My Skin My Logo

This piece is in response to my overconsumption of media and how it has both exhausted and angered me. The lyrics are lines from Kanye West’s (problematic, I know), “Black Skinhead” and the South African anti-apartheid song, “Senzenina”. The latter encapsulates my exhaustion at the attack of black bodies, how “our crime is that we are Black”. Black Skinhead captures my rage and a defiant pride in my race and skin. Black women are centered in this piece; we started the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and we support Black men and our community as a whole. I’m sick and tired of the dehumanization of Black people and the exertion of control placed on our bodies. Our skin is ours, and our bodies are our own. We are not a vessel for your hatred and insecurity. Phumakim’! (Leave me alone!) 

Simone Hadebe is a graphic designer and artist with a BSc in Studio Art from Skidmore College.

Hungry City

My first supper in America was a bowl of ramen. It was January, and New York a freezer. Tucked into one of the city’s box-like compartments, hidden by scaffolding beneath another shop in the Midtown area, was a crowded ramen place found via Google search. My roommate and I went there together. We did not know each other or America yet. Inside the small, bustling restaurant, alive with customers, steam clouds, pan sizzle and impatience, she told me it was her first time having Japanese food. I took a picture of her slurping noodles to send back to her boyfriend in Morocco. Do you like it? I asked her. She said it was interesting, and she giggled, slightly bewildered by her mouth, as her face reddened from hot broth, and her glasses assumed the look of a sauna.

I thought a lot about ramen after leaving New York, where I initially only spent three weeks doing a jazz studies class at NYU. I didn’t necessarily think of the thickness of the broth, or the level of heat rouging my lips, or the varying satisfaction of saving the soft-boiled egg for last, but I always remembered the choking hazard poster. In every restaurant I ate in, most of which were ramen spots near campus, I was mesmerized by the often elaborate, even beautiful illustrations of an asphyxiation taking place on a poster somewhere inside the establishment. I had never seen this anywhere else before. Was there a choking problem in New York? What was so hard for Americans to swallow?

There is a boy I knew who spent a lot of time talking to me about ramen. A few years ago, I had felt that America had swallowed him, and I could not reach my arm into the country’s throat to fish him back out. I resented his foreign chatter on the phone about the “fall” season, about brick buildings and buses to Boston. They were not mine; I was unfamiliar. But I loved it when he talked about ramen. In my off-beat time zone, first in my childhood bedroom and later, my college dorm in the Gulf, the thought of him bent, often alone and perhaps thinking fleetingly of me, over a large round bowl, swollen with noodles and broth and vegetables and meat and the hot, bright happy running out of an egg yolk, comforted me a lot.

Like any complex meal, ramen is built much like a furnished house. Upon a foundation of meat-based or fish broth, the cook scaffolds with what is usually a Chinese-style wheat noodle, paints the walls with soy or miso, adds fittings of chashu (pork), nori (dried seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots) and/or other vegetables like scallions, and finally, decorates with seasonings and a classic boiled egg. Enjoying a bowl of ramen, to me, feels like investing in a relationship –  unpacking a suitcase and settling in for a bit.

Since that first winter day in New York, I have returned to the city twice more, over the summer and now for the spring. Over lunch with my friend the other day, I talked about how my experience of consuming New York has largely been shaped by Asian hand. That morning, we had gone to Brooklyn to visit the Museum of Food and Drink, or the MOFAD lab. They were running an exhibit on the emergence and presence of Chinese food in America; walls had been constructed out of stacked Chinese takeout boxes, an enormous fortune cookie machine stood majestic in the corner, and a whole wing was dedicated to displaying taxidermy models of the various breeds of chicken used in Chinese-American cuisine.  I was impressed by the thoroughness and thoughtful clarity of the exhibit’s curation. During my sophomore year of college, I had taken a curatorial practice class in the art department, and since then had developed a deep fascination and respect for the curator’s task of shaping a clay-like historical narrative, using both text, found objects and physical matter. I began to see curation as a similar process to writing and editing; both worked with the raw material of narrative and history. Both had to take deft scalpels to stories, which together, like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, eluded a singular truth, and subsequently perform a surgery from which a complex storied product had to emerge.

