the guilt of how selfish the preceding paragraph may read. What’s even more upsetting is that these voices, or symptoms, are working their hardest to convince me that hardly anyone has noticed the slip in my act. No-one is wondering where you’ve been. No-one will wonder if you’re gone. And again, the guilt reminds me, I am trash for expecting…what? Round the clock attention? For my friends and family to be punching bags for all my emotional twists and turns? To avoid me or hover and fuss at my whim? To drop everything they’re doing and pay attention to me? Whose job is it to do all this? I don’t even know what I want or need. One of the few things I’m sure of is that I don’t expect to get away with hurting or neglecting others because of my chaotic internal life. I can hold myself accountable, I just need to express how much time I spend hating myself just for living.
For the moment, I’m done explaining. I think I’m now generally a more tolerable, maybe even interesting, person than I was when I was an insecure teen torn between the respectability politics flying around my head and the carefree irreverence my mother was constantly nudging me towards, cover up those thighs (or don’t), get that extra piercing (or don’t) ladies don’t curse when they’re angry (but they do), do as you please so long as you are comfortable (your body is a temple).Very soon I must write about how my mother fiercely held on to her agency and autonomy in a male-dominated field that punished her for daring to do so while being brilliant and the best at her job. I will never be as amazing as she is.
I’m off to go write about that, among other things. I’m taking a break from this blog, because I have a thesis to write and joy to catch up to even as it may continue to elude me. There’s so much important work to be done, and I’m trying to ignore the guilt and fear of empty self-indulgence long enough to get it done. I’ll be back to post updates if anything exciting happens in my life that I may want to share. Wish me joy!
[Initial thoughts from 2:40am, essay for school abandoned hours ago in favor of watching and rewinding Lemonade and taking notes feverishly]
I’ve seen a few attempts at “Violence isn’t the answer” responses to Rihanna’s latest music video for her song “Needed Me,” similar to the critiques of her videos for “BBHMM” and “Man Down.” I won’t be the least bit surprised if the same cries for “why don’t we hold hands and sing kumabaya instead of protesting loudly and hurting each other” come from the white feminist camp and the coalition of all people who can’t let black women celebrate themselves after Beyoncé’s hour-long history lesson/poetry reading/letter to every ex/African diaspora vibes epic “Lemonade.” Visuals and lyrics like what these women have given us leave one feeling incredibly badass for lack of a more literary term. Actually, on this blog, badass is a perfectly acceptable term. Canonical, even. (Not exactly the right use for the word “canonical,” but I make the rules around here.) I’m readying my eye rolls for the next article I see that tries to condemn media that “glorifies” violence, as if black women grabbing the barrel of the gun and turning it outward is a new phenomenon.
I don’t imagine that the women in the Haitian revolution sat quietly at home with their hands resting in their laps waiting for the men to return, or that during the rebellions led by enslaved people all over the Americas the women just remained on standby with warm cloths for their husbands’ wounds. There were entire armies of women in Dahomey who were renowned for their military prowess, and in Ghana Yaa Asantewaa didn’t just say: “Ok oooh, I hear. Let’s not fight. We can’t beat them anyway.” Musicians, and artists in general, may not be picking up real guns and overturning oppressive government systems themselves, but they are inspiring all those watching to lead rebellions in their own fields, throwing away the fear of being perceived as being too aggressive and chewing and swallowing the bit of forced humility we have been clenching between our teeth for years.
One can argue that we have a legitimate problem of making violence appear sexy and glamorous in film, music and video games etc targeted at young people, but when I see black women swinging baseball bats and shooting no-good men in the back of a strip club, I’m not compelled to go and pick up my longest knife and hurt the next person that tries to hurt me, and I don’t think that’s the message these artists are trying to send. It’s very convenient to forget that a huge component of the colonial project was brutal violence and suppression, bending people -body and soul- to submit to the authority of the master arbitrarily justified by his supposed superiority. Black women continue to face violence at the hands of the police, militant groups, relatives, romantic partners, and strangers who feel threatened by women’s queerness and trans identity. Do not ask us to “rise above” and sway softly to hymns and quiet songs for peace when our art provides us the perfect space to spit back the violence inherited as an unshakeable birthright.
