Category Archives: Musings

80s Pop Culture Reared Me to See Myself as a Monkey

My husband says that my vast knowledge of obscure cartoons is evidence of my latchkey upbringing.

“I had parents who loved and nurtured me, and made sure they were home with me after school. Whereas as YOU had television.” He was joking, but there was an element of seriousness to his assertion. Marshall (my husband) truly is horrified that I consumed so much TV as a child.

On the other hand, I pity him. My husband has no working knowledge of the Gobots or their mission; has never heard of the Street Frogs OR the Tiger Sharks; and prior to this particular conversation, was oblivious to the existence of the Get Along Gang. That’s a lot of quality 80s animation to have missed out on, so I am compelled to reflect on his childhood with sadness on his behalf. Besides, I wasn’t a latchkey kid all the time. Some days I would be taken to Mrs. Scott’s house after school. She was a septuagenarian widow who would feed me Spaghetti-O’s and instruct me to watch Scooby Doo while she reclined in the sun chewing and spitting tobacco juice in the company of her faithful dog, Queenie. So yeah, I had adult supervision.

Sometimes.

Naturally I was curious if any of my friends remembered the Get Along Gang and as expected, my nerd friends did not disappoint. I’m proud to announce that two other people besides me harbor fond memories of Montgomery Moose and his merry band of do-gooder sidekicks. And naturally, as these conversations tend to do, another query sent us down a separate path on memory lane.

“What about that racist little cartoon called Monchichis?” (This was the Woke Nerd asking. Artist Nerd had bowed out of the conversation at this point.)

“I actually liked the Monchichis,” I replied. “I liked them because they had afros that looked like mine. I connected with them.”

Woke Nerd was aghast. I completely understood why.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Monchichis, they are a race of anthropomorphic monkeys who live in Monchia. They were a completely autonomous race of beings that developed their own technology and functioned under an orderly societal structure based on birth order. In other words, the oldest was in charge – and as the eldest child in my family, that power structure and hierarchy appealed to me. The Monchichis were frequently disturbed by another race of blue/black monkey anthropomorps who were less technologically – and therefore mentally – advanced.

Nowhere else on television was there a community of animated beings that shared traits and features similar to mine that had complete autonomy over their lives. In every other cartoon I watched, there were no brown/Black girls in positions of leadership.

  • Jem
  • Rainbow Bright
  • She-Ra
  • Nobody

Furthermore, all anthropomorphic characters were, by default, patterned after white characteristics, features and behaviors. The only time an anthropomorph exhibited Black characteristics if there was a deliberate attempt to depict that particular character was “Black”.

For example: In Thunder Cats, Cheetara is obviously a blond bombshell, while Panthro is portrayed with what would generally be considered “Black features”, down to his wide nose, reverberating voice and bald head. Furthermore, Panthro – like his human counterpart Roadblock on GI Joe – is a loner…A little unhinged and unpredictable, never completely integrated into the group but dedicated to the cause nevertheless. He has freedom to make decisions, but it only extends so far: Specifically as far as his garage or wherever it is he keeps the Thunder Tank. And as excellent as Panthro, Roadblock and Shana Elmsford (Jem) may be at their individual tasks, they will never be free to lead the multi-ethnic/ majority white group that forms their community/clique.

In response to my question about where else on 80s television one might find examples of totally isolated Black animated characters that had complete sovereignty over the affairs of their lives, Woke Nerd offered Fat Albert and his friends. But even he was quick to admit that they hung around Fred Sanford’s junkyard and wore ski masks in broad daylight, and therefore weren’t really positive or powerful examples.

This only supported the reasons for my unfortunate partiality to the Monchichis. They were the closest things I could associate with a normal, non-dysfunctional society of color. Freaking monkeys.

This is the sort of subtle every day racism that white people of my generation don’t get. There are certain indignities that they will never know, and it would take too much time and too much emotional labor to unpack to paint even a partial picture. They’ve never had to look far for representation that made them feel ‘normal’. The characters that looked like them were conquerors. They were multi-dimensional and had depth. You got a sense that they were in control of their destiny and that you could depend on them (or someone who LOOKED LIKE THEM in real life) if you were ever in a pinch. Beyond the images, the very language surrounding their whiteness spoke to their power.

He-Man was the leader of Masters of the Universe.

She-Ra was the Princess of Power.

Freddy from Scooby Doo could lead you in solving a mystery.

Inspector Gadget’s niece, Penny, was the real brains behind each crime solved.

Rainbow Bright and her noble (white) steed had the power to make any problem go away simply by putting little glittery stars in her belt and pressing a button.

Every powerful/smart/enterprising person in the 80s cartoon world is white and usually blond. Even Dottie Dog from the Get Along Gang was a blond cheerleader. Add to that, every other girl in the Gang had blue eyes, just to reinforce that these may be animals, and we can’t make them ALL blond, but daggonit, these are WHITE animals!

