1 Corinthians: 13

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.

White Noise

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 in Black

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.

But−

The minute I begin to define myself purely based on someone else’s expectations, I no longer exist.

I no longer exist.

But−

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. 

All that you are

You are all quartz. Fine-tuned. Orderly. Seconds moving together in perfect synchronicity, soldiers marching in impeccably polished boots. In line. In sync. Harmonized.  A smooth casing of steel and mahogany closing over the tiniest movements, ticking away with unbelievable precision. You are all quartz.  State of the art. Masterpiece. A living legend- not sagging canvas dripping with the wan smiles of no-name ladies, but the canvas itself. And the paint, and the painter’s fingers, and the reason why the painter even paints at all. Not the girl next door- but every muse ever known to every creative mind. Perfection in repose. The silky fur of a lynx reflecting the light right before the attack. Calculated movements, painstakingly orchestrated to produce a show-stopping outcome. Not wanton, open-mouthed beauty-  but restrained  and measured out carefully, like teaspoons of precious nectar. Savor the taste; this is a never again in your lifetime opportunity.

You are all messy. Stressed out. Stressful. Traffic jams in rainy season, and tires digging themselves deeper into the muddy streets with every stubborn revolution. Constant disarray. Braids escaping from the confines of an elastic band, loose threads that unravel scarves if pulled too hard and too long. Top buttons left open accidentally? On purpose. You are all chaos. Short fuse- woman, why do you have to be so irrational? Tear-stained pillows. Not designer tears- the kind that run in perfect mascara tainted rivulets down a carefully made up face, before landing with a resigned splash in a martini glass. Real life tears, the ones that are painful, that bore into your flesh on the way down, leaving soul-deep marks of regret and bitterness, tattooing your skin with incomplete farewells and insults that should never have come from a mother’s lips. You are all too much. Feeling life in at least six dimensions, not including the ones your imagination is yet to conjure. You are all too much. Too fat. Too tall. Too selfish. Too slow. Too hard-headed. Too easy. Too holier than thou. Too beautiful even. How dare you? I think you need to tone it down a little. Maybe next time don’t give someone a taste just because they ask.

You are all quartz set in a bed of wilting morning glories. Not diamonds, but coal dust. The dust on the miner’s fingers, and behind his ears, and inside his eyes. In fact, you are the reason the mine was built in the first place. You are all so much more. More than tired images of perfect imperfections, top 40 songs whining about your dimples and freckles; look at this pageant queen with hurt in her eyes. You are all more than all that expired rhetoric. Consider this more than a gift, or a holiday greeting compressed into a meaningless package with a red bow on top. This is a burnt offering at the altar of your being, this is a plea to be let in before the gates clang shut, this is my song for you, this is the motivation to open a few more buttons, or cover your head, or pray even harder, or eat that last piece- go on- you’ve had a long week and I know you’ve been craving these forever, or spread your legs on the train- after all those thighs could also do with some ventilation, sorry if you can’t cross your legs, I can’t either, I have too much lady in the way to pay any attention to your complaints.

If you think this is about you, then it most definitely is. This one is for you. I love you.

The Last Affirmation

(an ode to all those shrinking violets who have outgrown the dark)

Have you ever heard the expression “painfully shy?” Are you familiar with the words “uptight”, “stuck up”, “introverted” or the crowd favorite, “not even all that?” I’m more than positive that all these words have been used to describe at least one person you know at some point in time. Or maybe it’s you? I was once told that shyness was actually a form of arrogance, not a distant relative only linked out of convenience, but rather a direct derivative, one state of being extracted and distilled from another. Think about it. Are you just scared of social interaction with large groups of people you don’t know? Or are you so convinced of your own superiority that you don’t find it necessary or worth your time to come into contact with anyone whose dusty feet wouldn’t dare to brush even the base of your pedestal? Listen to reason. Aren’t you flexing your ostentatious self esteem, polishing the trophy of your spectacular being in the face of others’ dullness? Of course you think you’re better than everyone; that’s precisely the reason you keep to yourself, holding up one corner of the room with your hunched shoulders, a sign of your silent judgment and disdain.

I see you.

The truth is that the look on your face is not a signal for others to stay away, warning them that you’ll be bored beyond death into the afterlife by their platitudes. It would be better for them to conserve their energy and take their politeness elsewhere. The real truth is that your expression is a poorly disguised plea for everyone or anyone (anyone at all) to see you, and to cast aside first impressions, what do they mean anyway? These are all stale clichés overused and pounded to a meaningless pulp. Let me put it this way. It’s like having two warring sides trapped in one whole. There is a well-adjusted, self-possessed, and confident presence, someone who radiates ease, drawing others effortlessly into her force field. As she fluffs out her hair and gets ready to leave the house, a shriveled imp with a disturbing eye twitch and a hacking cough sneaks up behind her, “Where do you think you’re going like that? Who do you think you are? Not even that smart, kind, pretty, hardworking, funny, spiritual, even God is disappointed…”

Not even that smart, kind, supportive, organized, popular, humble, God himself made you and He’s looking down wishing he hadn’t bothered.

Is this making sense?

