holding my father’s penis

It is small.

It happens during what the psycho-social industry calls “a formative phase,” a period when the person I am meant to become will be shaped. I am plasticine-adolescent, moulded by every man who speaks, pushes, touches, gazes. My father is dying, but he refuses to die, and when he dies, I refuse to let him die. His penis has already been chopped off, a void created in place of an absence.

Psychoanalysis teaches me that the phallus is not the penis. Frantz Fanon teaches me that the black is genitality. My fantasies teach me to crave daddies, men I will never call daddy, men who will submit, men who can enjoy pleasure.

Dying and Sex: how banal.

This writing is not about my father’s death, my psycho-social development, my being queer, my sex practices, the bestselling genres of emotional vulnerability. It is not about the death I missed, the funeral I wish I had missed, the memorial services I skip, the men I want to pursue who look nothing like my father, the men who pursue me who look nothing like my father, the twenty five years it has taken to write about my father, the person I am when I write about my father, the person I unbecome when I write about my father.

If I write “my father” enough times, something might be exorcised. Maybe the me who has never known how to move on. One returns to the scene of emotional devastation to discover pieces of a self that are unrecognizable, and, worse, unusable. To discover that the carapace sheltered by nostalgia can no longer be treasured. To confront the I who cannot be valued from here, from now. Shattering happens. Again.

From my father, I inherited a love for solitude, a desire to escape from the demands of sociality, a craving to indulge silliness.

Details, my editor tells me, provide real details. Stories that provide life, depth, texture.

1.
My Swahili has always been terrible. Classmates laughed at my pronunciation—a transformed Eliza Dolittle speaking Swahili. Teachers laughed at my attempts to shape Kikuyu into Swahili. Swahili was a school language, not one of the languages used frequently at home. Not a language I wanted to learn, not French or Italian or Arabic.

Perhaps I was 12 years old. I had failed a Swahili exam, so badly that my father sat in his green velvet chair and laughed. He decided that he would tutor me in Swahili. For a few months, he supervised my homework. I would sit in the dining room, complete an assignment, and walk to the living room, where he would check my answers.

Frustrated by this regime, one time I inscribed a little “fuck you” on the bottom left corner of my notebook. My father saw it. He told me to bring his belt. He made me lie down on the floor and he belted my buttocks a few times.

My loathing for Swahili increased.

Another time, I could not conjugate something in Swahili. It was late at night, well past nine p.m. This time, he was in his bedroom, with the door locked. Perhaps he was feeling sicker than usual. He insisted that I call a friend, a neighbor, to ask for the correct answer before I went to bed. I stood in the corridor, outside his locked room, frustrated, trying to escape the humiliation of calling a classmate late at night for one answer.

My father was implacable. I called.

Swahili became the language of late-night calls, experiences in humiliation, a barrier between my father who could not accept a son who failed and a son trying to escape a language that humiliated.

2.
One day, perhaps I am 12, my father buys a chess set. He has decided to teach me chess. He plays checkers—what’s the British English for this?—with my brother. Chess is for us. Patiently, he teaches me how to name pieces, how they move, how to read written chess moves. I will never become very good, always trusting instinct more than anything else. Because chess is our thing, I am unable to play it with anyone else.

3.
We will weekend together: pack food, bags, ourselves. We travel to my father’s retirement home, the home he built to retire to, away from the city, the home to which he will never retire, the home that will be his burial ground.

An hour and a half away from Nairobi, it is dry here. The house is usually locked and empty. Upon entering, we open curtains carefully, watching for the orange scorpions that hide in unexpected places. This is not a space I know how to enjoy, at least never during obligatory family visits during the holidays, when it feels as though we are exiled from Nairobi. There is no phone here. The internet does not yet exist. We are far from friends who speak English.

Yet, on weekends here with my father, this place becomes special. We talk. We play endless games of monopoly. We break rules. Make new ones. We bond.

These are our memories. Now, my memories.

4.
Perhaps I was 7 or 8. My father bought a set of battery operated toy cars that ran on tracks. He helped to assemble the tracks. We played with them.

5.
When I was in kindergarten—though I called it nursery school—and through Standard 2, my father would pick me up when school ended at lunch time. We would eat lunch together. And then we would nap.

This simple thing: my father napped after lunch. I napped as well.

I have learned how to nap these days, now that I’m back in the house he could not grow old in. I’m not sure it feels the same. I wouldn’t know if it did.
*
A devoted anglophile, my father hated the U.S. He feared, I think, that the U.S. would take something away from him. Maybe that it would take us away from him. England was more available, more manageable: church hymns, Handel’s Messiah, undemocracy. The U.S. was too big, too new, too. I don’t know. It’s difficult to read his mind.

He was right.

I left for the U.S. five years after his death.
*
Another predictable story about an African who travels to the U.S.

We are a tiresome genre.
*
Two things stay with me about that first trip, a whirlwind of landing at JFK, spending the night in a small apartment in New York City, driving to Hartford, Connecticut, stopping over in Amherst, Massachusetts, before finally arriving in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

JFK smelled bad. New York City smelled bad. It was summer New York City, and, trained by visual media that had no smell—television and film—I had not expected New York City to have a smell. Certainly not the smell of summer: hot, wet, sweaty, rotting. Even though I had traveled in Kenya, even though I could distinguish the smells of city and country, wet city and wet country, night city and night country, rich city and poor city, rain scented city and rain scented country, I had not anticipated that the U.S. might smell of anything more than television and movies, the liquid silk of celluloid.

