Aminé’s take on the word nigga

IMG_E0912I first became a fan of Aminé when he responded to my comment under his Instagram post. The caption asked his followers for movie recommendations to watch on a very long flight. I suggested that he watch “Terms of Endearment” followed by the “Jimmy Neutron Movie”, and he wrote back, “you the goat for this”. I am an avid social media user and have been for the last five or six years, and still this was my first time ever feeling that it brought me closer to someone that I did not already know. Following our exchange, if you can even call it that, I listened to Aminé’s album from start to finish and realized that there is far more to him than the penetratingly catchy “Caroline”.

Since my foray into his debut album, “Good for You”, I have seen Aminé’s fan base grow with every new tweet that he uses to commemorate a milestone in views on his “Spice Girls” music video. I also witnessed his ability to go viral following a performance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. He devoted a portion of his five minutes or fewer on national television to shine a light on the hatred and racism that pervades American national identity, and is progressively less reserved since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. When I saw the notification for Aminé’s recent Tiny Desk Concert on NPR, I should have known to expect another moment like the one on Fallon, time taken out to say something meaningful and delivered to a soothing melody, as is his style.

This time Aminé brought attention to non-black people saying “nigga”, and I’m really glad he did. I was reminded of the Ta-Nehisi Coates clip that circulated on social media throughout last week and the week before. In the video, a white Northwestern student asks him how to explain to other white people why they aren’t allowed to say “nigga”. In short, Coates answers that words exist in specific contexts, and it is due to certain present and historical contexts that white people cannot use the word, as there is nothing in its meaning or history for them to reclaim. He goes on to say that white people believe they can and should be able to say “nigga” in song lyrics because they have access to everything else in America, and more broadly in the world. Coates says it would be a good practice in trying to understand the black experience if a white person would refrain from singing the word because to be black is to be denied experiences, time and time again.

I thought a lot about Coates’ response, which is undoubtedly astute, and decided that I would have gone further if I were to answer the Northwestern student’s question. I think Aminé knows where we should start, not simply with white people but with anyone who is not black. A headline on an article profiling the Tiny Desk Concert shows exactly why we must be deliberate in outlining who can and cannot use the word, because despite the fact that Aminé raps “if you’re not black don’t say it”, somehow the publication heard an address to only “white fans”.

In trying to explain non-black people’s continued “nigga” use to one of my best friends who is white, I drew on the popular feminist theory that women’s work is undervalued and under compensated in the public sphere because it was first devalued in domestic settings. Women’s work at home is an obligation associated with womanhood, so ascribed that it has long been forgotten as anything other than a woman’s responsibility. This labor has become core to women’s existence, and its performance is to the benefit of others. So then, non-women receive women’s labor as a right rather than a privilege.

Much like discussions of the word “nigga”, dialogue surrounding black labor and product in America must begin at slavery. Black labor, black bodies, and black product all began in the American domestic sphere as property belonging to everyone who was not black. As the country has grown, black people remain the most denigrated, and I would maintain that our labor, bodies, and product have been taken up as every American’s property.

This is the problem in diluting Aminé’s message: it isn’t just white people who think that they can take up black culture at their own convenience. All non-black people are at fault to a certain degree. So I ask that when we have these conversations concerning black product- because at the end of the day, “nigga”, with all of its cultural appeal, is a product of the hard labor that is “black cool”- we are careful not to forget nuance. We must hold everyone who is not black accountable for their role in black people’s exploitation.

A poem:

I think he hopes they hear all of his words. Yellow can be too loud. You get stuck on happy and forget all that lies beneath it. Caroline, don’t you see that… if you’re not black don’t say it. I think he’s just trying to be a whole person. And when you’re a whole black person, it’s hard to hear them, see them say it.

Rae Sremmurd’s black boy joy for public consumption

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Shortly following this year’s VMA ceremony, Chance the Rapper tweeted a red carpet photo of himself dressed in khaki overalls, arms outstretched like a human airplane and knees bent so that he came, at most, to half of his normal standing height. The caption read simply #blackboyjoy. The hashtag, having now been used hundreds of times, first appeared as a natural and necessary counterpart to the more established #blackgirlmagic. Both are meant to create a space for black people to celebrate themselves outside of the projections society has placed on them. Stripped of the personas that have been layered on for centuries, the angry black woman and thuggish black man, black people now have a common medium in twitter to present themselves as they are. The renaissance for black portrayal often returns to the medium of hashtag.

 

What stands out in both hashtag titles is their having been relegated to childhood. Many great figures, both historical and contemporary, have either put into words or acted out the deteriorating effects of what it means to be black in America. The acclaimed Black American 20th century novelist, James Baldwin, gave a famous interview in which he discusses the surprise that falls on a black child arriving to full consciousness who realizes that for every black individual, “the flag to which you have pledged allegiance has not pledged allegiance to you.” Baldwin often discussed blackness in the visual field as a state that is in many ways constituted by being ignored and made invalid by white counterparts. So in the hashtags, blackboyjoy and blackgirlmagic, you have black people not only creating a space to be seen, but also pledging allegiance to themselves, their greatness, their value.

