That’s really all I have to say.
That’s really all I have to say.
As mama and I prayed for you this morning she made mention of a little boy in primary school who told her he was upset that your teacher spoke to you about laughing in class. He said, “Mrs M, I don’t like what the teacher said because if Kie-Kie’s not in class there’s no light, nobody laughs and we don’t have any fun.” It made me cry because I realized I wasn’t the only one counting on you for a reason to smile. I’ve been sharing you with the world and yet for 28 years we’ve been holding hands. You’ve been holding me.
You know how obsessed I am with R&B music? The kind you can’t stand. The sweet melodies and ballads of broken hearts. The unapologetic expressions of sexuality and public declarations of undying love. The songs for mama. Allow me this one time to quote one of my favourites (may her soul rest in peace): “If tomorrow is judgment day, and I’m standing on the front line and the Lord asks me what I did with my life, I will say, I spent it with you”. I have very few memories without you, not because we haven’t had to live continents apart for many years, but because there’s very little I care to remember in your absence. Thank you for being my left ventricle, my spleen, my big toe, my right nostril. My whole heart.
Sparks-Brigols, a lifetime with you will never be enough but a day was more than I deserved, so 28 years—well that’s just God. HAPPY BIRTHDAY. I pray you live a life coveted by the stars and celebrated by the skies. I selfishly pray your reality is your dream and your dreams are your heart because your heart is my bond. It’s all I have to share with this world.
And I wittingly do so because your love…it’s the bestest most funnest love out there.
Nakupenda more than I will ever know how,
Long distance love is hard. It’s caring for people in ways you can’t ask to be thanked for and making peace with how much their absence will affect your joy. It’s finding the familiar in all the stages you’ve missed—a constant that makes it so that there is, hopefully, always space for you, even when their lives are so different and their behaviors so unrecognizable. It’s meeting their new loves, learning their new habits and accepting the new order of priorities they have chosen to acknowledge.
I have known and loved my friend Jay for over 15 years and going to India for her wedding was the first time we have seen each other in 12. She continues to laugh like she invented funny and the sincerity of her affections is still so precious. Most notably different? Her joy is abounding and it shows in how confident she is when music compels her to move. If ever she was stunned by the magnificence of the rainbow, I am almost certain it too has been arrested by the splendor of her worth.
I figure the pictures might do a better job summarizing the experience:
At the end of Hindu weddings, the bride and groom are escorted out by their friends and family. It is at this point that the bride has to say goodbye to her immediate family and close relatives as she now belongs with her in-laws. I am told it is emotional for everyone; spectators and those close enough to feel the change in dynamic. Indeed as I stopped, camera-in-hand and surrounded by strangers brushing tears from their cheeks, I witnessed Jay weep as her arms found the warmth that raised her, holding tightly for the last time. It was a beautiful moment and one I feel fortunate enough to have been present for. I watched as her father took off his glasses to subtly wipe tears from his eyes and as her sister savored her embrace to steal as much time as she could manage. I watched as her mother smiled bravely, and wondered where she sourced her comfort and strength. It scared me to think that I have loved her so long and not once in the entire wedding did I need to fight back tears or summon the strength to keep it together. I say ‘scared’ because it made me question whether we are still as close as I’d imagined. I thought perhaps the distance did in fact have an adverse effect. Why wasn’t I as emotional as everyone else?
Alas, as I packed my clothes in preparation for my flight, it dawned on me that in truth our teenagehood had been bought out by her new reality. We probably won’t ever have another sleepover where we laugh at nothing on the living room floor of her parents’ house in the dark. I won’t get to play pranks on her with the help of my sister when she’s spending the night at mine. Even those things that for so long have been impossible with continents between us—even those we will no longer be able to do should our continents meet. That sense of loss her family and some of her friends felt, the one I struggled to connect with during the wedding, well it finally hit home. She belongs to something I am in no way entitled to. The dynamic of our friendship will change yet again and hopefully that familiarity that has bonded us all these years, will survive the changes.
So in the wake of my realisation and subsequent heartache, I will celebrate her joy and wish her and the truest love of her life a partnership that finds its rhythm in the chaos of every beat they are yet to encounter. May the songs of his soul keep her dancing and the light of her warmth be his home.