Pittsburgh was sex. We drove through downtown Pittsburgh, Liberty Avenue, where the two extant sex shops blared “Sex.” Sex was on the streets. Sex was available to be thought with publicly, to be experienced in public. Liberty Avenue was home to Pegasus, a gay club with an under-21 night, a place what would be one of my homes. Over the next 5 years in Pittsburgh, I would wander down to Liberty Avenue late at night, look at the signs for sex, try to experience the shock of sex as something to be thought of, as an embodied way of being in the world.
*
Queer stories are always quest narratives. Over and over one is asked, “when did you first know?” Among the first gay men I spent time with, most of us in our late teens and early twenties, we’d always ask, “when’s the first time you had sex?” Sometimes, the former question had shades of, “when did you first know you were not normal?” Sometimes, it’s the bafflement of a heterosexuality that has always presumed it was the only thing that exists, “how can you not be heterosexual?” The curiosity is always invasive.

“When did you first know you were . . .?”

One becomes Kafka’s cockroach: which limb did you examine first? Did your movements feel strange to you? How did your feelings manifest themselves? Did you wake up with different hair? Did you get a sudden craving for Barbra Streisand? Or Diana Ross? Or Patty Lupone? Or—what’s the African equivalent?—Brenda Fassie? Did your erections take on a different aspect? How did your brain catch up with your body? Did desire jump out and shout, “surprise”?

Perhaps the last question.

Once one is past the breeze-erection period—the embarrassing adolescence when any tiny wind produces what must be called a “woody”—desire is often a surprise. One learns the difference between what is framed as attractive and what is experienced as desirable.

Should I have had a clue when, in high school, I turned away from the women termed desirable—light skinned plump girls who incarnated middle class femininity—and spent time with darker skinned slender women with stern miens and fierce minds? But a clue to what?

The forensics of desire are, inevitably, inconclusive.

After all, I relished watching Deep Throat, which I found buried under my elder brother’s mattress. I continue to return to Hans Billians’s brilliantly conceived explorations of group and public sex. My favorite orgasm—experienced at 13 or 14—was fueled by heterosexual pornography.

Psychoanalysis teaches me that all quest narratives are driven by a desire for something that can never be found. What we call desire must, inevitably, be frustrated. My encounters with psychoanalysis will make my hungers less frightening, if not more manageable. On and off, for about four years, I will immerse myself in Freud and Lacan, engage with thinkers immersed in their work: Jacqueline Rose, Leo Bersani, Joan Copjec, Tim Dean. I will learn to lose myself in their work—to plot life stories and body hungers along geometric shapes that I do not understand, to live outside my body, if only for a few hours.

Hunger pangs return at night. I will roam chatrooms, become excellent at cybersex; roam sex shops, become proficient in casual sex; roam sex clubs, become talented at having multiple sex partners; roam personals ads, become armored against the annihilating racism of a world that insists it was never invented for me.

At first, I sleep with older men because they want me. Or, to be more precise, they want to sleep with someone young. Early on, living in Pittsburgh, I learn that gay is white. Before I venture out of chatrooms, I learn to mask my race, to try to live out a fantasy that permits raceless cybersex. For some men, even the prospect of cybersex with a black body is too much. Later, as I venture out to meet men, waiting on cold winter street corners for cars that will never show up, I learn that the fantasy of planning to sleep with a black body is transgression enough. Still, the hunger pangs continue. And when I eventually start wandering into strange houses—never the same one twice—I learn that having a black body in a white space is transgression enough. White men will want to masturbate while I watch them. This is transgression enough.

From the seclusion of my majority white university, in a race-segregated Pittsburgh, I will not know how to desire black men, Asian men, Latino men, or Arab men. It will be many years before I learn to read bodies in the U.S.—how they speak desire, walk desire, dance desire, live desire. For too many of those years, my name will be Stephen. Or Ian. Or whatever will not produce the mangled pronunciations that kill my desire. Whatever will not return me to my past, my hungers, my father.
*
My father’s penis is small and grey and shriveled.

In 1988, he and my mother traveled to England for treatment. My sister and I were left alone, and an aunt checked in on us. Freed from parental control, we ate too much ice cream and watched too many movies. In retrospect, we were not wild enough. We didn’t have wild parties. I’m not sure we would have known how to. We were responsible. Even content.

Memory is always a battle of tenses: the past trying to make itself felt in the present, the present trying to insist on its nowness, the future of reading crowding out a present that is already past. I slip among tenses, fall down, stay down.

To write in the past tense is to occupy the scene of devastation, to wander among the ruins from which one might have constructed oneself. To marvel at the shoddy construction. To wonder how one is still possible given the random materials cobbled together to assemble a self.

When my father returned from England, he was smaller.

I was my father’s last child, the child of his prosperity. He was comfortably middle class, perhaps even wealthy, by the time I was old enough to want things: toys, books, attention. It showed. Pictures of him from the early 80s show a head swallowed by rolls of fat, a missing neck. His shirts strain to hold him in. By the mid-1980s, a regime of golf and farming had returned his neck, though he was still comfortably middle class, as his 40-inch waist proclaimed. He returned from England with a 28-inch waist.

I was the child of his prosperity. My waist was larger than his.

He continued to shrink. His doctor told my brother and me, “he will say hurtful things. He does not know what he is saying. Do not pay attention.” My brother, having learned to absent himself in that way elder brothers can, didn’t have to pay attention. I was there. I heard.

One does not stop listening to one’s idol because a doctor says so.

His voice became querulous. His stomach unable to process food. He lived on drugs and rehydrating fluids. He pissed drugs and rehydrating fluids.

I saw my father’s penis as I handed him a jug to piss in because he could not walk to the toilet. I saw my father’s penis as I helped him walk to the toilet to shit—he couldn’t shit, there was nothing to shit. I saw my father’s penis as he was dying. I saw my father’s dying penis.

A father’s dying penis must be handled carefully. Unlike those penises in castration fantasies, cut off from vibrant life, a dying penis announces its fragility. It is the disgusting object one wants to protect. The disgusting object that one can never not desire.