My badass and my revolution looks like writing late into the night to make sure no one cuts of my tongue and my fingers, excusing their actions with a dismissive shrug. Zora Neale Hurston put it best when she said, “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” These portrayals of black women blowing gunpowder in the face of respectability and fighting for the right to exist unapologetically are not new. You just forgot, and we’re here to remind you.
Razors for Breakfast
This isn’t something new I have just added to my diet. Neither is it a trend, nor another shortcut to the kind of beauty that mocks and berates those who don’t possess it, one that taunts from screens that sting tired eyes with their glow late at night. My jaws have been galvanized for this very purpose, teeth fixed in place like steel bolts in the neck of a crossbow, a roar for a voice like a high-powered engine.
I have always kept razors in my mouth, turning them over and over with my tongue, but long before me, there were women picking thorns out of their palms, bringing back royal heads wrapped in a tattered tricolore. They soaked gunpowder in hot water and rubbed it into aching muscles, and used it to wash their feet crusted over with mud and the crushed souls of the enemy. These women dragged timid men to war and trampled the pages of a history that forgot their names, their strides drumming up the same dust that will eventually settle on the books I will write and leave behind.
This isn’t something new I’ve recently learnt to do. Neither a twisted party trick, nor an illusion to make you squirm and wonder how I made it look so effortless. The blood dripping from the point of my chin onto my chest is yours and not mine, theirs and not ours. It is the last remaining hint that we once sliced them in half and licked away the evidence. Today I had razors for breakfast, and the taste of victory still lingers on my lips.
The work of one of my favorite poets, Warsan Shire, serves as a beautiful backdrop for Lemonade. Here is my favorite quote from her. I’m sure I’ve posted it on this blog before, but I still love it just as much, so here you go!
“If you think I’ll be the dark sky so you can be the star, well the sky is vast and have you seen the sky in the morning? Have you seen how it looks against the sun? I’ll swallow you whole.” -Warsan Shire
Another favorite quote of mine:
“No, I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” -Zora Neale Hurston
(Also, if you don’t read Brittle Paper already, you should!)
With regards to the bio, for some reason I’m only ever able to take myself seriously when it comes to writing dark, fictional things. If you know me or read this blog regularly, or both, you won’t be surprised by how extra it is. I don’t think I’ve reached the point where I can list my accomplishments, as few as they are, in a serious, “here’s my business card” kind of voice. Not yet anyway!
I’m also full of ideas at the moment which accounts for the double posting in one day. I’m so glad the wall I hit last week was only temporary!
I want to learn the measured arrogance that Chloe handed out to anyone who thought to try and degrade her long before she was known as Toni. I’ll pick up Zora’s knife by the blade, to slice off useless self-deprecation don’t worry it’s fine/who am I to/how could I/oh no, not I at the root.
I could be sitting anywhere, on a bus or at home with only a humming fridge for company, practicing with my feet. Flex, stretch, pointed toes always. Every rotation of my ankle should transmit the elegance to which I have only aspired until now, each chipped toenail a reflection of the audacious flaws I’ll eventually learn to celebrate.
I’m training myself to laugh a ruthless open-throated laugh; to spit at fancy gatherings and pick my teeth after the dessert has been cleared away; to dine in private with a spotless tablecloth and matching napkin tucked into the collar of a silk dress I do not yet own.
The only consideration I’ll maintain is for my own ability to build and destroy at will–with words– burning down egos like enemy forts on occupied land and propping up heads pushed down under the force of self-doubt.
I’ll begin to measure myself out as freely or as carefully as I choose. Some days it shall be unbearable, suffocating, a thick sheet of perfume hanging in a room long after I’ve left, and on others a light mist resting on cheeks and foreheads when the rain starts to settle.
