banning kenya

I first read George Orwell’s Animal Farm in my parents’ Nairobi house. It was probably at some point in the 1980s, though I cannot be more precise. Animal Farm, the internet tells me, was banned by the Kenyan government in 1991. The internet also tells me that Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned in Kenya—though I didn’t read it until much later. I knew several of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s works were banned in Kenya. And, in general, I knew that Moi’s Kenya was a banning Kenya. A Kenya that stifled cultural production and circulation. Moi’s Kenya protected us from the “bad things” that might “contaminate us.” I learned, in Moi’s Kenya, that Amnesty International was a “dissident” organization full of “foreign puppet-masters” who wanted to “destabilize” Kenya. I learned that the devil was everywhere and that it was Baba Moi’s task—a church attending leader rumored to be a devil worshipping freemason—to protect us from internal and external threats to the spirit and to the mind and to the body.

banning Kenya was my growing-up Kenya,
we children
drank milk from our president-father,
danced for our president-father,
waved flags for our president-father,
in return,
he protected us
from all the dangerous freedom in the world.

We were protected:
From freedom-seeking imaginations.
From freedom-imagining works.
From the necessary debate that forms intellectual life.
From dissent as a democratic practice.
From the responsibility of ethical imaginations.
From the right to hold dissenting positions.
From world-making creativity.
From world-building possibilities.

Our peace-love-unity worlds were saturated with Baba’s voice and face, Baba’s love and laughter, Baba’s protection and abuse.
*
It’s difficult to explain how one grows up under a repressive regime—the whispers and silences, the shame and complicity, the depression and indifference. The emphasis on industry: work hard, work harder, work even harder. A desperate, bitter map to futurity: you could be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, an architect.

We laughed at these narrow constructions of our futures, not yet knowing how to hear them:

be something that
allows you to leave this space,
to travel elsewhere,
to pursue freedom
.

*
In some worlds, bans create desire. They create hunger. They help sales. They popularize.

In other worlds, bans unmake desire. They produce resignation that is affirmed as pragmatism or realism, and sometimes both. They unmake imaginative possibilities—dissident fugitivities. They produce compliance, discipline, and, most of all, disavowal.

We continue to inhabit the long shadow of this disavowal.

In Kenya today: this “realism” travels as, “freedom comes with responsibility” and “this is Kenya.”

“this is Kenya” lives in the ethnographic present, in an ongoingness defined by its abstraction from history—it’s a loop from my childhood, a deep groove that holds an unmoving stylus, an ahistory embraced as pragmatism or realism, or both. A position of depressive realism that cannot imagine a different future.

It is uttered as a response to critique, almost instinctively, as an interjection, an ejaculation, an inevitable sneeze. And while one might argue with it, the contagion of its depressive realism has already poisoned whatever intervention one sought to make.

I do not know how to disentangle “this is Kenya” from “banning Kenya”
*
I came to the term “ethnographic present” by reading critiques of colonial-era anthropology, especially Johannes Fabian’s Time and the Other. In its simplest form, the ethnographic present refers to a logic and practice of writing about “others,” often “primitives” or “savages” (though it can be extended to any group), that locates that group outside of historical change and modernity. The expert observer others by considering the observed group as “unchanged” and “unchanging,” as living in a distinct pre-temporality to the one the expert occupies.

Other terms must come into play here: native informant and indigenous anthropologist. Because “this is Kenya” is so often uttered by “native informants” who claim to be “experts” precisely by virtue of the speech act “this is Kenya,” a speech act offered as knowledge and warning.

I’m interested in what this time-defying “this is Kenya” does to imaginative and ethical possibilities, in how it creates and circulates affective worlds, logics, and practices. In how it explains and justifies. In the structures it helps to keep in place. And, in this instance, how it fleshes out “banning Kenya.”

If “this is Kenya” lives in an ethnographic present enfleshed most vividly during the Baba Moi years of peace-love-unity, then the too-common refrain that Kenya is “sliding back” or “going back” or “rolling back” (each of those work differently) to the Moi era (Moi-error) is, technically, inaccurate. After all, the unchanging nature of the ethnographic present means we “never left” the logics and practices of the Moi era.

Certainly, while some high profile appointments changed after Moi left power, the everyday bureaucratic apparatus that sustained the machine remained unchanged. Acquiring identification did not become more possible for border populations. Ethnic affiliations remained key to securing positions. Ethno-patriarchy maintained its grip on national politics and imaginations. And even the new breed of “activists” actively endorse and practice hetero-patriarchy.

Our most basic building blocks remain unchanged: unquestioned and unquestionable.

If the volume of banned material seems to have lessened—Ngugi is now available in Kenya, in our new era of Gikuyu supremacy; Karl Marx is available in bookstores, in our ongoing era of anti-intellectualism; much is available in the era of the internet, though without public sites of discussion and dissent, our public cultures remain anemic and undemocratic; and the unending work of collecting data, creating documentation, and fundraising has trained many of our best minds to unimagine freedom and liberation because “another report” has to be written, “more evidence” has to be collected,” because “corroboration, substantiation, triangulation” must be satisfied, as though “methodology” explains “failure” against dominant regimes—the logics of banning remain intact.

Any intact system, no matter how dormant it seems, can always be re-activated.

Re-activation is key to one of Foucault’s key concepts: docile bodies. Docile bodies are not passive bodies. They are disciplined bodies, efficient bodies. Bodies that “turn” when called, as Althusser argues.

Banning is a calling.
It turns bodies toward the call.
It spreads fear.
In Kenya,
where we are all trained to fear,
banning does not lead to us challenging the laws.
It leads to compliance.
We return to habit.

Those familiar with the ban against a play staged by Butere Girls might, of course, contest this representation of banning.
*
Stories of Our Lives, a film of laced vignettes focusing on lgbt Kenyan lives (not sure about the t or the i or even the b, given that the film has been banned and we are not allowed to view it), has been banned in Kenya. It cannot be publicly (or privately?) screened or distributed within Kenya. The banning institution claims that the film does not represent Kenyan values. Simultaneously, George Gachara, one of the film’s makers, was arrested for “filming without a license.”

That is all the information I have.
*
Those who ban need not explain themselves. Those who are banned struggle to explain why they should be considered human. One is summoned by a banning authority, told why one is impossible.

As far as I can tell, Kenya’s main newspapers have ignored the ban. It is “inconsequential.” (Please correct me if they have covered it.)

The online queer Kenya group to which I subscribe has been mostly silent.

Fear is working.