What this exhibition specifically got me thinking about was the curated chronicling of hyphenated histories. While reading up about ramen earlier at home, I had learnt that its origins lay, much like most origins do, in a migration route between two (or more) cultures. It is widely believed that ramen was actually adapted from the Chinese, and brought over into Japan by Chinese immigrants. The first specialized ramen shop was only opened in 1910 in Yokohama, Japan, after decades of history in which it was primarily a Chinese offering, sold simple-style in small restaurants and mostly at portable street food stalls catering to local workers. Today, ramen has been developed, even arguably perfected, by Japanese chefs, and is, for the most part, considered a staple and highlight of Japanese cuisine.

I initially imagine that migration route between China and Japan as a hyphen, the same kind of hyphen that lies between Chinese and American in the MOFAD exhibit’s title. I’ve been thinking about the symbol of a hyphen a lot lately, now that I have spent a significant amount of time in the US. It often seems to me that America is choking on this hyphen.  But the hyphen itself as a term can be contested, an unequal see-saw between two identities, those identities themselves clouded with ambiguity – after all, what is an authentic Chinese identity, let alone American? The hyphen hides, too, or rather sidesteps, the historical shifts and differences of power dynamics between the identities being hyphenated, and how those change once joined together by the hyphen itself.

Before arriving in New York in that snow-full January, I had never really reconciled the “hyphens” of my own existence – born as an Indian citizen, I grew up entirely in the southern African capital of Botswana, eventually moving to Abu Dhabi for university at the age of 18. I knew I had grown up and formed a slow identity while straddling more than one culture, both of which I had not really learnt to accept or love, but just sit in, perplexed into a discomfiting stasis between them. Going to America has burst that still yolk of a bubble, and I find myself thinking almost incessantly about the routes, the thread-lines, between these different locations and identities, that exist and connect simply because they do so inside me. I initially imagined myself as a collection of hyphens, but due to the slipperiness of that term in today’s age, I am forced to reconsider the structure of how the places that make me me, actually connect with each other, both within and without me.

*

This spring, I worked as an editorial intern at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. AAWW began in a basement beneath a Gap store on St. Marks Place in 1991. Frustrated with having to explain and unpack their work and identities to a largely ignorant mass of white literati, a small group of Asian-American writers formed a new, magical subterranean world in which they could collaborate and validate each other’s creativity and hyphenated states. Over 30 years later, the problem of the hyphen remains just that, even within this essay: a problem. But the community that carries what America has deemed for them a scar, an unhealed wound, the eternal mark of an outsider, has grown bigger and stronger.

I worked for two of AAWW’s literary magazines: A World Without Cages, which documents writing by incarcerated Asian-Americans, and Open City, a journalistic initiative documenting New York’s immigrant neighborhoods. It was quite late into my job that I sat down to read the novel that I assumed the latter magazine was named after: Open City by Teju Cole, published in 2011. Not a long read, I gulped it down quickly, in a matter of 2-3 days. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it quite incessantly.

Open City is really an opening into the mind of a Nigerian-German psychiatrist named Julius. I would describe Julius as a cosmopolitan. The entire book is an act of both literal and mental roving – Julius spends a lot of time walking around New York, and for a brief but powerful segment, Brussels, and lets his mind travel with him, crossing the borders of the present into the past too, which is Julius’ childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. Both these physical and intellectual wanderings are colored with Julius’ heightened intellectualisms and intense philosophizing. For instance, seeing a disabled man within the maze of New York City prompts a long-winded foray into Yoruba traditional myths and fantastical interpretations of the disabled. Because I, as a reader, spend so much time absorbed in Julius’ headspace, the act of walking through New York is shaded over with his presence ­– I become Julius. Not necessarily a biracial psychiatrist of course, but a cosmopolitan, and educated, mind. While reading the novel, an instance of eating the infamous Brooklyn Blackout at a bakery, voted the best chocolate cake of America, triggers an absurd thought of my brain itself becoming the sponge cake, eager to absorb as much sweet lushness from the layers and layers of culture and diverse narratives from the palimpsest that is the ‘cosmopolitan’ city.

