Category Archives: writing

“When we see water, we see death” | Wash Day, 1955 Recap

In lieu of a traditional blog post, this week’s episode of Black Enough, “Wash Day, 1955,” necessitated a break down. The spoken word poem, performed by Micah Ariel Watson herself, includes deep currents of history that bridge to the present and beyond. So in the spirit of weaving, I have annotated a piece of the spoken word, complete with links and as always, further reading:

When we see water, we see death.

400 years of life flashing before your eyes.

400 reasons to stay on the shore:

We are currently commemorating the 400 year anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to America. As a graduate student living in Williamsburg, Virginia, I know the anniversary is heavy on everyone’s mind: from student work commemorating the occasion to the Association for the Study of Worldwide African Diasporas conference which was recently held in the city, we are actively looking for ways to pay proper tribute. One of the most compelling lectures I’ve heard about the difficulty acknowledging Black people in the Historical Triangle is Mark Summer’s, of Jamestown Rediscovery, talk, “The American Heartbreak.”

Reason number one too many bones dissolved into dust on the ocean floor

Reason number no one ever asked us to climb aboard–

They took is in droves too tragic to count into waters

In the “Further Reading” section of this post, I have listed several monographs, particularly those by Black women, whose histories of enslavement have been critical to my understanding of the Middle Passage and beyond. These readings include: Scenes of Subjection (Hartman), Saltwater Slavery (Smallwood), and The Price for Their Pound of Flesh (Berry).

Reason number $5.59 for a box of Dark and Lovely

I worked too hard for my respectability to get it wet

As Tanisha C. Ford discusses at length in the chapter, “Jheri Curl,” from her book Dressed in Dreams, hair has been used as a vehicle to communicate one’s politics, as well as communicate one’s identity.

Reason number twelve million stolen dreams

“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?”

 

Langston Hughes, “Harlem”

Reason number 1619, the beginning of being drowned by the land of the free

Reason number 1896 brings us to reason number 2 separate but equal fountains that said my water was inferior

 

Watson calls back to the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, which established “separate but equal,” legalizing segregation. Despite the order to have equal facilities, Black facilities were poorer and lacked support from the government.

Plessy vs. 6 shots fired in Ferguson

Vs. “I don’t even let my son play with water guns.” for fear that it might kill him

This smart line references both the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 and the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12 year old Black boy, whose crime was to be holding a water gun, later that very same year.

Reason number this ain’t old news

Reason number 1955

We found Emmett Till’s body in the Tallahatchie

Emmett Till was a 14 year old Chicagoan visiting family in Mississippi the summer of 1955 when he made the mistake of “offending” a white woman. Shortly thereafter, he was found horribly mutilated in the Tallahatchie River. His mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket funeral so that the world could see what white men had done to her child.

So you can miss me with that Mississippi Wade In The Water

It’s already been troubled

The Negro spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” includes the line: “God’s gonna trouble the water.” I’ve included a link to an Alvin Ailey dance performance to the song because something about the movement and the song together pierces my soul, and I think it might be impactful for you.

So why on earth would we surround ourselves in something that we can’t even taste?

I mean if Flint was the only water you H2knew, wouldn’t you be afraid to drink, too?

Let alone immerse your whole body into a lead poisoned pool.

 

Flint, Michigan has been without clean water since April 2014 and has birthed the rise of young activists such as Mari Copeny, whose childhood was disrupted by water crisis.

When we see water, we see death.

*

Further Reading:

*The 1619 Project in the New York Times, August 2019

*American Heartbreak, Langston Hughes

*Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, Stephanie E. Smallwood

*The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in Building a Nation, Daina Ramey Berry

*Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Saidiya Hartman

Soul Food | Black Magic Recap

“I’d be spirit. I’d transcend space and time and physicality. I’d be soul because nobody can capture that you know…”

This week’s episode of Black Enough, Black Magic,” explores one of the most essential sites of transcendence in Black culture: the kitchen. After the beginning of a poem that asks the question we work to investigate over the course of the episode, what is magic?, we enter Professor Rekia’s class. Rekia gives a rousing lecture on the place of food in the Black intellectual and cultural tradition, invoking the innovation and ingenuity our ancestors poured into their food, performing transfiguration on scraps and creating feasts. She ends class with an invitation to her students to create their own soul food meal for extra credit.

As Amaya prepares to make her dish back in her apartment, she encounters Lena, who, due to her frustrations with her school work in the engineering school, is about to break at the seams. She lashes out at Amaya, taking out her anger on her friend and Jaheem, who arrives mid-fight, and ends the conversation with the decision to take space from Amaya.

A little later, Jaheem and Amaya prepare their dishes in the kitchen, playfully engaging in some verbal sparring about greens that turns into a deeper conversation about what, and who, both of them want to be in the world. When confronted with the question of what would she like to be if she could be anything, she finally says aloud that she would be a dancer. It is no longer a hobby– her decision to put that energy into the universe marks her decision to walk in her purpose. Amaya volleys the question back to Jaheem, asking about his mixtape, and we see Jaheem falter.