One could argue that Mr. T bucked this trend on the cartoon named for him, but I don’t accept that. If we apply the same character and plot development standards to his show as say, She-Ra, where every member of the Rebellion living in the Whispering Woods is white, 80s television might have imploded. It still might. Can you imagine a team of all Black gymnasts lead by a Black man in a cut off shirt and a Mohawk flying around the world solving crimes and subduing people with their physical prowess? It would result in cartoon TVs first police shooting.

But back to the monkeys, cultural representation and how I saw myself.

When you grow up in Africa or around Africans in the diaspora, there is a 99% chance that you will hear tell of a “monkey” story. My primary school teacher told us about how a young English boy stopped him in London one day and asked if he had a tail…and if he’d allow him to see it. When I was a child, an airport worker in Europe once referred to all the Africans in transit as a “bunch of monkeys”. The Lebanese woman who lived next door to my best friend could be heard screaming, “You f***ing monkey!!!” at her maid as she hurled household items at her.

Nevertheless and no matter what the world said around me, I never saw a monkey’s reflection staring back at me when I looked in a physical mirror. But what was beinf reflected back to me on a subconscious level was something else entirely. When I discovered the subliminal perceptions I held about myself– and my continent – it startled it me. It shook me. It shamed me.

One day, many Monchichi years later, I was at home when someone (I can’t remember who because folks were always dropping by in those days) brought over a printed piece of paper with an AT&T ad on it. They were angry and demanded we look at it. Horror and shock erupted from the adults around the room. I kept staring at it, trying to work out what was so awful about this whimsical telephone advertisement.

“Look at Africa.”

I looked and didn’t see anything wrong. Africa was the right shape, the geography seemed in order…

“Malaka. Look at everyone else on the globe with a phone in their hand!”

I still didn’t get it.

“There’s a monkey sitting in Africa. Every body else on the planet using the phone is human, but they got a MONKEY in Africa!”

An AT&T ad from 1993 depicting the company’s coverage around the globe.

Of course I didn’t see it.

Monchichis ‘look like’ me.

Monchichis have technology.

Monchichis also happen to be monkeys.

Monkeys are live in Africa.

Monkeys look like me.

Oh my God.

*****

Fortunately, my children’s generation and those beyond will (hopefully) be spared this sort of cognitive disjoining when confronted with racist art/advertising. We still have to fight against the effects of colorism, body dysmorphic disorder and hair texturism (a plague in the natural hair community), but I am confident that they will never subliminally associate their physical features or their personhood with a monkey. We have Doc McStuffins and Li’l Bill to thank for that. So when people ask ‘WHY do we need more characters of color on TV’, let my Monchichi story provide further evidence for why more – and better – representation is necessary. Not that that matters so much at our house now. In my absence, Marshall has cut DSTV, so television plays a lesser part in raising his children than it would if I were home. I suppose that’s a good thing.

 

Have you ever had a moment where you discovered that pop culture influenced you on a subliminal level? Was it a positive or negative experience?

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In Defense of the Cowardly Marwako Employees Who Stood By As Their Co-Worker’s Face was Pushed into Pepper

Note: I will tell you all about the brain tumor that’s kept me from writing, but let’s table that for now so we can talk about this.

On the 4th of March in the year of Lord, two thousand and seventeen, it was widely reported that a 26 year-old restaurant manager named Jihad Thaabn grabbed Evelyn Boakye by the neck and rubbed her face in blended pepper while hurling abusive words at her. Ms. Boakye is employed as a member of kitchen staff at Marwako, a restaurant in Accra owned by Mr. Thaabn’s brother-in-law. The attack went on for 10 minutes before she was released from Thaabn’s physical grip. As she stood washing her face, Thaabn’s anger was reignited for reason’s that have yet to be explained. The attack continued. He grabbed her again and locked her in a room for 6 hours, refusing her medical treatment while forbidding her fellow employees from offering her assistance.

Marwako

It’s reported that Thaabn warned that if anyone tried to intervene, he’d have their job(s). All these men and women could do was stand by and watch “helplessly” as their co-worker was physically tortured and held against her will on the premises of their place of employment. Upon her release, Ms. Boakye alleges that she was warned not to report the matter to the police. It took her two days to gather the courage to report the matter, still not having recovered from the chemical effects of having pulverized scotch bonnets rubbed into her eyes.

index

As one would predict, there is a healthy dose of outrage expressed all over the country. There is also no small amount of indifference, with people very eager to move on from the incident because there are “bigger issues” plaguing Ghana than one Lebanese man abusing his subordinate. After Ghanaians have argued about whether Marwako should be boycotted/who really suffers in the wake of a boycott/whether we all shouldn’t just leave this to karma and God, we will spin in circles until nothing is actually done to address the root causes of employee abuses in the nation until the next horrifying event. Such is the Ghanaian’s cycle. We know it, and most importantly, foreigners know it as well. There is a reason that Ghanaians have a reputation for being “friendly”, rather than “proud”. Friendly in our context is a polite euphemism for push over. There’s no point in denying it.