And even those who spoke up to defend Kenya’s most famous gay—and they were not many, not many at all—have maintained a dignified silence.

As we queers know well, those who claim to support us in private melt away in our public times of need.

Over the past few years, I have been thinking about an “ethical imagination,” one that would promote livability. One which follows Shailja Patel’s injunction, “Give this pain to no one else.”

An ethical imagination is an embedded and embedding imagination: it weaves connections, forges alliances, risks new forms of world-making and world-building, treasures existing ethical forms of world-building and world-making. It sees beyond self-interest, beyond the arrogance of patriarchy’s claims to unethical genius, and through the violence of lazy and uncreative toxicity that attempts to lay claim to “creative freedom.”

Toni Morrison taught me that very little is creative or freeing if it simply repackages toxic stereotypes in pretty forms.

Fear is working. And with it, and in it, our imaginations become less possible, more toxic, less freeing, more unhumaning.

“this is Kenya.”

“ni watho wanaku ucio?”

the voices of women victims of the violence have almost faded away
–Rasna Warah

Rituals from my childhood: introductions are central to Gikuyu sociality. When we’d visit new homes, we’d narrate ourselves. With few exceptions, women would narrate stories of conversion: they would testify to their faith.

“My name is [Christian Name] and I met the Lord in this year. Since that time, my life has been like this and like that.”

Often, this testimony would end on a benediction, a wish that those who have not yet been blessed in this particular way would one day have “a story to tell,” “a testimony to give.”

What might it mean that these women wanted other people, especially women, to have “a story to tell,” “a testimony to give”?

One too-skeptical reading might be that these women were so trapped within the genre provided by ethno-patriarchal religion that they could not imagine themselves outside of it. They could only narrate themselves within very narrow parameters. And, in fact, given that so many of the narrations drew from the same template, it’s tempting to dismiss these testimonies as unoriginal and uninteresting. One heard so many of them delivered in the same form so often that one grew bored, uninterested, able to anticipate and mimic the form of the telling. I want to linger on these testimonies for little bit, to see what was happening, what kind of space and imagination they inhabited.

In a way I can only recognize now, listening to these women’s testimonies taught me how to listen to women. One could not interrupt these testimonies—no interjections, no calling to other responsibilities, no editing. One had to sit in silence, to give space and reverence to this narrating self, to this unfolding life. No husband, no child, no friend could pull a woman out of this story as it was told. Given that so many women’s lives are structured by interruption, this telling of a sacred self provided an interruption-free space.

These stories of a new self were deep acts of the self-making imagination. If the stories had a “before,” it was a short before, a before leading to a “break.” And while the break with the “before” was significant, it was only as the start of a new path. Key to the testifying self was the sense of a still-unfolding self and present: “now, I walk with Jesus every day. And he teaches me every day.” To invoke today’s very fashionable language: the self was imagined as a process, as a self-in-formation, as a self-in-communion, as a self-in-community. These women had thought hard and continually about the labor of being embedded within communities, about the selves-in-community they had been before conversion and about the selves-in-community they were and were becoming after conversion. This was a testifying self, a self with a still-unfolding story, a self responsible to the story it told, responsible to the story it had told, responsible to the story it would tell.

Each telling was an act of accountability to those who heard the telling. It was an ethical promise: one hearing the narrative could reasonably re-call the teller to the promise of the narrated self. One could say, “are you acting as your story says you should be acting?” This was not, I think, to accuse a narrator of hypocrisy. Instead, at its best, such reminders recognized the narrating self (the narrated self) as a self-in-formation-in-community. One hearing the story was called to participate in the ongoing labor undertaken by the self-in-community. One hearing the story was enjoined to participate in the community work of this unfolding self.

Women’s conversion stories were community stories: community-unmaking and community-remaking stories. Stories about having found a place within and outside of ethno-patriarchy to have a story of the self, a story distinct from the hetero-patriarchal world in which, as Wambui Mwangi puts it, the word for woman is “silence” and the word for wife is “outsider.”

If do not, now, remember each of those stories, told to me in Kiambu and Muranga and Nyandarua, in Woman’s Guild functions in Kariobangi and Loresho and St. Andrew’s, during lunches and teas and dinners, at weddings and births and funerals, I recall the shape of those words, the force of their world-making, their training me how to listen, how to take up language, how to imagine the self before the break, the self at the break, and the self always in formation.
*
I return to the memory of these stories, the memory of women speaking without interruption, the memory of women creating and sharing selves-in-formation, at a time when it seems women’s possibilities for speaking against ethno-patriarchy are shrinking, at a time when women can only speak as victims and survivors. And, in speaking in those forms, attempt to seek redress from systems invested in keeping women as victims and survivors.

As Wambui Mwangi and Melissa Williams discuss, women are threatened by banal misogyny and killing violence in peacetime and during conflicts, in the private space of the home and in public spaces outside the home. Women are threatened in digital spaces and in non-tech spaces, as they undertake the most ordinary of activities and as they perform acts requiring immense skill and talent. Women are threatened when standing still and when trying to move.

Because women taught me how to listen, I’ve been paying attention to how ethno-patriarchal and, more generally, patriarchal violence against women is privatized. A woman is permitted to confess violations against her by men to other women, who are trained to offer comfort and to repair damage. She is allowed to be a victim and a survivor, encouraged to be resilient, and enjoined to be silent about patriarchal violence. You can cry out in the night as your husband or partner is beating you, but during the day you protect your home and your relationship.
*
From Wanjiku Kabira’s A Letter to Mariama Ba, a story:

Auntie Wanjiru was a freedom fighter in the Mau Mau war of independence. She was one of those women who protected freedom fighters, fed them, fundraised for them, did shopping for them, kept them moving, and also took beatings and torture on their behalf. Auntie Wanjiru remembers that day when the colonial soldiers came to her house to look for the money that the Land Liberation Army, alias Mau Mau, had given her to keep. Her husband was in the house. She was seven months pregnant. Two British soldiers and several African homeguards beat her until she could hardly move.
. . .
I told you that Auntie Wanjiru was seven months pregnant when the colonial soldiers and homeguards beat her almost to death. This baby was born healthy and grew up to be a beautiful woman who became a professional nurse. She was married to a man who was a wife beater. One day, Wanjiku, for that was the girl’s name, arrived at her mother’s house bleeding all over. She collapsed at her mother’s door. Auntie Wanjiru, who was given to theatrical behaviour, stood outside her door and screamed for help.
. . .
From her house, Auntie Wanjiru picked up a whip that she used to keep under her bed as a weapon of defence in case thieves came in the night. She hopped into a bus and went to her daughter’s home. At that hour, she knew that she would find her daughter’s husband asleep and so she walked right to his bedroom. Without any warning, she started whipping the startled man. She whipped the man mercilessly telling him that if the girl had survived the beatings of the colonial soldiers and homeguards when she was in her mother’s womb, she would survive the beatings of the devil of a husband like him.
. . .
From her daughter’s home where she left behind a subdued son-in-law, Auntie Wanjiru went to the chief’s office and applied for divorce on behalf of her daughter, Wanjiku.