I yelled at someone tonight. He fucked up and I ended up having to monetarily pay for his fuck-up. It didn’t make me feel better though. I didn’t feel more powerful having admonished him while he stood feebly. I felt wicked as I looked into his sorry eyes and still refused to relent before driving off infuriated. Everything and everyone got in the way today, and by the time life and all its mishaps had finished obstructing my path, not enough time remained for me to go workout and not enough strength was left for me to survive it anyway.
It isn’t so much the physical activity I’m addicted to, it’s the feel good drag. The idea that running nowhere at all is still running. Friendship is fleeting, love is a choice and happiness is a myth. Running—running is real. I get to go beyond the prison walls. Moving away from that which is torturous and consuming for an hour or so where the only pain I feel I have chosen to inflict on myself.
I hate this air, this life that is nothing but a series of humans hurting humans to forget what it’s like to be hurt. This projection of wasted feeling staining the walls of regret. The rough road pickled with menacing nails puncturing tires.
I think God is playing a cruel game and I can’t quite seem to find the edge of the board.
One fine day.
“The women of my grandmother’s generation in my home town trained their daughters for womanhood. They taught them to give respect and to demand respect. They taught their daughters how to churn butter; how to use elbow grease. They taught their daughters to respect the strength of their bodies, to lift boulders and how to kill a hog; what to do for colic, how to break a fever and how to make a poultice, patchwork quilts, plait hair and how to hum and sing. They taught their daughters to take care, to take charge and to take responsibility. They would not tolerate a “lazy heifer” or a “gal with her head in the clouds.” Their daughters had to learn how to get their lessons, how to survive, how to be strong. The women of my grandmother’s generation were the glue that held family and the community together. They were the backbone of the church. And of the school. They regarded outside institutions with dislike and distrust. They were determined that their children should survive and they were committed to a better future.
I think about my sisters in the movement. I remember the days when, draped in African garb, we rejected our foremothers and ourselves as castrators. We did penance for robbing the brother of his manhood, as if we were the oppressor. I remember the days of the Panther Party when we were “moderately liberated.” When we were allowed to wear pants and expected to pick up the gun. The days when we gave doe-eyed looks to our leaders. The days when we worked like dogs and struggled desperately for the respect which they struggled desperately not to give us. I remember the black history classes that did mention women and the posters of our “leaders” where women were conspicuously absent We visited our sisters who bore the complete responsibility of the children while the Brotha was doing his thing. Or had moved on to bigger and better things.” – Assata Shakur
I don’t believe that men will liberate women from patriarchal institution any more than I believe the wealthy will save the poor, or the capitalist will marry the communist. I believe a woman’s best shot at a decent life has at some point rested in the calloused hands of a woman before her. The excerpt above is from a piece of writing by Assata Shakur, a civil rights activist who was a member of the Black Liberation Movement and Black Panther Party in the 1960s. Here she so aptly revisits a narrative known to many a black woman. We have seen our mother’s cook for their communities, singlehandedly raise their children, support their husband’s and neglect themselves in favor of duty. The black woman has known sacrifice, abandonment and struggle. We have been rejected by the world, endured denigration of our aesthetic and abilities- an article in Psychology Today went as far as to declare that black women are objectively less attractive than other races of women. Worse still, several other polls and studies do not vie from this conclusion. This being one of the more trivial examples of how we are viewed in this world. However, there will be no greater adversary we face than ourselves.
When we look more specifically at women in developing countries, we cannot ignore the injustices subjected to those who can ill-afford what should be basic human rights. Sexual and reproductive rights, for instance, have been referred to by some feminist theories as the site at which men are most oppressive and women most oppressed. Our bodies have literally been turned into consumer goods for sale to the highest bidder; be it private healthcare agencies, corporations or marketing firms. It is so ironic that somehow the only people who are demonized for the sale of women’s bodies are women. The way we dress cannot be too provocative though we cannot be too prudent. We cannot express our sexuality or admit to a desire for, or enjoyment of sexual encounters at the risk of being called promiscuous hoes. Perhaps worse still, women are known to endorse the demoralization of other women.