Nevertheless, keyboard courage has been exhibited in profuse abundance. I have yet to see a single individual express solidarity or empathy with the other employees who watched Evelyn Boakye suffer through her 6-hour-plus ordeal.

“So what were her co-workers doing while she was being attacked?”

“If it was me, I would NEVER let that man put a finger on me!”

“Oh, if I was there, I would have intervened. Damn these Lebanese to hell! Can I come to their country and behave this way?”

We all would like to think that we would behave heroically in moments such as this – that we would muster all the gallantry of the ancients and right a horrible wrong in that moment. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we all exhibited the kind of courage we do while behind the glare of our screens, we wouldn’t let managers get away with sexually harassing the new hire; we wouldn’t sit by while a man beats a street kid to a pulp for scratching his car; we wouldn’t stand by while a trio of men walks into a chop bar in order to slap and punch two women for the crime of being lesbians…allegedly. In fact, we walk by atrocities committed in our communities every day because it’s none of our business.

Second to that, all this haughty talk is the privilege of those who have the benefit of financial security. If it’s one thing dependency robs you of, it’s the license to exhibit courage in the moment. Notice what Jihad Thaabn threatened his sympathetic subordinates with in the midst of his terrorism: the loss of their livelihood if they dared to intervene. The choice between dignity and paying school fees is not an easy one when you have so many people depending on your income. As I sit here and type, I can see the mental wheels of those Marwako kitchen staff turning. I understand why they where rendered inert. I’ve been there myself.

When I was 23, I worked at an organization that sold conferencing solutions. I was only there a short while before I was promoted from office admin to account manager, the direct result of a pending merger with a larger company. A week before the promotion was to take place, there was a brouhaha that I was drawn into between two other AMs and the operator, whose job was obsolete but spared because she was a friend of the CEO. Somehow, I ended up in the CEO’s office finding myself on the receiving end of a verbal assault. She cursed me and the other two account managers who’d gotten me embroiled in an issue that I had no stake in at all. The woman used language that my own father had never spoken to me with, and if the man who was responsible for my earthly existence and education up unto that point had never cussed at me like that, then there was absolutely no way in Satan’s hottest hell that this white woman was going to.

I cleared out my office and quit that afternoon.

This, of course, looked bad for the company (the accounts had already been divvied) and over the weekend I got half a dozen calls from managers and co-workers asking me to reconsider and come back. I refused to listen. I called my father proudly to tell him what I’d done.

“Why would you do something like that?” he asked incredulously.

“Because she CUSSED me, Daddy. How can I work for someone who would treat me like that? Even YOU’VE never cursed at me before…”

Less than impressed with honorable stance, my father said, quite sardonically:

“You should’ve waited until you got another job before you quit.”

Now, as a 23-year-old woman with no children, no car note and minimal bills, there was no reason for me not to have walked away from that toxic environment and say screw it all. What my dad was saying – without saying – is that I was a 23-year-old Ghanaian who had a family to help support back in Ghana and that they could not wait the requisite 3-6 months for a new job to pop. Doing so would stem the flow of that support. My personal suffering….and dignity, by extension…was of lesser consequence.

Three days later, I was loath to return to that job, but return I did.

“I knew she would come back,” my immediate line manager was reported to have said.

Whore.

Until Ghanaians get to the point where our dignity is worth more than a position frying rice or creating new customer accounts, there will always be a Jihad Thaabn, or an Obinim, or the myriad of powerful-yet-unnotable people at liberty to abuse their staff on a daily basis. The Marwako assault exposes yet again how privation robs a people of more than the things that readily come to mind when we think of the working poor and middle classes; like access to social services and utilities. It also has the capacity to rob one of the ability to express compassion.

Isn’t it scary to think that one day, someone will be too frightened to save you when you’re face is being ground into the proverbial pepper?

Seven Lessons in Seven Days

Somewhere along the way in late 2016, I (apparently) uttered the words “I desperately need a vacation from my family!”

Now, I don’t recall ever saying this aloud – but as the old Negro proverb goes, “From your lips to God’s ears!!!” That is how I ended up being banished to Tsitsikamma National Park for seven days and seven nights. It was my husband’s birthday gift to me: Solitude. Ostensibly, solitude to write, as I have also professed aloud that I want to go on a writer’s retreat at some point in 2017. (That I DO remember saying.)