 

To relegate the titles to childhood is to acknowledge that once a black person, and especially a black American, has reached adulthood, there are sorts of “magic” and “joy” that simply cannot be reclaimed if he or she is at all conscious of reality, a reality that has become increasingly inescapable with the practice of sharing police executions of black citizens on any given twitter or facebook timeline. Chance the Rapper is no longer a boy by most standards; he is 23, a father and a businessman. But still he invokes the energy of boyhood to define himself.

 

In contrast to the virtual space of the hashtag, Chance the Rapper’s presentation both in daily life and as he performs, is largely consumed by white audiences. And might this detract from the freedom of expression that underlies the hashtag’s meaning?

 

I attended a concert for Rae Sremmurd, the two person rap group comprised of brothers, Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee, on October 9th thinking that they might exhibit some #blackboyjoy and bring me closer to an understanding of how it plays out in Chance’s field. As I watched from the crowd, nuances of childhood and blackness were in almost every aspect of the show. The giant monitor’s visuals were themed in the style of retro video games for most of the performance. Actual black child dancers, no older than twelve, came out to give background support on at least three separate occasions, doing all of the dance moves made viral by Instagram and twitter. At one point, Swae Lee spilled at least eight bottles of water, seemingly by accident, only to dance slide his way across fifteen feet of stage floor.

 

The energy of the room which was thick and intense with flashing lights, jumping and a continuously booming bass line, seemed to make it almost completely void of the outside world. It was certainly an escape into childhood or #blackboyjoy, but one that for better or worse invited white audiences to join in every aspect. From recording the dancing black children to singing “know some young niggas like to swang”, there seemed to be an inherent danger to escape. If one risks neglecting the consciousness that Baldwin once described, he or she is left vulnerable to society’s ugliest forces, those that allow for the consumption of black joy while dismissing some of life’s most bitter sorrows.

 

If there is any desire to learn why #blackboyjoy has been successful, one need only look to Black Twitter as a whole which has now existed for years as a source of entertainment and commentary centered on what is universal to the black community. There was a dearth of expression for black boy joy before the hashtag came about, and what was present was not yet synthesized. Rapper Kid Cudi’s public acknowledgement of severe depression spread into a larger campaign, again on twitter, for black men to confront struggles with mental illness. Perhaps these are all steps within a larger plan. Just as #blackboyjoy followed #blackgirlmagic, it is possible that the next great rap album by a male artist will be the natural counterpart to Solange Knowles’ A Seat at The Table– an album that so skillfully framed self-care and black female struggle that it resulted in a record first time that two sisters had number one albums in the same calendar year.

 

The album’s probable most important song, F.U.B.U., commands attention in the search to answer the question: is uncensored black joy best left in hashtags and safe-spaces if there is any desire to preserve it? Solange starts by addressing who the song is intended for. In that way, there can be no mistaking her audience, “All my niggas in the whole wide world/ All my niggas in the whole wide world/Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn/ For us, this shit is for us”. She continues in her first verse to say, “When you know you gotta pay the cost/ Play the game just to play the boss/ So you thinking what you gained, you lost/ But you know your shit is taking off, oh/ When you driving in your tinted car/ And you’re criminal, just who you are/ But you know you’re gonna make it far”. With this she speaks in large part to the rappers who perform black boy joy. They pay the cost having every piece of themselves appropriated for the privilege of knowing that they’ve “made it” in a sense. They have the strange position of knowing that being successful and having fans that sing their lyrics also means having the n-word screamed at them by largely white audiences. As they drive in fancy cars, the condition of being black and male and naturally criminalized must not escape them. Still there is a sort of allegiance pledged to self when “you know you’re gonna make it far”.

 

To answer the question of whether or not uncensored black joy is best consumed in greater seclusion, it seems the answer is no. Rather, black people and black artists must constantly strive to produce content for themselves and occupy as much space as is possible. Space that is both physical and mental, with no walls to trap them in. If every piece that came out of the black community was metaphorically watermarked, as in the song F.U.B.U., with its origins and its intended audience then there would be no way for black boy joy, black girl magic, or any other product of blackness to be taken and distorted into anything less than its original intent.

The prompt was “water”

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Disclaimer: This is full of lies. It reads like fiction, but more-so it’s one example of the way that I narrativize my life and sometimes that includes lying to myself.

“Our people, you’ll see this, we don’t need the drugs or alcohol. We just need music. We thrive off of feeling”.

I was weeks removed from my trip but the images still did laps around my thoughts with no signs of stopping. It rained at least three times while we were there. The air would get heavy, and my hair kept losing its curl pattern, turning into a scribbled mass that cloned itself many times over on the heads of people passing by. We hurried back to the hotel and they went to the waterfront.

I tried to breathe only through my nose, knowing I might be forced to confront the smell of human waste at any moment. It kept happening that my worry would dissipate as I allowed my attention to get caught up in some ornate architecture or a group of children dancing to their own music. On each occasion that I became fully immersed in the way that my surroundings were both new and old, the scent would force its way into my nose, my mouth and throat. It shot me back into reality, trying to suppress my gag reflex. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out as someone’s dinner would waft by a few seconds later. If only I hadn’t been so afraid, then maybe I could taste it.

Even before we knew to go to the water and watch them praise, I had a feeling they’d welcome a storm. I waddled through the streets with some difficulty, trying to prevent my thighs from chafing any further. A woman sat on her stoop with three young children and sang out to us. The song said something about America, but that was all I could make out. I’d wasted twelve years on French, a language that couldn’t bring me any closer to these people, which is to say it couldn’t bring me any closer to myself. Her face was mine if I didn’t look for too long.  We were stopped repeatedly.