Let’s not forget that Maya Angelou was a prostitute. Billie Holiday was a heroin addict. Leymah Gbowee was an alcoholic. And yet here we have a writer, a singer and a nobel peace prize laureate that we openly and excitedly celebrate for their contributions to literature, music and peace. What have they taught us? That we have no business telling women who they are. Too many have shown up, transgressions in hand and holes in the soles of their feet ready and willing to redefine their narrative against the script written by patriarchs.
We have so much work to do. This world is cursed with indiscretion. In some countries, there is forced sterilisation for HIV positive women and restrictive abortion laws for women confronting unwanted pregnancies. The same work as male counterparts for unequal pay. Underrepresentation of women in governance. Misrepresentation of women in industry. International Women’s Day. A day some of us show appreciation for our mother’s, their mother’s, our siblings, aunties and daughter’s. We acknowledge the women we love who have contributed to our growth as individuals and the one’s this world has elected to remember. But we cannot forget to praise those who are different, who broaden the scope of our travels. Those prostitutes who will write, those alcoholics who will organize and those singers who will drive our anthems of egalitarianism! There are no hoes, no bitches-only flavors of awesome dressed how they please.
“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” -Dante Alighieri
The celebration of women on this day, at present, seems to be no more than another opportunity to acknowledge that women exist. That we were all expelled from some woman’s womb. That too many of us are still silently acquiescing to our own gender-specific, sexist roles. It is as though we have forgotten that there was a time women were not allowed to vote. Women were not allowed to study. Women were not allowed to work. Men legally had to give their wives permission to undergo tubal ligations. Women could not legally own property. This did not change because men decided women deserved better. It changed because women decided they deserved better.
Tell me, have we stopped deserving better?
My beautiful niece, you are already the rainbow’s source of light. You are certainly the bloody battle. You don’t like your hair and that worries me. It worries me that already at six years tender, you are so conscious of a standard of beauty that I fear was never meant to favor you. A standard you will find accommodates very few people of our color.
When I was younger, your grandmother had a rule that I could not get my hair chemically relaxed until I was at least twelve/thirteen, so until then it was in its natural state. Coarse, tangled and wildly disobedient. I found comfort in braids, much the same as you do now, but my mother also had a rule that we had to occasionally let our hair breathe. This meant after a month of three-strand braids or twists, I would have at least a week’s cooling-off period in which she would do protective styles at night before I went to sleep, and leave me to decide what I wanted to do with it during the day. I loathed the combing sessions. I remember wincing and squirming in my seat. Letting out the occasional Ouch mommy! followed by my fingers rubbing fiercely against my scalp; a look of frustration coming over me as I began to regret living. It felt like torture, and it was only after many, many years that I realized how tormented my mom must have felt as well. She had no choice but to learn how to braid hair and do cornrows because going to hair salons to your mom, your auntie Nyiha and me, was like marathon running to fish- it just wasn’t meant to be. So I can only imagine what it took for your cucu (grandmother) to psych herself up for the intense and arduous task of doing her children’s hair. A mountain of resistance exhausting every ounce of patience she had on reserve. But you know what, she did. And each Ouch mommy! that escaped my mouth was met with a sorry baby and a little pause, and somehow we got through it.
When I was in the sixth grade I moved to a new school. I did not know anyone yet and during one of my very first break times, I remember dragging my feet and trying to waste what time I could in the classroom so I would not have to sit alone outside. My hair happened to be breathing, so that day I’d decided to go to school with my hair in a ponytail. Naturally, it did not lay flat and smooth like the Caucasian girls’ hair in my class, spilling effortlessly over their shoulders and down their backs. It was spongy and the resisting coils fought for height. The puffy tufts shot through the other side of the hair tie, sticking up in defiance. As I stood in the classroom, fishing through my bag for my snacks, I noticed two white boys standing a few desks down, studying my features.
“Look at her hair. What’s wrong with it?” Boy A spoke with such disgust.
“It looks so ugly.” Boy B opined.
“Mmm, she’s not pretty.” Boy A concurred.
I was devastated. I knew then that lonely would have been better than the alternative I’d unwittingly chosen. In that moment I lamented my ethnicity, my culture and my difference. I took their words to be definition of my appeal as a young girl. I was ugly, my hair- abominable. That was that! I decided from that point forward, never again would I let them see me with my hair out. Braids City, population: Me.
