Before I can return to where I hope to resurrect sensation, I turn back, a familiar and, in many ways, inevitable turning. Faced with today’s nightmares, I need not pursue yesterday’s.
In summer 1996, having learned how to take long distance buses in the U.S., I bused to Mombasa. I came to find the meaning of that trip.
I cannot go back to where I came from. It no longer exists. It should not exist.
An image lingers: a man on a busy street handling his crotch. I do not know if he was fondling himself or scratching, and while I know what he looked like, I cannot describe him. Somehow, description seems irrelevant. I’m tempted to add that the ways we have of describing humans are so saturated with racist assumptions from colonial modernity that description must be—can only be—debilitating. I recall the excitement of my desire for him, how unfocused and bashful it was, how world-tilting. In part, this experience suggests why I react to Samuel Delany’s work as I do: he has the remarkable capacity to render such axis-shifting moments.
A frieze of quotations adorns the little Book First at the City Mall Nakumatt. All the quotations exhort those browsing to read, promising the sorts of thing that such things promise. Some of the names are familiar—Katherine Mansfield, William Styron, John Ruskin. The rest elude me. Helpful annotations make them legible: American essayist, American novelist, American this, American that, English this, and, surprisingly, Chinese that.
Not a single quotation is by an African author.
A creature of (terrible) habits, I have come to the mall, a space I find conceptually interesting. Graduate school habits remain, so I go to malls on weekdays, at hours when most 9-5 people are at work. At such times, malls have different ecologies: the moms who lunch, the seniors who exercise, the tourists, the job seekers. Malls feel less frantic, less harried than during holidays and weekends. At least, this is how I explain this (terrible) habit.
A man—the original version of this had “gentleman”—sits at a table, takes out his phone, looks irritated when a female server approaches to offer a menu. In what I am told is Kenyan vernacular, he does not look at her. Kenyans, I am told, do not look at wait staff. Wait staff must be unimagined as human, as worth seeing.
Malls are a kind of sameness, and this one is not particularly interesting. Perhaps its bland availability most closely approximates what I came to excavate, a name from childhood—Nyali. Incarnated in this particular artifact might be an unfettered delight that once existed, a carefree laugh of the kind I no longer remember enjoying.
Nostalgia might be this impossible search for what one is told must have existed.
Here, at the Gateway to the World, the Door of No Return feels pressing, present in the hues and shades and physiognomies around me, present in the lingua franca that here, perhaps more than elsewhere, lives as a borrowing and an imposition, a stealing and a surviving, a trade language accented by coffles and whips. To become Mswahili, a book tells me, is to be deracinated, to refuse to follow the ethno-legalisms and ethno-rituals that sustain a precarious, ever-unraveling we:us.
To be here, at the Door of No Return, might be to ask how one inhabits the black body, how one “takes part in its mask, its performance.”
Part of what I have wanted is to follow the traces that might unmake this:here as inevitable, to find a wedge that might begin to chip away at those ossifications that started as strategies.
I return, again, to Nobody Knows My Name, a book in which Baldwin tries, repeatedly, to (re)claim an American-ness that he insists is in his blood, an American-ness that he cannot escape. Belonging and attachment wrestle in Baldwin, in a way that they do not in Audre Lorde. Her too-recent immigrant sensibility, to put it crudely, her proximity to the Door of No Return, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for her to claim the promises that Baldwin and, before him, Hughes and Du Bois, claims as his inheritance. But, perhaps, women are always disinherited from promises men claim so easily, too easily. Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood struggles to find a genre within which women in the Americas can survive, let alone thrive. Which leads me back, oddly, to Nobody Knows My Name, a quest narrative looking for the languages and sensations that might make the U.S. possible for Baldwin.
Water memories are forbidden memories, forbidding memories, disciplined memories, impossible memories. Lines on a map show where people like me might have been taken—stolen, coffled, traded. Other lines, hidden lines, unspeakable lines, exist as traces in many elsewheres I was trained to unrecognize. “We” is a huddling together, a house with no exits, no travel paths, no water memories. Water memories are slip-away memories, wash-away memories, trace-erasing memories.
The road knows that where you find yourself you are.
Every family has stories of the disappeared, the not-talked-about, the grief- or fear- or rage-inducing names, the lingering unforgotten, the shame, the scar, the oozing wound. One learns to unsay particular names, to erase the brief shadows that every so often haunt faces that have forgotten to forget.
Water memories might name a particular fantasy of unforgetting. A wish that something might wash up on time’s shore.
What would one do if one encountered a trace from the forgotten?
More than once, in other elsewheres, I have seen faces I know how to recognize. Traces of long-forgotten migrations, past-unmaking thefts. An idea that we might once have been legible to each other in other ways. We meet, instead, in this stranger-making present. We trade nods or avert gazes, rub suddenly salt-encrusted eyes.
Some of us want entry into the home and nation that are signified by these romances.
A cut at the root.
Picture a root system shaped by terror. Everywhere growths certain that most will not survive, hoping that some might. Multiply this image, forest it. Listen to the song-making leaves, to the song-fleeing wind. Stand in this moment, not because you can, but because you must.
The ocean is more disturbed today, more insistent as it swells and carries, moves and unsettles. Nearby, ocean-born children play with such ease, such fearlessness. I wonder how many generations it takes for terror to dissipate. Slavery on this coast was formally abolished in 1907. The dispossessed linger, those saved from slave-bearing ships only to encounter the ethno-nationalist independent state that refuses to grant attachment, belonging, legibility.
What do those washing their feet in the ocean hope to wash away?
What do those looking out over the ocean hope to find?
Perhaps the terra-memories I cling to, the land-soil green I profess, can only be imagined because of water memories: the land also has its terrors.
There are ways of constructing the world—that is, of putting it together each morning, what it should look like piece by piece—and I don’t feel that I share this with the people in my small town.
A slash at the root.
The bars on the windows here echo the former prison this restaurant abuts. Patterns linger across geographies, cross-fertilize, become traces and memories.
And what this place was called in its own language I do not know.
20 hours into a too-long train trip, I remain entranced by trees.
We have stopped again—I’m not sure where. We keep stopping at seemingly random place, made even more random by the uneven lengths of the stops. A minute here, twenty there, two hours wherever. Sometimes, if you look out of the window fast enough, a name appears, train towers in various states of use and disuse, curious, indifferent, and hostile faces.
Geographies unfold—this is the promise of the train trip: a geography will unfold.
We pass through water-parched lands that stripped water memories from the stolen. Water memories might linger in long-lived trees.