They’d touch their skin and then touch ours and say, “we are the same”. They loved us once for our color and again for our ancestors’ forced, ocean voyage. By no choice of our own, we’d ended up where they’ve always wanted to go. I tried to understand why you would want to leave a place like this. A place where people look like you, they embrace you. They dance in the streets.

“America! I have a brother in Miami. He’s a doctor, and you know they don’t pay doctors like they should here. I’m an artist, so it works for me. But he had to get out, and you know that means he can’t come back.”

Every explanation that we received for how this place functions came from an artist. It seemed they had a kind of unique ability to put this experience into words and to know when exactly to stop putting it into words because at a certain point, silence always becomes the best explanation. We met the man who cautioned us against trying to understand inside of a shrine. Another man had covered rooms and buildings, walkways and benches with colored tile. I could only see labor when the sun shined on this place. In my mind, this shrine needed to be unique to this country and culture because I’d never known these circumstances anyplace else. If I had seen this kind of security, it only created a space for thinking and debating, for one person to assert his rightness over another. It hadn’t created a space for beauty.

I’d be lying if I said that in this place, life was beautiful for everyone when children descended from high rising apartments to gently reach at our elbows and ask for any amount of money. I couldn’t understand them completely. Both language and experience failed me.

 

“What are you doing?” My classmate, Lesley, must have been looking at me for a while because when I turned, a smirk had cemented into her pale cheeks. She seemed certain that I would be embarrassed.

“I’m trying to fall asleep with my eyes open. I think I figured it out. You just have to focus on something in the distance- I’m looking at the map- and then you just fade. But instead of fading out, you fade in!”

French class was halfway between breakfast and lunch, which meant that my energy was always very intense during this hour and fifteen-minute portion of the day. All I could think about was when I would eat next. It’s slightly easier to mute a language when it isn’t entirely familiar, and my thoughts were pre-occupied with food concerns. This is how I first began to consider the portion of the brain that someone told me lies dormant. I never bothered to research their claim. Instead, I preferred the kind of endless possibility that comes along with wholeheartedly believing in this untapped, intellectual reserve. I would think, from time to time, “If I could just focus enough on accessing all of that brain space that isn’t being used, I might fly.” I imagined it once in French class. Having grown tired of trying to sleep with my eyes open, I envisioned myself opening a window, flapping my arms, and gliding down Connecticut Avenue. I saw a lot of Volvo wagons streaming beneath me and very few obstacles ahead. Soon enough, the vision was over.

I wasn’t embarrassed. I was proud, if anything. I couldn’t bring myself to care too much about what was going on at school, and that felt kind of pure. Just before class, I’d seen a girl crying because she didn’t think her English exam went well. She was struggling to no one in particular, piecing words together through gasping tears. She wondered aloud, “How will I tell my mom?” I didn’t know her name, and frankly, I didn’t think it was my place to intervene. I figured if you were crying in a rarely used stairwell, you’d gone there on purpose and probably didn’t want anyone disturbing your solitude.

I was sitting in the senior room later that afternoon, trying to fade into the “hottie wall”, a collage of magazine cut-outs pinned to a bulletin board, at least 100 white men and exactly three black men, when someone mentioned the girl’s tears. Really she mentioned her puffy, red eyes and flushed complexion and weak voice when she went to fifth period. Apparently someone had asked the crying girl what was wrong and she said it was just allergies. After a long, silent pause, another person burst out, “That’s clearly not what it is. Just tell the truth!”

I didn’t think the girl was necessarily trying to be mean. It could be frustrating to know that everyone was struggling and no one wanted to say so. We walked through hallways, decorated with the names of girls who graduated many decades ago and remained only in spirit because they had performed well. They had received “good” grades and gone on to “good” schools. They had contributed to prestige and were rewarded with a kind of immortality.

I felt bad for the girl, but I didn’t want to.

The man in the shrine said, “Don’t try to understand my country. You have to be born here to understand. Just enjoy it”. It wasn’t hard to do. The colors and the architecture were visually arresting, evoking the same feeling you get when you see a picture of your grandparents, taken in their twenties.

I had to keep side stepping puddles that seemed to have no source, sweat was running down the insides of my thighs and I could feel every point of contact between my clothes and my body.

 

“I didn’t come here to just sit in a hotel room. It’s not even raining yet.” My brother is a self-proclaimed “man of the world”. In preparation for our trip, he’d given himself a part in the middle of his mustache, intending to blend in with the people. I was thoroughly annoyed by how successful he’d been. When our distant relatives approached, they spoke to him first. Then they turned to us and said, “You know he really looks like a Cuban. If he was dressed a little differently, we might think he was from here.” It didn’t help my feelings that he knew Spanish, or rather he had learned Spanish and then Italian but retained enough to get us around. With each linguistic crisis that he conquered for us, I grew increasingly resentful of my French, wondering why I’d wasted so much time. We’d only been sitting for ten minutes before we were back outside, having been thoroughly shamed out of taking a nap.

It felt like the perfect time to take a tour. Three hours of sitting in a car and being talked at. We had no desire to be seen as tourists, especially knowing that these people saw something of themselves in us. As a result, we took a taxi, and not one of the larger convertibles that had been kept up since the 1950’s.