“I want a divorce for my daughter,” said Auntie Wanjiru.
“You can only ask for a divorce for yourself,” said the chief.
“Do I look like I would need a divorce?” Asked Auntie Wanjiru.
“All I am saying is that the law does not allow you to get a divorce for someone else,” said the chief.
“I can see you are also a man; you don’t know what I am talking about. You can’t understand the pain of a mother so all you can say is nyenye, nyenye, nyenye,” she sneered. “The law says this and the law says that. Why did the law not protect my daughter? If she dies, will the law bring her back to life? Anyway, I don’t need this law. I need my daughter. You can keep your papers and your law. I will carry out the divorce myself!” Auntie Wanjiru shouted.

“Woman, what is wrong with you? I am just telling you what the law says. You can’t carry out the divorce yourself!” the chief exclaimed.

“Who says I can’t?” Auntie Wanjiru retorted.
“The law,” said the chief, authoritatively.
“You chief, stop talking to me about the law. I don’t recognize a law that does not protect my daughter; ni watho wanaku ucio? (What kind of law is that?) Keep it to yourself!” Auntie Wanjiru screamed.

*
Because I had learned to listen to many Auntie Wanjirus, as they screamed, “ni watho wanaku ucio,” I knew how to listen to Luce Irigaray:

If we continue to speak the same language to each other, we will reproduce the same story. Begin the same stories all over again. Don’t you feel it? Listen: men and women around us all sound the same. Same arguments, same quarrels, same scenes. Same attractions and separations. Same difficulties, the impossibility of reaching each other. Same . . . same. . . . Always the same.

If we continue to speak this sameness, if we speak to each other as men have spoken for centuries, as they taught us to speak, we will fail each other. Again. . . . Words will pass through our bodies, above our heads, disappear, make us disappear. Far. Above. Absent from ourselves, we become machines that are spoken, machines that speak. Clean skins envelop us, but they are not our own. We have fled into proper names, we have been violated by them. Not yours, not mine. We don’t have names. We change them as men exchange us, as they use us. It’s frivolous to be so changeable so long as we are a medium of exchange.

Listening to many Auntie Wanjirus, to the shapes of their testimonies, to their acts of self-making, to their performances of self-in-formation, I had started learning to ask, “ni watho wanaku ucio?” What law is this whose rules preclude hearing women’s voices? What “due process” is this conceived by patriarchy, shaped by patriarchy, fetishized by patriarchy, designed to protect patriarchy?

Learning from many Auntie Wanjirus, I had learned to question what seemed to be the only positions open to women: victims and survivors.
*
My tongue remembers the shape of women’s testimonies.

As the son who accompanied his mother to her meetings with friends—across various women’s groups—I grew up listening to women’s world-making, world-imagining conversations. To the particular ways they slid in and out of spaces designed to exclude them. To the energy with which they planned and traveled and celebrated and created.

When I grew old enough for it to matter, my mother provided stories for the women I knew as my friends’ mothers: they had been to such and such a school, they had pursued such and such a career, they had accomplished such and such. She honored them by insisting each one had a story.

Against the ethno-patriarchal demand that women could only exist as victims and survivors, my mother taught me to listen for the story, to listen to women’s world-imagining and world-making.

Before I ever encountered Wanjiku Kabira, my mother had taught me to ask, “ni watho wanaku ucio?”
*
This post started with a quotation from Rasna Warah—let me conclude on it. What if, instead of asking women to be accountable before an unresponsive law, we imagined a law accountable to women? Imagine a scene where all the testimony-giving, self-in-formation, world-imagining women demanded that the law provide an account of how it had made women’s lives more livable, more possible, their words assume weight and value. A world where it would be impossible to speak of women’s voices fading because they would be our ethical foundations, our ethical imaginations. A world where violence against women would never have a chance to be imagined as banal or casual—where violations against women were understood to shake the very foundations of who we claim to be. Not a world composed of victims and survivors—those refuges of silence—but a world of self-in-formation witnesses, testifying to build better worlds, better self-in-community relations.

I end with Audre Lorde, who is still teaching me how to listen:

The sun is watery warm
our voices
seem too loud for this small yard
too tentative for women
so in love
the siding has come loose in spots
our footsteps hold this place
together
as our place
our joint decisions make the possible
whole.
I do not know when
we shall laugh again
but next week
we will spade up another plot
for this spring’s seedling.

two returns

On September 5, 1946, Jomo Kenyatta left England to return to Kenya after fifteen years away. He returned as what a young James Ngugi described as a “black messiah.” In Jeremy Murray-Brown’s words,

In him was incarnate the spirit of Wangombe and Waiyaki and of the father of the tribe, Gikuyu himself. Knowing his name had been kept alive in Kikuyuland, he was a living legend entering upon his inheritance, the Kikuyu Messiah whose message would set free all the people of Kenya. (257)

Kenyatta’s return was a big deal. As (the racist) Murray-Brown writes,

As news of his return spread through the bush, groups of tribesmen gathered at each stop along the railway line to catch a glimpse of him. Hours before the train arrived at Nairobi hundreds of men and women thronged the station until it looked from a distance as though one dark-brown mass had been poured over the platform. Kenyatta’s beard made him easily recognizable. It was a new thing among the Kikuyu and added to the excitement of seeing a living legend. As the train drew in, the crowd cheered and their women set up their peculiar, trilling cry. Kenyatta could not properly step down from his carriage, so dense were the bodies, and he was carried shoulder high from the station. (265)

J.M. Kariuki, later to be murdered by the Kenyatta regime, recalls his excitement at hearing Kenyatta speak at Njoro in 1946:

He was holding a carved walking-stick loosely in his hand and wore his big brown leather jacket. He began by greeting us all with the special words of respect used for each age grade. The effect of his voice and personality was immediate and magnetic so that even the smallest children became still and quiet as Kenyatta talked to us of his doings in England and of the future of our country. (37)

This was the year that Kenyatta first began to teach our people how to love their country. Those who had been stagnant in their misery now began to look for happiness. . . . I myself was fundamentally changed by his statesmanlike words and his burning personality. I vowed there and then that I would struggle with him for justice and freedom for our country and I dedicated myself to follow him in his crusade to remove the sufferings and humiliations of our people. (38)

A pang overcomes me.

