Tripping

When I took this photo, I was waiting for the same Silver line I mention later, on my way to take part in a poetry festival organized in part by the same friend I describe. For the blur and crookedness of the image, I will blame the heat, the 30-minute bus delay, my attempt to snap while on the phone with my mum, shyness to squat to get the right angle, and excitement at seeing faces I have not seen since pre-pandemic times.

In the summer of 2013, I decided to get a job at my college that came with free on-campus housing so I could stay in DC for the summer. Work study paychecks weren’t enough to pay for a ticket home, and I couldn’t stand for my mum to pay for things I didn’t consider absolutely essential. I know my reluctance and at times outright refusal to ask for any kind of help (material, emotional, or anything else) causes her distress, though my own unbending self-reliance is something I learnt from her.

My fear of coming up short and anxieties around scarcity meant that I convinced myself that the Safeway across the bridge from my campus was more affordable than its shiny counterpart in the middle of the multimillion dollar neighborhood the school shared with politicians and various other people with wealth of dubious origin (Is this a misnomer? If one is that wealthy in the face of so much suffering, isn’t all the wealth acquired by dubious means, or in other words, stolen?) Whether that store branch was actually cheaper, I can no longer remember, but on any given weekend or day off work and regardless of weather, I would faithfully find myself across the bridge for my weekly groceries. This mundane errand became some sort of anchor for me, so much so that even when carrying it out wasn’t ideal because the weather was too wet or too hot, or if the window of time I had to get to the store and back before my next work shift, I would still insist on completing this ritual. When my boyfriend at the time came to visit, I forced him to accompany me, even with his [justified] complaints about the heat, the distance, and the impracticality of the whole affair. As we waited for the bus that would take us home, he waved his hands in frustration towards the line of empty taxis waiting for passengers, even offering to pay the fare if money was my concern. I refused, and we carried the groceries on and off the bus and all the way back to my dorm.

There was no way to explain what was happening in my brain to make me believe that if I deviated from my usual routine, I would be in some kind of danger or experience unbearable panic turned pain, in short that some sort of catastrophe would materialize or if I failed to complete this senseless mission. It was almost as though a circuit had tripped in my mind, leaving sparks and a lackluster puff of smoke where my good sense should have been. Even if I had these words at the time, I don’t know that he would have had the empathy to receive them well. That summer was fraught in our relationship for several reasons, not the least of which where the endless spirals of my emotional reactions and his harshness. I don’t know what it is about straight men and their insecurities that transforms their admiration into contempt, unless perhaps what initially appears to be romantic interest and admiration was really just a desire to possess and control another person. As was often the case with us, I would have to make up for my behavior when it was my turn to visit him, and we walked the whole way from his local grocery store back to his apartment so I could see what I had put him through, a sort of vengeance on his part. I have no interest nor do I gain anything from casting someone I haven’t spoken to in years as a villain, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting for a long while afterwards to think about how the beginnings of my mental unravelling were treated like self-indulgence, selfishness, nonsense, by someone who claimed to love me.

Five years later, my state of mind was much the worse for wear after grad school and after having borne witness to and experiencing all kinds of banal and spectacular cruelties that Boston’s racism had to offer. I was also graduating with a number of publications and other “achievements” to my name, and I needed the longest, most extra ponytail to match my teal blazer dress and silver boots and the overall fanfare of the moment, whether or not a full-time job with benefits was waiting on the other side (It was not). I mapped my path from Somerville to the big beauty supply on Mass Ave, its outer walls like an old dollhouse drained of most of its color—there were closer options, but I was going to be downtown for other errands, so my good sense told me to take this route—80 bus to Lechmere, Green line to Park Street, and then SL5 to Washington Street at Mass Ave.

