All Flourish and Sweet

Saturday 4/2–early morning on Sunday 4/3

First,

Because what would the point be if I didn’t have something to which I could respond, a starting block, however shaky:

“There are buds on my fingertips growing beautiful things…”

Aye, Mereba (from the album Azeb, 2021)

“My color’s green. I’m spring.”

Sorrow is Not My Name, Ross Gay

“Florals? For spring. Groundbreaking.”

-Miranda Priestly played by Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada (dir., David Frankel, 2006)

***

I’ve been working on my shoulder stand. It has been just over three years since my first yoga class, meaning that I am still very much an amateur, still awed when new muscles appear, still so giddy when I can stay in a pose for a little longer than the last time, so much so that I nearly fall out of it. I’m not sure that I have ever been physically stronger than I feel currently, though it remains a feeling, it’s accuracy only tested out by how much more powerful I feel dancing, lifting a heavy package, getting up off the floor, or how many miles I can walk before I start to ache (this is not new), or how many trips I can make up to the third floor where I live with 2–3 weeks’ worth of groceries.

In years of dance classes and swimming, I don’t think I was able to inhabit my body the way I do today, mostly because I was much younger and with a self very much in flux, glitching at every encounter with my own insecurities, external judgment, teasing, anything that looked like displeasure or disapproval directed towards me, sanctimonious church ushers, creeps at the butcher or at my workplace or on the street near my dorm or on the corner near my host mother’s house, or older boys whose attention I desperately craved. But I also think that I could not have squat as low or split as wide or “stand” on my shoulders, because at the first pinch of discomfort I would stop for fear of injury. I am still careful, but then, I was not caring for my self by stopping at my limit, I didn’t know what my limit was and how far I was from it sliding across the sometimes dusty, sometimes slick dance studio floor. I didn’t know how to breathe through stretches, to breathe fearlessness into the tight parts of my self, to expand.

“The Oppositional Gaze,” collage by me, 2021

(Read the essay by bell hooks after which I named the collage here.)

These days, my spirit is standing up inside my self, not to its fullest unfolding but as far as it can currently go, ten toes planted and arms stretched and reaching low and wide. I mean, I am full of my self. Would this count as a delusion? Or maybe an over-correction from all the times my soul bowed and stayed life-threateningly low? My delusions, or aspirations to or yearnings for plenty, for sweetness, for beauty running over and down the sides of clasped hands (I am trying to talk to and about my self with more kindness and less derision) show up in many forms, including buying more chains to wear next to my nameplate. My intention was to find a temporary replacement for my grandma’s Lilian chain until I can get the broken link fixed. I wore the two names all the time as soon as my grandma let me have it; I’m her junior in middle name, which was the argument she used to prevent me from taking it because, who knows you by that name? Pursuing beauty I cannot always afford puts me in lovely company: I come from women who wear perfume to bed whether or not they are alone, whose jewelry collection only increases in luster when they are most anxious about money they don’t have, who put their first names on plaques outside the houses they built. I would like to think my grandma’s grandma left us her love for shimmer and shine, as someone who lent [or sold?] gold to people for their special occasions, but it’s more likely than she rarely thought about us at all, beyond her [dying?] wishes that our lives would be less fraught with the desires of men who want us to belong to them and not to our selves.

(Third photo taken by my friend Mel in DC, March 2022)

I belong to my mother and her mother and all the mothers to the nth power, and to my aunts and uncles and cousins, in that I am loved by them, in that my feet end in my uncle’s toes, in that my big little cousin has the same dimples another uncle had as a child, in that my grandma gave her twenty-something-year-old face to my other big little cousin and I, in that I always have somewhere to go should my spirit crouch too close to six-feet-below again. This is not a threat nor a cry for help, it is the constant reaffirmation that I must do to remember that I am well, loved, and not alone, for which I am grateful.

