When I was in Senegal, I came down with my first bout of chronic gastritis. I am able to name that mystery ailment of stomach cramps and perpetual nausea only in hindsight. When I was there – not to the discredit of the fine Senegalese doctors I saw – I had no idea what was causing me everyday distress in my bowels. From the moment I woke up until I glided into sleep that night, I bore discomfort in my chest, my stomach and my throat. The first few weeks were awkward for me. I was the only boy in the program, but was no longer able to perform the quintessentially masculine mastery over my body. I was distraught, constantly uncomfortable, belching slow, endless burps from an empty stomach, all as I gripped my stomach and responded to questions in my practiced, if a bit inflexible, French. The other students in the cohort pitied me and would offer me anything they had that might soothe my problem. Before the first week was through, my parents and I were discussing the possibility of me withdrawing from my program in Dakar. “I’m not mentally present,” I told them, almost crying as I clutched my distended belly on the red leather coach in the back of our school building. “I don’t think I can do this.”
As you may know, I didn’t withdraw from SIT Senegal. Rather, I sank into a paranoiac life. I began hoarding spicy ginger candies that I could buy for 15 CFA at a little stand around the corner from our school. I would eat at least five or six of these everyday, at any moment when I began to feel queasy and uneasy. I never didn’t have one with me, and I knew exactly which ones I liked (I did not care for the pineapple ones). I wasn’t as adventurous as I would have liked to have been, mainly because I was young, anxious and undeniably foreign, but also because I didn’t know when my body would suddenly turn on me and start calling the shots. I often lived vicariously through the freer women in my program, half-wanting to go with them to eat sandwiches prepared at the dodgy sidewalk café, but always content, nevertheless, in my croque monsieur, my dried mango and my digestive cookies.
There was a girl in my program who left Senegal. Unlike me, she came down with something while we were there. Perhaps it was from food she’d eaten; an apple or orange she hadn’t properly sanitized with eau de javel or an ill-placed, ill-sipped glass of local water served at a restaurant, or her own body rebelling against her because it could. Needless to say, this girl had the fortitude to leave Senegal in the middle of the program, much to the shock of the employees of our program. The director shook his head in disbelief when he told us that no one had ever left the program, not even years prior when the ebola outbreak struck West Africa and stalled study abroad applications. I won’t go into the details about this girl, but I will note that nearly everyone had grown tired of her literal belly-aching by the time she actually departed. She complained ceaselessly about her perpetual nausea, her inability to name and thus fix her problem, and her unending fear of eating anything. She wanted, desperately, to be home with her parents, not because they could fix the problem (her parents, if I recall, were therapists) but because home is where comfort lies. Being sick abroad is absolutely terrible. You can take my word for it, as someone who felt they would vomit any minute while sulking about the Panthéon.
I bring up this anecdote for a couple of reasons: 1) to give some context for what I’m currently dealing with (or trying to deal with) 2) to underline a key point which I’ll make in this post 3) to draw a picture of what it feels like to be in this body.
I bring up this anecdote – of Senegal and the girl who left – because I remember being asked by one of the students after the girl left halfway through our program, whether or not I had overcome my own gastric woes. The question was posed to me after everyone (myself included, I must concede) ragged on the girl [in an admittedly harsh manner] about her endless complaining. I told my friend that my condition hadn’t improved, a response she undoubtedly wasn’t expected. Her face lit up with shock and pity, but I did not accept it.
“My condition hasn’t improved much at all. I just stopped talking about it.”Continue reading The Chicken and the Egg
I’m tired, y’all. Tired of reading about everything that’s going on. Tired of being tired of hearing about stuff I know I need to be paying more attention to. Tired of things going back to normal. Tired of weird stares on the street. Tired of being watched on our way to the protest. Tired of feeling the need to participate or to be a part of a solution. Tired of defending rebellion. Tired of historicizing revolt. Tired of trying to think of a way to make my work more about the pressing issues facing people like me in the world. Tired of debating the utility of my work with myself. Tired of ‘deferring to people who know more about these issues.’ Tired of the weight of my silence. Tired of three-minute spurts of social media use before I’ve seen too much. Tired of seeing the same posts reshared.