I hide behind one.
*
My father died when I was 14. By the time I was 24, I knew I preferred older men. At first, it was because they were available—I didn’t have to engage in the frustrating choreography demanded by my peers, that toxic blend of insecurity and arrogance that left so many of us damaged in spaces where we sought refuge, if not acceptance. Older men were more honest about their hungers.

Some were closeted. Some were lonely. Some wanted something younger. Some were experimental. Some were conservative. Some were conventionally attractive. Some were desirable. Some wanted sex. Some wanted me. Some wanted sex with me.

One man rode a motorcycle, smelled of hot leather and sex hunger, and wore red stockings under his chaps.

Others I met in dark rooms where the only thing that mattered was our hunger: we never had to meet again.

Two men linger.

One was a little shorter, perhaps 5’7”. His body was quiet intensity, his appetite fueled mine. We played and maybe even loved. Maybe. We met twice. I could not meet him after that. Pleasure with him offered a glimpse of a future I could not let myself imagine.

Loss truncates imagination.

Over the many years my father drove me to school, when my siblings had left home and I was the only passenger, we mapped out our future: where I’d go to school, what I’d specialize in, how we’d work together. Our dreams fused. The future belonged to us. It was impossible to imagine without him.

At 24, I finally wrote to him, about him, with him. I started trying to imagine a world without him.

At 24, I was hungry.

Extending Freud, Nicolas Abraham and Mária Török argue that death makes us horny. After a death, we want to fuck. A lot. Some people domesticate this idea by claiming fucking affirms life.

What does one call an accumulation of little deaths? A host? A multitude? A flock? A clutch? A pride? A pod?

Leo Bersani offered a more useful language: self-shattering. Sex was loss, dissolution, being undone, falling into pieces, forgetting. Not the mystical union promised by saccharine romances, where you dissolve into someone else in some grotesque parody of two becoming one. Nothing that safe. It was more frantic, more desperate, more difficult.

Each shattering produced a sliver of something I could use to build a post-mourning self. I needed many and more. Sometimes the pieces were difficult to find, even impossible. Sometimes the shattering didn’t happen fast enough or sharply enough. Sometimes there was a tear instead of a shattering.

How many pieces are enough to assemble a self one can inhabit?

At 24, I acquired what Samuel Delany calls a statistically significant number of sex experiences. I learned what I liked, how I liked it, when I liked it. I was surprised into pleasure. I took sex seriously. I accepted compliments from undersexed men. I don’t remember faces, names, living rooms, bedrooms, the geographies of sex lives. I remember some penises. The spongy texture of still-living flesh, the thrust of engorged flesh, the promise of pleasure-giving flesh.

Some penises stay with you.

Some penises you want to forget.
*
Over 20 years after my father dies, I return to Nairobi. I avoid his peers and friends. I avoid that inevitable moment:

“Bob?”
“Bob?”
“But you can’t be Bob!”
“Bob is dead!”
“You look like Bob!”

The pieces I have collected begin to shatter, become more fragile with each “Bob,” minor, earth-moving occurrences.

I haunt my mother’s house, my father’s ghost having taken on new flesh.
*
I no longer remember my father’s voice.

As you enter my mother’s house, past the red door, if you look to the upper-left hand corner, right before the three stairs that lead to the living room, a little bird hangs in a brass cage. That bird stole my father’s voice.

I imagine my father’s voice and hear that bird—an alarm installed so that he could beckon us. At first, us. And then, me. As he rejected the nurse my mother tried to provide. And my siblings ran away, because they could.

“Here,” my mother said, “this is how you turn on the oxygen tank.” Muscle memory: placing an oxygen mask over my father’s face, turning on the tank, fretting as it emptied, making frantic phone calls to have it replaced, calling ambulances in an era before cell phones, hoping-not-hoping that he would die. Turning on the oxygen. Hearing him gasp for oxygen. Understanding oxygen as something that could be gasped for.

Over and over, hearing that mechanical bird steal my father’s voice, my father’s mind, my father’s oxygen. Hating it. Still hating it.

Unable to ask my mother why she hangs on to it. The bird that stole my father.

How we learn to hold on to things.

Over the years of his sickness, my father, my father the doctor, a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecology—how proud he was of this distinction, how little he managed to enjoy it—turned to anything that might work. Herbal remedies from suspect sources. Holy Water anointed by special priests. Anointed oil. His room became a collection of crucifixes and rosaries. Prayers filled our nominally secular house as never before. Hymns and more hymns sung in Kikuyu mode: lento tending toward shrill.

Light hurt his eyes. He could no longer climb onto the bed he had once shared with my mother. Their shared mattress was moved to the floor. My mother had a twin bed moved to the room. Her touch, I think, hurt his fragile, dying skin. How little he was touched by anyone in those dying years. Touched with love. Touched with care. Touched with intimacy. Different touches happened: clinical, but gentle. Necessary, but antiseptic. Bit of him flaked off in a bed that could no longer be shared.

Perhaps it is from his dying that I learned to shut the curtains in my room, to spend glorious summer days huddled under too-warm blankets, wanting the world to go away. Perhaps it is from his dying that I learned to distrust men in my bed. Perhaps it is from my mother that I learned to sleep in a twin bed, to refuse the tear that accompanies sharing and unsharing a bed.

At 24, 10 years after his death, I had not yet grown into my grief. I did not yet look like him. I was not yet the name that would remind and remember, the Bob-lookalike, the history that I now incarnate. At 24, I could haunt a new city of sex beaches and sex clubs, of hookups and STI clinics, of forgetting.

But then there was Bill.

Bill had all the eloquence the mechanical bird stole from my dying father. Perhaps he was in his 50s. Ravaged by AIDS-related complications. I recall his boots—black, thick-soled, orthopedic, because his feet were so badly damaged, he said. I never saw his feet. We met in Seattle. At first by chatting online, and then in person. He wanted touch—to be touched—to touch.

