I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.
—John Mbiti, Kenyan Philosopher
Faggot was hurled at me when I was 10 or 11. I was walking home from the kiosks, dressed in my favourite pair of shorts, green, I think, and a neighborhood boy 5 or 6 years older said something, perhaps hello. I didn’t know him, and he was with his friends, so I ignored the greeting. I think this is what happened. I walked away and “FAGGOT” moved through the air, not immediately, but when I had moved away far enough that it had to be shouted, moving from his belly through his throat into his mouth, pushed into the air that carried it, increasing its malevolence.
It landed. I turned around.
Had I been hailed?
I turned around.
He was laughing. With his friends. Were there 3 of them? 4? I don’t remember. He was laughing. I remember that laugh. That group of laughing boys, 5 or 6 years older.
That word lodged in my bones. I never told anyone. Lodged in my bones even though I did not know what it meant. That word and the laugh that accompanied it. Even now, I hate laugh tracks. They always sound malevolent.
Sissy had followed as soon as I started school at 4 or 5. My walk. My voice. My limp, limp, limp wrist. It followed me at school, as I entered the swimming pool, as I moved among people who were older and younger.
Was it cruel? Perhaps.
Mostly, it meant that I was failing at something other people had access to. Failing at a boyhood that was supposed to be transforming into a manhood. Failing at a legibility that distinguished between boy and girl, a distinction that some needed more than they needed anything else.
On one occasion.
No, I cannot tell it. Not yet. Perhaps never.
There was no physical violence, you understand. No one said faggot with a bat or sissy with a punch.
I am tracing scars, not wounds.
My parents adored me.
I was born 5 years after the sibling who precedes me, as my parents moved from government-owned, rented housing into their own house, with their own mortgage. As they moved from working for the government to owning their own business. I was the child of their “risk it all.” The child whose birth came as they moved from precarious lower middle class to solid middle class, with occasional forays into the upper middle class. Mostly, they were professional class—a doctor married to a nurse—in a Kenya where being professional class was still a privilege.
My parents loved me. They were economically secure.
My parents adored me.
Scars form quickly when you are surrounded by love. When you are sure of it. When it eases what aches, even when you cannot name the ache.
My parents loved me.
Faggot and sissy named ways I was wrong.
They named, as well, ways that I was legible, ways that I entered into relation with those around me, those that named me. They were practices of recognition. Did they interpellate me? Make me take into myself the myths and fantasies they contained? Maybe.
A boy yelled faggot. I turned around.
A teenager yelled faggot. I turned around.
Before Fanon. Before Hegel.
There are scenes of legibility and recognition that precede these two.
Let us hear what the philosophers say:
In the stated journey of the individual toward personhood, let it therefore be noted that the community plays a vital role both as catalyst and as prescriber of norms. The idea is that in order to transform what was initially biologically given into full personhood, the community, of necessity, has to step in, since the individual, himself or herself, cannot carry through the transformation unassisted. But then what are the implications of this idea of a biologically given organism having first to go through a process of social and ritual transformation, so as to attain the full complement of excellences seen as definitive of the person?
One conclusion appears inevitable, and it is to the effect that personhood is the sort of thing which has to be achieved, the sort of thing at which individuals could fail. I suppose that another way of putting the matter is to say that the approach to persons in traditional thought is generally speaking a maximal, or more exacting, approach, insofar as it reaches for something beyond such minimalist requirements as the presence of consciousness, memory, will, soul, rationality, or mental function. The project of being or becoming persons, it is believed, is a truly serious project that stretches beyond the raw capacities of the isolated individual, and it is a project which is laden with the possibility of triumph, but also of failure.Ifeanyi Menkiti, “On the Normative Conception of a Person”
A crucial distinction thus exists between the African view of man and the view of man found in Western thought: in the African view it is the community which defines the person as person, not some isolated static quality of rationality, will, or memory.