Tired of strange fruit. Tired of despising black trans people. Tired of not caring about black women. Tired of not hearing black women. Tired of not seeing black women. Tired of wishing black queer people would ‘not be so aggressive’ or ‘in our face.’
Tired of continuing to invest energy in white people, in white feelings, in whiteness, even when you swear you’re doing no such thing.
Tired of feeling compelled to watch videos of Black people getting killed because I watch every single one of them. Tired of feeling that familiar anticipatory numbness, seeing the mist of blood and the vertiginous swirl of the bodycams. Tired of hearing the pleas. Tired of reading the pleas. Tired of feeling hollow.
Tired of the ongoing existential crisis that is being black in an antiblack world. Tired of defending the dead. Tired of the Zong, the Amistad. Tired of Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg. Tired of Gorée, Christiansborg, Whydah. Tired of Matouba. Tired of not being able to fly home. Tired of homesickness for nowhere. Tired of talk of return. Tired of the ghosts in my mouth.
Tired like ER Braithwaite when he sat beside a white liberal man on a train in the Northeast United States and become someone else’s negro. Tired because I’m still stuck reading Black Skins, White Masks when y’all are re-re-rereading The Wretched of the Earth. Tired of seeing things from multiple angles. Tired of being diplomatic, apologetic, a devil’s advocate.
Tired of talking. Tired of my own voice. Tired of my epidermalization. Tired of history.
Tired of making myself small for other people. Tired of being the only Black person at the department party. Tired of asking ‘would they have said this to a white person?’ Tired of defending transracial coalitions. Tired of reminding other black people that your blackness doesn’t excuse or explain away your discrimination of other nonwhite groups.
Tired of buying things at the store because if I leave emptyhanded, I’m a thief. Tired of needing a receipt.
Tired of explaining my theory of blackness. Tired of theorizing an impossible world without race or gender or sexuality. Tired of prophesizing. Tired of being read as a pessimist. Tired of expecting my optimism to be legible. Tired of being both Caliban and Ariel. Tired of being Othello. Tired of being my own Iago. Tired of my créolité.
Tired of the word ‘abjection’ at the back of my throat. Tired of being the ‘race person.’ Tired of being the resident postcolonial theorist. Tired of defending postcolonial theory. Tired of postcolonial theory.
I’m tired of being everyone else’s negro. I’m tired of being my own negro. I’m tired. Leave me alone.
I don’t have much to say about the riots or the protests. I’ve tried drafting a post for the past few days and nothing has come out. It all sounds trite or too formal or too academic. Writing your vulnerability is difficult, but you all know this.
In times like this, I feel my blackness the most. I watched the video of George Floyd’s life getting snuffed out, just like I watched the spray of blood as Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead. I acknowledge people’s right to abstain, but I never do. And each time, I feel a certain nothingness inside of me. What’s wrong with me? I just watched a snuff film, watched this man beg and plead and gasp while this fucking cop applied pressure to his trachea until he went limp. He was probably dead by the end of the video. I watched a man get murdered for no reason. So why do I feel nothing?
I don’t post on social media when things like this happen. I avoid talking about it with my friends because I resist unraveling the bundle of nerves around my true feelings. No one can put my fragile life back together, so why bother? Or, I’m afraid that there are no true feelings thereunder, that what I feel I feel is just an illusion. Affective gas. Existential indigestion.
You don’t have to tell me that there’s nothing protecting me from being another Ahmaud or Michael or Korryn or Tony or Sandra or Breonna or Trayvon or Amadou or Sean or George or Eric. Mine is another name to dry out your mouth at a sun-parched rally and scrawl onto your picket sign. Another face to break the internet.
I already know it, and it’s the knowledge of my knowing that I avoid. I live so squarely inside of my body that I can feel my skin tighten as I shrink in the presence of white people. Obedient and obeisant. Willing to serve. I’m never unaware of who and what I am in this world, even when I’m trying to be someone or something else.