In a small café in Capital Hill, he told me about losing beauty. About the shock of moving from being one of the most desirable gym-built men in Seattle to inhabiting the AIDS-ravaged body from which everyone averted eyes. About what it meant not only to become undesirable, but unseeable. About finding the words to eulogize oneself, to hymn a dying self.

His voice was measured, gentle. His cheeks sunken. And while I could not give him what he wanted—the kind of touch he wanted—perhaps we gave each other a little of what we needed. I recovered a voice I needed to hear, a voice that expressed what it felt like to be dying. A voice that, in that moment, was louder than the mechanical bird in my mother’s house. Even then, I was selfish. I accepted the comfort he provided, not knowing how to extend comfort, turtling into libido-maddened grief.

A year after I left Seattle, I tried to write to Bill, to say something about the life I was now trying to build, a life I had begun to be able to envision. How awkwardly we write about such moments—how often I want to apologize for the ineloquence of grief.

He didn’t reply.

An online search told me he had died.

The gifts the dying provide.
*
There is no full-length mirror in the bathroom. What exists—put up by my sister for her daughter—slices me into pieces. My head is out of the frame, as is most of my torso.

I am a neck and a sawed-up torso, a botched guillotine job.

a note on empire

I do not know how to write about TV. And, frankly, I know too many people who write about TV so excellently that venturing into the territory makes me feel presumptuous and silly. It’s 2:30 in the morning, I can’t sleep, and I have thinkings. Call this a weak disclaimer. Also, Tavia wrote something that made me think. So, blame him.

Lee Daniels’s Empire highlights transformation: flashbacks to the past chart the distinction between the past and the present. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the drug runner, is now a music mogul; Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) the cross-dressing son is now a firmly cis gay man; Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), once apprehensive and uncertain, now strides boldly across the world. In fact, as soon as Cookie returns home from jail, Jamal insists that she needs to acquire a new wardrobe and weave. On a more basic level, the young(er) people in the flashbacks have now grown older.

Perhaps the only character who remains unreconstructed, firmly tethered to the past, is Bunkie/Bunky Campbell (Antoine McKay) (both spellings are used on multiple websites), Cookie’s cousin, who Lucious kills in the very first episode. The Bunkie/Bunky of the past wore a heavy gold chain—the past being 17 years ago; the Bunky/Bunkie of the present wears the same gold chain. The Bunkie/Bunky of the past was heavyset, so is the Bunkie/Bunky of the present. The Bunky/Bunkie of the past wore sweats, so does the Bunkie/Bunky of the present.

(IMDB lists the name as Bunkie, but there’s something significant about a “minor” character, so “minor” that many websites are unwilling to verify the proper spelling of his name. This is one way minoritization happens.)

In a past we have not seen—and might not see—Bunky/Bunkie “raised” Cookie’s kids while she was in prison. The quotation marks are because I’m using his words, not because I doubt them.

Bunkie/Bunky must die.

He must die because he incarnates a masculinity that the show is not very interested in pursuing. After all, part of the show’s ongoing conceit is that every character “has balls.” The three sons must prove their masculinity to their father—they must plot and scheme, their faces must harden with resolution, they must insist, “I am a man.” Care work is absent from this definition of masculinity, at least the kind of care work associated with Bunky/Bunkie.

In fact, the character who most closely resembles Bunky/Bunkie is Lucious’s assistant, Becky (Gabourey Sidibe). So far (I’m only three episodes in), she’s the only one who knows about Lucious’s diagnosis, the only one who seems to care about his health; she is openly affectionate with Jamal, and keeps flashing him heart signs; in a show that sometimes runs brittle with cutting remarks, she incarnates a rare and welcome tenderness. Of all the characters in the show, she most closely resembles Bunkie/Bunky, in her physical appearance, her temperament, and, perhaps, whatever ethical compass might exist. I’m extrapolating, of course: we see so little of Bunkie/Bunky that it’s difficult to understand who he was. And while we know he “raised” the boys, their very truncated reactions to his death make him a disposable figure—a care worker whose work is done, who can be forgotten, whose death might be used to advance plot points based on scandal and vengeance, but whose death matters very little.

Of course the show focuses on power struggles, but something does not sit right with me about how easily Bunkie/Bunky is forgotten. Even though the incomparable Gladys Knight sings at his funeral, grief is not allowed to interrupt the show. And, so, because Tavia made me think in this way (I’m still blaming him), I’d think about how Bunkie/Bunky queers the show.

As the show opens, he is an uncomfortable reminder of a past Lucious would prefer to forget. As an unacknowledged care provider, he incarnates a gendered position that the cis-focused show shies away from. In fact, despite all the mentions of “sissy” and “faggot” in the show, very little about Smollet’s character is “sweet” in that way. Also, We know that Bunkie/Bunky embodies a failed masculinity because, to invoke Essex Hemphill, he does not know how to take what he wants. Lucious infantilizes him: “I can’t give you more money because you’ll gamble it all away.” The man who raised Lucious’s children cannot be acknowledged as an adult.

It’s not clear what effect, if any, Bunky/Bunkie had on any of the three sons. This might be because the show is still unfolding. Perhaps that aspect might be developed.

Because I’m from Kenya, I suspect the show might not be very interested in how care providers shape characters. In a country where the middle, upper-middle, and upper classes are routinely raised by ayahs and nannies, these women (almost always women) are rarely acknowledged as having a formative influence. Too often, they are supposed to provide care and to care, to feed, clothe, wash, play with, clean up after, and to love, protect, and cherish their charges. Simultaneously, their positions are often precarious and, too often, children learn from their parents that care workers are simply there to pick up after them. From their parents, children learn that one should demand care from care workers—I’ve seen way too many exhausted care providers cleaning after entitled children as parents berate the care providers for being “lazy” or “careless” or “stupid.”