J.M. Kariuki lives in the TJRC Report, a victim of state brutality, because he spoke against inequality in Kenya, critiquing it as a space of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. This must be added:

An investigation by the Daily Nation in 2000 claimed that the Special Branch released a convicted bank robber, Peter Kinyanjui, alias Mark Twist, and bank robber Pius Kibathi, to trail Kariuki. The Daily Nation alleged that Gethi took Kariuki to the Special Branch headquarters at Kingsway House along Muindi Mbingu Street where he met police reservist Patrick Shaw, National Youth Service boss Waruhiu Itote, Criminal Investigations Department (CID) head Ignatius Nderi and Kenyatta’s head of security, Arthur Wanyoike Thungu, who asked him about some ‘missing foreign funds’ when Kariuki was Kenyatta’s private secretary and later Assistant Minister for Agriculture. In the ensuing argument, Thungu punched Kariuki on the mouth, knocking out three of his lower teeth. When Kariuki’s body was later found, three lower teeth were missing, providing some corroboration for this version of events. Provoked, Kariuki is said to have taken out the pistol he had been given by Gethi, but before he could fire Gethi shot him on the right arm ‘to protect Thungu’. Three men brought in to testify about Kariuki’s involvement in the city bombings were asked to handcuff him, and Kariuki was forced to enter into the car of Ngong Ward Councillor John Mutung’u. Kariuki’s body was later found, without fingers and eyes gorged out in the Ngong forest. (TJRC Report, Vol 2A)

This thing. This thing that eats us. This thing that makes justice and freedom impossible words. This thing.

Today, Uhuru Kenyatta returned from a status conference at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, where he has been formally charged as being responsible for Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007 and 2008. President Kenyatta was accompanied to the Hague by many members of parliament who, ostensibly, went there to demonstrate their support for him. A little item in the Nairobi Star claims that MPs who attempted to get visas to accompany the president received KES 200,000 while those who succeeded in acquiring visas received KES 1,000,000. (The zeros are needed for effect.)

Witnesses against Uhuru Kenyatta have been silenced and intimidated, leading to multiple retractions, multiple memory losses, fear and more fear, and the deferral of any justice whatsoever.

Uhuru Kenyatta returned to a hero’s welcome. Businesses were shut down. Schoolchildren thronged the streets to welcome him. Traffic was an impossible snarl because Uhuru Kenyatta, our hero, had returned. The son had finally taken up his father’s mantle.

Jomo Kenyatta returned to Kenya after the second world war, at a moment of heightened nationalism, when the possibilities of freedom and justice seemed not only possible, but, perhaps, inevitable. Even then, his politics were deeply conservative—he had long ago renounced whatever Marxism he had learned, and it’s not clear if he ever embraced an idea of a nation that was not ethno-nationalist and ethno-patriarchal. Still, if J.M. is to be believed, Kenyatta inspired a belief in freedom and justice. Those words were not impossible. An independent Kenya was still a possible dream.

Uhuru Kenyatta returns to an ethno-nationalist, neoliberal nightmare, filled with routine and unrelenting violence against women, ongoing security operations and plans that generate and intensify unfreedom, ongoing mining plans and operations that dispossess vulnerable populations and degrade the environment, ongoing battles between ethno-patriarchs for power, a host of broken promises, a Kenya where justice and freedom are impossible words, impossible dreams, impossible.

He returns to a space that celebrates—and demands—negation. Where a secondary school play critiquing corruption can be banned; male MPs can defend a man’s right to beat his wife; the Kenyan Film Board can ban a film on queer Kenyan lives; an MP can propose a bill banning homosexuality; where Somali lives continue to be disposable—a concentration camp deemed unremarkable; where a gagged press tiptoes around questions of ethics; where an ethical imagination cannot live. He returns to a space where the politics of knowledge have been trumped by a frightening anti-intellectualism; where credentialing trumps any and all ethical training; where the absence of ethical frames makes public engagement a farce; where we do not know how to demand we be human with each other.

He returns to “reign” over this devastation he has helped to produce and sustain.

And we cheer.

How did we learn to love our negation?

My mother, a staunch Kenyatta defender, devoured his return on television. She would have been too young to see Jomo Kenyatta’s return, and I could see, in her gleaming eyes, the feverish excitement that melded father onto son, anti-colonial warrior onto neoliberal prince: histories folded onto each other. We had won.

Liberation and freedom have become impossible words in Kenya. We must “work within the system,” we are told, foregoing any “infantile” dreams that systems should work to make lives more possible, more generous, more livable.

Today, many cheered.

Kenya felt more impossible, freedom and liberation more impossible.

Truncated (Un)life

A few years ago, I started thinking about truncated forms in the Harlem Renaissance: sonnets that ended at 10 or 12 lines, stories that seemed to stop instead of ending, plays that were sharply elliptical, poems that seemed arrested in mid-composition, suicides and lynchings, characters who never quite seemed to develop. Some of this was spurred by a class I took with Jed Esty, where he taught me to think about the role of arrested development in British literature. Some of this was spurred by Neville Hoad, who taught me how to think about the role of arrested development at the nexus of race-sexuality-imperialism. Some of this was spurred by an ongoing interest in forms of fabrication and incompletion—the life of Project Runway and Face Off and a host of other shows where projects are never quite completed, never quite perfect, where, as Roland Barthes puts it, the seam shows. And, much of it emerged from an ongoing interest in how form works, the “narrative,” if you will, that emerges from what Gertrude Stein termed “composition.”

Although much indebted to Houston Baker’s “mastery of form” and “deformation of mastery,” (I never found HLG’s “signifyin’” very useful), now I wonder if the term “mastery” makes invisible much of the aesthetic labor in Harlem Renaissance works: the false starts, the hesitations, the circling, the pauses, the gaps, the arrests, the skips, the jumps, the leaps, the leaks, the fractures, the breakdowns, the incompletion, and the incompletable. Baker’s re-evaluation of the Harlem Renaissance begins with an anecdote about teaching James Joyce, about the wonders of “cracking” Joyce’s codes. I suspect this allegiance to a certain aesthetic accomplishment—achievement and completion, both of which come wrapped in a genealogical imperative he terms “renaissancism”—renders invisible the unmaking forms of (un)life (thanks to Sofia Samatar for this coinage) that obsess Harlem Renaissance writers.