Anton was our driver, he lived next door to our Airbnb and was highly recommended by our hostess. The car’s back windows didn’t open in the 82-degree heat, and we could feel every bump in the road shock through the car and into our bodies. I became one with my surroundings in a way that I hadn’t wanted to. My back ached from the way that this car carried journey through space and time.

As we drove down their embassy row, I couldn’t resist the urge to make comparisons. Nothing about this country was like our home. Still, despite having been instructed not to try to understand, I needed to try. I leaned into my desire to uncover something that I had the words for.

My brother had a running dialogue with Anton throughout the car ride, pausing every few moments to relay a bit of information about what they were discussing. I couldn’t suppress my frustration when he paused from friendly, removed conversation and pointed out the Russian Embassy.

“That’s the same style as the one in D.C. It definitely looks like what you’d imagine. Very big, very dark.”

All I could do was continue to voice a steady stream of my thoughts and hope that one of the ideas would stick. It was the only chance I had at being heard, and I needed the attention.

“We should try and find Assata!” I said this to no one in particular. “I wonder if she lives like a regular person, or if she actually has to try and stay hidden.” No one responded.

I noticed Anton waving to many of the traffic officers. They looked very stately in their black uniforms, a button-up, short-sleeved shirt and work pants with shiny, black boots. The uniform was crowned with a cap that conveyed their authority. Anton seemed to know all of them, he’d honk repeatedly, sometimes scaring me as we crept into the intersection. Some of the officers donned very dark sunglasses and maintained severe expressions just until the point that Anton’s rolled-down window was a few feet away and his smile unlocked something in them. He told my brother that he met them all because he does so much driving. I found this out many hours after we finished the tour as there was no way for me to understand when Anton said it in the car.

My brother is a leader. This is due, in part, to the fact that each day my dad tells him to be a leader. He’s said it so much that they now rely on the acronym, BALT. I didn’t know about any of this until I was two years into college and my dad texted me those four letters by accident.

“Hey dream, have a great day! BALT!”

“Wth does that mean?”

Because we’re so close, it’s never occurred to me to filter myself when talking to my parents. My dad sends me the same text every day, and I was thoroughly surprised to find he’d strayed so far from our normal course that I couldn’t decipher his meaning.

“Sorry that was meant for Hakeem.”

“What does BALT mean?”

“be a leader today.”

I stopped responding. Every day of my life, my dad has told me to have the best day ever. After 19 years, I found out that he’d been telling my brother to be a leader. I couldn’t help but reflect on hours wasted in French class, along with most other classes, and the way that I’d only ever given the amount of effort that felt comfortable to me at that time. It was immediately apparent why my brother could navigate space and conversation in the way that he did, “a man of the world”. He’d been groomed for it. My only understanding of a good day was one spent in my thoughts, so that’s where I thrived.

A woman touched me on the street. It was just after we’d been to the water and the air was heavy with the smell of fresh rain. I was passing behind her when it seemed like she was trying to give directions, or maybe just talking with her hands. Whatever the case, she needed more than words to communicate her thought. When she gestured at whatever she was motioning to, or maybe waved to relay the scope of her subject, her right hand swung down on my shoulder. I’d assumed that like most other people on this trip, we would have no words for one another, but instead she turned and touched me with intention. A gentle hand on my back accompanied words that I didn’t understand. I nodded my head with a knowing expression, briefly looking her in the eyes to say it was okay.

I wondered how much of my experience here was gendered. If people would be less likely to come up to me and engage because I was with my parents and older brother and because I was 21 years old and because I hadn’t been told to be a leader. Maybe they could see I only wanted to have the best day ever, and maybe that made them assume I wouldn’t want to talk about how similar our skin tones are or that they had a brother in Miami and a cousin in Los Angeles and an ex-wife who stays in Harlem.

It was loud. It was so loud that the sound swelled in my body. It wasn’t in my ears so much as it took over my chest and my belly, my fingers and my throat. I could taste the water. It was the exact surge of energy that I always wish will find me when I want to cry but can’t. If those booms could come and knock the tears out of me, I might be more like the people in the crowd.

They worshipped as the waves crashed down and the streets flooded. Some had phones out to record as waves climbed as high as trees. Many others stood at attention, speaking to the water. I couldn’t understand the prayers, but I understood the feeling. It didn’t match my experience, but I thought I may have seen it in a dream, if not while I was sleeping then while I was awake. Or maybe I’d been tuning into something in the distance, in a sleepy purgatory. I could imagine myself feeling something then. I’m certain I was certain I’d known the feeling of the waves before.

“Have you ever tried to learn where your ancestors are from?” Lidwina and I have been friends since our freshman year of high school. She was single-handedly responsible for getting the three black men on the hottie board. I didn’t realize how important that was until some time later.

“No… I think I should though. I’ve been thinking I might grab a buddy, go to Africa, and roam around. Hopefully someone will stop me and say, “Hey! You look like you’re from such and such place.” You wanna go with me?”

I hadn’t actually thought of that. My brother said one of his friends had discounted the accuracy of ancestry tests because they can only point me to a region that has undoubtedly been turned around by a long history of what we should all try to imagine but will never be able to, a portion of history that invokes feelings so unlike what I met at the water. My brother decided on the roaming method for charting our lineage. I don’t know how safe it would be for me, but he was willing to give it a try.