It is true that I often feel a kind of desperate hunger to understand any cosmopolitan city I inhabit. There is a strange urgency in me, like the persistent press of a full bladder, to visit every single neighborhood, to understand the inner workings as quickly as possible, and to feel the security of knowledge, of yes, I know this place, I know the subway routes and the odd stories of a local or two, I may even have written it down and immortalized it, and therefore, I can lay a claim of belonging to it, somehow. This logic is faulty, of course. But although I have become aware of this, and learned to curb myself, the hunger itself still stays. It is a hunger to resolve the tensions of differences, sometimes so disparate to the point of inconsequential or bizarre, within my own brain. Or in other words, I seek for hyphens to make connections between things that don’t reconcile within my head. In this way, I also become Farouq, the Moroccan clerk-cum-political philosopher that Julius meets in Brussels. Farouq is enchanted by Edward Said, and his fantasy, or dream, is to figure out how people from different places can live together while keeping their own values intact.

Near the end of Open City, we learn of a disturbing ‘plot twist’ and our perception of Julius, and the thread letting us dangle as marionettes within his brain, is suddenly, violently snapped. It feels as if I cannot trust my own mind and its machinations anymore. Because I realize I have become not Julius or Farouq but the cosmopolitan experiment, and in one small shocking instant, it has failed. A sour, almost metallic taste fills my mouth, such a vivid physical sensation, as if to counteract the abrupt mental upending that has just occurred. As the sun spills onto the Bowery, as if from an upset jug, I walk down the street combing over the entire novel in my mind, simultaneously using and questioning the critical toolbox I carry with me, one constructed and afforded by elite education, the same kind that gives Farouq and Julius their Paul de Man, Said and Derrida. Farouq and Julius, to me, are failed cosmopolitans, and seem to mask this failure with the very theoretics that enables their cosmopolitanism to take shape. And if they are failures, I re-arrive, finally, at the question that keeps frothing inside me since I’ve come to this country: what am I?

Open City is also a novel full of silences and gaps. Recently, my friend Jiun, who is a history major, wrote a piece about how stumbling upon the history of mi koo buns, her Malaysian childhood breakfast dish, prompted her to think about how people, and bodies, carry layers of both loud and mute history, and are thus, archives. What was to her just a nostalgic traditional food, actually carried a violent history: “Decades ago, a young man who joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla army was caught by British soldiers and sent to prison, where he was tortured into a coma. His mother prayed for him every day at the River Goddess Temple on Temple Street, offering lotus flowers with incense sticks. One day, all the florists in town were out of lotus flowers. Desperate, the mother baked some Mi Koo buns, carved flowers on them, and presented these at the altar instead. The boy survived his coma.” The palimpsest of historical meaning within the “mute mi koo bun” has led her to a research process that reveals more silence and censorship than she could have initially imagined. And she is recognizing how much this silence speaks about our failures in history. In Open City, Julius spends much time discussing the histories that are both literally and metaphorically buried in New York City: Wall Street sits atop a mass grave of African slaves – an event an academic friend describes as a “double burial.” Another day, I learn at a poetry reading, where I have come to engage with a specifically literary, creative-critical crowd, that that site of the Bowery Poetry Club sits on Lenape land, forcibly taken from Native Americans, another buried history that Cole mentions in his novel.