It depends on where one starts, and where one lingers.

i. “wake work”

While in graduate school, my very good friend Melissa Girard—who has stuck with me longer than any reasonable or sane person should have—told me to read and re-read Angelina Weld Grimké’s play Rachel. I had read Rachel before, first as an undergraduate when I was working my way through work by Harlem Renaissance women, but I had not paused to read it. I did not yet know how to read it. I needed to learn how to read Hortense Spillers and psychoanalysis before I could read Rachel. (This was my trajectory; it’s not the only possible route). Even though Melissa insisted on this re-reading in 2004, it was not until 2009 when I started learning how to read the play.

My friend Christina Sharpe has recently provided the language to describe the shape of the play—it is “wake work”:

[W]e must be about the work of what I am calling “wake work.” Wakes are processes; through them we think about the dead and about our relations to them; they are rituals through which to enact grief and memory. Wakes allow those among the living to mourn the passing of the dead through ritual; they are the watching of relatives and friends beside the body of the deceased from death to burial and the accompanying drinking, feasting, and other observances; a watching practiced as a religious observance. But wakes are also “the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming, or one that is moved, in water; the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow; in the line of sight of (an observed ob- ject); and (something) in the line of recoil of (a gun)”; finally, wake also means being awake and, most importantly, consciousness.

Rachel is claustrophobic, set in one room, full of ellipses and off-stage actions, suffused with the unsaid and the unsayable. It mourns a lynched father and son, mourns the truncated forms of (un)life that mark black children’s entrance into the racial symbolic, mourns the impossibility of futurity, and mourns the banal toxicity of the world outside the room.

The staging directions include a chorus of “(sadly)” punctuated with “silence”: “there is a long silence”, “(A silence),” “(A long silence),” “(There is a silence),” “(A short silence),” “(A rather uncomfortable silence),” “(There is a brief silence),” “(Another silence).”One imagines a director struggling to manage these silences: how “long” is a long silence? Are all “long” silences the same? What’s the distinction between a “short silence” and a “brief silence”? How does one communicate that these multiple silences, these staged ellipses, are part of the play and not simply moments when actors have forgotten their lines? What does one do with this accumulation of silences in a small room?

After learning about her lynched father and brother, and after hearing about the unhumaning racism directed toward Jimmy, her adopted son, and Ethel, a young girl new to the neighborhood, Rachel “breaks.” As her mother describes it,

It was just a week ago today. I was down town all the morning. It was about one o’clock when I got back. I had forgotten my key. I rapped on the door and then called. There was no answer. A window was open, and I could feel the air under the door, and I could hear it as the draught sucked it through. There was no other sound. Presently I made such a noise the people began to come out into the hall. Jimmy was in one of the flats playing with a little girl named Mary. He told me he had left Rachel here a short time before. She had given him four cookies, two for him and two for Mary, and had told him he could play with her until she came to tell him his lunch was ready. I saw he was getting frightened, so I got the little girl and her mother to keep him in their flat. Then, as no man was at home, I sent out for help. Three men broke the door down. (Pauses). We found Rachel unconscious, lying on her face. For a few minutes I thought she was dead. (Pauses). A vase had fallen over on the table and the water had dripped through the cloth and onto the floor. There had been flowers in it. When I left, there were no flowers here. What she could have done to them, I can’t say. The long stems were lying everywhere, and the flowers had been ground into the floor. I could tell that they must have been roses from the stems. After we had put her to bed and called the doctor, and she had finally regained consciousness, I very naturally asked her what had happened. All she would say was, “Ma dear, I’m too tired please.” For four days she lay in bed scarcely moving, speaking only when spoken to. That first day, when Jimmy came in to see her, she shrank away from him. We had to take him out, and comfort him as best we could. We kept him away, almost by force, until she got up. And, then, she was utterly miserable when he was out of her sight. What happened, I don’t know. She avoids Tom [her brother], and she won’t tell me. (Pauses). Tom and I both believe her soul has been hurt. The trouble isn’t with her body. You’ll find her highly nervous. Sometimes she is very much depressed; again she is feverishly gay almost reckless.

To the chorus of silences, we can add “(Pauses).” Previously, when teaching the play, I’ve described Rachel as being in a “near-catatonic” state. I would amend this now. She is doing “wake work.” A work of lingering in proximity to, and in the space of, impossibility. This is not a removal from a toxic world, but a way to inhabit the world’s toxicity, as it breaches one’s psychic and domestic space. To be fully conscious of a racist world’s damage undoes one. Rachel is undone not simply by what a racist world has done to her—earlier, she offers an elliptical confession—but also by the reality of the damage enacted on seven-year-old Jimmy and the equally young Ethel, and the promise of damage to whatever children she might bear. This particular play’s “wake work” refuses the empty promise of a “better” tomorrow. Or, we might say, it sees the damage that promise might efface.

Any theory of the Harlem Renaissance as a space of “expression” struggles to accommodate this “wake work,” these awkward ellipses, these cumulative silences, these moments that acknowledge damage and refuse to perform resilience.

As with Nella Larsen’s Passing and Quicksand, Rachel ends by not ending: it’s not clear whether Rachel chooses to murder Jimmy and kill herself, or whether she chooses to persist in being undone. The same problem bedevils Quicksand: does Helga Crane die or does she persist and, if she persists—and we know, early on, that Helga is fully conscious of the world’s racism and sexism—how does she persist? How does one perform “wake work” amidst constant toxicity?

My return to Rachel was also a return to the possibilities of formalism. This time, I was looking for a way to think with form that pushed against the restrictions seemingly inbuilt into formal approaches. Certain formal strategies and languages could not help taming whatever material they encountered, rendering it inert—the many paragraphs of indexical close reading one skips because they simply make one’s eyes glaze over while removing the work from its active labor in the world. By indexical, I mean a kind of handbook approach that names specific formal strategies as though conducting a tour—and that’s metaphor and that’s enjambment and it’s significant because [name historical period and geographical region] that means this and this. Or, the “trick” of claiming that there’s “so much meaning” amidst the “ever-proliferating signifiers” that “meaning” is “impossible to pin down.” One can only read so many of such essays—and I’ve read many—before reaching for something more useful. To steal from Nietzsche’s conception of history: formalism should be “useful.” I simply echo Hortense Spillers:

There is little evidence to suggest to me that the methodology of formalism contravenes historical perspective or deep political commitment . . . a method is not inherently ahistorical, or endemic to a fixed, or divine, order. Formalism is, I believe, preeminently useful.