With or without the new necklaces on and independent of all the people who make me possible, I am full and brimming over, and all this self belong to me, and I have been cultivating this too-much in a growing garden of tattoos along both my arms. For many months it was just a fern I had been planning for years on my right forearm and an orange rose from a long-gone version of my grandma’s garden on my left were my everlasting strings of beads used to sit. Eventually, the frangipani flowers we call forget-me-not, from the tree I would climb without thought for my fear of getting back down, grew further up my arm. The feathers from the peacocks that used to screech in my primary school playground if you were early enough to meet them fanned out over my left shoulder and upper arm. From that garden at home, two different views of the flame-of-the-forest flowers burnt into the space between the feathers and the first blooms.

I don’t think my mother minded the tattoos so much until they became plural, began to multiply. Yet, worried about the immorality and deviance people might project onto my person[a] because of them and knowing firsthand what it means to be punished for daring to be deviant or to be perceived as such, she warned me against getting more. (Zalika U. Ibaorimi’s “Jawn Theory” has given me so much to think through around deviance and shame, not just in these pages but in the living sense of releasing fear of the former and the hold of the latter[1]). I’ve tried to waft away these concerns with half-joking references to ancestral scarification and body modification practices, the joke being that I am being extra or tongue-in-cheek, a discredit to people like Temple of Her Skin who have made it their business to connect contemporary African women’s tattooing to the context colonization obscured with the heavy, itchy veil of Christian ideas of propriety. “Our ancestors were the original punks” is a real sentence I have uttered, because it is easier to hide totally serious sentiment about pre- and early colonial practices of adornment and general flyness behind a humorous or even lazy turn of phrase, to poke fun and belittle the self before someone else gets the chance, unless, you agree and would like to hear what I really mean?

(Left and right: Guezo Foundation via Instagram. Center: taken from my bedroom window in my old apartment, quarantine 2020)

I have employed even more jokes to try and turn respectability on its head or at least point out its absurdity, the way it is a snake eating its own tail forevermore because unless white supremacy falls tomorrow, I don’t know what a Black girl who grew into this woman’s body can do to convince people whose house of sand is built on the assumption of our excess, our inhumanity, our too-much, that we are otherwise.

You see me? I’m boring, I’m at my desk, I’m on the couch reading. Shouldn’t that tell you maybe the person with neck tattoos your eyes slide over on the train could work at the bank or the hospital? Don’t you see? Powerful people get zipped and buttoned into designer suits and crop their hair respectably close to their scalps before it springs, only to order the innocent deaths and pump poison into wetlands and coastlines now coated in slime where there was once coral. Too far? Who is making these rules, and where can we send a petition or torches on fire to burn their headquarters down? You taught me to fold other people’s opinions and judgments and burn them with incense or birthday candles, and now I am finally powerful enough to do so. You see me? I’m safe and mentally well, so why does this matter?

These are not accusations, but a longing to be seen in whole and without condition.

Now I’m asking my self: why would any of these talking points matter? Does working at a desk or behind someone’s counter make you more of a human being? Does being small girl/ashawo/sugar baby/slay queen/no better than you should be make you less of one? Why do the same people who “borrowed” tattooing and body modification from indigenous peoples across the world get to dictate what is presentable and professional while simultaneously making millions of stylized versions of what they “borrowed?” Why do we, the people who have had our selves and our practices of adornment stolen, accept these standards without question? And if all one’s respectable accomplishments, collected along the long course of a life like gold tokens that are in fact wooden underneath, can be called into question by altering one’s appearance in ways deemed unacceptable, then were those accomplishments not thinner than stale communion wafers all along? I know what the answer is, but please humor me. What if the person with the neck tattoos is as dirty and daring as they might look? What if they are indeed no better than they should be? What is that really doing to anyone? What if it isn’t that deep?