This brings us to the second point of contrast between the two views of man, namely the processual nature of being in African thought—the fact that persons become persons only after a process of incorporation. Without incorporation into this or that community, individuals are considered to be mere danglers to whom the description “person” does not fully apply. For personhood is something which has to be achieved, and is not given simply because one of born of human seed.Ifeanyi Menkiti, “Person and Community in African Traditional Thought
Perhaps let us pause there. There are other citations, but they are variations on a theme: one attains personhood through processes of incorporation. Personhood is processual. One can fail at attaining personhood.
At the heart of African practices of sociality is incorporation: to be recognized as a kind of person. We are not in the plasticity Zakiyyah Iman Jackson describes that arrives with colonial modernity, not speaking about degrees of humanness that happen simultaneously—human as excess, human as lack, human as supplement, all the ways Black people are framed through modernity’s vernaculars̛. No, this is about types of persons framed through African practices, and these are, generally, people who achieve full personhood—this is mostly heteroreproductive and economically productive—and failed personhood—this is mostly anchored in one’s ability to reproduce and be economically productive.
In many African communities prior to colonial modernity, forms of legibility and incorporation were ritualized. One transitioned through various stages of childhood and young adulthood and mature adulthood and elder adulthood through a series of rituals and practices. At each stage, one was re-incorporated into the social as a specific kind of person. If you had your ears pierced, you might have different obligations and privileges. If you had ritual marks placed on your body, you might have different obligations and rituals. If you underwent initiation, you might have different obligations and privileges. If you got married, if you had children, if you had children who underwent initiation, if you had children who got married, if you had grandchildren. This list is partial. All of these came with different forms of incorporation and recognition. At each stage, your social group shifted. If you were lucky, you went through these things with the same group of people. If not, you were left behind. Or went ahead.
Incorporation and legibility: hold on to those words.
I am not writing at the edges, I am trying to ground what might be dismissed as a “simple disagreement between Africans.”
Or, what I read when Chimamanda insisted on anchoring womanhood in biology. Cis women are women. Trans women are trans women. This is the ground she is operating on.
Let me localize this further.
Chimamanda and I belong to what the Kikuyu would describe as the same riika. Riika is often translated as age group, but it means more than that. It means those who share similar obligations and responsibilities, those whose shared experiences of histories and presents provide them with shared vocabularies. We are now at the age when our parents are dying. Her parents died. My mother, a widow, died. We are in the riika of those who are not only grieving, but also responsible for carework and arranging funerals.
Riika is hard to define, so let me say it names those around 4 years older and 4 years younger.
If I might be expansive, those in my riika now hold jobs as department chairs and deans, associate professors and a few full professors. Academia is a language I know. Outside academia, those in my riika who were destined to be politicians are now politicians. They have won and lost elections. Those who were destined to start cults are at the height of their powers. Those who were going to be CEOs and leaders of industry are now well on their way there, if they have not already arrived. And those who were going to make ordinary, if undistinguished lives are making those lives. And those who have failed to achieve all the things valued within the riika have failed to achieve them.
Beyond and alongside this: we are in the riika most responsible for generating meaningful incorporation and legibility. Our parents and aunts and grandparents are excited to meet the younger generations. They love them. They cherish them. They permit them to get away with–what a strange phrase, get away with—actions that would have landed us in a lot of trouble. They are, for the most part, not in the business of granting social legibility and incorporation, though they may take on ceremonial roles at weddings.
Do I overstate my case? Am I making a case? I do not trust these legal frameworks.
I am thinking through something.
What does it mean when the most famous African writer, lauded as one of the most powerful voices of African feminism, insists that trans women are trans women, subtended by the claim that cis women are women. No adjective needed. What forms of incorporation are at work here?
The thing about being in the same riika, is that I have a different relation to Chimamanda than younger people who came to feminism and African literature through her.
Chimamanda’s work met me when I had already started graduate school. I had read the Black feminist classics. I had worked my way through lesbian feminist classics. I was teaching gender and sexuality. I was learning how to think with and across geohistories. And learning how to teach what I was trying to think.
She was not formative for me as she was for younger people. She was a necessary supplement.
Chimamanda arrived at a moment when a longstanding battle was still playing out: was feminism African? Wasn’t it a western import?