Open City sees Julius discussing how everyone views their own selves as the center for calibrating what is ‘normal; in other words, we are the heroes of our own stories. It reminds me of the Rashomon tale and our inability to arrive at, or simply the non-existence of, truth when there are multiple narratives of the same thing that all regard themselves as the center, the right, the truth. If I am trying to become a cosmopolitan, to string my hyphens together into something meaningful and ideal, and accepted first of all, then how do I reconcile the Rashomon effect with my quest? How do different people who all think they are right and splinter in the face of difference, live together successfully while still retaining the shifts and differences in their identities all bumping together constantly? How can my cosmopolitanism work when it must face history, and engage with the violence that is so often silent, so often buried, within that history? How does cosmopolitanism not worry itself to death when history is always hovering over its neck?

One day at the AAWW office, my fellow editorial intern holds a ramen night to use as research for a piece on the significance of instant noodles in contemporary life. A bunch of us, each carrying purses of different hyphenated identities, bring in a variety of noodle brands, from Mama to Maggi, and sit for three hours boiling water and exchanging bowls of disintegrating noodle bricks. The office sputters with the hissing of kettles, and the slurping of broth. Over discarded plastic packets, strewn books and stray chopsticks, we talk about the role ramen has played in our lives. I tell them Maggi was an occasional childhood luxury whenever I visited India, and that I lived off ramen when I ran out of all my money while living in Paris. I had spent several days in an utter daze, thinking only of food and the want for filling myself. Later as I go home on the 6, lips scarlet from heat, I realize that, in a way, my hunger has never left.


Photo by Aditya Romansa

Everyone Wants a Working Class Origin Story Without having a Working Class Origin Story

A handful of years ago, I graduated from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study where I eschewed a traditional liberal arts major and designed my own plan of study. I concentrated in the American Dream, a concept that has technically existed since the 1930s, but has roots in 1776’s American Declaration of Independence. Through generations, this dream concept has gone through various costume changes. It has even been exported worldwide while remaining central to the American conception of self. For example, about ten years ago, State Chairman Xi Jinping began boasting about 中国梦 (China Dream) and today it is not unusual for H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, to evoke the idea of a Dubai Dream. While there are many facets of the omnipresent American Dream, I want to focus on the problematic upward mobility component, which Lawrence R. Samuel argues is “the heart and soul of the American Dream” (2012). My contention with the contemporary American Dream’s component of upward mobility is threefold: its over-reliance on the rags-to-riches motif and the logical error of survivorship bias, its basis on an unsustainable capitalistic model of wealth accumulation (ignorant of humanity’s other manners of mobility), and what I’ll call its upward-outward perpetuation of the white-Christian-male-first mobility of Manifest Destiny. This essay will mainly explore the first and second points.

Recently, a poet friend and I were talking about our undergraduate experiences at elite private universities. She comes from a rural white middle class background, but one where she mixed with a lot of working class people. I come from a white urban working poor background (my dad was a local bartender); in both of our experiences, we witnessed our middle-class, upper middle-class, and wealthy classmates playing “poor” or reinventing working-class origin stories for themselves. Often, they hijacked narratives of downtrodden and/or marginalized people. In truth, I was an accomplice in this game, because as a first-generation scholarship student, I quickly realized my acquiescence was a requirement in maintaining and building relationships with these people. Pretending to believe their lack-of-capital origin stories and becoming friends (or at least friendly) with my privileged classmates, employers, and professors (and eventually, colleagues) opened doors for me. Thus, I pretend(ed) for them and prioritized their comfort. Eventually, I was invited to their parties, clubs, beach houses, after-internship drinks, and received recommendation letters and scholarships. I ignored when we went out for dinner and the rest of the party threw credit cards on the table with their mom or dad’s names embossed on them while I scrimmaged in my purse for a combination of my babysitting and work-study money. I pretended it was working-class normal for them to move off-campus and have their own apartments in Manhattan, or memories of annual family trips abroad or to summerhouses. Things haven’t changed much now that I am part of the white-collar workforce, but this type of relationship is exhausting and frustrating; it requires extensive emotional labor, especially for minorities, who must also deal with white fragility.