I might be reacting to my own reactions to Bunkie/Bunky: he is supposed to be vestigial, out of place, out of time, and we learn too little about him to mourn him. That’s one reaction. The more I think about him, the more I wonder about the common feminist and queer rhetorics about ungrievable bodies, about disposable bodies, about unacknowledged and uncompensated care workers and care providers (worker and provider are related, but not the same). Thinking with Cathy Cohen, I’d ask about the kind of deviant body this gold chain wearing care provider incarnates, about the kind of lifeworld he inhabits and represents. I’d ask why he must die for this show to proceed.

ghosts

Listening for ghosts is dangerous. The angry dead crave a reckoning, an enfleshment that will or might return them to a different form of unbeing. What it is to desire a ghostly body. What it is to desire ghostliness.

I’ve been standing in grit-bearing wind
listening for traveling whispers

The angry dead are hungry. Not for the ghostliness of former enfleshments, but for something more than was available, something more than was promised, something more.

The hungry dead are writing,
feeding on your sleep,
borrowing your dreams

*
Place your ear on a termite hill—the hungry dead will speak to you. Place your hand in a mole hill—the angry dead will touch you. Put your fingers through the bars of a lion-bearing cage—the traveling dead will enflesh you.

Sit in a metal basin filled with green-dyed water, hold a pen filled with purple ink, learn to trace characters on green banana leaves. Smear ghee on your left hand, encase your right hand in cow dung, scratch the small of your back with charred bone you have stolen from a crematorium. Make a circle of dead, pink carnations—fill it with the blood from a thousand mosquitoes. And then swallow your rage. Swallow your rage until it forms a ball in your stomach. Swallow your rage until your bones dissolve. Swallow your rage until your flesh pulses like thick porridge. Swallow your rage until you fly apart.

*
hold a still-burning twig from a forest fire—whisper your dreams into its smoke
*
stand on the edge of a dying river—watch your myths die
*

lie down in the path of siafu—
stay

*
break your favorite earthenware pot, sprinkle the shards with crushed egg shells, spit on a snail’s slime five times, bless all bruised flower petals, stand under a defecating crow, capture an ibises cry

slice an unripe avocado, bury its stone in your sacred spaces

throw ash into the seven directions of the death-bearing wind

become diaphanous

harvest moth dust—do not harm moths, they are sacred

befriend a wood-eating ant, comb a maize cob’s hair
*
sell your dreams to the angry dead, give your visions to the hungry dead, lose your ability to forget

chant the names of the unnameable—do not sleep until they are all said

learn the flavor of mass graves, suck on blood-infused stones

tattoo the cries of those burned to death on your tongue

harvest dead flesh with a pumice stone, prepare a soup to guide your footsteps, follow a wandering red ant, grasp its pincers, bow to every scorpion you meet, leave offerings for slender spiders—do not ignore geckos

harvest leaves from every plant with a streak of red in its veins, squeeze aloe onto the wounded plants, build a tree of names, tie wind-harvested feathers on its slender branches—they will listen for the speaking dead, the crying dead, the unforgetting dead

listen
listen
listen
listen
listen

sucking stones

A few years ago, I suggested to my friend Christina Sharpe that we should plan something on visual culture and black hunger. By visual culture, I really meant film and television, mostly mainstream film and TV. Whatever we did would build on the idea that mainstream film and TV in the U.S. is always a bad diet for black audiences, always a site of malnutrition.

That is one metaphor.
*
When I first read The Black Aesthetic, edited by Addison Gayle, I was struck by the term “zero image.” It described, I think, not only the absence of images of black people in mainstream representation, but also the negating effect of the representations that existed. The particular and peculiar ways on-screen blackness could be annihilating, trapping one in a repertoire of sounds and movements, fashions and flavors.

From the space of Kenyan TV—and I always return to my childhood—it was the chasm between Dallas and Good Times, Dynasty and Sanford and Son, Hart to Hart and The Jeffersons. A chasm of who owned what, who worked for whom, who could move through the world how. It was also the affective work of these shows: we learned to laugh at black cultural production, to see it framed through humor, even when it dealt with serious questions (Good Times was exemplary, as it dealt with child abuse and community accountability). We might have imitated JJ, but we wanted JR’s power.

As middle class children in Kenya, children of professionals who’d worked their way from nothing, U.S. TV was entertainment—it did not accord with anything to which we aspired, or were taught to value. The Ewings were oil barons. The Evanses were not white collar. The Harts were millionaire amateur detectives. The Jeffersons were middle class, but not of the professional class. In a sense, these shows were as fantastic as The Incredible Hulk and Six Million Dollar Man.

They offered zero images. From Nairobi, the line between what was on TV, foreign—in strange accents—and our lives seemed unbridgeable. Too, while none of us thought of England as “the motherland,” many of our parents had sung “God Save the Queen.” The U.S. was a kind of fantasy, not as close as England. At least, not until later.

But the U.S. offered what England did not: programs with black protagonists. As far as I can recall, the only black person I saw on the few English programs available was on Mind Your Language, a midly offensive show about immigrants to the U.K., based on the fiction that racial and ethnic diversity was welcomed in the U.K., and, more, that it was recent.

Perhaps Mind Your Language cut too close to the bone: it offered a picture of us as migrants, as lacking the linguistic and social fluencies that we assumed we already had.

With U.S. programs, we saw people who looked like us, but didn’t sound like us.

Little in our cultural landscapes taught us how to forge affiliations.

And those who sounded like us on Kenyan television, on shows like Vioja Mahakamani and Vitimbi, didn’t inhabit the lives to which we were told to aspire. Perhaps that “we” is doing too much work.