Or, what if I escape into metaphor, an attempt at a more poetic approach at explanation, or justification, if I’m totally honest: I can make things grow in the winter, if the plants I have been keeping since 2019, at my lowest point, are any indication. Granted, they are in the artificial climate that is my apartment and not in the ground of one of the courtyards in the maze that was my great-grandma’s house (I only recently found out that these existed). That my plants are not in the actual ground should not deter you from allowing me this romanticizing. (Delusion, again?) Let me try instead a lesson learned: I can sit for hours in conversation with the artist while my new tattoo burns, stings, grows numb, take shape with only occasional breaks, but my skin is too sensitive and will threaten to scar even if the pain never crossed the threshold into being unbearable. Just because I can bear it, doesn’t mean I should. Sometimes it is necessary to be too precious with one’s self (especially if you are to heal well and full), in Ewe we would say precious as in, “listening too closely to one’s self,” but that is supposed to be another essay. I have also found that my only scar happened were there was a tiny stroke of white ink, a detail that might be dismissed as too obvious or cliché had I written it into fiction.

(All taken by me March 2022)

There is also the fact of taking my body back from people who tried to bend it in their imagination or to break it in waking life, like the time I could no longer sleep a full night in my house because someone told me that place was too nice for me and maybe I didn’t say no…I love that these pieces compel me to move with the knife edge and boldness I have previously only pretended to have or that I have only had the courage to render on paper and screen. These tattoos say my oyster knife is never dull; they do what my previously five (or ten), now three (or six) ear piercings did and do, that is marking moments of restlessness and/or growth and/or self-celebration; they say I am still trying not to believe the lie that I am unworthy of anything sweet just because it is Tuesday and I exist, they say I am all flourish and sweet, and too much of me will ruin you, they say I can withstand and have withstood pain that might rend the givers of that pain clean in two even in its tiniest doses, they say I have made a garden of my self that I tend to with diligence and delight. I also take pleasure in the fact that they are a revelation to other dark-skinned people who previously thought our tone too dark for colors that heal bright, and in forgetting they are there until I reach to stop a book from falling off a shelf or to pick up a stranger’s something from the ground.

Belonging to one’s self is not the declaration of that self an autonomous entity without need for tending and care and approval from others, but it can be threatening or even terrifying to other people who have folded various parts of themselves into compliance, at least as long as the sanctimonious church people and the creeps—they are often one and the same—are watching. I don’t mean that having the ability to put aside money to adorn the self in different ways makes me radical or more free in some way than those who choose other modes of self-expression, or what those who count themselves among the holier might call vices.

“Suffering was not made for us alone,” collage by me, 2021

I’m not free because I have money to spare for tighter clothes and more ink, depending on the month and what side jobs I have energy and time to take on, or take on anyway even if I am short on sleep and hours in the day. I’m not free so long as my indulgences are fueled by the labor and lives of people toiling the land or the factory floor. I’m not free just because [I think] I do whatever I want with impunity, if that was true, these words would unwrite themselves. Stretching further into myself is a chance to learn that I have to allow those I love their contradictions just as I try to make sense of my own, and also that my courage cannot only be bravado I wear like tattoo-covered arms and earrings shaped like swords and dragons and snakes, it sometimes means crafting a self that departs from what my loved ones would have chosen for themselves or imagined for me, from what the anonymous yet overbearing “society” deem appropriate, beyond aesthetics, and whatever their reasons for disapproval may be.

I’m not free, but I’m practicing, and this is how I imagine it could feel. 

***

Some thoughts from years prior, from my ongoing project, Glamouring As a Way [Not] to Live:

The criminalization of what is perceived to be excessive and/or non-normative adornment of the self is a form of material and institutional violence I am familiar with in a Ghanaian context, with tattoos, anklets, piercings, locs, and other forms of presentation—beautiful to the wearer—understood as signals of queerness, sexual immorality, and other “deviant” ways of being. There are also the countless stories of Nigerian people harassed and murdered by the state for daring to live every day as a “beautiful experiment.[2]” In other words, being oppressed for appearing to chop life, to be a bon vivant, a vagabond, an enfant terrible too grown up for their own good, is one of many pieces of evidence of the long reach of the neocolonial African state in the lives of the ungovernable and the wayward. Chopping life is a refusal of colonial morality disguised as “African tradition” (unless of course you are doing so with public funds, in which case your excess is God-ordained, but that is another matter…)