She adds,

With its intricate network of symbolic supports, the American event of race so thoroughly describes a grammar of negation that those who are subdued by its magic imagine that its traditional sign-vehicles and immanent referential content are not violently arbitrary at all.

I would push against her catalogue of formal categories—“filiation, advocacy, preservation, convocation”—and privilege what she terms “radical waywardness.”[1] Wake work practices “radical waywardness,” as Christina Sharpe explains, “To do what I am calling wake work would necessitate a turn away from juridical, philosophical, historical, or other disciplinary solutions to blackness’s ongoing abjection.” Wake work lingers on the “grammar of negation.” A grammar that is, in Grimké, the gap of and between silences—“short,” “brief,” “long,” “uncomfortable,” “another.”

ii. formalism’s child

What might “wake work” look like in Countee Cullen’s poetry? I turn to Cullen because he’s Baker’s example of and for “mastery.” Too, of all the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, he’s, alternately, loved and reviled for his formal aesthetics, described as derivate and innovative. In Kamau Brathwaite’s frame, Cullen might be “trapped” by “pentameter.” We might also consider how “wake work,” especially an attention to the “hold,” might produce a different orientation toward being “trapped” in form.

In the poem that opens Color, “To You Who Read My Book,” Cullen stages “wake work” by focusing on truncated life. Here’s the first stanza:

Soon every sprinter,
   However fleet,
Comes to a winter
   Of sure defeat:
Though he may race
   Like the hunted doe,
Time has a pace
   To lay him low


He continues, “Time will outsing / Us every one.” It is a carpe diem poem:

This is my hour
   To wax and climb,
Flaunt a red flower
   In the face of time.
And only an hour
   Time gives, then snap
Goes the flower,
   And dried is the sap.


The awareness of one’s mortality runs through the formal traditions Cullen engages: time has long been an antagonist in poetry. In this particular stanza, I’m struck by the shift from ownership—“This is my hour”—to arbitrary dispossession,–only an hour / Time gives–an arbitrariness suggested by the “snap” that “saps” the “red flower.” The shift from “my hour” to “an hour” suggests different measures of time might be at work: is one’s hour measured the same way as time’s hour? What happens when these different temporalities meet?

The notion of incommensurate times is not that far-fetched:

(I run, but time’s
   Abreast with me;
I sing, but he climbs
   With my highest C.)


In a poem composed predominantly of octaves—8-line stanzas—this truncated and parenthetical stanza stands out. It is an aside, a sigh, a moment when the “sprinter” of the first stanza looks to the side to see that time is “abreast.” Yet, to think of time as “abreast” is also to map a different relationship to time: one is not in it or circumscribed by it. One lives aside or beside, waiting for time’s arbitrary “snap.”

(I’m dissatisfied with where I’m headed, so let me try again with a different poem)

Perhaps I’m simply trying to avoid the moments when Cullen most registers his “radical waywardness” within and from the time-space he occupies, moments most fully present in his critiques of Christian modernity. In “Heritage,” he departs from a longstanding tradition that situates black pain in relation to biblical suffering by “Wishing He I served were black, / Thinking then it would not lack / Precedent of pain to guide it.” Biblical pain, Christ’s pain, is not “kindred woe.” Instead, in “Gods,” Cullen claims,

God’s alabaster turrets gleam
   Too high for me to win,
Unless He turns His face and lets
   Me bring my own gods in


The “God-shaped” world—the space-time it imagines—cannot accommodate Cullen’s “flesh” (a term he uses often). Anticipating Fanon’s, “O my body, make of me always a man who questions,” Cullen parses the world he’s inherited through his dark flesh.

In Cullen, “wake work” is always this encounter with the “flesh,” the impossible demands, set in incommensurate time, that make (un)life always too proximate. Thus, Color ends with “Requiescam”:

I am for sleeping and forgetting
   All that has gone before;
I am for lying still and letting
   Who will beat at my door;
I would my life’s cold sun were setting
   To rise for me no more


The same volume includes an epitaph dedicated to himself. Perhaps the question I’m not yet sure how to answer—thinking is still in progress—is: what forms does proximity to (un)life and incarnation as (un)life produce? What kind of “wake work” inhabits the unending elegies of black poetry?

iii. incompletion

I turn, finally, inconclusively, to Georgia Douglas Johnson, another poet I’ve been trying to think with for many years.

“Wake work” is exhausting work—the work of lingering in the hold erodes emotional and cognitive capacities. One is left wondering if one can continue to see, to name, to inhabit, to think around the forms of unmaking termed banal life. Perhaps this comment describes the cognitive and affective failures I’m experiencing now, as I try (and fail) to describe wake work, understanding that failure as crucial to wake work, but lacking the frames and languages to offer more legible conceptual paths. Tangles abound.

But back to GDJ, and the final stanza of “Black Woman”:

Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
     I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
     Time and time again!
You do not know the monster men
     Inhabiting the earth,
Be still, be still, my precious child,
     I must not give you birth!


We return to a multiple pain found in Rachel: the pain of turning away from an ethical call—ignoring one who is to be loved, who is to have been loved, and, here, tense is difficult; the pain of living in a world full of “monster men”; and the pain of knowing that every “precious child” must discover this monstrosity—that to be born into the world, to inhabit it, is to encounter monstrosity. That “wake work” is often an encounter with monstrosity, an attempt to navigate it, inhabit it, “make something” with and despite it.

The line “Time and time again” is truncated—5 syllables instead of 6. It speaks, eloquently, to the forms of truncated (un)life I have been trying to gesture toward. It exemplifies Saidiya Hartman’s argument that “black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, pre- mature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” To be “in the wake” requires temporal negotiations—jumps, slips, breaks, slides. Ways to think in and against time’s arbitrary incursions. Ways of inhabiting short, brief, long, and other silences. The pauses and rips, the moments of unmaking—the “snap,” as Cullen has it.


[1] Here, a massive nod to Sarah Jane Cervenak’s work on “wandering,” which has made “radical waywardness” newly visible and useful.

suicide in langston hughes

We are reading The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes in my Harlem Renaissance class. While I’ve taught Hughes over the years, the last time I spent a lot of time with this particular collection was during qualifying exams for my dissertation. I was in gulp and swallow mode at the time, more intent on getting the wide rather than the deep. To some extent, the class is still following a wide rather than deep model: we are reading 35-45 pages of poetry per class session and, given that some poems are very short, that means anywhere from 50-60 poems. This time around, I’m struck by the number of poems explicitly on and around suicide. A sampling follows.