Their soul searching moment ends as Ember and Hadiyah arrive with their contributions to the meal. The four of them connect and find joy in the food they have prepared, and we see the magic, feel it even, as we see that moment they share.

Woven into the story of this episode are interviews from myself and Kemi Layeni with our personal recipes for what we think of as a Black Girl Magic Potion. It speaks to the uniqueness of our magic that the contents of our respective potions are so different. Layeni focuses more on the feeling of the magic and the things that make her feel like magic– she adds her favorite foods, confidence, humor, loyalty to Black people, and a cup of grace. I mix together more physical objects and a sensation: sunflowers, gemstones, water, coconut oil, vanilla extract, a nameplate necklace, hoop earrings and the first few notes of a Lauryn Hill song.

This question of magic is an important one to Black culture. Its traces are in our literature and the residues live in our music. We can taste it in our food and feel it in our bodies. I often think of the talisman that Frederick Douglass has which protects him from being beaten and gives him the strength to fight off Covey. I think of Zora Neale Hurston and her interest in hoodoo. I think of Charles Chesnutt and The Conjure Woman And Other Tales. I think of Solomon the Flying African. I think of the way spirits move across our literature like in Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Our magic is as large as generations and also exists in the confines of one kitchen at Weston College. That they find it themselves and one another is a gift that they can share at the kitchen table.


Further Reading:

Michael Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South

Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men

Charles Chesnut, The Conjure Woman and Other Tales

Jessica Marie Johnson, “Fury and Joy: Feminism at the Kitchen Table

 

“What do I owe?” | An Evening with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Fun fact: I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing. I got Between the World and Me in 2015 and never looked back. Just a year later, he started writing Black Panther, and I recall reading digital issues on my iPad in my dorm room, huddled under the covers like a child. In 2018, I was awarded my Master’s degree for a thesis in part based on those comics.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been an important part of my intellectual coming of age story; so naturally, when I heard he would be keynoting at ASWAD (which was being held in my city), I knew I had to be in that room.

I sat in the packed room last night, taking in the conversation. It wasn’t a traditional lecture, but a dialogue between Coates and a long time friend, Dr. Benjamin Talton of Temple University. The two covered a lot of ground, moving from the intellectual places and forums Coates inhabits to the digital spaces he has shied away from; they discussed his seminal piece, “The Case for Reparations,” and his newest piece of fiction, The Water Dancer; and in between were insightful remarks about practicing history. He read a few passages from the novel and then answered a series of questions from the audience about everything from narrative voice to writing as activism.

There are so many strands of thought that I could potentially pull out as I use this post to digest what I heard Friday night, but I think I want to focus on two moments in particular. The first moment was a series of questions Coates asks himself when he writes:

“What’s my duty? What’s my commitment? What do I owe?”

I wrote the questions down and almost missed a significant portion of the talk because as he discussed his own duty and commitment to writing, I began to think of my own.

I tackle these questions often, think about them almost daily, mull them over with Micah. I think about duty when I write fiction, considering the Black girls for whom I write. I think about my commitment to accessibility in my academic writing. I insist upon maintaining my personality in my writing because I want to show how you make a space for yourself when everything tells you that you are not welcome. And I often think about what I owe to myself. Of course, much of what I do is for other Black girls, but truly, the bulk of my work is selfish. It’s for the little girl I was who needed the stories I find different ways to tell.

I want to show my younger self that I gave myself permission to be large.

There’s magic in that act, which, in a way, leads me to the second moment I’ve been chewing on from Coates. Someone asked Coates about the magic in Harriet and the magic of representations, and he said what I have been preaching about for the last year or so. The supernatural is present, and has always been present, in our narratives. He’s being faithful to the way enslaved folks saw the world, and despite the circumstances, it was always tinged with a touch of magic. He used the talisman Frederick Douglass received that was supposedly to keep him from being beaten ever again as an example. I would also point to Charles Chesnut’s Conjure Woman Tales, and Zora Neale Hurston’s investigation of Hoodoo, and Ntozake Shange’s Spell #7, and Solomon the Flying African, and and and.

Our people are magic, in particular our women. And Coates acknowledges that openly and that moment encouraged me to move forward with my dissertation investigation. To have someone who has been such a force in my intellectual life unknowingly validate my belief was a powerful moment.

And even more exciting was learning that Coates and I share intellectual lineage. When asked about professors and spaces that shaped his thinking, he of course mentioned Howard University and several of the professors he interacted with there. In his fairly extensive list was Dr. Blakey. In stunned disbelief, I wondered if he was talking about the Dr. Blakey that I knew and had as a professor back in 2017. A quick peak at Wikipedia confirmed what I knew as Coates described the work Blakey had done: Coates and I had interacted with and been taught by the same professor.

I came into that room wanting an autograph but I left with an invaluable gift: things to think about. Coates has been provoking me to push further with my thinking for several years now, and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to see him in person.


If you want to know more about the conference, check out the ASWAD website: http://aswadiaspora.org/