“Sure! Or really I just think you should do whatever you can to try and figure it out. Maybe you could even research broadly. I ask because I’ve heard that it can bring you a lot of peace to learn how your ancestors worshipped and then use their practices. My sister practices Santería and she says it brings her peace”

“That makes sense.”

A way of reclaiming heritage through practice, going through the movements in order to catch an ancestor’s feeling and repair the trauma that had left us so far removed from one another. It really made sense that I might find meaning in feeling and find feeling in movement.

Not much time had passed on the tour before we encountered flooding streets. Anton asked that we trust him and his seemingly untrustworthy car. He slowly, but deliberately, transported us through several feet of sitting water. At the flood’s deepest points, I began to notice my shoes were damp because water was seeping through the slight openings beneath the car doors. Anton kept up conversation with my brother as if nothing had changed. I couldn’t tell if our “man of the world” was ignoring the circumstances because he was genuinely unbothered or because he’d gotten so good at performing. His name is on his high school’s wall more than once.

At a certain point, as my feet grew more wet than damp, I began to focus on something in the distance and hope that if I didn’t panic, the car might make it through the dramatic puddle.

Beyond the flooding, the streets appeared to be deserted. Through Anton’s window, I could only hear relative silence.

As we approached the water, I could see where everyone had gone. Hundreds of people had abandoned their posts for the day to be at the water and worship. Looking out at so many in the crowd, I wondered if we’d crossed paths with any of them before. I recalled that as we waited at the bank to exchange currency, a pregnant woman arrived and went directly to the front of the line. An elderly man did the same not too long after. I tried to envision their faces and place them among the crowd, not only because they were familiar, but also because of what they symbolized: a sense that things might be right.

The skin between my legs had gone raw by the time I was at the water. The effects of having walked for hours in the heat were only made worse by the subsequent sitting in the back of the taxi, squeezed between my mom and the car door.

When the first wave crashed down, it was as if every feeling that had moved me to pain became a source of comfort. My clothes held me as shadows for the water’s force. They told me exactly how the waves had touched me and stayed in place until they approached again. The cool water soothed every portion of my skin, regardless of whether or not it had been irritated to begin with.

The water brought me in and made me whole. I tried to turn back to see the crowd behind me, to see if anyone had followed me in, but the waves forced me to keep my gaze away from the shore. When I started to worry that if I didn’t look back again, I might lose the people behind me forever, they reached out. We were tied to one another underneath another crashing wave. The water took us.

Illness in the white workplace

I’m in the mailroom. To be more specific, my career currently resides in a mailroom at a talent agency. These four windowless walls are in a company that employs roughly ten people of color in a pool of eighty. There are times in the mailroom when I am the only woman- I am always the only black woman. And in these moments, I have to be very careful.

Being the only black woman, or even black person, in the room is nothing new to me. From the start of second grade through my college graduation I attended predominantly white and wealthy, private schools. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was awful. Not the experience itself but what it did to me.

I’ve thought consciously about healing and liberation in recent years and hoped that I’d emerged from the tunnel- renewed. But in the past few days, as I’ve felt my psyche crash in on itself, I found that I am still very much in it. It being the darkness of feeling compelled to prove myself, my worth, my intelligence to white people, having accepted these institution’s codes. Codes that say you should “network” with people you have no interest in knowing because they have power in structures that you don’t even want to be a part of.

In the midst of my mind’s recent collapse, I found a moment to rest and consider what I was really doing in these spaces that seek to break me down, repeatedly.

There’s a moment that stands out to me when people ask what it’s like in the mailroom. It was me and four white men packed between three Xerox commercial printers waiting for an email to arrive with our next task. That’s how it works, you wait on emails from someone asking you to print something that you walk to their desk on thirty minute intervals. And when it gets there, they may or may not acknowledge your labor.

So we waited.

The Coronavirus has touched almost every person at my job. They’re not sick, but their bodies have been ravaged by anxiety, feeling that something is coming for them. I think because this is nothing new to me, having known for a long time that many ills are constantly pursuing me- racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.- I cannot take on another ghost, especially one that poses little to no material threat.

That was the conversation while we waited- Coronavirus. “Well you know people are just afraid because of what we did to the Native Americans. We fucking decimated them.” I truly do not know where that “we” came from. He also said with no shame that he hates homeless people. But I digress to write, these four white men could acknowledge the root of their fears, that they were afraid of some sickness doing to them what the great forefathers had done to indigenous peoples the world over.

As conversation progressed, I installed myself at the computer to stare at the screen and wait for an email. I turned my back on the conversation in hopes that I could just shut it out. That has often felt like my best recourse in these spaces- to shut out everything that I can. Every feeling, sound, and image in hopes that I might return to myself.

I couldn’t shut this one out. With my back turned, I began talking about my favorite news story of the past few years when a white missionary attempted to make contact with a remote village. “Oh yeah, didn’t they like, eat him or something?” They shot him down with arrows before he even reached the edge of the beach he walked on. They didn’t even want to touch him. I laughed maniacally, back still turned.