The particular structures of white supremacy have meant that African novelists—and it is novelists, not poets, though the occasional dramatist will break through—have been hailed as the sociologists and philosophers and anthropologists and historians and political theorists of Africa. It is far more likely that one is familiar with Chinua Achebe than with Toyin Falola or Ifi Amadiume or John Mbiti or Nkiru Nzegwu. The very same structures of white supremacy have kept African thinking unavailable or unaffordable. Limited books in very expensive editions for specialists. Even as the African textbook market for primary and high schools is wildly profitable. I am trying to map an ecosystem. Forgive the shorthand.
When Chimamanda spoke as a feminist, she spoke as the only kind of African intellectual most people know how to listen to. And she spoke in the places that would resonate in Africa: we like our intellectuals to speak to us from New York or London or Berlin or Oxford. We will listen to them because they have captured white ears.
Chimamanda also spoke good English. Not the English that said she had been to an exclusive private school and had smoothed Nigeria out of her mouth, but the English that was discernibly Nigerian, highly educated, and eloquent. Her English was trusted. Her accent marked her as one of us. Not one who would be so easily dismissed as “western,” as many of us are, our English marked by sojourns abroad.
Chimamanda was legible and made African feminism legible for many people. I assigned her work. We watched her videos in class. I still think her article about the single story is one of the most powerful and legible frames, and I have used it in much of my own writing and thinking.
During my first year at the University of Maryland, the dean sent a form asking faculty to recommend speakers for a distinguished lecture series. Chimamanda was at the top of my list. I made what I thought was a convincing case—in this instance, it was a case. And a few years later, she was invited as a speaker. She was witty and eloquent and gave the Africans in the crowd a face, a voice, a tether, a ground. She said “fuck” during the talk, and delighted me. She made us legible. Us. Me. Abroad, feeling increasingly unhappy about being away from Africa. Feeling unseen in many ways. She made space possible.
It is easy for those who have never been attached to a person and what that person represents to demand that the person should be canceled. And, of course, it is easy to cancel celebrities, people we know through screen and magazine images, but with whom we have no sense of deep attachment. But what is the process of unattaching from those who have given us what we needed at a particular moment? What is the process of disembedding ourselves from the universes we have shared, the worlds they have made possible?
I have said we are the same riika, a riika that, I believe, increasingly bestows legibility and facilitates incorporation. The structures have shifted. We are not the riika of locusts or big winds or whatever natural event we might have been named after. But we do live and work at that place where incorporation and legibility is a vernacular practice.
I have written more words than I wanted. Perhaps more words than I needed. I wanted to return to familiar grounds, to find ways to think about what Chimamanda’s actions—language is an action, Raymond Williams writes—are doing, and the broader worlds in which they participate.
What is it when one of the most prominent voices in a riika withholds incorporation and legibility to a younger person? What is that action? Where does it live? What does it do?
Even before the pandemic started, we had been in a prolonged period of cisgender normativity. If we survive and have the benefit of hindsight, we might trace why the past 10 or so years have felt so fraught when it comes to gender. We might trace the particular anxieties that have produced gender reveal parties. We might trace the hatreds that have us learning new names of the murdered in South Africa and in the U.S. and in other geo-histories where surveillance mechanisms make it difficult to name those killed for being gay and lesbian and bisexual and trans, those who live in the malevolence of words that turn into fists and guns and machetes.
Perhaps, as someone told me, all of this is about celebrity authors who need a beef to sustain interest in their careers. And we are their PR machine.
But, there are other attachments. Other histories. Other practices. Other ways of being with and for each other.
I return, as always, to Audre Lorde, who teaches me that working across difference is difficult. And we do it with those with whom we share similar goals toward freedom. I return to the Audre Lorde who writes that we must listen to each other, to see how we impede and hurt each other with our unlistening, and that we must learn to listen even when it’s difficult, even when doing so demands we unlearn something we had taken for granted about ourselves and our politics. I return to the Audre Lorde who teaches me that the imagination can be a frightening place, but it can also help us build worlds we can share.
From here. For now.
Imagining freedom while practicing radical welcome and working across difference remains urgent.