Once, I was in a taxi heading uptown for an eye doctor’s appointment with a West Village girl I babysat (I girl I love very much to this day) and she was lamenting about the snobbish and mean attitude of some of the other kids and their parents in her elementary school. She said, “They’re so rich, their parents were doctors.” Now, actually, both her parents were lawyers with advanced degrees; she lived in a beautiful West Village apartment, and had already traveled internationally several times. I see now that she wanted me to understand her pain and register the difference between her and them. She wanted to be empathic and kind, which maybe she saw in me and not in them. She also wanted to be like her mom who was kind and had a working-class origin story. How did someone so young already know that in American hearts the upward mobility story trumps all other narratives of success? The problem in America then and now is that we muddle morality and social class. The bigger problem is that our country’s only worthy narrative is the rags to riches motif. As a society, we celebrate the person who rises through their merits or defeats unspeakable odds over the story of a person of inherited wealth who does well with what they were granted. Even now, in an era of checking your privilege, our country’s anti-aristocracy history makes people uncomfortable with their own inherited wealth and status. They are uncomfortable enough that they create these working class origin stories, but they are not uncomfortable enough, in most cases, to fight the system of inequality.

Lawrence R. Samuel wrote, “…the key concepts we associate with who we are as a people (such as opportunistic, self-reliant, pragmatic, resourceful, aspirational, optimistic, entrepreneurial, inventive) are all present in the orbit of the American Dream” (2012). Thus, if the American Dream scaffold is upward mobility, how can someone from the upper classes be self-reliant, aspirational, inventive, et cetera? Of course, they can, but we don’t tell their stories often enough. We don’t tell riches-to-riches stories unless we want to disparage someone or their career (especially in politics), but we can and ought to tell these stories too. We can ask folks: what have you done with your privilege? What are the other ways (besides financial) that humans can be upwardly mobile? Once we stop pretending about working class origin stories or rags to riches narratives, we can talk about other real hurdles and moments of reinvention. Three examples of riches to riches stories are: American Astronomer Marie Mitchell, American author Annie Dillard, and Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I chose these three women, because I think they have all exhibited Samuel’s key concepts and have been “upwardly mobile” despite being from relative wealth.

To parse one of these examples, Mitchell, the first professional American astronomer, went from riches to riches, but her latter riches were not economic. Over her lifetime, she developed her intellect. She grew critical of religious institutions and slavery. She ultimately left her Quaker religion even though her ability to go to achieve higher learning during that era was due to her family’s Quaker faith. To protest slavery, she stopped wearing cotton clothing produced by slaves in the American south. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in 1873, she co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. Mitchell didn’t need a story of financial upward mobility to achieve acclaim. In fact, by acknowledging her privilege, she was able to contribute to an alternative riches-to-riches narrative and show how proper education, health care, and freedom could make us all better citizens. Today’s middle class and upper middle class people could do the same with their own from riches to riches stories.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote, “Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West…It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering…The words were: The lower classes smell.” In the United States, we don’t use the terms “lower class” and “upper class” as liberally as the British do, but make no mistake, these bodily class distinctions exist, and the American rich do disdain the poor for their bodies and habits. In the US, it might not always be smell that indicates class, but “in contrast to international trends, people in America who live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity” (Levine, 2011). As the gaps in childhood obesity continue to rise along economic lines in the US, it has become much easier to target poor people’s bodies. When upper class doctors try to create their own false class narratives (not necessarily origin stories), it is also damaging says Michael Hobbes:

“Kenneth Resnicow, a consultant who trains physicians to build rapport with their patients, says white, wealthy, skinny doctors will often try to bond with their low-income patients by telling them, ‘I know what it’s like not to have time to cook.’ Their patients, who might be single mothers with three kids and two jobs, immediately think “No, you don’t,” and the relationship is irretrievably soured.”