Alright, imagine that you have a dark room somewhere in the furthest flung corner of your mind. That dark room has a door with rusty hinges; termites have feasted on the wood panels leaving obscene gaping holes throughout. You push the door open, and you see a strange shadowy creature stirring in the corner. It’s the little imp, with an evil glint in its one good eye,

Not even that special, or wanted, or important. Not at all important. Not at all…

You slam the door shut and it is immediately reduced to dust. But the imp’s chant is playing in your mind in a loop, over and over and over…It ricochets off the walls in empty corridors, and hides under the voices of acquaintances that are not as happy to see you as they claim to be. It manifests itself in the blank stares of people who couldn’t possibly remember that you had met just the other day. It disguises itself as heartfelt words of encouragement from a trusted friend whose real aim is to ensure that the dreaded loop isn’t broken; your continued insecurity is like a footstool for their swollen pride. The chant echoes in the scolding of anyone you have ever loved, the only one you have ever loved, the people you grew out of loving: it’s not them, it’s you. You care too much what people think. You care too much.

I care.

How could anyone know about that dazzling personality? You are certain it exists, but it lights up only on your insides, providing temporary warmth, a paper shield for your quivering soul on those days when the attacks on your character are too sharp and threaten to rip your skin to shreds. Is anyone ever born self-deprecating? Did you come out with your head already bowed, or averted, or tilted back to avoid the tears from burning through your carefully created mask? Nature versus nurture. Were you taught to turn this mask into a default setting, welding it on to conceal your natural God-given radiance? Your very existence seemed to cause people’s eyes to narrow, blood lightly simmering to a boil as they watched you. Even they couldn’t explain why. And so the training began.

Your daughter has come on top.

 She’s rude.

 She thinks her hair is long, and so what? Tswwww.

 She thinks she’s pretty aaahma.

 You know she said this about her body- what, really? Her?

 I know she cheats on tests.

 She was posting Bible verses just the other day, but we know what happens behind closed doors.

Imagine the imp sits on your shoulders; it has a front row seat to your life. Keeping a close eye on you, making sure the show goes the way it should. Imagine your reflection is an indeterminate haze in a mirror stained with spit and tears. Imagine the mirror is cracked. Imagine it is whole but you don’t ever lift your head to look at it. Imagine your own “self” is so malnourished and lacking of love, that it hides in that dark, damp room in the unsearched recesses of your mind. Imagine that you’re so worried you’ll meet another empty glance, another mean-spirited whisper, another mangled text conversation, signals distorted in translation, so worried that you barricade yourself in that room. You decorate it with the false happiness of self-sufficiency and paper chains and flowers wilting fast. Imagine your fear of that chant, that loop, that refrain that punctuates all the better moments in your life; imagine that fear paralyzes you. And now the imp is hungry and you have no self-worth left to spare. So maybe you feed off others who appear healthier than you, spitting out unnecessary comments here and there in muted tones loud enough to make them feel a fraction of the discomfort you live with.

Picture your life, vast and largely unknown, stretching before you in a flurry of diplomas and babies and love and lust and contentment and grief and satisfaction. Now try to fold it over on itself as many times as you find possible, so tightly that it can fit in your pocket as you peer through the cracked window of that gloomy room. Anxiety? What are you anxious about? People are dying and starving and starving to death and burying babies and dreams and memories. If you want some real problems I can give you some.

I love you.

 For being confusing and frustrating. For that soul that is beautiful in so many unexpected ways, for that voice that is loud at all the wrong times, but still quiet when it’s absolutely necessary. For that fierce determination, even when it is hidden behind a curtain of unstoppable tears. For not feeling the need to compete, because you’ve already won and you’re the only one who doesn’t know it. Trust me, all the other contestants are very much aware that you’re worthy of gold medals, and laurels for your head. This is part of their game plan. For that fragile shell of sarcasm and biting wit and sass, for that truth that scatters the shell into a million shards, I love you.

Not even important, not at all, you should be sorry-

 Unapologetic. This is the last justification. Waste no more of your precious words.

“You are terrifying and strange and beautiful, something not everyone knows how to love.”* I won’t tell you to love yourself. I won’t sprinkle affirmations around your desk, scribbled on fluorescent sticky notes. I won’t tell you that even the combination of Chaka Khan, Pippi Longstocking, Yaa Asantewaa, Tina Turner, and Mary Magdalene has nothing on you. No inspirational quote or Buzzfeed article can capture your essence. You’re more than just a reformed wallflower, a loneliness addict in rehab.

Have I revealed too much? Have you not become vulnerable?

No dear, I think this is what I call freedom.

This is the last affirmation.

 

*Warsan Shire, “For Women who are ‘Difficult’ to Love”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unknown No More

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

-Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know

 When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!

She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways, William Wordsworth

This poem has stayed with me ever since I studied it at school a few years ago, haunted me even, probably because I identified so much with “Lucy”. That scared me. I’ve taught myself to compress my presence into the least inoffensive, bite-size portions. Even when my attempts at this are not successful, I’ve had people who were more than willing to help me accomplish this feat, glorying in  my stunted self-perception so they could  attempt to shine.

 

The Lucy act is officially over. Please take your trash with you and head for the exit.

 

Exit stage permanently, eternally.

 

Compressing, and moulding, and folding, and hiding; frankly it was getting a little too cramped in here. Time to stretch.

 

 

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?