It doesn’t feel good having to set boundaries in this way, but it often seems like my only recourse. So I wondered why I keep doing this to myself- going to spaces that laud whiteness and violent, white men as an unquestionable standard that we should all aspire to. To be clear, when I say violent, I don’t mean that it’s necessarily a physical violence, although I’m sure it sometimes is. I mean emotionally violent, socially violent- constantly directing vituperative words at the people around them as if it’s productive or acceptable.

And knowing all of this, that to be in these institutions is to be around ugliness, bitterness, abuse, I keep choosing them based on a feeble promise that they will get me where I’d like to be. So I decided to divest. By this act, I get to abandon a practice that I’ve been advised to observe so many times.

“Don’t be afraid to show people your brilliance.” My first grade teacher said that to me after she thought I was stupid for getting bored in class and talking then falling asleep then getting the best test scores in my year. I’ve gotten a message to this effect for most of my life and as I hear it, it always has something to do with white people.

Just because they see you with your brown skin and natural hair and assume you have nothing to offer or that you’re dumb or mean or intimidating or or or doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out of your way to prove that you’re not those things. Because you’ll need them one day.

I’ll need them. The people who decimated whole populations and brag about it centuries down the line. I just can’t accept that anymore. Because it will ultimately mean taking on their illness forever. No real affliction, but one that resides in their minds, telling them that one day something or someone will come for them as they once came for the world. I’m no longer afraid of sickness because I know how to heal.

Who am I?

At the risk of falling into the potentially dangerous pattern of asking and attempting to answer incredibly big questions, on the eve of 2020, I’m writing about who I am. In preparation for this new year, which I expect to bring lots of love, joy, and good practices, I spent the day doing things that I want to continue on tomorrow, the next day, and hopefully for the rest of my life. I began outlining a pilot script; I worked out; I did errands; I FaceTimed friends and family- all practices that I could happily carry out for the rest of my days.

It’s possible my most important moments of today came at the beginning. Following my mom’s suggestion, I read and finished Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul. Before continuing, I want to offer my whole-hearted endorsement and say that I absolutely think it’s a book worth reading. I mention it here because the text begins and essentially ends with my title, stating that transcendance lies in recognizing that we are all a consciousness through which energy flows and if we can accept that life is change and allow changing energies to move freely through us, then we can achieve a never ending, unqualified state of happiness.

I agree with everything I read and at times while reading, I experienced a euphoria that brought me to tears. But while the book encourages us to relax into our consciousness, and question this “I am” if we must question anything at all, I found myself cleaving to a conversation from yesterday. I didn’t know how to feel about cleaving to this past exchange if the goal is to open and effectively let go of everything and every moment as a temporary element of the present that is constantly fleeting.

The conversation I’m referencing was with my Lyft driver, Tigist, as I left LAX. A lot has changed for me this year in the sense that I moved from DC to LA to pursue tv writing with no real leads and all of my friends heading in the opposite direction across the country. I graduated from college knowing that I needed to do something and I wanted it to be something that mattered, but I didn’t have much clarity beyond that.

In the four months since I first touched down, a year to the day that my brother moved here from San Francisco, I’ve had a lot of high and low moments relative to my confidence and even my faith that things would be “okay.” I now know that according to Michael Singer and my mom, those low moments were encounters with “closed energy” and I feel comfortable letting them go, but the fact remains that I’ve had lots of reasons to question who I am in the last year.

Before recognizing myself as a consciousness, I saw a collection of ideas and identities, which have mostly fallen away with routine life changes and the release of long held feelings. The two identities I find most fascinating and which take up a lot of my thoughts when I’m actively thinking are those having to do with sexuality and race.

In my conversation with Tigist, I got to ruminate on race a bit more than I already had having seen Slave Play over the break. Soon after I got into her car, she asked if I was Ethiopian because of my name and my features. Although none of my Habesha friends see it, according to more than one Lyft driver, I look like I could be from Ethiopia.

We had a sprawling conversation about why I moved here and her daughter’s desire to go to Howard, study law, and help empower black people. For my part, I gave my enthusiastic support for this plan along with a list of reasons why an HBCU, and Howard more specifically, is a great choice for a black student- especially one who’s smart and motivated to help Black people.

By the end of our ride, I seemed to have made some progress on behalf of Tigist’s daughter although she worries there’s no money in serving your people. Still beyond my potential contribution to Howard’s community by some kind of funky transitive property, I was mostly taken with the affirmations that Tigist offered me- that I have a bright future here, that my parents should be proud(they are!), and that she would be happy to have me as her daughter.

I’ve been struggling for some time with how invested I am in the affirmations that I received. Even though I think it’s a part of the human condition- to relish in affirmation, I feel a level of guilt that I’m sometimes a little bit proud of my tears, like the depth of my feeling makes me any more human or that I like when people recognize me for completely subjective traits and achievements. I hoped to finish this by midnight but see that the time has arrived, and I don’t know exactly where I was going with this.

Sometimes my only hope is for my writing to be a vehicle for me to ask a question. Sometimes I know my answer and sometimes I don’t. I also wanted to memorialize a conversation that felt big for a moment but might not feel the same later on. Tigist kept telling me that I should learn Amharic and visit Ethiopia so that during my visit, I could pretend to be from there. The only words that I remember saying to her verbatim are, “there’s so much to learn.” This is where I’ll end, as I think it’s a fitting summary of my title question. I am, and we are, everything and everyone and there’s so much to learn and that is very good. Happy 2020! I’m looking forward to all of the beginnings that the future holds.