I am in complete control of the dosage, and today I am enough.
There are certain things you keep tightly balled up in your fist so no one can gain access to them, especially when you can sense that they will not be treated with the kind of caution they require. How do you count out feelings and push them into a person’s palm when they are intangible and unquantifiable? There is no unit of measurement for giving up.
when you assess the weight of your bones when they sink further into your mattress instead of assembling into motion and carrying you into the day ahead. You can tally the number of times you have poked fun at yourself hoping that enough desperation is jumping through your words and waving its hands so that someone will take the time to notice and ask what you really mean. You can even measure the intensity of the pain when the people who love you the most are the same ones wielding the pocket knives that slice off your protective layers one at a time until they are standing knee deep in dead skin and the sharp ends of meaningless punch lines.
You have kept careful records of every missed phone call, unfinished text or email and every plan you had to cancel. Your accounts also include details of popular euphemisms for your chaos, most of which you have thought of yourself: artistic temperament, moody, lazy, attention-seeking,ungrateful, in addition to the number of times you have tried to splash water on your face and get over it– if the situation was as dire as that you wouldn’t have so much time on your hands to think about it– You lost count at 11 by 2:18pm.
You are constantly engaged in attempts to document the lack of things, trying to explain what lies between two disjointed thoughts, the resentment of expecting empathy at the same time as you reject your status as someone’s project. To your knowledge, there is no way to annotate the feeling of what isn’t there, the vagueness of no particular trigger you can identify, or the strain of trying to inflate a flattened voice to fool your listener into believing oh nothing it’s just been a long day. You make do by settling yourself as a footnote so more crucial issues can live in the main text.
You will continue to hide openly, transcribing every slight to your fragility with a ballpoint pushed so hard into the page that you can feel the outline of each word and see the faint transfer of ink on your hand. The ability to look like the glamour and confidence you do not have is your inheritance; you wrapped it in a brown and gold blanket and packed it in the bags you brought with you. It is ringing in the background of every throaty laugh and embedded in the corners of each side eye like I dare you to keep speaking just wait ‘til I open my mouth. You will adjust eventually, and will learn to keep track of the days you wear serenity slung casually around your neck like a borrowed satin scarf. Your archives will remain intact and you may visit occasionally to check figures against themselves, yesterday’s resignation versus the other day’s hopelessness. But this task will not be your final one, nor will it be your most important, so long as you hold onto the pen…
She had spent this morning, as she had done every morning for the past two months, flicking through photos on her cracked phone screen to the point where she was sure that tiny flecks of glass would permanently embed themselves in her thumb. From the moment she heard the final click that fell into the silence at the other end of a phone call, she had embarked on an impossible mission. She was searching for that inexplicable love that gives freely and willingly of itself and does not scratch a tally of every wrongdoing into the lover’s fleshy back. She was looking for the profound feeling of safety and belonging that she had only felt briefly in her mother’s embrace before it disappeared into a cloud of ashes– skin, nails, bone and one burnt will and testament.
There’s nothing like a mother’s love. You’ll never find a love like that. Everyone loved her. I love how you’re coping with this. Do you love him because the sound of his voice echoes words of comfort trapped on the wrong side of the afterlife? Or do you love him because ‘love’ is a more socially acceptable way to describe an unhealthy attachment?
Was it silly to want that 1990s love? A love that came dressed in a tight black dress with nearly invisible straps, in jeans with holes at the knees and leather jackets, perched lightly on the back of a motorbike speeding onwards into the night. A Friday night, smoky club and kebabs from the street burning your tongue love, which would metamorphose into love pre-destined and sprinkled with holy water. She was desperate to learn what made her grandparents giggle, heads bent and foreheads nearly touching on a black and white dance floor circa 1958, when Accra was Accra and the air was not yet burdened with smog and dissatisfaction, heavy only with anticipation and guitar strains from the highlife hit of the day.