Your mother told me a couple months ago that you cried and begged to stay home from school because your hair was undone. You did not even want to get out of the car at the grocery store because you feared the harsh, anticipated words of strangers offended by your afro. As you know now, I know just what that feels like. Many other black girls and women do too. But, my baby, it is not yours to own that another being should pass judgment on your value in the world, substantiated by archaic dogma. You stem from a line of people who were denigrated and demoralised so severely for our features, it has taken decades if not centuries to learn how to appreciate our own reflections. That is why I say you are the bloody battle. Because wars were fought for you, sweet child. Men and women shed blood so you could celebrate who you are without regard for someone else’s subjective opinion. So you could walk proudly into any grocery store, or sit in your classroom confident that you own the standard of beauty by which you choose to live. That the criteria are set by you and for you to celebrate YOU!
You remark on the growth of my dreadlocks every time you see them: “Auntie Gendo, they’ve grown. They’re growing!”
I laugh because I’m excited that you’re excited to see something different that our texture of hair is capable of. You see, baby, it took me standing in front of the mirror, straightener in hand, watching strands of my relaxed hair fall out with each stroke to realize I was honoring the wrong person. I was trying to emulate someone who would never be a representative of my heritage, my community or my struggle. So I cut my hair. I started over and I blocked out any person who dared tell me I was not in my element. But I still hated the combing and protective styling. So I decided to let my hair do what it had been trying to do since I was a kid- I let it lock. I embraced the coarseness, the coils and the beauty of its rebellion.
Zela, love of my life, perhaps it will help you someday to see your hair the way I see mine. It is multilayered not one-dimensional. Your hair is not just an accessory for your face; it is the story of your people. A living narrative that you should wear with pride because it is written in the blood of those you owe your dreams. Those people who were locked up for believing you deserve civil rights. The ones who chose your life over their own. Those people who I’m certain- if they could be resurrected- would say it was worth it. We cannot afford to hate a part of ourselves that is so indicative of a resilience more powerful than bullets and laws.
Sometimes I genuinely wish I could clone you for a day if only to give you the chance to see how incredible you are. So you could study your features and fall in love with the versatility of your hair. I hope that when you watch this video in your later years and read this post, you save yourself a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
Our conversations will change as you get older. But one thing will always be consistent:
That I love you more than you will ever be able to handle,
Win a victory over someone in a battle or other contest; overcome or beat.
Defeat is tricky. When I was younger, I remember being told things like:
“Quitters never win.”
“When you get knocked down, dust yourself off, get back up and try again.”
“Don’t give up because it’s too hard. Nothing good ever comes easy.”
“Hard work pays off.”
“Focus on the work and the rewards will follow.”
But then I also remember hearing a lot of the following too:
“Maybe this wasn’t for you.”
“Life’s a bitch.”
“That’s how the cookie crumbles.”
The contradiction stunned me. I was expected to aspire to and work hard for the things that I wanted, but if hard work proved insufficient I was expected to adopt a less palatable resolve. Reach for the sun, I suppose, with the hope that you might just touch a cloud. The result of this week’s American presidential election brought these words back to the forefront of my mind. Hard work and reward. Inadequacy and resolve.
Few of us live in a world where we set the rules. Often we are born into an existence where our lineage, citizenship, appearance, race, ethnicity, physical capability and/or academic prowess pre-determine our worth and opportunity. Silver spoons for the wealthy, vouchers for the poor and hope for the in-betweeners. We are not expected to succeed if we do not show signs of exceptional ability or can’t afford to subsidize our shortcomings, and so we are expected to ‘only aspire’ to a higher standard without any of the extra help. ‘Do the best you can, don’t give up’, when in fact we have already been written off. This made me wonder, did Hillary Clinton enter a race she was never really in to begin with. After all, she is very well educated, seemingly smart and has a resume boasting experience in the political realm- yet she still lost. She spoke against rhetoric that undoubtedly demoralized women; demeaned ethnic minorities; denied rights and freedoms; and depreciated the value of environmental science. Yet she lost. However flawed or less amiable she may be, of the two leading candidates, she still spoke the language of progress. Yet she lost. She worked hard and against the odds became the democratic nominee, yet she lost.