Furthermore, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, people of low socioeconomic status are more likely to be targeted by tobacco companies, grew up around secondhand smoke, and smoke themselves. The Oregon Center for Public Policy, which uses research and analysis to advance policies and practices that improve the economic and social opportunities of all Oregonians, has published reports indicating that most Oregon families living in poverty have one parent who works. There is an increasing overlap in our ideas of working poor and lower middle-class, not just in Oregon but across the United States. Furthermore, among the poor, many are suffering food insecurity. “Common physical conditions associated with food insecurity among children include asthma, birth defects, anemia, low birth weight, lower bone density, lower physical functioning, colds, stomachaches, and tooth decay” (Bauer 2018). I bring these physical aspects of poverty up to emphasize the title of this piece: everyone wants a working class origin story without having a working class origin story. Nobody wants the physical challenges of the working poor, yet they still want the societal rewards of the rags to riches narrative.

Historically, American literature and films have elevated the desirability of the upward mobility/rags-to-riches narrative. More often than not, our beloved protagonists are the poor and/or those striving for education and financial stability. The antagonists are the rich (no one wants to be the antagonist). Overall, these narratives are not harmful. I don’t know where I would be without Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Jimmy Gatz. The issue is that without more from riches to riches narratives, wherein the latter riches are not economical necessarily, we will continue to cling to our rags to riches narrative which is too individualist and oftentimes harms our environment and social communities. Look at reality television today, specifically Keeping up with the Kardashians. The Kardashian family is a good high-profile example of promoting their own false class origin stories. In 2018, Kylie Jenner was featured in Forbes as a “self-made billionaire” along with the hashtag #SelfMadeWomen. This extreme example garnered a lot of criticism, but much of the criticism centered on the irresponsibility of the magazine; yet, it is more than irresponsible, it is unimaginative. Kylie Jenner, you will never be Francie Nolan, but that’s okay.

In her new book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison critiques the traditional linear narrative in fiction. Quoting critic Robert Scholes who connected fiction with sex’s “rhythm of tumescence and detumescence…of intensification to the point of climax and consummation”, Alison pointed out that this is not how most women experience sex. She goes on to argue for alternative narrative structures away from the Aristotelian sequence of beginning, middle, and end. In truth, there are many alternatives already out there; even in translation, writers like Murakami or Calvino challenge this pattern, or look at Margaret Atwood’s story “Happy Endings” or Clarice Lispector’s “The Fifth Story.” Nevertheless, the linear narrative still dominates in American fiction the same way the rags to riches narrative dominates American hearts. Yet, like Robert Scholes’ hetero-liner theory of fiction, must Americans do not experience life like a rags to riches story. There is more social mobility in places in Europe today than in the United States, and to continue to extol the individualist virtues of the rags to riches story, we commit a type of survivorship bias, which is concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. Many things cause this lack of visibility, but one fixable cause is the tendency for people in positions of power and privilege to tell false working class origin stories.

What can be done? So much! Like Mitchell, we can strive to expand ourselves in alternative ways that are not based on economics. We can make our mind mobile, and we can share those narratives of reinvention and expansion. We can enrich ourselves by becoming less racist, less sexist, or less environmentally unsustainable. These kinds of riches to riches stories will only be possible if American society becomes more forgiving, if we allow people to change their minds and grow. To have a change of heart is to be human. Any kind of change of heart it is a mobile action; and if this change of heart means you have become a more loving, a more tolerant, and more empathetic person, you have achieved, in my opinion as someone who studied it, a new better kind of American Dream, you have experienced upward mobility. If we are free and have disposable income, we ought to spend our time, as Toni Morrison would say, freeing others, by giving everyone access to the rights of the riches like healthcare and education. This is more worthy of our time than trying to be some old character inside a Horatio Alger Jr. novel of the Gilded Age.

Works Consulted:

Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston, MA,1931.
Bauer, Janet. Oregonians in Every County and Congressional District Suffer Food Insecurity.
Accessed From:
https://www.ocpp.org/2018/06/20/oregonians-every-county-and-congressionaldistrict/ 9 June 2019.
Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. New York,
NY, 2003.
Hobbes, Michael. Everything you know about obesity is wrong.
https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/everything-you-know-about-obesity-is-wrong/
Lawrence, R. Samuel. The American Dream: A Cultural History. 2012.
Levine, James A. Poverty and Obesity in the U.S. Accessed from:
http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/60/11/2667. 9 June 2019.
U.S. Census Bureau. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016external icon.
Last updated 2018 April 10 [accessed 2018 Jun 13].