I’m solely and deeply interested in making myself[3], in denying access to any and all who feel so entitled to my self that they will argue that my “no” is a sign of my coldness or selfishness or a personal affront to them, in choosing not to concern my self with what I “should” be doing at any given stage in my life. I want to be the sort of woman who elicits the question “What will they think if I bring you home?” I actually don’t want to be brought home at all if it is by someone who would have such a concern to begin with. Moving beyond reproach towards a Sula-esque life, I want these things for black queer women, for all of us to inhabit a world where it is no longer the case that dangerous freedoms are exclusive to those who can pay to live in a gated, tree-lined part of Accra, where the ability to wander towards a pleasure-filled existence is not simply consumerism dressed up as caring for one’s self. I want it to be so that our freedom goes without saying rather than being a threat to a world that thrives on our repression. I want it to be that this repressive world is no more. I want to make my self without having to explain “what happened” to make me this way, without being punished and ostracized for turning towards my self with care and admiration. I want my eyes to continue to “open wide to the moon” rather than having them “bent into grimy sickles of concern”[4]. I want there to be no price, whether social or material, for us claiming the right to our selves, the right to glamour, to withdraw from and deny those who presume to use us for their own ends. I want dangerous freedom for all of us.


[1] Zalika U. Ibaorimi recently gave a two-part teach-in, “The Bottom Dwellers: On Spiritual, Material, and Ontological Sites of Deviant Making, about Black femme being and deviance with the School for Black Feminist Politics that you can watch here and here.

[2] From “Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible,” in Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

[3] After 10 years of wandering away from the Bottom, Sula returns to this question from her grandmother, Eva: “When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It will settle you,” to which Sula replies: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

[4] Morrison, Toni. Sula. Grafton Books, 1982.

Crisis, Love, and Magic

click the image…

At some point this year, I realized that the angst (familiar to many artists) about the “use” of one’s work, or the question to who it will be of service could easily turn into hubris. What may begin as a genuine concern for the fact that making art on its own will not improve the material conditions or alleviate the suffering of other people can easily become a desperate need to hear that what you think and have to say are “important,” “urgent,” or even “necessary.” (On a tangential note, you should watch Residue on Netflix, especially if you’re a black artist in need of something to get you together). 

Deciding to lay down these anxieties and get on with my work was not a turning away from the death and dispossession that characterize this unsustainable world. Rather, it was a slight self-drag and firm reorientation of purpose; get on with your work because you need it stay alive and in the process of making and sharing, maybe one other person might find something resonant, if even for a brief moment. 

So here’s what I’ve been working on to maintain my peace of mind during quarantine. The site is a gathering together of what I’ve been thinking about and making. There are parts where I am unsure of myself and maybe a little whiny. As many times as I’ve combed through, there will be typos. Almost all of the visuals are combinations of old instagram vides from my phone and clips I took in my apartment during quarantine as my initial plans had to adjust to the conditions created by 2020. But is’s all there, because “process is the project” is one of the guiding principles of Mother Mercy’s work. My project will be available to view until the end of this year. I have so much more work to do before this work comes back into the world at some point in the future.

I’m so grateful to JME and the amazing members of the Call to Create cohort for creating this space for dreaming and making. After all that being said, will you wander with me? And another question: what are you willing to do?

Mother Mercy

I’m trying not to talk about this year in past tense, as in I was going to start a new project; I was going to learn more about visual media; I was going to look into moving to a new city etc. because I’m still alive, still trying to imagine and to bear witness. So instead, I’ll share my gratitude for being included in the 2020 Call to Create cohort of Mother Mercy, an incubator and a community of incredible women artists. You can read about the project I’ll be working on this year here.

