a note on disquiet

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

life in the bunker

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.

A handful of your friends meets up every now and then to get work done at a local café. Then “the ick” arrives in New Haven, and suddenly that is no longer possible. Cafés, restaurants, bars close here as they do around the world. The streets are empty. They even shut down the traffic lights downtown, claiming there’s not enough people to sustain so intricate a spider web of streets and signals. The entire earth retreats indoors to endure a new normal.

Quarantine has been a void. Time doesn’t matter. Diet doesn’t matter. Discipline doesn’t matter. There is a rhythm to life but you can’t catch it, can’t jump into it. As you grow accustomed to the tempo, there’s a change – things get faster, your feet get slower. Your body sags and dips, you stutter. You slip, you fall. You heave yourself up, try to get back into the saddle of the day, but it’s not so easy anymore. Wouldn’t this be an easy transition? Most of your work can be done at home, anyways. You have all your books. You have a working computer, a stablish internet connection. You have assignments, tasks, lectures to keep your days ordered and organized. Yet, you can’t catch a break. Although you cannot master the dance of the new normal, your graceless feet-tripping is in sync with everyone else whose feet clatter in this endless night. Every day is Friday evening, but you have the flu.

In the first few weeks, you were feeling good. You’re still gainfully employed and grateful. You did not quite ache for the presence of others, but found the sudden prohibition on connection unnerving. You formed a closed loop with friends to steady the course, and vowed to hang out with only one another as you wait for this nauseating song to end. Yet it whirs on, your feet ache, and no doubt you and your selected friends have outgrown the charm of one another’s presence. There are voices in my ears telling you things you know are not true, as is prone to happen every time the seasons change. April showers water the flower of dread in your mind’s garden.

The semester picks up again, and you and the teaching staff for your course stumble your way through the first few sessions. You-all meet perhaps too often, sometimes just to hear the simulacrum of another person’s voice or to consider the facsimile of another person’s face. A cyber fatigue creeps – you know it very well, now. Something about Zoom wrings you out. A day full of back-to-back meetings and go-see’s around New Haven is the equivalent of two one-hour Zoom meetings, during which you have not moved from that uncomfortable chair in your living room. You sigh because you’re tired of talking to people. You sigh because you miss talking to people.

You go on walks around your neighborhood. At first you do not like this. You are disturbed by how few people wear face masks. You wear yours in order to remind people of their lack of consideration for the health and wellbeing of others. They’re so selfish, you sneer in the vault of your mind. On the days you forgot yours at home, you feel every particle that lands on your body. You are nauseated by every surface you must touch. Every door handle and credit card terminal fills you with dread. You wash your hands, but you never count to 20 (or is it 40? You can’t remember). You wash your hands with scalding hot water, because your mother said that only hot water can kill germs. But viruses aren’t alive, and thus cannot be killed.

You listen to the news as you get in your morning exercise. Or maybe you listen as you eat your third bowl of Cheerios. Who can judge you, sitting there in your underwear on your couch, your cat (or a friend’s cat) skating around your feet? Korva Coleman tells you about something stupid and/or terrible that the president said in his now-daily coronavirus briefings. You laugh at the absurdity, or your furl your brows – there is no difference. You complete another uninspired set of sit-ups and feel the muscles tense under your paunch of quarantine weight. Outside it’s raining.

The semester is over and you let out a sigh of relief. You finish your grading, send out your grades and wish your students a good summer. Then you find that you have nothing left to do. It’s the end of April, and you’ve given yourself until June to begin working on your dissertation. You come up with all sorts of funny ideas on how to fill the month between now and then. They are funny because they are absurd — you lack the discipline or the resolve to get them done. You clean your apartment for the fourth time this week. You take your daily two-hour nap.

You’ve taken up alcohol as a hobby. The clerk at the liquor store at the end of the block now recognizes you, even when your face is covered by your repurposed pillowcase mask. You smile to greet her as you enter, but she can’t see it. You buy your six pack of Lagunitas, your Spanish red, your bargain whiskey. You swipe from behind the plastic curtain draped between you and her.