It was a sweet gesture from a man who dotes on me, so I have tried my best to make it work to my advantage. Unfortunately, that attempt was in vain. I have discovered in these past seven days that though I often crave silence, I am terrified of it when bestowed to me over long periods of time. There is a silver lining, as luck would have it. My solitude forced me to pay attention to everything around me, as I had little to no access to the Internet (a cumulative one hour over the course of seven days) and only one DVD to keep me company in all that while. That DVD was Graffiti Bridge, starring Prince. I’ve owned Graffiti Bridge since 2006 at least, but have never watched it until this week. I watched it for four consecutive nights until my family came to see me on Sunday with more movies. As he always does, the Purple One taught me something special about this thing we call life.

 

Lesson 1: Divine Providence

“What God has for you is for you.” That is a saying I used to repeat in worship because it was cute, but after watching Graffiti Bridge, I firmly believe it. Did you see how many times Morris Day & The Time blew up the Glam Slam, or set a fire, or destroyed Prince’s equipment? The answer is LOTS. And STILL, no matter what, new instruments always appeared in time for the next battle or the Glam Slam was restored to its industrial splendor just in time opening hours; as though it had gone through a modest renovation rather than a demolition attempt. If something is meant for you, all the pieces will eventually line up for you to have it.

prince-graffiti-bridge-film-style-07

Lesson 2: Effort

I opened my hut window to let some air in, which always runs the risk of letting other things in. On this particular occasion, a fat horsefly buzzed its way into my room. I was content not to bother it as long as it didn’t bother my food or me and as fortune would have it, it eventually got bored and decided it would leave. It buzzed its way back toward the window. Instead of following the breeze and flying out, it flew toward the pane of the adjacent window, desperately trying to fly through it.

Y’all.

I watched this dumb fly climb up the pane, ram its head into it, fly to the base, climb up it again, and ram its head into the glass – repeatedly – for 15 minutes. It did this until it DIED from exhaustion. The fly entered my room full of loud, buzzy piss and vinegar but would have died in silence if not for the undignified “thunk” of its corps hitting varnished wood.

screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-3-42-27-pmThis taught me two things: a) If you’re dumb to get yourself into an unfamiliar situation, be smart enough to plan your way out. b) Effort without strategy can have fatal consequences. Sure, the fly could see its goal – the woods outside – from the clear glass, but that barrier was there for reasons. Just because something takes on the appearance of your success doesn’t mean it’s true to form. If you keep running into the same clear glass wall, maybe it’s time to shift course just a bit.

Or else you gon’ die.

Lesson 3: Vanity

Vanity is often regarded as a negative characteristic, but I believe it can be put to good and positive use. Embodying vanity can be healing. An albatross showed me this.

With miles and miles of beach available at its disposal, this particular winged sea rat chose to waddle in the one rock pool formations that was closest to me. It bathed itself with thoroughness and surprising attention to detail. The albatross made a big fuss about making rings and waves in the water that was still and peaceful before its aggressive arrival. After its ablution, it then chose to preen itself on the singular rock that was directly in my line of sight. Every once in a while it would stop fussing with its feathers to check if I was checking it out. After we made intermittent (and sufficient) eye contact, it continued its grooming.

To the world, the albatross is an unattractive nuisance with an irritating bird shriek. But in its own eyes, it is a siren of the sea, the peacock of the waves. How else can a seagull gain the effrontery to assume its presence is a desirable one? In this way, I learned that we must all shine and glory in our own light; Yes, even we who qualify as winged rodents.

Lesson 4: Perfection

Have you ever spent the day in a perfect environment, where someone else has thought of EVERYTHING? Well in this case, that someone happens to have been God. As I said, I went to Tsitsikamma to write, but most of my time was spent in reflection and contemplation. Why? Because perfection does not inspire creativity. There’s nothing of value you can add to perfection. It’s as futile an act as gilding the lily.

Can you imagine throwing extra muscles on Indris Elba? No. No you can’t. Because what’s the point? See how perfection robs of you the very desire to take a creative risk?

Lesson 5: Honesty

Piggybacking off of perfection is a lesson in honesty. And if I’m truthful, sitting out in the woods alone was not the course to successful, productive writing…at least for me. This is because the woods, the darkness, the perpetual crashing of the waves and the very pine planks that housed and protected me from the elements invoked sheer terror within me. That leads me to…

Lesson 6: Courage

Most of our greatest fears begin in the mind. A lot of us don’t even get a chance to fail, because we won’t take the shot(s) needed to experience failure nor success. And even though I did not succeed in writing the Great African Novel during my sabbatical in the forest, I did at least walk away with a new understanding and appreciation for the part our cognitive framework plays in overcoming doubt and fear. In my case, I overcame my fear of being overridden by cockroaches.

screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-3-40-51-pmLook at these walls. Tell me these walls don’t look like cockroaches! Every night, I kept vigil with the light of my cell phone to make sure that the knobs in the walls did not come to life with beetle like pestilence with the sole aim of crawling into my ears and inhabiting my brain. *Shudder!!! *

I could’ve let courage fail me and insist that my husband pick me up long before the seven days had come to a close, but instead, now I get to boast to you all about how brave I was in my insulated cottage with plumbing.