Image: Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” next to the ailanthus tree outside her old house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

ars poetica

in the open city, i move like an eel. i am electric and curved like a smile razored. in the open city, i live on hot food and hot music. i distract myself from weight. in the open city, a man makes a rape inside the womb of a book, and fills it with hot air. the words never deflate. in the open city, a woman is free to lie. and i believe in wonderlands lying at the bottom of holes, and i believe in blackbrown alices that reach their destination. in the open city, translation is not sold in the shops like rope necklaces. in the open city, i fly without an electrical cord making me marionette. look there, some me has fallen and killed their darling self. in the open city, i am flâneuse venus never in retrograde, cinnamon brown flesh and moonless. in the open city, i am a queen on the chessboard, mobile as a dream or dictator. in the open city, memory is no cannibal but a child making jigsaw. in the open city, i can change colors. make blues into hot pink, my brains all alchemist.

Artwork by Sheila Hicks “Comets Sculpture, 2016-2018, (detail).” Magasin III Jaffa. Photo: Noam Preisman.

absence of the latina intellectual: some abstract theory for your ass

there are several ideological lines,
the first being
there are three bodies to contend with:
mine
ours
theirs

my body is really heavy
with guilt, this leaking thing
charged with sex
and stifled

our body is really heavy
i am so crushed
by the burden of bodies belonging to me,
i must occupy space for our body
i must walk as these bodies,
these naked
and piling bodies,
these bodies thick
to stack and build upon,
these equally weak
and temporary bodies,
these bodies that are
simultaneously more and less

(i was holding my copy
of the women of brewster place
too tightly,
almost wrinkling
gloria’s name
when my white coworker
lifted her nose and said
she could only read books
she actually heard of and
that were well written)

finally their body is really heavy.
the body on
and outside my body
is rendered weak
in its own construction,

as it renders itself
during and only through
its relentless creation of my body
and their body
and whatever bodies
that birth themselves
in between, outside and aside
of this central body of work
which is itself a body

my body is really heavy.
our body is really heavy.
their body is really heavy.

this theory
comes up against
what I’ve identified
as three ideological lines
in their bodies of work:

my body is weak
against their body.
my body must relent
to their body of work.
my body is only here
because of their bodies
and body of work.

i disagree
with these lines
in their body of work.

precisely because
they are lines
and what lines
actually make up my body?

their bodies are all line
which is why
their body of work
consists of lines
and why my body
does not fit into these lines,
its form enjoys
everything but lines

(the chapin
I’ve been fucking
on and off for four years
makes it a point
to remind me
of his love for redheads
who burn easily)

walls are supported
by their body of work
walls are made by promises
written about in their bodies
they are losing their grip
on these promises

(old white women
point at my legs
when they are crossed
on the train and in their way.
and
on three occasions
in my adult life
white women have shoved
their chests in my face
non sexually)

my body is constant
and in the way
of their body of work
and it’s lines.

my form was here before
and birthed their bodies
my body will continue
to be a body of work
more than it is just my body

reading and writing
about the body
and their body
and their bodies of work
should render
all the bodies silent,
dead
it doesn’t, I learned

(my ex
still has my copy
of borderlands
i still have her copy
of beloved)

as i wrap myself
in the flesh
of my own body
— my own, meaning i own it,
this is a line
from their body of work
that i am now forcing
on my own created body
and body of work —
I’ve learned to tell you
it isn’t there
you become accustomed
to my body of work
which is more my body
than my actual body

you will ask yourself:
where is this bitch

Artwork by Paula Rego “Mermaid Drowning Wendy”

Black Kitchen

The bacon sizzles in a silver pot on a spiral top that burns
To a tangerine orange beneath sweet cabbage.
Turn that stove down low, boy!