I avoid Facebook, Instagram and Reddit because everyone is talking about the latest killing, saying the same old things. Voicing their hot-blooded anger and grief. A stir, a collective weeping. Then the lull before it happens again. This time is different and I’m glad. I adore the crimson glow on the horizon while I watch the world burn from a distance.
There were protests in New Haven today. Had I known of them, I would have had to make the decision of whether I wanted to go or not. I don’t think I would have gone, had I been given the choice. I can’t furnish you with an explanation that doesn’t sound like an excuse. It’s all nonsense in my mouth, a meaningful jabbing with the tips of my fingers.
I abstain because I think about my racial experience every minute of every day. Whenever I go into a store, I feel their eyes on my back. I’m careful of where I put my hands, careful to not seem too shifty or shady. Very rarely do I enter a store without making a purchase because I don’t want people to think I’ve stolen something. My grandmother’s voice is in my ears: “Always ask for a bag.” Why, I asked, a stupid child not yet aware of what he is. “People will think you stole if you don’t get a bag.”
Whenever I sit in a seminar room, I police myself. I’m eager, I’ll admit it. I do my homework, I like the sound of my own voice. But somewhere in a region of my mind I’m whispering “That’s enough, Xavier. You’ve spoken too much. Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up.” A fifteen second point feels like I’ve been talking for thirty minutes. I imagine their green and blue eyes rolling. “Why does he always have to talk about race?” My point was too long, meandering, incoherent and baseless. I’m taking up space, I’m expanding and smothering everyone in the room with my dark continent of a body. I imagine hearing their thoughts in my head as a kind of prejudicial telepathy. “Stupid, arrogant, garrulous n*gger.”
I don’t share my emotions with others. Very few people have seen me cry or angry or excited. In general I’m rather neutral because being neutral is safe. But this isn’t a façade, but a defense mechanism. Boisterous, rambunctious and loud black children get set apart. They draw too much attention to themselves and demonstrate that they won’t survive in a white demure world obsessed with decorum and homogeneity. Black kids with ambition learn to keep themselves small, even when they pretend that being tiny is partial to their truest selves. Being black in white spaces means believing your mask is your personality, after all.
It means believing that being in diverse and integrated spaces means you no longer have to know your place. Nothing was ever further from the truth. A diverse and integrated space means that your place has been ordained. You have an office now: resident black. Be grateful and don’t look so darn melancholy. Try to put on a smile.
Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind is a person I don’t recognize. I keep him imprisoned in the frigid Fort de Joux of my mind. A war criminal, a terrorist, I leave him there to ice over and die.
I’m not okay, but I’ll survive.
I know my silence doesn’t mean what I feel people think it means. When I don’t post or reshare the links to resources, relief funds, mutual aid – it’s not that I don’t care or that I’m unbothered. I choose my quiet to protect myself because I still have to deal with a racist world when the protesters go home and classes start again and things return to normal. I tune out because protecting myself keeps me alive.
Survival isn’t enough, though.
I fear this post makes no sense, but I’ll post it anyways. I’m used to my emotions not making sense. I’ve accepted that emotions never make sense. Nevertheless, I haven’t been articulate and I may have even soured your image of me. I accept this if it’s the case. I’ve always feared that I’m secretly a cold, calculating and manipulative person with little to no warmth or passion. Maybe I am, and my numbness to all of this is just a symptom.
I wish I felt comfortable going out and protesting, writing thinkpieces, posting my thoughts and opinions to Instagram, standing off against the police. I’m grateful that there are people out there doing what I can’t or won’t do.
Perhaps I’m nothing but a sniveling craven of an academic hiding behind his books, preaching of a world he’s too afraid to build. And if that’s the case, can I accept myself with grace and kindness, even if that means being rejected by you?
Is my grief and fury, tinged with melancholy and stained with pessimism, legible to you?
Does it need to be?