Exits

The sea is deep,
A knife is sharp,
And a poison acid burns—
But they all bring rest,
They all bring peace
For which the tired
Soul yearns.
They all bring rest
In a nothingness
From where
No soul returns. (First published as “Song for a Suicide” in 1924)

Ways

A slash of the wrist,
A swallow of scalding acid,
The crash of a bullet through the brain—
And Death comes like a mother
To hold you in her arms. (First published 1925)

Suicide’s Note

The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.

Suicide

Ma sweet good man has
Packed his trunk and left.
Ma sweet good man has
Packed his trunk and left.
Nobody to love me:
I’m gonna kill ma self. (First published 1926)

We’re only 90 pages into the collection, so there might be several other examples to note later.

While some poems are not explicitly titled suicide, they invoke it.

I’m goin’ up in a tower
Tall as a tree is tall,
Up in a tower
Tall as a tree is tall.
Gonna think about my man—
And let my fool-self fall. (“Lament Over Love,” 1926)

If my man leaves me
I won’t live no mo’. (“Fortune Teller Blues,” 1926)

*

As should be evident, this post started in another life. I want to retain that earlier trace. I return to it through a transcribed speech by Bernice Johnson Reagon circulated on twitter by Sara Ahmed. The speech is on coalition building and survival.

There are some grey haired women I see running around occasionally, and we have to talk to those folks about how come they didn’t commit suicide forty years ago.
*
I’m not gonna be suicidal, if I can help it.

Reagon returns me to the banality of suicide in Hughes. By banality, I mean the ease (is that the word?) with which both regard suicide as a possible and even reasonable reaction to a hostile world. I mean, as well, how death is figured as “rest,” “peace,” “a mother” who holds one.

Over the years, I have returned to “Suicide’s Note,” which I first encountered in Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk, a poetry anthology I consider the companion to Alain Locke’s The New Negro.

Death is never far in Caroling Dusk. In fact, the first two poems in the volume—“Ere Sleep Comes Down to Sooth the Weary Eyes” and “Death Song,” both by Paul Laurence Dunbar —focus on death as “rest.” The second poet in the volume, Joseph Cotter, Sr., is represented by “The Tragedy of Pete.” Here’s the final stanza of the poem,

There was a man
Whose name was Pete
And he welcomed death
From his head to his feet

By the time we get to Angelina Weld Grimké’s “Hushed by the Hands of Sleep,” 36 pages into Caroling Dusk, we know that sleep refers to death. And we begin to wonder whether death can be imagined without suicide. Grimke’s “Grass Fingers” ends,

Soon I shall be too far beneath you,
For you to reach me, even,
With your tiny, timorous toes.

And I think it’s no coincidence that at the mid-point of the anthology, we find Frank Horne’s “Letters Found Near a Suicide,” an 11 part poem, one of the longest in the collection. The first section, “To All of You,” reads,

My little stone
Sinks quickly
Into the bosom of this deep, dark pool
Of oblivion . . .
I have troubled its breast but little
Yet those far shores
That knew me not
Will feel the fleeting furtive kiss
Of my tiny concentric ripples . . .

*
The suicide poem is a staple found in the work of many young poets, an expected form across poetry workshops. This is not to deny the force of such poems, their attempts to explore how one inhabits killing socialities. Still, their ubiquity, as a mark of the “deep” or “dark” poem (I’ll return to this “dark”) might tells us something about the forms of truthtelling that might still be available in poetry. That they are “dark” poems might suggest something about a “common sense” (to invoke Kara Keeling) that binds blackness to forms and practices of unlife. If this is so, we might say that Harlem Renaissance poets continually ask how bodies framed as proximity to, and as incarnating, unlife imagine, which is to say inhabit, death:sleep:suicide.

(qualifiers multiply, but this, I think, is not simply academic habit, but an attempt to tread carefully)

I have been thinking about what we want from poetry, especially poetry by black poets. Sometimes, we want it to bear the weight of unspeakable pain. To inhabit a “darkness”—as proximity to unlife—that we dare not confess we experience. We want our truthtellers to incarnate our pain. And because poets are our truthtellers, we want to unimagine what it might cost them or that it might cost them.

(I’m not sure that is what I wanted to write—I wanted to write, want to write, something about the labor of staying with suicide, about Langston Hughes’s labor, about Cullen’s recognition of that labor, and about the ripples of suicide:sleep:death in Caroling Dusk, about how black life can be figured as proximity to unlife—I will not use “social death” here, because it’s not the structure I need)

At the same time, I want to disembed the possibility of suicide that Hughes and others explore from psycho-social management, that is, to think, with Reagon, about the conditions of unlivability that produce what is misnamed as black pathology (my language is infected by Moten, Wilderson, Sexton, and this is getting in the way).
*
Let me try again.
*
How should those figured as unlife, as in the hold (to invoke Christina Sharpe’s work), as figures in “mathematics” (to invoke Katherine McKittrick), as not-fully-human and not-human (to invoke Alexander Weheliye), as resistant objects (to invoke Fred Moten), as severed from their active will (to invoke Hortense Spillers), as human in a world of Man (to invoke Sylvia Wynter), inhabit toxic socialities?

Why should struggle, resistance, and resilience be the acceptable registers through which to consider black absence from the zones of life?
*
Before revisionary work in the 1980s and 1990s, the Harlem Renaissance was considered a failure. It might be useful to return to the place of failure in Harlem Renaissance poetry—to its concern with loss and despair, its ongoing melancholy, or what Moten terms “mo’nin’” (that space of mourning and moaning), its dwelling in what Christina Sharpe theorizes as the wake—staying awake to unforget, to coax memory, to inhabit a dangerous consciousness (staying awake) as a collective, to remain, as unlife, in proximity to death. (What is the relationship of unlife to death? Perhaps this is the question Harlem Renaissance poetry asks.)
*
There is no conclusion to the ongoingness within which unlife meets death, no end to the wake of black life, no end to how the making of black unlife travels and circulates, producing conditions of disposability in geographically-disparate places, creating expanding zones of non-being.

how to inhabit the ongoingness of unlife in the wake—this is the work

political homophobia

It is always strange to encounter oneself elsewhere, or, more precisely, the self that others think one is. I know enough to understand that all representation entails misrecognition: others’ images of us rarely accord with our images of ourselves and, strictly speaking, our self-representation is apt to be just as distorted.