Lesson 7: Trust…with Caution

A doe and her fawn came to nibble on the tender shoots that sprang up all around the campsite at the park. Although I was in striking distance of either on two occasions at least, I made it a point to keep a respectful and wide berth. Although the animals were somewhat comfortable in the presence of their human neighbors, I believe everything NatGeo tells us about animals and wildness. I can hardly think of a dumber way to die than a head-butt to the gut from Bambi’s mom.

This analogy works in the human world as well. It works for virtually any situation. From credit card sharks to the lady offering “free” samples to bonbons at the mall, it always pays to sprinkle your trust with a little bit of caution. Because one minute, you’ve lost yourself in the blissful delight of gourmet chocolate and the next, you’re $5,000 in chocolate branded credit card debt.

 

And there you have it! I turned my mess into Muesli. Have you had any impacting lessons come your way this early in the year yet? Do share!

The Rejuvenating Power of Creation

In the summer of 2009, I paid a drop-in visit to my cousin in Ohio. She’s an extroverted introvert, so I knew my chances of catching her at home were pretty good. And home she was, just as I’d predicted.

Her house was exactly as I recollected, punctuated by the same accessories and scents that nestled themselves in memories from my previous visits. There were the beige suede sofa and love seat that she’d recently purchased to replace her old furniture, a color chosen because she’d raised 3 kids, who I suspect that though now fully grown, had robbed her of the confidence to commit to white. The beige suede matched the beige color on the walls and the beige carpet on the floor. The kitchen smelled of microwaved popcorn, and the guest bathroom in the hallway of potpourri. Upstairs was the “chill room”, where she bade me to follow her. It still carried the dank, earthy fragrance of weed, which she tried (unsuccessfully) to mask by opening the window and spraying Febreze after I’d informed her on arrival that I was not alone; Marshall was with me. To this day she is convinced that my God-adoring, deacon husband would judge or think poorly of her for harboring this ‘vice’. He doesn’t.

Amid all the familiarity, there was something visibly different about her house – or this room, rather – on this particular visit. My cousin pointed to a desk that used to house a laptop, a teacup and stacks of files.

“I make jewelry now,” she said proudly.

My eyes widened. “Really? Like…for real? You? Make jewelry?”

“Yeah, li’l nigga,” she laughed. “Come over here. Let me show you my stuff.”

You have to know my cousin to fully appreciate my surprise. She’s nothing if not analytical. Every job she’s ever held, for as long as I can remember, has been in accounting or payroll. She works with numbers. She went back to school to get her degree so that she could work with numbers in greater detail. Even when she worked with one of the country’s biggest fashion brands a few years ago, it was so that she could work with their numbers, not their clothing design team. Her idea of “freshening up her wardrobe” was to slip a silver necklace over her beige blouse to bring out the bling in the rivets of her mom jeans. So this new interest in jewel tones, baubles and jump rings came as a total shock.

The table was covered with all the trappings accessory creation, as well as some of her completed work. Some were really good; others not at all. In every piece, you could see the evolution of her new craft, not yet perfected, but getting much better with time. She tried to slip a beaded bracelet over my wrist, measured to fit her anatomy, but she’d lost a lot of weight since I’d last seen her and I’d gained far too much. It would be a shame to destroy the fruits of her hard work and send beads flying all over the room so soon upon arrival, so I told her to leave it be.

“What got you into this?” I asked with genuine interest.

“Girl! It’s therapeutic as fu…It’s therapeutic.” (Remember, The Deacon was in the room.) “It just helps me take an edge off, you know?”

I did not know, but I nodded as though I did, nevertheless.

She sat down to show me how she chose her beads, how she strung them together, how you have to make sure you tie knots securely with the whatchamacallit “so that your shi… errr…stuff don’t go flying everywhere.”

When her demonstration was completed and I had appropriately ooo’d and ahhh’d, we popped some popcorn, turned on Snapped, and caught up on family business.

I have only just begun to appreciate what ‘edge’ my cousin was referring to on that visit so many years ago. At the time, she was 42 and as I prepare to celebrate (or survive) the final year of my 30s, I see for myself how essential, how powerful it is to create something beyond what you believe is to be your scope of ability. I see this not only in myself, but in women whom I share a common generational experience with as well. I’d hazard that most women who reach their 40s are inspired to stretch their limits creatively, if they have the privilege to. By this time, life has knocked you about in myriad unforeseen ways, and it becomes natural to want to strike back.