Image: Faith Ringgold
Your quarantine begins on March 8. Spring break opens with the administrative murmurings of temporary closure. Days later, the news is confirmed with an email from one of too many deans. New Haven is quiet over the breaks, but this time the silence hurts rather than heals. Undergrads, grad students, postdocs secret themselves away to home, to silk-sand beaches, European cities, or dusky archives. The air is cold, but the sun sings of the coming of spring. The trees know it before we do. For them, very little has changed.
I began 2019 on a plane to Paris. I was going to conduct some archival research, or at least this was my excuse. In hindsight, I didn’t really do much research, although I did spend most of my time in the belly of the BnF. I went for the purpose of pushing myself to do something I found kind of frightening. The prospect of traveling to another country unaccompanied made me a bit too aware of how free I truly am. I write this two days after leaving the infantile protection I still enjoy within my parent’s presence, having returned to New Haven where I’m entirely an adult, like it or not. A year ago, the notion of my independence, much coveted as a child, filled me with an unanticipated kind of dread. Even though I had technically been living on my own as an adult during my first two years of grad school, I hardly felt as if I really was independent. Yale had taken over my guardianship, was paying me an allowance, taking me to my doctor’s appointments while giving me enough space to think I was doing all of these things myself (all that’s changed is my awareness of this). Yet, I still found myself frightened by my own freedom. The existential cliff of being autonomous and ungoverned, finally cast off into dark and ominous waters. I could go to Paris and have experiences I think I need. I could stay and wonder what would have happened had I gone. In both scenarios, I would be forced to bear my own consequences.
I had to acknowledge that it was me who controlled the tempo and key of my life.
That this frightened me so much, as I was forcing myself to apply for the grants, come up with the project description, get the letters of recommendation, buy my tickets, and book my lodging, told me one important thing about myself: I did not trust myself. I had my freedom finally, but I did not know what freedom meant or that freedom could possibly feel so undesirable once it was attained. The burden of choice, the threat of repercussions. Placed atop my feigned belief in being able to handle anything the world or God threw my way, my mental composition seemed unfit to handle the everyday crisis of being. At times I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, that things were too hard. Like most people my age, I leaned into the web of lies that tells us that other people can steel our resolve, that things like love and companionship can illuminate the sea’s darkness. I grew lovesick for love I’ve never had. The notion of friends having social connections to which I was not firmly attached bothered me, because I perceived of their activities together, as friends among themselves, as based on my exclusion. How absurd, but one cannot really be aware of oneself when they are so preconditioned to silence reason when feeling takes the mic. I expected people to just “get me” and for me to just “get people,” because it all seemed so easy when I looked in on other people’s lives.
My voyeurism told me that I was insufficient in some way. I had convinced myself that something out there could fix the aching lack, and I was disappointed when I could not manage to find this something.
All the while, I had not been able to name what was ailing me.
I was too naïve to realize that my pain wasn’t any different than anyone else’s, and that for most it was a tolerable, perhaps even permissible, pain. A pain for which the word pain may seem even too harsh, too acute. Not a pain, but an ache. Not an ache, but discomfort. A bit of gas Indigestion. Nausea.
I started wondering at 14 if, when I was being assembled at the plant, someone had fastened something a bit too tight
Added a bit too much of a strong ingredient.
Overcooked, overstuffed, ruined it?
Had someone let the pot boil dry?
And if so, must the boy be thrown away?