Swahili TV programming occupied the same broad genre as U.S. TV: comedy and farce. Just as sisal-clad dancers were expected to perform for Kenya’s leaders, TV’s lower middle class and poor characters were expected to entertain the TV-owning middle class and elite. Identification was difficult.
*
I don’t think I’m trying to map my growing up Kenya onto the Clark experiments. As vernaculars, the Clark experiments are associated with goodness and beauty. The white doll is good or better, pretty or beautiful. Now, I wonder whether the doll experiments are also about pleasure: that whiteness owns pleasure, that the black children in the experiments wanted the pleasure they associated with whiteness.
*
It’s really not until I went to the U.S. that I discovered shows featuring working class and poor whites, shows contemporaneous with Good Times and Sanford and Son, shows that never appeared on Kenyan TV.
*
I’m being dishonest.
*
A cultural studies framework prioritizes mass culture as the site of a particular kind of classed making. Those anchored securely in the middle class, as I was, might participate in or consume mass culture, but it’s not the dominant scene of self-fashioning, not the dominant reservoir. Surrounded by professionals who looked like me, who had stories about how to be/come a professional, the world of mass culture might have shaped my possibilities, but it did not, it could not, limit them. And, in fact, given that TV started at 4 or 5 pm, was state owned, and featured a lot of state propaganda, I quickly learned to distrust its influence.

(this cannot be the long essay that needs to be written about culture work in the Kenyan 80s—about the state’s grasp on “culture,” about the limited forms of dissent culture, about how we used other spaces as sanctuaries, as spaces where we could breathe—that also needs to be written)

Mass culture was not the place I looked to find myself—but this was a class bubble. And, also, not living in a majority-white culture. Which is to say, while a Kenyan cultural studies might look to frames developed in the U.K. and the U.S., it must also account for the difference race makes. Of course, we were not exempt from white supremacy, as our ads for skin lightening products and ads for soap featuring all white characters proved—Victoria Principal used Lux—Roxena and Lifebuoy were used by black people—and it wasn’t until much later that we saw black people using Imperial Leather.

Hunger.

I grew up on a diet of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music and Dr. Zhivago and John Wayne. These were the films I memorized. The flavors that taught me what film should look like, sound like, who should be in it.

Was there a moment of shock when new(er) U.S. media began to move into Kenya? When I saw films with majority black actors (not many) or with black actors in lead roles? Not really. I had always taken for granted that black people were leaders. That black people were the main characters of any and all dramas. This was the privilege of growing up in Kenya.
*
A different hunger quickly emerged when I moved to the U.S. Cut off from the familiarity of black faces, black leaders, black decision makers, black professionals—I did not take a single class with a black faculty member at my university. The English department did not have one.

At first, I did not know I was starving.

Being away from home was an adventure. So many new flavors to taste. So many new ways of being to experience. And I was young enough to abuse my body without caring.

My geo-histories expanded: I made friends from Singapore and India, Lesotho and Nigeria, Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, Canada and Belgium. My world was more international among the small group of international students I embraced. Still, my classes were taught by white professors, people who, far from being cosmopolitan, often had the narrow provincialisms of those who’ve never left the U.S., those who’ve never had to think about and with spaces other than the U.S.

I was starving.

My body knew before my mind.

After gorging myself on what was widely available, I turned, deliberately, to what was available, but not widely so: black authors. In class after class, I would ask: “I know we haven’t studied this in class, but can I write on it?” I needed to learn how to hear black voices. I needed to learn how to understand my hungers—how to live with malnutrition.

Like many other black students before me—and still—I lived in different educational worlds: there was what I read in class and what I had to read on my own. This double labor is taxing—and it drains whatever nutrition supplements might provide. Supplements are not meals—they can’t be. But we use them to try to ward off the devastation that happens without them.

I could not, as an undergraduate, read African literature. The category would not make sense to me until 2005. And I needed to translate the black writers I was reading—to grasp the worlds they described, to follow their rhythms, to dance awkwardly to sorrow songs I learned to hear, sorrow songs I learned to sing. Starving.

And I wondered—I still wonder—what it means to grow up so ill fed, what it produces as expectation, as nutrition, as possibility.

One might argue that it produces an uncritical relation to black cultural production—all black cultural production feeds something, in some way. Hence, Tyler Perry. This, I think, is not strictly accurate. Which is to say, the nutritive value of, say, Tyler Perry, extends beyond what might be considered “good taste” or even “excellent nutrition.” (I’m not sure the metaphor is holding.)

There is a nutritive value to a room full of black bodies watching a film together, enjoying a film together, that extends beyond the content of the film. Cultural production and consumption both feed in different ways. This is why Scandal’s twitter stream is so very important. It feeds. It affirms. It says, “we are here assembled together, we are those who assemble together, in this moment, at this time, to be a we-together.”

I gorged on Girlfriends, relishing the (un)varieties of blackness on display. I was a fan of Moesha, 227, Martin, Living Single, In Living Color. They fed something. They offered forms of nutrition, even amidst the glut of mainstream annihilation.

Hunger manifests in many ways: one finds oneself sucking on stones. Chewing bitter leaves. Trying to squeeze water from cactus leaves. Abundance is rare. And even what ostensibly feeds can be so often adulterated, poisoned, made less enjoyable, less nutritious.

One tried to hoard what feeds the best, to pass it on to others who will need it—to “make generations.” Often, there is so little to pass on. We hoard precious grains. Offering little tastes to those who need to know more is possible.

Every so often, there is an event. A film that feeds. A film on which we can gorge. And we do. We gather as those who are gathered—a formulation I take from Wambui Mwangi—to learn who we can be as the gathered and the gatherers. We feed and carry what we can in precious little bags, to pass on to friends and strangers, to store in story and memory, song and dance, to pass on.

And, sometimes, we suck on stones.
*
I do not know how to talk about film and TV, about the technical aspects, the language of light and depth, position and angle. About props and extras, directors and producers. I’m mystified by the simplest descriptions of such things.

I do not know how to move from these technical aspects to hunger—how to find nutrition or discuss nutrition or confess that I am starving.

How does one confess that one is starving? Would I even recognize good nutrition if it were offered? One learns to distrust one’s tastes, fed on a diet of annihilating flavors that one learns to love.