Glamouring_Alwin Mana[Image: my great-grandmother, Alwin Mana in a collage I made using the VSCO app]

For Miss Freda, and for all my Lilians

A lot of my recent writing has been an attempt to gain understanding of Ewe and Haitian Vodou, without being disrespectful or misrepresenting these already maligned and misunderstood religions. I’m Ewe, but have not been initiated into nor do I practice Vodou. I didn’t grow up listening to our creation myths, or folktales about why certain animals behave a certain way, and so on. One of my most persistent fears is to turn these beautifully fearsome spirits and gods into glossy and easily consumed half-versions of themselves, or to co-opt imagery with little care for its origin or significance. I haven’t yet been able to get over the discomfort of trying to tap into a heritage that I know mostly in name and phrases mixed with English only. I’m also careful not to idealize pre-colonial ways of being and of understanding the world as some sort of utopia as yet unsullied or destroyed by European colonialism.

I feel as though I’m always seeking approval or permission to be curious about these things, even though they are the very things that have made me and my imagination possible. So, I’ve been reading and researching as much as I can about Anlo-Ewe spirituality, and about life before and during European conquest in my part of what is now Ghana. I’ve been asking my relatives a lot of questions, and trying to be as careful a student as I can be. I’ve been writing characters and settings, as well as praise songs and prayers that seem authentic to these spiritualities, while making a conscious effort to avoid copying elements wholesale into my work. I’m trying to write a world that appears as though it would fit into the universe my forebears imagined and created for themselves.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about love, partly because of Erzulie Freda– lwa of love, luxury, and sensuality– who is always trying to take up more space in my work than I have given her. The rhetoric around love being a superior response to rage, and a cure-all for oppressive structures has also been on my mind a lot, mostly because it frustrates me so much. Most of the “well-meaning” people who try to bludgeon the (rightfully) enraged with this sort of rhetoric do not usually mean love in any meaningful or transformative way. They simply mean “Lie down and die quietly; your protests are a nuisance and make me uncomfortable.”

In an attempt to keep writing in spite of my current anxieties about the general state of the world/career/debt/life/relationships, I’ve been picking quotes or passages as prompts for my posts, and it’s been a pretty productive exercise. Here is a praise song/prose poem in response to two quotes, one from Sula, and the other from Terence Nance’s 2012 film An Oversimplification of her Beauty.

***

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My beloved and beautiful Grandma Lilian. I’m named after her– I have two middle names– but I don’t think the name suits me that well. I don’t have the requisite kind eyes and pleasant disposition, I feel.

“Love: an art form slightly removed from its intended context.”

-from an Oversimplification of Her Beauty

“Like an artist without an art form, she became dangerous.”

-from Sula

And so Erzulie Freda’s lastborn sings:

Love has chosen my own head as a seat for her crown.

I am gilded fury hardened in the heat of clenched fists, and I am sweet joy whispered in your ear on the night side of dawn. I come from beyond the Universe’s horizon, sweeping across the sea in a hot wind, troubling the water, and the sand, and the flimsy cloth in your windows, and the tufts of hair and dust in the corners of your room.

Love has lent me her face and the better one of her eyes that shines mischief and liquid silver when I laugh.

I am everywhere you look and, and especially where you hide. I live on your heaving shoulders after a healthy cry, and in the curves of your ears where the salt from your tears turned crystal.

Love has blessed my hands with enough power.

I am firm fingers scrubbing stubborn sweat and grit from your scalp each evening, and I am lifting your work-weary arms to tie your sleeping scarf­ –careful like– so my nails won’t catch on the threads that have fallen loose from its weave.

careful

I am of Erzulie Freda’s dangerous charm.

I am of colossal proportions.

I am everything.

First, the Fire

“Eva looked into Hannah’s eyes. “Is? My baby? Burning?” “

“…Eva said yes, but inside she disagreed and remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

-from Sula by Toni Morrison

***

So, I’m writing.