preface OR white tenured professor mourns an imagined bygone era
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a professor in my department. It was one of those long meetings where we ended up discussing just about everything. This particular professor enjoys a prestige and esteem most would find enviable. And he wielded his status like a weapon, in the ways professors of such clout typically do. As we were chatting, I began to unfold my aspirations and my fears for the coming years. As I feel like everyone knows at this point, I am planning to take the next two years to study for my dissertation, conduct some archival research and write my dissertation, presumably and preferably away from campus. I’ve thus been in the process of applying for grants to fund these two years of travel and study and was asking this professor for advice. Interweaved into this conversation were my inevitably legible trepidations about my job prospects. Comp Lit at Yale has a decent hiring record, but the lack of any semblance of institutional support for my research project and the rather vague and open-ended image of my dissertation committee has left me with a feeling of insecurity I’m sure won’t go away until I’ve accepted a job offer somewhere.Continue reading fear of a black future
Let’s go back to 2015. I had just finished taking the French language courses at Swarthmore. This means that I was able to hold the most basic of conversations in French, often with generous assistance from my professors. My knowledge of French literature, French culture, French politics, anything really, was limited to whatever my instructors had taught us in class. And because my instructors taught only in French, my knowledge was really centered around what little I could actually understand. It was in the summer of 2015 that I first decided I would study abroad in Senegal during my junior spring. In order to prepare myself, I prepared an independent course of study with my advisor on West African literature, with an emphasis on Senegalese literature. I’ll link the syllabus here.
Prior to this independent study, I read my first novel in French outside of class, which was Ousmane Sembène’s Xala. As to be expected, I did not understand much of what I was reading. I found I was getting frustrated with my inability to make sense of the plot, mainly because I didn’t know what half of the words meant. I had the bare fundamentals of French grammar, so I could roughly tell you how the sentence was working, but I couldn’t really tell you what the verb meant, and therefore the sentence was partially void of meaning. I kept reading, expecting that with time I would improve, but I can’t say that this happened. However, I went into the independent study knowing that, because this was the first time I’d be reading novels in French, I decided to take notes and consult my advisor on the best course of action. I have since committed what she’s told me and what I’ve learned to memory, and cannot really report what I learned then to you, since it’s been assimilated into my general approach to literature more broadly. Nevertheless, it’s four years later and I’m reading French novels every week, often at the same pace and with the same degree of rigor with which I read an English novel. And I’m here now to give you some tips on how to do this.Continue reading How I learned to read a book in a foreign language
Let’s set the stage: the year is 2013. I am 18 years old, fresh out of undergrad and feeling excited, albeit uncontrollably anxious, to be “independent” and in college. Like many of my friends, I had joined the poetry group at Swarthmore. Unbeknownst to me, the poetry group was mainly frequented by competitive slam and spoken word poets – and this was a kind of writing that I had never experienced. In high school, I had read the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath TS Eliot and have wanted to be an esoteric “page” poet like them, weaving into my confessional works a kind of opacity which would protect me from the otherwise inscrutable vulnerability of my work. I had enjoyed my work so much, and have published on some blogs and in my high school literary magazine, even, that I had decided to join the group, although I knew I would not really be understood. Now, I don’t want to make it out like I was the best poet in the world. In fact, I thought I was quite bad and have much room to improve. But nevertheless, I like what I as writing, I liked how strange and discomfiting my work was. But I found that people would blankly stare at me when I would share my work. Not knowing what to make of this, I turned inwards and grew afraid that I was being misunderstood. I slowly stopped going to the club meetings, fearing further misunderstanding.Continue reading Notes from underground OR why I stopped writing poems
This year I witnessed a number of changes. I stopped going to the gym, began to eat poorly, and started ordering out more often. I do not really know why all of these things happened all at once. But the end result was what one could anticipate: unwanted weight gain and unnecessary credit card debt. Although the debt isn’t too bad at all, my weight gain has unnerved me for more than just superficial and vain reasons. What I’m finding frustrating is shifting out of a feedback loop of bad and worse habits. And it’s not simply because dieting and exercising are hard but because I’ve rarely had to work for anything.Continue reading a formless life
Summertime, and the living is easy.
Hey. It’s been a while. I’ve been away from my blog, trying to figure some things out about myself. I have let myself go in more ways than one, and am in the process of (re)injecting some discipline back into my life. It’s hard. I often want to give up, and find that an amorphous life, while undesirable, is certainly easier. But then I get frustrated with a formless, shapeless, shiftless life and fly into a fit of trying to do too much, only to slip even further into a voided life. I’m on my way, though, and that’s all that matters.Continue reading How I’ve grown during my second year of graduate school