Although I am a writer – and therefore a member of the creative arts – I have never considered myself a “creative”. Perhaps if I were a singer or a spoken word artist I might deserve the mantle…certainly if I were a visual artist…but I’m just a writer. It’s like being a daffodil in a field of sunflowers. Sure, I add color to the landscape, but even you will admit that the word “novelist” does not form an immediate association with the word “creative” in your mind’s eye. (Shhh…it’s okay.)

As a writer, I have to depend on words to create a vision, and lots of words if my inner thesaurus shuts down. But folks who are sculptors, photographers, tailors! Ahh…those are the creative arts. There’s something about conceiving a thing and seeing it manifest from raw wool, ink or cloth into item that is not just useful, but striking, that makes a part of your soul come alive. This is especially true if you’ve never seen yourself as capable of such a skill. Extending yourself beyond the norms of what you are most known for, what people would consider as “your thing”, is therapeutic as fu… It’s therapeutic.

This is how I know: On December 29th, 2016, I developed a tension headache that progressed into a full-blown migraine; my very first. It lasted twelve days. I thought I was going to have a stroke, my head was going to explode and then I was going to die. I couldn’t do much writing in that time – because I literally couldn’t THINK. But I knew I had to do something besides lie on my bed and wait out the pain. Sitting still and doing nothing for 12 days would kill a part of me I couldn’t do that. I discovered that what I could do was keep my upper body very still and use my hands to create something, even if that something wasn’t a string of coherent sentences. It was in those 12 days that I conquered my fear of the sewing machine and made fabric necklaces. Concentrating on something other than my affliction was essential to my survival. Some of you will be the fortunate recipients of the fruits of my anguish.

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These are my migraine inspired neck pieces: Purple Pain (L) and Scatter Your Brain (R)

See more of Elom's work at elomayayee.com

See more of Elom’s work at elomayayee.com

I discovered something else in that time. When I could bear the light emanating from my phone, I traveled around Instagram to see what my IG Tribe was up to. Everyone was ringing in the New Year creating. Nimi was knitting and Elom was taking phenomenal portraits…better portraits than she has in the past. (By the way, both women hold degrees in rocket science or volcano exploration…or something. I’ve not known them to be visual artists or craftswomen until lately.)

Nimi makes whimsical handmade scarves, booties, cute things. She's also a writer:www.nimisword.com

Nimi makes whimsical handmade scarves, booties, cute things. She’s also a writer:www.nimisword.com

Similarly, my sister (who is not on IG and who will probably fly to South Africa to beat me for sharing these images without her permission) had designed, drafted and built kitchen and living room furniture from scratch.

Not “assembled”. Built.

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She has a Masters in physics, and apart from those wood-planing sessions in JSS, has no formal training in carpentry. But this was IN her.

Unauthorized photos of my sister's work.

Unauthorized photos of my sister’s work.

If you look around your circle of friends, you will likely discover that any number of them has some hidden, untapped talent waiting to burst forth and give them new life. You may be tempted to encourage them to sell their creation(s) once discovered, but quell that encouragement if you can. Some of us create with the intention of selling our productions, but most Secret Creatives won’t. For the latter group, the profit is in the making of the item, not in making a profit. It is my personal belief that because we’ve been so wholly programmed as a culture to monetize everything – every act, every skill, and every thought! – that the sweetness of infant invention loses its savor and we abort creativity before it has a chance to live because our first thought is “What if it doesn’t make me money?”. As though if it does not offer a pecuniary return, it’s worthless. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a wind of fresh life that fills and rejuvenates you when you create something new; and that oxygen – that feeling – is far more precious than money.

This weekend, I was having coffee and a cry with a neighbor and our conversation took an unexpected turn to the creation story. We pondered over what God could’ve possibly been thinking when S/He made crazy stuff in the beginning. Things like water moccasins and lungfish and those little electric jellyfish that live at ocean depths that will crush you if you venture there without the right equipment. What were you thinking, Lord? Why make any of that? Now I imagine God’s answer would be: “Because I CAN.”

That’s good enough for me.

 

What hidden treasures lay inside of you? What CAN you create?

Query: Is Pumpkin Spice Supposed to be the New Watermelon?

The election is over, thankfully. We’d all hoped for some normalcy to return to our lives (Trump’s repeated threats to rip apart families and unleash his Gestapo on communities of color, notwithstanding) but things have only gone on to get more and more bizarre. Now, in post-racial America, we have white people who are convinced that they number among the racially oppressed. They have termed this phenomenon ‘anti-white bigotry’.