Maybe someone could show her a Lauryn Hill crooning type of love, that incense and I put this on specially for you, love. Where could she find this thing that caused those who lacked it to rage and riot and wither and fade away, and those who had it to rage and riot and wither and fade away? She was looking for a slam poetry love that swung its long dreadlocks, eyes closed, mouth twisted mid-verse, one hand on heart and other hand reaching up into ecstasy and beyond. She swiped and swiped through digital love filtered through fake sepia lenses, hoping to find an old movie love where everyone tried too hard to be proper but somehow ended up even more vulgar than they had intended – Not in front of the children!
In search of a forever love that held true to its word and did not cower at the prospect of no one else but me, she read and re-read old messages trying to decode the signals she had missed. She had missed that forever love somehow, choosing instead a right now kind of love that was only waiting for something much less complicated, a little bit more convenient. She thought she had grabbed a handful of the hem of that heavy African lace love obviously wore– on her way to yet another engagement, no doubt– but all she had was polyester masquerading as silk love, an only for a few nights love, only for those curves, love. She was given you’re blowing this way out of proportion love, and you feel feelings too much kind of love, I promise this is good for you, I’m only trying to help you see beyond yourself, love. She thought all she had to offer was I’m too insecure and I need you, love; I don’t make sense with or without you love. She was missing the extremely important self-love, that linger in the mirror a little longer love, allow yourself some self-indulgence sometimes, love. You may have understood your reflection a little sooner, love, if only you had stopped looking at it through love-tainted frames.
She had spent this morning, as she had done almost every morning for the past two months, using her blanket as a shield to protect her from the incessant ringing of the phone–
Talk to us! Are you alright? He was wrong for that. She will never be a fraction of the woman you are. I hear the wedding is the same day. I mean how disrespectful! Hmmmm. Are you alright?
She was embarrassed, because she was playing true to type. She had turned into the woman she had always heard about, that woman who searched so long she ended up losing her way in the deceiving maze of nostalgia, that woman who woke up every day for months and years looking for a sign, for hope, for “closure”, and the greatest of these, love.
In this house, we deal almost entirely in crossed signals. The soundtrack– chairs scraping back night after night, with black tracks on linoleum as the only indication that we ever sit together. Together. Occupying the same air space where sound bytes slide past each other and fall into the resigned oblivion pooling at our feet like endless yards of yarn that will probably never knit themselves into a baby’s blanket. A silent chorus, no one can hear you no matter how loud you scream. White noise plays on and on into our forever– birdsong, forks against empty plates, teeth brushing at dawn, drawers and doors slammed into splinters, all combined and all white noise. The transmission of my self-discovery, the groans of my growing pains have been scrambled by the screeching of car tires, by keys slammed on a freshly polished table, by sighs that scream I give up, more disheartening than actual barks of anger. I have tried to speak the miserable lines of verse that form my thoughts for you to decipher, but I now realize that you are not equipped to interpret the fine-tuned tones of my cries, or perhaps you do not want to. So we continue to speak across purposes, exchanging false exclamations- Oh my goodness, she is so big now- with neighbors and flinging hymns we do not mean up to heaven every other Sunday. Ours is not discord or cacophony, it is parallel beams so removed from each other that they eventually diverge, defying the realms of possibility and any chance we have of being together.
You really need to stop looking for Accra in every pair of swinging hips. You will never be able to fit yourself into the gap between perfect enamel plates set against a starless midnight sky of a face. Why do you care so much? Only a few months and you think you have become entitled to the same petty excuses? I don’t know how it works where you come from, but that won’t fly over here. You in the black, take your hat off! Pull your pants up! Why is your voice so loud? This is not your war to fight. If anything, you are partially to blame, don’t you know your grandfather sold mine away to…
My friend was a midnight baby born to a mother whose golden skin is rivaled only by the sun’s farewell. She said she gets her black from her dad. She has aunts and uncles back home who are “so black, they’re blue”. And it’s beautiful. And tears teeter on the edge of my eyes every single time; what if those were my aunts and uncles too?