I have been thinking about what anthropologist Tom Boellstorf terms “political homophobia” for almost as long as I’ve known about homosexuality. In Boellstorf (writing on Indonesia) and Ashley Currier (writing on Namibia), political homophobia describes how hetero-patriarchal sentiment is mobilized against those considered non-normative. It might include naming political opponents as gay or lesbian or otherwise gender- or sexual-dissident to exclude them from a nation imagined as heteronormative and hetero-patriarchal; or, as in Kenya, it might include arguing that particular parties or forms of legislation might introduce or promote homosexuality “through the back door” (as uttered in Kenya’s parliament discussions); or, it might simply mean how publics are called into being based on attitudes toward homosexuality.

Within the logic of political homophobia, the accusation that one is “gay” or a “gay activist” or even a “homosexual activist”—these are metonymic names meant to represent all gender and sexual dissidence—is supposed to discredit one’s persona and arguments. As Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant argue, heteronormativity is about a “sense of rightness,” about a moral and ideological anchoring in what is supposed to be beyond question, no matter its incoherence.

And, so, despite my well-known distaste for confession, a series of confessions:

  • I’ve been out as queer to my friends and family since 1996.
  • I attended graduate school to focus on queer studies.
  • As a graduate student and as a professor, I taught classes devoted to queer studies.
  • My first blog, Gukira, on blogspot, was explicitly queer.
  • I have written many blog posts on queer issues on this blog.
  • I have publications in Wasafiri, Modern Fiction Studies, the Queer African Reader, Kwani?, and elsewhere, that draw on queer studies and defend queer livability.
  • I have published articles in the Guardian defending queer livability.
  • I have participated in many conferences speaking on queer issues.
  • My twitter bio reads, “Queer Writer”
  • While disposability is a relatively recent term in my lexicon, the thread of my writing has always been against practices that unhuman and make life less possible.
  • I believe all life is valuable.

Many of these statements can be used against me in a Kenya that has a draft anti-homosexuality bill. Many of them can be used against me in a Kenya in which no prominent political figure has come out—either in support of queer rights or as queer. Many of them can be used against me in a Kenya where the mere fact of being married or hetero-reproductive bestows respectability and credibility. Many of them can be used against me in a Kenya where hetero-patriarchy repeatedly asserts its rights to use and discard women’s bodies—consent not required.

I stand by these statements. If they mark me as “some other gay activist,” so be it.

unhoming kenyan women

At the heart of Grace Ogot’s short story “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Taking different forms, this sentence runs through a wide body of writing by Kenyan women.

Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed features a female teacher who is forcibly abducted and raped by the male head of state. Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s poem, “The Way You Felt Remains,” describes a public encounter where a young woman encounters a “chokora” who gropes her in public, unsolicited. Sitawa Namwalie’s “Let’s Speak a Simple Truth,” notes that, “the average man can without much planning / Take by force most average women in the world.”

Repeatedly, Kenyan women’s writing bears witness to a society where women’s bodies are considered available to all men, a society where a woman’s consent is considered irrelevant.

In fact, the question of women’s consent is considered irrelevant in our National Assembly. During the recent discussions of the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. John Murithi Waiganjo (Ol Joro Orok, TNA) described intercourse as “enjoy[ing] the facilities,” rendering women as inert structures.

Hon. Jimmy Angwenyi (Kitutu Chache North, TNA) insisted that marriage voided the need for women’s consent, arguing, “We are talking about somebody you persuaded to move from her parents’ home to your home. When she moved from her parents’ home to your home, that was when she accepted you. Therefore, every time you need that thing, she should accept.” Men’s needs take priority over women’s will and desire.

Further contributing to this line of thinking, Hon. Makai Mulu (Kitui Central, WDM-K) argued for a “cultural exemption,” saying, “in the Kamba culture, there is nothing like sexual harassment when you are dealing with a wife or husband. When you pay the three goats, you are given 100 per cent authority to engage in that act without any question.”

Engaging these voices, Hon. Priscilla Nyokabi Kanyua (Othaya, TNA) reminded the National Assembly, “Our African cultures actually protected their women. The reason why we are here 1000 years after the discovery of man is because Africa protected women.”

If we turn to the body of writing by Kenyan men, the notion of bodily integrity is well articulated. Maina wa Kinyatti’s Kenya: A Prison Diary rails against the humiliation of being searched by prison guards. In Three Days on the Cross, Wahome Mutahi has nightmares that he is being sexually violated while in prison. Onduko bw’Atebe’s award-winning Verdict of Death features the dashing protagonist being brutally attacked and raped in prison.

Across a broad range of works set in prison, Kenyan men demonstrate that they know what it feels like to be vulnerable, to fear for their bodily integrity, to lack consent.

Across a broad range of writing—on twitter, on blogs, in poems, in novels, in non-fiction—Kenyan women describe their everyday lives as gendered prisons, where they are vulnerable, subject to bodily violations in private and public contexts, where their consent is taken for granted, their bodies mishandled by friends, acquaintances, intimates, and strangers.

At a historical moment when Kenyan politics is consumed by the question of security, we might pause to ask why so many Kenyan women feel insecure in public and private spaces: walking on public streets, taking public transport, attending colleges and universities, visiting friends and relatives, hosting guests at home.

During the debate about the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. Aden Duale (Dujis, URP) argued that questions of domestic violence were minor. Kenya, he claimed, had “more serious issues” to contend with, including terrorism and food insecurity. It should strike us as odd that women’s security in our homes is deemed unimportant. In fact, it should strike us as obscene and unacceptable.

It should be unacceptable that Kenyan women feel they must submit to bodily violations to participate in public and private life. It should be unacceptable that section 28 of our constitution, which guarantees inherent dignity to everyone, should be suspended when it comes to Kenyan women. It should be unacceptable that women’s bodies are considered available for men’s use and consumption. It should be unacceptable that we mute women’s voices when they attempt to assert their rights to dignity and bodily integrity.

Kenyan author and activist Shailja Patel has said, “Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.”

Kenya is full of homeless women, unhomed by official parliamentary discussions, unhomed by misogynist radio shows, unhomed by public spaces full of unwanted touch by strangers, unhomed in private spaces full of unwanted touch by friends and acquaintances, unhomed by a country that discusses women as property.

At the heart of Grace Ogot’s “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Let’s pledge to make this sentence unthinkable.