You find yourself in “the weird part” of YouTube. Why do yo find videos about wasp nests being removed from the inside of walls so fascinating? You love when the man pulls out the fat wriggling grubs and feeds them to his clucking hens. You watch with contentment as a mink flushes rats from their underground dens, only for their necks to be snapped by a motley crew of hounds. Your YouTube algorithm is entirely fucked up. This is who you are now.

You break social distancing protocol every week, it seems. Sometimes you go to the store simply because you know you shouldn’t. Sometimes you meet your dealer and he chats you up in his dirty car for far too long. You don’t know where he’s been, who’s company he’s kept. You may have even had an illicit Tinder date out of desperation, your body starving, your mind ratty with stir-crazy boredom. The two of you are so anxious that whatever happens between you isn’t very good. And even if it’s good, this person has already proven themselves reckless and irresponsible. You two have no future together. Of course you never speak again.

You’ve gotten fat.

You’re hungry all the time.

Are you depressed?

You’ve started talking to yourself… or now you’re more comfortable doing it without the fear of someone in the hallway, through the wall, hearing you.

You started reading a book and did not finish. It’s like you can’t absorb anything. You read the same lines over and over again. You give up and check what’s going on on Twitter. When you put your phone down, the book has tumbled to the floor and it’s now nighttime.

You miss your mother.

You’re wearing that shirt again. When was the last time you did laundry? Changed your sheets? Brushed your teeth?

You have so many plans for when outside opens again. First is brunch with your friends. Bottomless mimosas. Laughter. Sunlight. Next is a concert. You’ll match your mask with your fit. That should be enough, right? Then maybe a quick trip somewhere to spread the ick. A poor Caribbean country too desiccated by the sudden drop in tourism that they don’t turn you back at the border. Hot sand between your toes. American food served poolside by brown servants coughing in their elbows. Cocktail umbrellas. Pinyah coladas. You wake up from your fantasy. 80,000 Americans dead.

It seems a package from Amazon is waiting for you every morning. You feel conflicted because Bezos is trash and people are dying in Amazon warehouses. Each parcel could be contaminated. You wash your hands after handling, although you feel like it doesn’t eve matter. You don’t want to support this company anymore, but you also don’t have much of a choice. You’ve been conditioned to not tolerate anything other than two-day shipping. Why wait 8 days for your conditioner to arrive, when it could be here by tomorrow at 8pm, for two dollars cheaper? You order because you alone cannot defeat Bezos’ monopoly and you feel defeated. When your purchase arrives twenty seven hours later, you’ve already forgotten that you’re upset.

This is your life in the bunker, cruising along the Möbius strip. Your new normal. You stare out your window, and for a minute you forget that you’re in the endtimes. A cardinal is singing somewhere. Fat bellied robins pick at worms in the grass. The trees bud, blossom, thicken, scatter pollen, dance in the breeze.

The air is cold, but the sun sings of the coming of spring. The trees wave to one another. For them, very little has changed.

Image by Papa Ibra Tall

Unconscionable feelings: a primer for everyday affect theory

To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

TS Eliot, “The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock”

Feelings never had no ethics,
Feelings never have been ethical.

Devonte Hynes (Blood Orange), “Nappy Wonder,” Negro Swan

What is an argument, really? A disagreement, yes, but what is it beneath that? What can we see when we peel away the skin of a dispute and peer inside? A woman is arguing with her boyfriend over something small and insignificant; leaving the cap off the toothpaste, dropping his shoes in the foyer when he comes in from work, farting under the sheets of their communal bed. These are small, if annoying, offenses. But what do they say? What she thinks is: “I find these things that you do without thinking annoying.” This is a valid point, even if more laidback people would be prone to shrug at what can be easily written off as “anal retention” or “nitpickiness.” Yet, her boyfriend resists her claims, arguing that his girlfriend is obsessed with order and cleanliness, that it is not in his nature to be so mindlessly tidy. He turns the conversation on its head by claiming that the perception of his negative cleanliness is actually the presence of her excess of tidiness, her fascist need for control. This is an argument because beneath the surface of minutia and bullshit, of petty squabbles, is a deeper issue which rises to the surface, which ceases to just be affect, “unconscionable feelings,” in the moment of linguistic interchange. What is missing is a critique of feeling, not thinking.