“I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped. I had been in the state legislature for a long time, I was in the minority party, I wasn’t getting a lot done, and I was away from my family and putting a lot of strain on Michelle. Then for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do. I was forty years old, and I’d invested a lot of time and effort into something that didn’t seem to be working. But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. Because if you’re worrying about yourself—if you’re thinking: ‘Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?’ – then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path. There’s always something to be done.” –Barack Obama
It’s hard to believe the world we live in sometimes. The fact that Americans vote, essentially on behalf of the world. A few hours after months of campaigning- and then a single moment when one concedes. And her concession- our new resolve. Four years of governance bought and paid for by a single moment. And maybe the ground won’t start shaking and maybe the sun won’t fall from the sky. Religion will perhaps continue to be for the religious, rebellion for the recalcitrant, and criminality, ostensibly, for the morally malnourished. But that’s really it- maybes and perhaps. The struggle to keep it about the work and less about the individual.
Above is my old high school prom dress. My mother, being very sentimental, has held on to it all these years and recently dug it up and gave it to me. The night I wore it I wanted to feel beautiful, but I did not want that to be the extent of my significance as a living being. I did not want to be defined by a dress, or a date, or a dance. I just wanted to experience another cliché moment in time that was bought and paid for by a four year sentence in what was termed the pink prison (my old high school’s nickname). I don’t care so much for the dress now. It was not meant to be perfect forever. In fact, it doesn’t even really fit me anymore as evidenced by the positioning of my hands (I was just over a size 2 back then and now I’m a 0). I grew up but it did not grow with me.
I hope this election does not mean the end of growth and progress these next four years for America and her allies. Dresses can quite easily be discarded; human beings, not so much.
“In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing someone would.” -Bryan Stevenson Just Mercy
Bryan Stevenson is my most prominent living hero. I’ve had Just Mercy for a while but I haven’t had the energy to open it up. I knew it would be a beautiful and moving memoir, but also challenging and heartbreaking to get through. This week I finally worked up the courage to read it, and it delivered on its promise to be nothing short of everything.
I grew up wanting teachers in my life but never really got them. I’ve sat in the classes of authoritarians who thought the only way to teach pupils was to denigrate them when they struggled; break them at their weakest. Human beings so damaged by their own limitations that they seemingly sought to trap vulnerable targets in their insecurities. Curmudgeons who demanded respect not knowing what it meant to offer it in equal measure. Women who would encourage the demoralisation of other women. Men who endorsed gender inequality. I remember on several occasions trying to get my parents to switch me to a home school in high school because I did not want to become a sheep; complacently digesting what was being fed to me- barring all curiosity for what character I might birth with silent acquiescence. I feared I would lose my capacity to form independent thoughts and dismiss acts of impunity because I was told to simply not worry about it.
Unfortunately, my parents rejected the idea of home school, displeased with my inability to confront growing pains more pragmatically. So instead, I think I started to read non-fiction to learn from the teachers I wish I’d had. People who commit themselves to the very purpose for which they were born and have the audacity show up on time. This is where books are my closest companions- lessons from real teachers. The ones who do not give out homework assignments, but force us to acknowledge our inherited duties to someone or something on this earth that we owe our best efforts. The ones who are patient enough to listen to the voices of children when they cry out, and speak to them from a place of true consideration. Bryan Stevenson is my ultimate teacher.
In Just Mercy he talks passionately about his remarkable work, while driving a narrative of lamentation for what indiscretions the American judicial system ought to remedy. Be it the release of the wrongfully convicted, a reduced sentence for a lifer or the abolition of inhumane legislation (including capital punishment)- his words are not choked by despondency but rather inspired by resilience. It is a tragedy that none of my living heroes are men or women I know, but such a relief that the written word has allowed me to find educators in script.
We may not be able to touch the hands of those that inspire us, but what a gift it is to know of their work, and thus know their hearts.
I don’t believe in a lot of things/people anymore.
But I believe in Bryan Stevenson.
On many days, that’s really all I need.
People of color in particular please read Just Mercy.
My skin is like patch work. Different parts of my body are different shades of dark brown. Contrasting colors indicate where my arms have entertained the dancing sun and where my skin has hidden from the light. The different tones are bold symbols of movement, a defined surface area permanently singed in memory of where my feet have travelled. Yet this skin I wear is reviled by so many though it is the color of bare earth. It boasts a heritage rich as the soil, and a resilience coarse as violence. I am obsessed with it. I will always be obsessed with it.