How does one confess one cannot trust one’s tastes? That one does not know how to find nutrition? That one has become accustomed to sucking on stones?

Pregnant women will, sometimes, eat various soils or suck on stones. It is said that this is their body telling them that it is not receiving enough nutrition.

freedom: from, to, with

I might not love freedom at all
–Blanche Taylor Dickinson

 

I am not sure where to start. Or how. A part of me says the desire for freedom must be so self-evident, so beyond questioning, but then I am arrested by Blanche Taylor Dickinson. Thomas Holt teaches me that modern freedom acquires its meaning only because slavery exists—our modern notions of freedom mean, in a very particular sense—freedom from enslavement. Freedom from slavery. For this to make sense, we need the rich understandings of slavery created by many thinkers: slavery as thing-making; slavery as ungendering; slavery as mass entertainment; slavery as labor; slavery as sexual violence; slavery as producing profit; slaves as fungible; slavery as natal alienation; slavery as social death; slavery as the foundation of racial capitalism; slavery as foundational to modernity; slavery as foundational to the world we now inhabit, as practice and metaphor; slavery as foundational to the modern nation-state; slavery as foundational to modern governmentality.

Kenya’s solicitor general said freedom from enslavement was an absolute freedom that could not be questioned or taken away. We need more robust thinking about what freedom from enslavement is. We need more robust thinking about enslavement as practice, as world-making, as person-obliterating, as self-destroying, as community-destroying, as possibility-unmaking. We need more robust thinking about the worlds that slavery makes, about the lives that slavery destroys, about the afterlives of slavery, so we can understand the possibilities of claiming this “absolute freedom.”
*
Nina Simone sings, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” Audre Lorde writes, “If we win / there is no telling.” Adrienne Rich writes,

freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds.

Shailja Patel writes, “Give this pain to no one else.”

Women pursuing freedom dreams.
*
Turning to Audre Lorde, I remember

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

And

As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.

And

we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions that our dreams imply, and so many of our old ideas disparage

And

it is our dreams that point the way to freedom

Robin Kelley teaches me,

In the poetics of struggle and lived experience, in the utterances of ordinary folk, in the cultural products of social movements, in the reflections of activists, we discover the many different cognitive maps of the future, of the world not yet born.

*
Hata sielewi nianze wapi. (Kimya.) Unasikia Juma . . . . Hebu tuanze . . . . Ninahisi nini nataka kusema, lakini akili haiupi ulimi maneno yanayoeleza kuhisi kwangu au feelings zangu. Na akili vile vile pengine haifahamu tatizo hili, lakini ninahisi. Kwa mfano, toka tumepata uhuru, sisi Waafrika hapa, imekuwa kama tumeingia . . . ehe, mfano mzuri . . . imekuwa kama tumeingia katika . . . katika jahazi moja zuri sana, na jina letu limeandikwa. Lakini . . . nahodha . . . nahodha nani?—Ebrahim N. Hussein, Mashetani
*
Subha Wijesiriwardena writing on the recent Sri Lankan election:

So you see, democracy is not just a system, a structure; it is also a feeling. It is a feeling within each one of us; a desire to be led, a desire to be led by the things we believe in and the people we see those things in. It is a desire to stand up, to feel powerful in our own way, to wield that power in the face of despair and frustration. It is a feeling that inspires other feelings; it gives us courage, it gives us hope.

This resonates

I was tired of how terrible it felt to belong to Sri Lanka. I was devastated to find myself feeling like I wanted to leave, and never go back. I am angry at how they took that from me, from us all – the right to enjoy that feeling of citizenship, the ability to embrace the place to which you belong, to live in it freely, to love it freely. I am angry at how impossible it became to enjoy Sri Lanka – how, every time, I felt joy or experienced beauty, I was immediately overcome by the feeling that I was doing something terribly unjust. I was tired – as you should have been – of having become so deeply complicit in all the awfulness. I was tired that we found ourselves living in a nation where we had no choice but to be complicit. No matter what we did – every road we took, every time we shopped for groceries – we were complicit.

*
We feel unfreedom. No matter what state rhetorics might proclaim about the “freedoms we enjoy,” we feel unfreedom. It makes us whisper. It makes us swagger. It makes us laugh too loudly. It makes us cry hysterically. It makes us break out in hives. It makes us beat each other. It destroys households. It intensifies violence against the vulnerable. It makes us corporate. It makes us defend “brands” over freedom. It makes freedom unthinkable. It stifles dreams. It produces empty cultural gestures. It kills the courage to dream. It kills the courage to imagine differently. It produces empty aesthetics. It unsees the violence of neoliberalism.

We survive in a haze of lies and narcotics.

If we survive.
*
Kenya is in a state of unfreedom. Freedom has become impossible to say, to imagine, to think, to pursue.
*
Our most public minds fiddle with little nudges here and there. Refusing to name our unfreedom. Profiting from our unfreedom. Protecting class and kin affiliation—“I know that person, that person is a good person.” Protecting formal documents and institutions—we have “the most progressive constitution in Africa.” And still the violence continues and intensifies. And still the unfreedom intensifies.
*
We need dreams that point the way to freedom. We need to imagine that life can be lived differently, that Kenya can be a sharable space. Against the politics of patronage and sycophancy, the politics that make death and spread dying, against the politics of fear and intimidation, we need different visions, better visions.
*
Elizabeth Povinelli taught me to question the word “freedom.” She argues that we need to think about embedding before/as/instead of thinking of “freedom.”

A freedom-seeking imagination can envision a sharable world—a world where we are with each other in a range of configurations. Embedding can happen in and with freedom. We can share freely.

A sharable Kenya is possible.

Imagine it.

Dream it.

Pursue it.

this feels familiar . . .

Across a range of Kenyan spaces, one hears worries about “losing gains” and “returning to the Moi era.” Silence has started to fall, especially in areas where necessary fluencies had never been acquired. Feelings trained under repressive regimes are reactivated. Now, we act as we have been trained to act: lie low like an envelope.