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year in review: onwards

If you try your best, you can.
If you try your best, you can.
The best you can is good enough.

“Optimistic,” Radiohead, Kid A

It’s the end of August and school is about to start again. For the past month, I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about my upcoming second year of graduate school. Throughout this summer I’ve been slowly and carefully reading the marginalia from my first year of graduate study, unpacking situations, reliving conversations, and trying to learn from my experiences. I was unhappy, perhaps the most unhappy I’ve ever been in my life. Everything I had once thought about myself, the great pillar of my self-worth, seemed suddenly called into question. I was worried that I had made a mistake in coming to grad school, or in picking Yale, or in deciding on a research topic which seemed to get more frayed and frayed at its edges. I was unsure of what it meant to be a scholar, of how scholarly writing or scholarly reading should look. I was disenchanted with academia and uncertain of the weight of my dreams. I was unsure of myself as a person, not really aware of how people understood me, displeased with how my friends had begun to treat me, and unsure of how to remedy these situations. I was very lonely, and I felt at times as if no one wanted to be around me. I began to think I was a person undeserving of close friends.

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threshold

I finished my senior fall about two weeks ago. It was by far the hardest semester I’ve experienced at Swarthmore, but at the same time, it has come the most easily to me. I’ve gone through most obstacles in a sort of half-sleep – I know the ins and outs of Swat like the back of my hand, so much so that I feel a heightened and therefore dangerous sense of importance. So much has happened in the past three months and I’m not sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just list it all out.

  • I have grown far more emotionally independent since the beginning of the semester. Unlike my experiences in “quartered,” I have spent the end of this semester almost exclusively alone and have been quite fine with my self-sequestration. The things that I used to do to pass the time – playing video games, watching Netflix – no longer seem to capture my attention, but I’ve been reading NW in my downtime and I’m quite enjoying it. (Edit: I finished NW, it was good. Smith writes a lot like I do, which makes me feel more assured in my work.) I’ve been going to counseling at Worth all semester, as well as avoiding situations which frequently put me in unsavory positions. Of course, it’s impossible to avoid the “unsavory,” but I find that I am filled with far less regret and anguish than previous semesters. Part of it has been avoiding social situations where I feel “conscripted” to do certain things (e.g. get drunk, fraternize, be an approachable and sociable human), and finding solace in the fact that I am no less of a good person for not enjoying these situations. I occasionally go out to PubNite or a party and get a little too drunk (which means a 4/10, honestly), but I find that I don’t feel compelled to seek out certain kinds of social approval from others, therefore lessening the persistent tug-of-war between individual and society. I am learning to accept myself in small pieces, learning to find joy in my weirdness and to look less at myself in disdain. It’s a lengthy process, with ups and downs, but I’m getting there, at my own pace. I don’t need to know how quickly you’re getting to where you need to be. It has no influence on my own rhythm, shouldn’t.
  • Do you ever say something over and over and over again until it loses its meaning and sounds kind of like gobbledygook? “He’s not cheating on me;” “She’s perfect for me;” “I am a good person.” That’s essentially how I feel about writing grad school applications. I’ve been applying to grad school this entire semester, and I’m so glad to say I’m done. The entire process has just been so clandestine and obscure, like bumping around in a giant room lit up only by a candle. I had this constant feeling of not knowing what I was doing, of being somehow misguided, but I would look around and see that I appeared to have a lot more of a sense of my bearings than anyone else. Of course, that could just be the blinders.

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