I have yet to find anyone who has been able to explain what anti-white bigotry actually is, how it has adversely affected white communities, or robbed them of their humanity or one way or another. If anyone from the Reddit community could do this without referring to me as “nigger” or “cunt”, as so many who wandered here after my Tomi Lahren piece did, it would be much appreciated. Because as it stands, many people are uncertain about how pointing out white delight for Sperrys, roller derby, fresh fruit and now – pumpkin spice – equates to having to navigate voter disenfranchisement, redlining, police brutality, stigmatization, and so on. Inquiring minds want to know!

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I have come to the conclusion that white Americans are only oppressed in their minds. All of the angst and fear they’re experiencing is the same as the anomalous effect described in Michael Crichton’s book, Sphere. Native Americans are not rallying to chase you off their land, Black people are not gathering up arms to murder you in your beds, Mexicans are not building a wall around Buford Highway to keep you away from authentic food or fresh, affordable produce at the farmer’s market…even though these would all be natural and justified reactions to the way these and other marginalized groups have been cheated, brutalized and dispossessed by mainstream white America. In the absence of that retaliation, certain factions of liberal and alt-right America have identified how marginalized groups are now exacting revenge through reverse racism (which is not a real thing, by the way). Behold! We the Committee for White Tears puts to you that Pumpkin Spice is the new watermelon!

I like watermelons. Everyone does. There is a reason every fruit salad bowl made available at Public is 70% watermelon. In fact, I consider anyone who does not enjoy a sweet watermelon suspicious. However, watermelons and the Black community have a turbulent relationship. Says William Black of the Atlantic:

“…that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. Few Americans in 1900 would’ve guessed the stereotype was less than half a century old.”

On the other hand, the elements that make up pumpkin spice have a far less noble beginning. It is comprised of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. Much like sugar, pumpkin spice was initially available to only aristocratic families. Because elitist tastes always dictate middle class fashion, the proletariat in both New World and the Old soon also developed a taste for the aromatic goodness of cinnamon. To feed this new demand, the Spice Trade went into full gear. It devastated natural habitats, cost human life in the thousands, robbed nations of their sovereignty and changed the balance of power.

In that regard alone, watermelon and pumpkin spice sharply differ. The proliferation of one is rooted in economic freedom and the other in colonial, imperialist oppression.

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I can understand how a group of people who have never known extensive oppression – or whose ancestors were given preference and opportunities to lift themselves from subjugation, like the Irish – can suffer confusion about what makes a stereotype and what constitutes racism. As I told the bearded twitter user who made the stretch in asserting that pumpkin spice is a racist trope: Denying people jobs or housing because of their ethnicity is racism; Not allowing a Black doctor to help an ill passenger on a plane because she’s Black is racism. Saying white girls love pumpkin spice…is just a fact. And it’s certainly not rooted in bigotry.

Look. I can pick up 15 glossy magazines today, from Marie Claire to Teen Vogue – and I can guarantee you that there will be dozens of mentions about pumpkin spice, boots and wooly mittens. There will be hundreds of thousands of dollars of ad dollars spent to attract white, female consumers to try out pumpkin spice Oreos and/or cream cheese, or participate in a Pumpkin Spice 5K run to support a charitable cause. The simple fact is, white women respond more urgently to pumpkin spice than they do to the sight of a black child gunned down in the street. And this perception – and twisted reality – is not the fault of any person of color. This is an idea fueled and created by white people working at white owned and controlled ad agencies.

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Before you proffer the idea that pumpkin spice is a symbol of white oppression or a tool of Black antagonism, as yourself how many white people died violently in the procurement of pumpkin spice. Has pumpkin spice been used as an emblem of shame? How does the image of a happy white woman in an autumnal glen inhaling its sweet aroma lend to the oppression of an entire group?

107725159_girl-eating-watermelon-black-americana-retro-tin-signI would love to see watermelon themed fun runs, 5Ks, camping events or birthday parties, but we as a race still haven’t been able to overcome the stigma that is attached to the wonderful, sweet summer fruit. That’s the difference. When a white woman clasps her venti Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, she’s considered artistic, determined even. She’s getting fueled for her day or taking a break from it. *If I sit on my porch, swinging my legs, twisting my pigtails and spittin’ seeds in a cup, I stand a real chance of some douchebag making hooting monkey noises in reaction to my presence. Both substances are used as agents of humor, but only one affords the persons closely associated with it humanity.

Conclusion: It is absurd and obscene to compare the warfare and violence that has dovetailed with the cultivation and consumption of pumpkin spice with the entrepreneurial spirit behind the cultivation and consumption of watermelon.

 

*Imagery borrowed from Rasheeda S. who, like me, loves a good piece of watermelon.