Untraining did not happen.

Two elements concern me: the narrative of “gains” obscures the very real ethno-patriarchal and elite-making forces that have guided Kenya in the post-Moi era, forces that have more deeply entrenched the idea that only the well connected can and should lead. Second, many Kenyans lack the necessary tools and frameworks to understand, engage, and critique power.

The post-Kenyatta and post-Moi eras were supposed to be post-patronage eras. Regional, ethno-patriarchal “mafias” would lose influence and, in their place, more radically diverse coalitions would be embraced, or would be possible. This has not happened.

Those groups classified as vulnerable in the TJRC Report—minorities, indigenous people, persons with disabilities, persons living with HIV/AIDS, refugees, prisoners, the poor, women and children—remain vulnerable. Somalis, long a target of state repression and worse, continue to be targeted, treated as “un-Kenyan,” and, worse, as unhuman.

A post-Kenyatta and post-Moi world would have changed the status of groups labeled as vulnerable: measures to move past patronage economies, measures to break down the elite/vulnerable distinctions, measures to create strong coalitions that reduce vulnerability. This did not happen.

Instead, the strongly ethno-patriarchal nature of Kenyan politics has intensified: we are now in a Baba v. Baba economy.

While we have strong cohorts of women representatives at the national and county levels, these women never feature—or are never featured by the mainstream press—as active, engaged, important, or transformative.

CORD v. Jubilee is a Baba v. Baba affair. The principals of both coalitions are men. And while, every so often, a woman will peek through or be seen in the background, rarely, if ever, do women feature as key decision makers. Rarely, if ever, are we called on to rally behind women. Rarely, if ever, are we asked to see women’s labor as world building and world sustaining.

A recent broadcast featured Rachel Ruto, the deputy president’s wife. She has been traveling across the country teaching women how to “grow” themselves: to improve their crop yields, diversify production methods, and build better lives. She spoke of seeing women who, having learned how to “grow” themselves, could now speak in public, afford better clothes, afford cars, dream of different, more possible futures.

Friends and I have been thinking about women’s work: about growth and sustainability, about making and sharing, about enabling dreams and facilitating ambitions. About what this labor, enacted across numerous small groups across the country, teaches us about how to live together. About the politics of this labor. About how to make this labor visible and political, a foundation for what it means to live together.

Kenya continues to lose as long as we refuse to learn from and emulate women’s practices of world building and world sustaining.
*
Here is Antonio Gramsci on the intellectual:

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields. The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organisers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc.

And

One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer “ideologically” the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.

I have been puzzling over the idea that Kenya is anti-intellectual. Increasingly, I am unconvinced by this claim. Now, I am more interested in trying to figure out what kinds of intellectuals populate Kenyan spaces. Gramsci’s notion of the “organic intellectual,” one who emerges with and justifies the dominant order has been very useful.

Across Kenyan spaces, one encounters many organic intellectuals willing to defend the state’s actions: Dr. Martin Kimani, in the New York Times, defending Kenya against the ICC; Professor Githu Muigai, on TV, defending the state’s right to limit freedoms; solicitor general Njee Muturi, on TV, defending the state’s right to limit freedoms. Moses Kuria, Ngunjiri Wambugu, Mutahi Ngunyi, Dennis Itumbi, all willing to defend the state’s actions. To see these men—and many others—as organic intellectuals—is to recognize that their role is not only to justify the dominant order, but to circulate those justifications in a range of technical and common vernaculars, harvested from political science, anthropology, sociology, economics, rumor, gossip, and religion.

That is: we must see how the state uses economic datasets in conjunction with rumor and gossip and religious discourse. We must see how each of these amplify each other.

Simply: the work of the organic intellectual from the dominant order is to justify the dominant order. Sometimes, this justification entails a wholesale, unquestioning defense of the dominant order. Sometimes, this defense entails saying that, for instance, “the president has bad advisors.” Sometimes, this defense entails saying that damaging institutional frameworks and structures are sound, but they simply need better administrators. Much-needed structural critique is, thus, impossible.

Simultaneously, we must figure out what freedom-pursuing intellectual work looks like. It must be work that prioritizes human life over development indexes. It must be work that speaks about people before numbers. It must be work that diminishes vulnerability. It must be work capable of institutional and structural critique—work that knows how to work with policy, but pursues freedom.

My sense is that freedom-seeking work has been superseded by policy-making work, that details have crowded out goals.

Nudge economies have taken over Radical economies.

Nudge economies can too easily become complicit in dominant orders—because their focus is never structural, can never see or take on the whole picture. Kenya is full of nudge economies. We need radical economies.

We need radical economies and movements and knowledges that will impede and, if possible, undo our docile bodies. We need radical critiques that name and work against fear, intimidation, and silencing. We need robust intellectual work that names and works against the state’s repressive strategies.

While we will need the vulgar and the obscene, the insults and the jokes, we also need strong, compelling arguments, richly detailed, grounded in the best thinking available, anchored in freedom-seeking imaginations.

Thinking that looks to histories of liberation—from Haiti to Zimbabwe, from Sojourner Truth to Thomas Sankara. Thinking that looks to radical imaginations—from Ida B. Wells to Wangari Maathai, from Nina Simone to Miriam Makeba. Thinking that navigates what it can and undoes what it must.

Our survival is at stake.

a benediction

We

who gather
one by one, into some and many, driven and afraid, to be and build, sustained by promises we learn to make

We

who tremble
undoing word by word, step by step, world by world, all that keeps us impossible

We

who gather
astounded by who we discover ourselves to be

We

who remember
spilling libations for the many thousands gone

We

who gather
fragments from barely there winds, snatches of song-making, truth-telling, love-sharing, building with wisps and filaments

We

who pursue
freedom dreams

We gather