A dear friend was also going to be downtown and wanted to spend time together, so I asked if she would mind going to the store with me before we went on to get some ice cream or whatever else we felt like. I had been repeating the sequence of my journey in my head like an incantation, as if I couldn’t follow this route with my eyes closed: 80, Green Life, Silver Line, 80, Green Line, Silver Line. But as soon as my friend walked up to me and asked, “Which store are you going to? Can we walk?” that circuit tripped and replaced my good sense with panic. Instead of suggesting we wait for the next bus or that we walk down Washington Street along the same route the Silver line would have taken us, I somehow decided we should go the “scenic, long way,” down Boylston past the library, the Prudential, and the Brooks-Brothers clad populace most likely to be shopping there, and eventually a left turn on Mass Ave, maneuvering around music students carrying instrument cases twice their size.

When we reached our destination, I braced myself for the sneering, the contempt, the threat of punishment, but my friend only stamped her foot and play scolded me like the Trini junior-auntie she is, and we went inside to search for my ponytail. She had a way of knowing things I had not told her, mostly because that is one of her gifts, and maybe because of the way she loves, so it’s possible she knew that my confusing actions had their roots in some unspoken pain within me. In any case, we proceeded to have the sweetest evening, including ice cream and a chance meeting with two friends of hers on the street outside the hair store, both black women, one who was mother to a child named Zora. There would be no atonement for inconveniencing or frustrating her, nor would I have to produce evidence of having been previously unimpeachable as a friend (another time I might tell you about the period of time that ex assigned and subtracted points, supposedly as a joke, according to the satisfactory [or not] nature of my actions…) to justify this one transgression.

My fear of retribution was informed not by anything in her character or prior treatment of me, but rather in the contempt I seemed to elicit in the past for not having “my shit together” in the words of that distant ex. I can say with no tongue-biting or hesitation that majority of the people who have met my chaos or my pain with [willful] misunderstanding, refusal to truly see me, or outright malice have been men. This piece of writing is not intended to excuse treating the people around oneself as collateral damage for one’s depressive or incoherent behaviors, nor do I mean to render friends who have extended me abundant care and grace as long-suffering martyrs. I just have the “sheer good fortune” to be loved by so many women as friend and sister, and I spare no opportunity to show them as much praise and appreciation as I can muster, knowing that it can never be enough for the glory that they are.

I’m trying to take a moment to revel in the contentment I feel now, in the immense space that has opened up in my mind now that anxiety is largely absent, meaning I can listen to music that is totally new to me; take different routes around the city than the ones I may have memorized; or deviate from any daily routine without fear that my life will collapse under the advent of anything different or unfamiliar. I’m thrifting clothes in the light colors I used to wear before my fear of financial lack and determination to be as practical and responsible as possible stocked my closet with a uniform of black leggings with black t shirts for warmer weather and black turtlenecks for winter; thrift rather than brand new to try and participate as little as possible in a garment industry that takes lives in exchange for the most flattering high-waisted jeans for someone living in wealthier locales. I do not include this detail to be sanctimonious, but rather to express that I can’t be at peace while knowing that the things I use to adorn my body come at the cost of the lives of factory and agricultural workers, many of them women in places like Indonesia and Bangladesh. I have a writing residency stipend that allows me a living situation I thought I would only ever be able to afford if I moved to a cheaper part of the country. After about a three-week period of feeling despondent, low, and small in spirit and imagination, I’m trying with all the strength I can summon to be the exuberant 7-year-old version of myself who could and would not shrink even if she tried and to refuse the pressure to participate in my own diminution for the benefit of whoever’s check pays the most bills. There is still pain, grief, worry about money and survival, and I hope the positive turn at this ending is not a “Pollyannaish” (as my therapist loves to say), narrative of tripped circuits finding repair and new, brighter light after a period of disfunction. Because I believe in something called the black femme sublime, I know the sparks, the smoke, the glitching connections, and the brightness of all-that-is-possible can coexist; I’m just trying to do a better job of documenting the good as much as I tend to the hurt.

A Reckoning

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

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

 moves thousands of miles away from home

goes to grad school

encounters casual and overt racism in and out of the classroom

encounters Suzanne Césaire

encounters self

shaves a not insignificant portion of head

throws the phrase class struggle into casual conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)