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.

Continue reading life in the bunker

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.

Continue reading Unconscionable feelings: a primer for everyday affect theory

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.

Continue reading year in review: onwards

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.

Continue reading threshold