African Pleasure (in 5 movements)

When we gather, we gather to co-imagine and to co-think and to co-create. We gather as a collective and to make collectives, no matter how short-term, no matter how contested. We gather to work across difference, as Audre Lorde teaches.

No matter how far I stray, whether I’m thinking about sociogenesis with Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter; or blackness with Fred Moten and Christina Sharpe; or sexual violence with Wambui Mwangi and Pumla Gqola; or the human and modernity with Alex Weheliye and Katherine McKittrick; or visuality with Nicholas Mirzoeff and Neo Musangi; or state power and masculinity with Grace Musila and Kopano Ratele; or gender and sexuality with Danai Mupotsa and Hortense Spillers; or difference with Audre Lorde and Stuart Hall. No matter how far I stray, I return to a few synonyms: ordinary, banal, quotidian.

Ordinary. Banal. Quotidian.

Ordinary:
adjective
1. of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional:
2. plain or undistinguished:
3. somewhat inferior or below average; mediocre.
4. customary; usual; normal:

Banal:
adjective
1. devoid of freshness or originality; hackneyed; trite:

Quotidian:
adjective
1. daily:
2. usual or customary; everyday:
3. ordinary; commonplace:

I return to the question of how we experience the everyday. Of how we live in our bodies, in our homes, in public spaces, as those who belong and don’t belong, as those who are planted and deracinated. I return to the ways we practice living together. By practice, I mean the deliberate ways we choose to live with each other, across difference, with love and anger and conflict and care.

Audre Lorde writes, “we have chosen each other / and the edge of each other’s battles.”

Introducing “Sunday in Savannah,” Nina Simone says, “I hope we can provide some kind of something for you, this evening . . . we hope that we can give you something, something, whatever it is that you need tonight.”

i. freedom

What does feeling good have to do with being free? How can experiencing pleasure teach us to pursue freedom? What should thinking about freedom feel like? How do we practice freedom?

Nina Simone sings, “I wish I knew how / it would feel to be free.” In an interview, Sylvia Wynter recounts the experience of the anti-colonial, heading-to-freeom 1950s: “What happens now, after this great erupting moment, is that suddenly [you] begin to constitute yourself as another subject.” As she elaborates, “it was only in the context of the anti-colonial movement that all of a sudden writers began writing, painters began painting, that people who had been silent for so long now ‘found their voices.’ . . . You must realize that this transformation was not only political, it was also going to be in the arts.”

Before I read Wynter, I had read Sitawa Namwalie.

In her wonderful poem, “A Gifted Almost-Fifty,” Sitawa Namwalie mourns the “angry young poetry” she could not write “at twenty.” She could not write this poetry because the “political regime,” under Moi, “did not tolerate vocalization.” When he left, “poetry erupted, spewing on its own, brimming.” “24 years of blundering terror,” she writes, “stole my fuming twenties.” But not just her twenties. The theft of her voice extended to her thirties and she “gave up” in her “forties.” At “Almost-fifty,” Sitawa discovered her “angry overdue gift.”

Two temporalities: during the anti-colonial struggle (Wynter) and after Moi was removed from power (Sitawa). Perhaps one: the promise of freedom. Yet, I think, it might not be so much the promise of freedom as the practice of freedom. I mean practice in the sense of working toward and in the sense of doing habitually: the practice of freedom as working toward what one will do habitually.

Expression: “all of a sudden” “poetry erupted, spewing on its own, brimming”

What does feeling good have to do with practicing freedom?

(a note to myself:

I wonder, now, about how the abundant, proliferating archives of unfreedom seduce us, what they make impossible for us to imagine and pursue and practice and think and create. I wonder about the weight placed on these archives: they are knowledge, they are truth, they are important, they are legibility, they are epistemology, not only what to know but how to know.

To work with these archives – not only what to know but how to know – requires struggling against what they frame as inevitable. One struggles to hold on to the promise of freedom.)

ii. Erotic

What does feeling good have to do with practicing freedom?

Audre Lorde teaches me:

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

Audre Lorde teaches me:

The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.

Audre Lorde teaches me:

In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.

Audre Lorde teaches me:

When we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives only rather than from our internal knowledge and needs, when we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives are limited by external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs of a structure that is not based on human need, let alone an individual’s. But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering an self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.

Pumla Gqola teaches me:

It is crucial to begin to make new memories of embodiment: forms that encourage pleasure and power.

Pumla Gqola asks me to imagine:

An Africa in which we can take stock of what we have lost, but in which we remain unwavering in our commitment to finding new ways of honouring ourselves again as African, expanding freedoms, doing the difficult work of love and freedom, being unafraid of asking questions that seem counterintuitive.

Pumla Gqola insists:

A difficult period requires imagination.