 

Reflections on Language

Damon Young, editor in chief over at VSB, has curated a list of things Bougie Black People (BBPs) love. Among the litany are unnecessary hashtags, Solange and full beards and Jesse Williams. (I think it’s fair to say that ALL Black people love Jesse, bougie and otherwise.)

If there were a published list of things loved by progressive (read: dadabee) Ghanaian women, Nana Ama Agyemang’s podcast ‘Unfiltered’ would certainly be chief among them. It will be a while before the industry catches up and begins to reward this canon of work with awards and recognition, so let me be one of the first to say that ‘Unfiltered’ is award-winning, way before it has won any awards. The show is consistently well produced, is delivered on time and features some of the brightest female minds in Ghana today. Oh, and my cousin Poetra Asantewa is the voice behind No Panties, the podcast’s musical score.

Nana Ama closes each episode of Unfiltered with a question for her co-hosts for the day.

“What have you been reflecting on?” she asks.

The responses have been humorous and sobering, with women confessing to reflecting on anything from grief to Ghana’s wrecked economy/individual buying power measured in procured balls of kenkey. I often ask myself what my response would be if I ever had the opportunity to appear on the show. I generally come up blank, since I spend most of my days mulling over the backlog of writing I have yet to attack or ways to keep my kids away from the TV and focused on their books. None of this is particularly interesting to anyone but me and the people who take school fees from us. However this week, I found myself in a discussion that has refused to release me from its grip. It was about language, and I’ve found myself reflecting on it deeply.

A friend of mine was looking for a name for a new venture she’s undertaking. She wanted a Twi word for something avant garde, svelte, funky…You know? I told her that I was not the person from whom to seek advice, since my Twi is dismal and getting worse by the year. I can barely ask for water, let alone conjure up an adjective that would excite the imagination. She assured me that I could not be that far gone, and I assured her that I most certainly could.

“In fact, I think that you will find that many Twi speakers are unable to convey their thoughts in pure, poetic Twi. We speak so much Twi-glish in Ghana these days that we’ve almost ‘un-interpreted’ our language for ourselves. Our language is so diluted now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same could be said for Ga, Fante and the dozens of other languages spoken throughout the country.”

For instance, I told her about a Twitter friend of mine whose Akuapem name translates as “a glow”. When she wrote about her name – her early disdain for it and eventual struggle to embrace it – I connected with that. As Ghanaians, we’re all indoctrinated to understand that our Ghanaian names have meaning…however Western/Anglo names give you access, a certain privilege that meaning can’t. I believe the same can be said for language.

Anyone who’s spent anytime in an academic environment will tell you how speaking English, and the more fluently the better, provides a certain distinction among your peers. Perhaps you may be called upon to read in front of the class more often, perhaps you’ll be given a seat in government and eventually become president because you communicate well; in English. The same deference is not afforded to the pupil or professional who has mastered a local language – any local language – to the same degree. Indeed, there are some who have written entire theses about the impossibility of expressing oneself completely in a Ghanaian language, because they do not provide the “breadth and depth of thought” in order to do so. And yet a word for ‘glow’ exists. Someone had to be looking up at and studying the properties of the moon in order to create a word for the halo around it. Naturally, other words would be created to describe the modern societies we lived in, prior to the invasion of the European.

What are the Twi words for luminescent, philosopher, glabrous or entrepreneur? Is ‘kpakpakpa’ now the official vernacular for entrepreneurship, or will the original word (which I’m certain existed) be lost forever? Do we even care?

Former palace of the Asantehene before it was ransacked and burnt by the British in 1874

Former palace of the Asantehene before it was ransacked and burnt by the British in 1874

Long before English infiltrated our linguistics, we had architects, blacksmiths, mathematicians and apothecaries. Much of the knowledge about to build, maintain and advance our society has been lost, along with the language to define it. Perhaps this is why Ghana finds itself constantly in a position to beg for development loans and favors from other nations who’ve done a better job at preserving their traditions, like the Indians and the Chinese. We’ve lost the ability to define ourselves, which is why a statue of Ghandi is sitting up at on a university campus and not one of the many heroes who resisted colonial oppression and subjugation, Yaa Asantewaa aside.

Image credit: mg.co.za

Image credit: mg.co.za

I understand that language changes with time and events. The English spoken in the 15th century is not the same language spoken today. It is only natural that African languages would follow the same trend. But since we’ve failed to preserve the old, I do worry that we are not creating new words to express ourselves fully and uniquely in this modern age. We are increasingly becoming reliant on English to define our thoughts, to our own detriment. We give more honor foreign languages with our mouths and minds, and there is no denying. Who will honor ours?

That’s what I’ve been reflecting on. What has captivated your thoughts and imagination recently?

 

*You can listen to Unfiltered on Soundcloud every week when you click HERE.