“Why was I born?”

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Coltrane’s “Why was I born” has been swelling in my chest. Often if a piece or a person resonates with me, I feel this swelling sensation- something like my diaphragm is filling with water, but it’s comfortable. A gentle drowning. Upon my first encounter with the song and in many encounters after that one, I thought it was meant to be melancholy. I imagined someone, not unlike myself, perhaps arriving at the realization that she is an unemployed, recent college graduate with few ideas about how to move forward, only knowing that it’s necessary to do so- she must do something and go somewhere. This person at this point in time might get a little down and ask the question, “why was I born?”

Today, which will be yesterday by the time I’ve posted this and maybe “many days ago” by the time you’re reading, I began to interpret the titular question in a different and decidedly more joyful way. In this new reading,”why was I born?” became the start to a realization of the self, and this realization requires the kind of search that gets lost if you never have time or take time to reflect on the many big and small questions that arise in the course of the day.

I’ve been trying to figure out a lot of things in not a lot of time, and while that doesn’t seem very fair to myself or the subjects that I’m examining, I’ve arrived at something. The something is that there is no way of knowing, at least definitively, why I was born. But if I can consider my purpose for being in the same way that I encountered the Coltrane piece then I might think about how I reframe. I mean to express that I first received the Coltrane piece in one way, but some days later, for no real reason at all, it became something else. Likewise, it seems that my purpose can’t be one thing because I am constantly forced to reevaluate myself and the world around me, to the point that many of my previous interpretations are now outdated.

Essentially what I’m saying is that there are so many starts and instances of being “born” so that there are infinite opportunities to have a purpose, which can never be the only purpose. In these instances, after the birth story that we all have in common, the important detail becomes the how and not the “why” of being born, the circumstances and the self at that very particular moment that coalesce into a new beginning.

Recently, a friend said that twenty-two sounds “so old”. As a gift to myself on my twenty-second birthday, I’ve written this hopeful reframe.

My experience learning about Kanye West inside of a classroom

IMG_0826When the rumor spread that my school, Washington University in St. Louis, was offering a class on Kanye West, it created a lot of excitement on campus and fodder for news outlets nationwide. Reactions were distinctively positive or negative. Kanye detractors lamented that the course was a waste of time and resources. However, Kanye fans, like myself, were eager to rearrange their previously set class schedules and anxious to get off a wait list that quickly grew to over 100 names within days after course registration opened. I was one of the lucky ones. After sending Professor McCune an email with my 12-page research paper attached from freshman year titled, “The Debate Regarding an Old and New Kanye: There is Only One”, along with a link to Jasmine Mans’ “Footnotes for Kanye”, which quickly went viral, and explaining that both the research paper and Mans’ performance represented my thoughts about Kanye – the artist, designer, and human being – I got a reply the next morning that read, “You’re in!”. And that’s how I got off the waitlist for “The Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics”, the first-ever Kanye class at a major university. I had spent a semester trying to understand Kanye in conversation with one of my best friends and through internal dialogue, and I would finally get to externalize all of these ideas in a class.

On the second day of class, Professor McCune pulled me aside to ask if I had free time later that day. When I said that I did, he told me that a local news station was coming to campus and wanted to interview two students to ask why we would take a course on Kanye West. Later that day, I looked directly into the news camera and said something like, “If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that the bar for entertainment, specifically in the United States, is incredibly low. A presidential candidate, through hate-speech and bullying, ascended to victory, in part, because his spectacle was considered to be good television. People wanted to watch him despite the lack of preparation and relevant knowledge that informed his performance. Conversely, Kanye West has yet to offer low-quality content where his work is concerned. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy his music, clothing, or sneakers, it is clear that he puts an incredible amount of forethought and collaboration into his productions. In that way, I think that many people could learn from Kanye strictly on the basis of answering the question, ‘what is good entertainment?’. Kanye appeals to a universal audience because he represents the common man in his very public struggles with love, health, money, and family. If there was anything that I especially wanted to do following the 2016 election, it was to better understand the people around me, people who, whether they accept the comparison or not, are a lot like Kanye West.” I shared with the interviewer my final reason for wanting to take the class: Kanye is timely. Kanye experienced a mental breakdown just before my winter break. I have struggled with anxiety and depression, and many of my friends, as do many college students, have struggled with mental illness too. As conversations around mental well-being and self-care continue to grow in the public sphere, I thought that I would enjoy exploring through an academic lens the effects of celebrity on mental health and how it impacts our view of the individual.

My contribution to the interview was not used on the nightly news, and neither was the other student’s, even though the cameraman (there was no interviewer) said my words would make great soundbites. In place of my and the other student’s opinions, they included about four seconds of footage of my classmate and me walking down the hallway with our professor. I hadn’t expected much more. If anything, their choice confirmed my already entrenched belief that the bar for entertainment is low.

After airing the segment, a news anchor asked viewers to go online and fill out a poll asking their thoughts about the course, specifically, if it was a good idea or a waste of time and money.

Comments all over the internet questioned the need for the course. Many were upset that Kanye West, pejorative nicknames included, was the focus of a college course. While “Kanye West” is primary in the course title, it is important to note that he is a case study in a much larger topic of interest, rather than the whole of the class focus. A large portion of the academic foundation on which the course was built stems from topics of black iconography which Dr. Nicole Fleetwood, Director of Rutgers University’s Institute for Research on Women, explores in great detail. The concept of black iconography attends to a history of black bodies in the United States, which become the focus of the white gaze and allows for a single individual or construction of an individual to represent all black people.