I’ve been giving myself writing exercises in an attempt to free myself for this frustrating halt that I’ve been feeling each time I’ve tried to resume working on my thesis project recently. The way I see it, if I keep writing around and around, I will eventually write towards my actual work, as long as I’m always writing pieces that exist in the same universe as the one that I’ve created for my novel. With that in mind, I’ve invented a series of plagues that are sort of “biblical” in the sense that Christianity and a lot of its symbols and imagery have been fused or absorbed into Ewe and Haitian vodou (This is related to the research I’ve done for most of my time in my MFA program, and I wrote about it briefly here).

I didn’t grow up with the ritual of burning fallen hair after braiding or combing, but I’ve grown fixated on that image after encountering it repeatedly in Black women’s writing across the diaspora. Someone is always burning shed hair immediately before some sort of tragedy, or before the next “strange thing,” as Toni Morrison puts it in Sula.

I re-read Sula a few weeks ago, and it was not the more spectacular instances of burning that stayed with me, not Eva setting fire to Plum in his bed, or even Hannah going up in flames in the yard and Eva leaping out of the window to try and save her.

Rather, it was the smaller, the seemingly more ordinary; Nel’s grandmother using a burnt out match to darken her eyebrows, or Sula’s return, marked by birds, and by Eva burning her shed hair with her back to the same window she once leapt out of. In Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, we are to believe that it is Cocoa’s fallen hairs, those that didn’t get burnt, those that end up in the jealous Ruby’s pocket, that lead to her painful deterioration. (There’s something I think Sula and Mama Day are saying to each other, and I wrote about that here.)

My first plague is fire.

***

There is oil hissing and spitting inside. It’s possible that it is frying on too high heat until whatever you had wanted to eat is shriveled and burnt, stuck to the pan’s deep rusty belly, forevermore resistant to any scrub. It could be that the stove’s heat is too great, or, that the whole house is burning, and I am going with it.

Don’t you want to see what you can salvage

 There is something frying inside, but you are still and always slim legs, not crossed, but rather arranged one next to the other, grey dusting where your ankles meet from too many dry afternoon hours exposed to the air. Something is on fire, and your skirt is bunched up in messy fistfuls high on your thighs. Your feet are in the dust next to mine on the lower step and something is on fire. Yet, you just sit.

You have gathered the fallen hair from my head into a feathery ball and set it alight, three clicks of a lighter and a curse. There is something burning inside–I am sure– and yet, you sit, with my shed strands flaming first between your pointer and your thumb, and now in the palm of your hand.

Maybe the whole house is burning, or maybe it is just my scalp is scorching sweet mercy. I told you not to make the parts so small this time,

I told you I am something tender–

(Image by Hannah Firmin, from the cover art of the Grafton Books 1982 edition of Sula)

 

A Kind of Woman

She, the kind of woman who curses around other people’s children and smiles and sticks her tongue out when they tug their innocent ones away from her evil. A Sula kind of woman, collarbones jutting out threats yet to be spoken, squinting eyes and trusting of no one­– you thought you were special– the daughter that slipped through Mama Day’s hands so she could cradle the dreams of others, nurse them to health, hand them cups of punch, and candles, never got the chance to be the child that went astray, brought shame to the steps of the silver trailer

She, torturing sleepless souls she doesn’t plan to love, you the woman she left behind in Miami in the small house with yellow walls and white metal curling around the windows, veins in a vanilla-scented neck pulsing in fruitless craving for the kind of woman who never looks back– she hasn’t called in months but her hair is still knotted around your hairbrush bristles

The kind of woman who has ground up any pride you thought you had and sprinkled the powder first over her right shoulder, then over the left, she has walked away wearing your possibility of future love around her neck held high, metal pendant heating the thin skin stretched across her breast bone, she is the kind of menace you were warned to avoid and now you pay