Pumla Gqola insists:

Africa has to mean a present and future home again for those who strive for a freedom linked to the freedom of those like – and unlike – us.

iii. survival

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

– Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”

iv. exhaustion

In a period when liberal and critical discourses seem fixated on a politics of “action,” we cannot afford to neglect or ignore the exhausted body, the body that breaks-down, the body that strains, that labors in unending struggle. Stress, fatigue, burnout, war-weariness, and emotional expenditure are all inherent elements of building mass movements against anti-blackness, white supremacy, colonialism, racial capitalism, and cis-heteropatriarchy. As in all aspects of life, without the proper diagnosis, healing, care, and rest, the effects of exhaustion can weaken the capacity of movements to effectively guard against the forces of counter-insurgency.

Propter Nos

As the truncated long rains yielded to a persistent dry season, cold and then hot, plants struggled to survive, producing bloom after bloom, hoping that something would survive the hostile conditions. Now, with the delayed short rains here, plants bloom with a sense of desperation, still learning how to survive in these new, capricious conditions. Allergy-heavy, head-fogged, I move red-eyed through these months of unrelenting pollen, waking up tired, moving through the day tired, napping to seek relief that will not come. Irritation. My tongue scrapes the roof of my mouth, my fingers become more intimate than usual with my eyes. Sometimes a headache. Sometimes a runny nose.

Most days, I wonder if these allergy-familiar symptoms register, psychosomatically, the toxicity of Kenya’s misogyny and ethnonationalism, intolerant hetero-patriarchy and gendered normativity. Anti-blackness, Christina Sharpe teaches me, is the weather. Jemima Pierre shows me how to consider the entwined genealogies of anti-blackness and ethno-nationalism. Grace Musila teaches me how to consider the weave of patriarchal entitlement and ethno-nationalism.

Living in a geohistory imagined by white supremacy: the borders, the ethnic borders, the ethno-nationalisms, the penal code, the educational infrastructures, the social infrastructure, the horsehairwigwearing legal profession, the constant invocations of civility, the EnidBlytonLaden bookstores, the whiteisrightwhiteisrightwhiteisrightwhiteisright sociality and economic structure. Living in a geohistory where ethnonationalisms and ethnopatriarchies generate livability as heteronormativity, as placebelonging, as generation and genealogy, as mothertongueplacetongue – cut off my tongue – as class mobility, as placestuckness, as yournamebetraysyou, as competing ethno-masculinities joined by shared misogyny and homophobia, as bodypolicing – feelingpolicing – livingpolicing – lovingpolicing.

living–not-living : survival

I think, now, of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Power,” which opens The Dream of a Common Language. Rich asks if Marie Curie knew that the discoveries she was making were killing her. Pronouns across time: killing Marie Curie, killing Rich, half-lives and afterlives.

What is the risk of wake-work? Can you risk being woke? I used to flip through my father’s medical journals and convince myself that I had whatever condition whose symptoms I understood. Wake. Work. To. Be. Woke. To become sensitive. To the atmosphere. Sara Ahmed taught me not to dismiss the “feeling in the room,” the “atmosphere,” how spaces shifts and moves and bends and flows when I enter it.

But this is tiring. Rub-eye tiring, nose-run tiring, dry-mouth tiring. Yet one cannot risk becoming callused: lives are at stake. Even my own. Sleep rhythms are interrupted. One does not “sleep well.” One sleeps “fitfully.” One is disturbed by the smallest shifts in the atmosphere.

(when can I sleep?)

tired

tayad

exhaustion accumulates, gritredeyes, the ordinary of exhaustion, the banality of toxicity, the quotidian of feeling impossible, gritredeyes

I am not indefatigable

v. care

Care(work) is messy. It is doing and undoing, picking nettle leaves with bare hands to create a healing poultice.

(love whispers to duty – duty exhausts love: a poultice is needed to repair, to force a breath)

A word from Derrida: pharmakon

This pharmakon, this “medicine,” this philster, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence. This charm, this spellbinding virtue, this power of fascination can be – alternately or simultaneously – beneficent or maleficent.

A comment on Twitter reminds me that “care” is also a state word: to put someone “into care,” where care means surveillance, sometimes violence, sometimes worse. To “put into care.” To “care.” To be “cared for.”

An image:

I take her foot between my hands
Ben, shall I cut your toenails? (Shailja Patel, Migritude)

What does feeling good have to do with with practicing freedom? Audre Lorde’s most extended and consistent thinking about care and difference came after her first bout with cancer. I have wondered if her emphasis on caring for herself registered the absence of care she experienced from those she trusted to care for her. Palimpsests. I have wondered if the repeated emphasis on self-care registers the lack of care we experience from those we trust to care for us.

What work can care do for the callused and damaged? What work can care do for the abscess-ridden and abscess-prone? What work can pleasure do? What work can the promise of pleasure – working across difference – do?

Why practice care? Why practice pleasure?

I return to the experience of the quotidian, to how I would like to experience the quotidian. A quotidian that is the possibility of gathering into a livable, pleasurable social. We gather to practice freedom as we work across difference.

How do the callused and damaged and abscess-prone and scarred learn to practice care while pursuing freedom?