Within the class, it is safe to say that there was a mix of feelings towards Kanye. There were people who would arrive wearing Saint Pablo shirts; others came to insure that the tone was not entirely positive, and there was a final showing of at least one person who conceded to not being a Kanye West fan at all. Because I firmly believe that people should hold entertainment to a higher standard, and there is an overwhelming need for critical thinking in the present social and political climate, I truly appreciated the non-fans for having sound supporting evidence as to why they do not like Kanye West.

The showing of ideas worked to hold Kanye accountable, just as every individual should be held accountable for his or her thoughts and actions that might work to the detriment of others. There are certainly instances of misogyny in West’s music that cannot be overlooked. But on the other hand, there are instances in Kanye’s career that reflect conscious feminist thought. Consider the Teyana Taylor-focused “Fade” video that, as one classmate pointed out, placed a female body in a masculine setting and allowed that body an exciting amount of autonomy. Again, to be critical is decidedly different from simply being a detractor.

One might look to conservative media as an example of the detractor-only view that asserts Kanye West is a misogynist, as are all black rappers, and that rap music is anti-woman. Professor McCune pointed out that conservative media’s proclivity for black rappers is almost laughable in light of the current U.S. president’s self-professed sexual assaults on women. Even more glaring than the president’s personal history of sexual misconduct is the current push to destroy women’s health care and, in the process, eliminate their rights to decide the fate of their own bodies. When you juxtapose these very real legislative efforts to rap music and music videos, the claims against the genre, and Kanye, in particular, are more than hypocritical.

In the course’s beginning, Professor McCune, who is also a Chicago native and attended the same high school as Kanye, though years earlier, addressed its detractors by asking why can we study Shakespeare and Picasso but not Kanye? What is it that bars Kanye West from the academic sphere as an acceptable focus of study? When asked to think of a black genius, any black genius, we found one of our answers: the title of genius has been historically barred from ascription to Black Americans more so than any other demographic. The box that stringently defines and confines what Black is and can be is one explanation in a number of reasons for why our class received so much backlash.

One way in which the black box is often most pernicious, especially within rap music, is in the case of authenticity. Very often the politics of Kanye West and many, if not all, other prominent rappers return to authenticity. Are you being authentically black? Historically, the United States has proven that it would rather have “Black” be a monolith. Kanye has expressed these limitations as they pertain to his goals in fashion. Repeatedly, he was barred from high fashion, and although his race might not have been the only reason, a history within the fashion industry

that undoubtedly privileges white designers and white models did little to disprove his claims of racism.

The Politics of Kanye West was punctuated by a three-part lecture series that was open to the public. In the final lecture, Professor McCune addressed most directly the symbiotic relationship between celebrities and the common man by exploring mental health and celebrity. His presentation was aptly titled, “Name One Genius That Ain’t Crazy: Kanye West and The Politics of Self-Diagnose”. Celebrity behavior, intentional or not, provides tacit permission for others to behave as celebrities do. As is often the case in instances of fame and prominence, we found in this course that many celebrities, especially black celebrities, become projections of societal wants. Kanye West and many other rappers are projection screens for what the public has ascribed to blackness at any given point in time. As we consider Kanye West in recent years, it is not a far reach to associate his being branded as “crazy” with his “rants” and grandiose claims of his importance to music and popular culture. But the “crazy” of Kanye West also coincided with a lot of protest and outrage from the black community in light of police murdering black men and women without consequence. To be clear, Kanye West did not grant Black Lives Matter protestors the opportunity to fully express their anger. To the contrary, their actions were entirely and very heroically their own. Yet, as sure as Kanye West is a black icon and what is projected onto his person is then translated onto all black people, when Kanye West becomes “insane” in the public eye thus making his feelings and opinions invalid, it is far easier for society to then say the same of the larger black community and their expressions of emotion. For reasons that are firmly rooted in prejudice, to be diagnosed with mental illness very often discounts the thoughts and opinions of an individual; though, in fact, a great deal of truth comes out of “insanity”, the foundation of which is often a means to cope with severe trauma.

Perhaps my greatest takeaway from the course will be Professor McCune’s call to act out “critical kindness”. The term represents a heightened form of kindness and empathy meant to be performed on everyone. When we, as viewers, consider a subject like Kanye West, a celebrity, there is very often an urge to judge that subject as our own. Based on the information that we acquire through headlines and lyrics and appearance, we determine who we think the subject is, and we judge them, very often harshly. We do not account for the trauma of living a public life or simply living a life at all. As Professor McCune pointed out on numerous occasions, we have all had moments of explosion when if someone were to look at us, they might think we’d lost our minds. But those moments are not lived on television screens or onstage in front of thousands of people. They more often take place in the privacy of our homes and with family and friends who affirm that, despite these moments of uncertainty, life remains constant. So, now that the course is over, as I think about Kanye West and the common man, I am more prone to recognize and consider the hardships that bare down on everyone. And as I try to better understand the people around me, many with whom I do not agree, I recognize that it is in our general best interest for me to practice critical kindness.