Your mother wrings her hands so much that the delicate brown skin on her fingers has began to rub raw and show the ungodly pink underneath. Always in black, what happened to the peace we planted in your heart, worth the seven days we waited to name you…Why are you always bent over? Head touching lap, soul spilling onto ground, ears covered. This posture has become second nature.
I do not possess the right bank balance nor do I have a high enough following of fanatics to discard my black whenever I please. This is not a housecoat or a headwrap that I can shed when it’s time to go out and look like people. Like people. What was I before? This is not a choice. But…you’re not bl− I don’t believe the people who are scared of me and my black lipstick will stop to find out how round my vowels are and what stamp my passport carries before creating a cavity in my skull filled with burning coals and centuries of inhumanity.
The minute I begin to define myself purely based on someone else’s expectations, I no longer exist.
I no longer exist.
This is not a choice. I can show off, sure. I can make this glow under the light, just rub on some extra shea butter to be sure. Yes for the hair too. I can smooth it out with powder and man-made perfection. But no one is going to take the time to figure out if I really am from Keta by way of Louisiana by way of a patch of black soil by the Nile. Which came first?
When did you learn to speak English? How did you learn to write like this? This is my English. I have declared it so by the order of the people who did not need to be taught the meaning of nobility and civilization. These lyrics are mine. I have stamped them with my own combination of verb tenses, because where I come from we hide yesterday underneath our tonsils and it bursts forth very time we speak. Mine. This is my kingdom. What did you say? What? You said what?
Wow, your hair and clothes are always so…fun! Why are you always so uptight? This isn’t your story. You’re so…different. It doesn’t matter to anyone that I clapped my hands and stomped my feet amidst dust clouds in games of ampe and not double dutch. I’m sorry, you look so much like- Let’s ignore the fact that my curls scream do-not-comb and hers have been pressed into stringy submission… I’ll pretend I don’t know I’m the only one you actually know…sort of. It doesn’t matter, to them you are all the same. Hey! You in black! What are you looking for in here?
On dirait un Toucouleur! You mean you only speak Ewe? Not only. I speak. I thought your mum was an Ashanti, she’s so black!
The minute I begin to define myself purely based on someone else’s expectations, I no longer exist.
I no longer exist.
I showed up late to class today. In all black. I decided to leave out the black lipstick, mostly because I don’t own any. But also because I didn’t want to intimidate anyone any more than my shiny African blackness was about to do. Someone said that poetry was supposed to be a thing of virtue and not a vehicle for hate and vengeance. He didn’t know he was talking about James Baldwin. Why is he so angry? I said: “Maybe because he didn’t ask to be brought here to begin with.” Do you think his ancestors were invited to take an all expenses paid cruise to the New World? Do you think the family he will never know has stopped mourning their loss? You are the reason I wake up with anger fighting to shoot out of my pores. You are the reason we wear anger laced through the spaces between our fingers. Look at my fist.
I no longer exist.
Your lily-white indignation means nothing in the face of pitch black rage. Your voice may try to stack decibels above mine, but black rage will explode hot lava all over your island, black rage will be the only pillar left standing in the middle of your crumbling colosseum, black rage will trample the relics of your stale accomplishments. Black rage has bigger problems than you. Stay out of my way.
You need to make your writing more accessible. How is anyone going to know what this means? They would need to have grown up exactly how you did. Besides, this is not your story. No, there are not enough Toni Morrison or Toni Cade Bambara texts in the world or on your bookshelf for you to claim otherwise. I don’t care that you went to sleep with Sula stomping behind your eyelids. Why are you always so angry? Why the obsession with white evil? Aren’t you tired of carting that hunk of rock around on your back?
I could stop, if only white evil stopped telling me how to be, stopped telling me to be at all-
This is a response to the phenomenal work “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine. You should definitely look it up if you have never heard of it. I had to submit this for my writing seminar, but after the class I went through and made some edits based on how the class went…but that’s another story.