Collared greens unfurl to the size of elephant ears.
Let the water run rinsing them clean.

Hand me the knife from the drawer.

Get the strainer ready for rice.
Here are the scissors to cut the chittlins’.

They don’t smell as bad over rice,
Doused with hot sauce.

Seasoning salt is drizzled over
Honey-sweet ham.

It’s 6p.m. Time to make the cornbread.
Slices of Aunt Earline’s jelly cake

Lie like dominoes on a plate painted with porcelain roses.
Mama makes the wild berry kool-aid syrupy sweet.

Pork chops in a ceramic bowl
Sit sullenly next to store bought
Sweet potato pies.

I’m in my room writing poetry,
Waiting to sink teeth into chicken breast
While the Superfriends are on mute.

Y’all can come on eat now!

Artwork by Alice Andreini

When I Get Home: Solange’s Cartography


The map of Houston, Texas looks like a star break on a windshield. When the glass has been pierced by a sharp point, leaving a spiral of injury. Perhaps, due to a stone. A bullet. On the fourth track of Solange Knowles’ new album When I Get Home, there are gunshots. You could almost miss it; the clocking of the gun, interspersed with its firing, is so effortlessly melded into the melody. Much like news of recent deaths often sink beneath the frantic newness of news.

Unlike this album’s predecessor, the magnificent A Seat at the Table, When I Get Home is less construction than map, a route along the roots of a steady, reflective driver: Solange. She is credited as a writer on every track. But it’s important to acknowledge that this is not her story – “I realize how much wider, figuratively and literally, my work could be if I took myself away as subject” – but stories, plural, that are narrated by her. Here, Solange creates conceptual cartography: of her Southern roots, of black empowerment, black women, and their intersections with their own personal and collective histories, and their love, spirituality, emotions, and power.

Image result for solange when i get home

There are numerous, predominantly black, collaborators on this album, all in various capacities, ranging from features, production to writing. The lineup includes such names as Tyler, the Creator, The Dream, Metro Boomin’, Pharrell, The Dream, Cassie, Earl Sweatshirt, Gucci Mane, Raphael Saadiq, Abra, and Playboi Carti. The most interesting “collaborations” however are the interludes featuring a variety of black female voices, including the artist’s. One interlude is titled “Can I Hold the Mic” which choppily samples a video of crunk group Crime Mob’s female rappers Diamond and Princess faux-interviewing each other – “Uh, bitch, can I hold the mic?” This leads into a spoken-word section by Solange herself:

Image result for solange when i get home

“I can’t be a singular expression of myself, there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many – “

This instability of identity, of the failure to contain and distill Solange’s specific experience as a black woman, perhaps explains her decision to produce a sonic map instead, one that stops focusing on an inconstant, non-singular self, but instead actually charts out the terrain of self, exploring those many “mountains” and “rivers” that make up her emotional-historical-cultural-political being and existence. Part of this is paying a nod to those that came before her; on S McGregor, Solange includes a recording of Houston-born women Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad reciting a poem by their prolific mother Vivian Ayers: “I boarded a train/Kissed all goodbye.” The track comes very early in the album, right after the repetitive, one-liner opener Things I Imagined, as if to foreshadow the movement, both literal and figurative, and the endings or goodbyes that Solange has undertaken to realize her visions. When she asks Can I Hold the Mic, it is not to profess a personal declaration, not to ask to be accepted as one self, or embodiment of self, not even to ask for a seat at the table, but instead, to ask us, to invite the world, along with her as she moves and retraces the “lines” and “curves” of her map of being.

Image result for solange when i get home

The cartography begins, as Solange’s life itself did, in Texas. If the map of Houston, her city, is a fractured spiral, then it revolves around its blackness. Houston Third Ward, where Solange grew up, is known for its black community. It was a civil rights epicenter in the sixties and had the first nonprofit hospital for black patients in the thick of the Jim Crow era. A profile by The New York Times Style Magazine states that “[Solange’s] output is infused by a fundamental orientation – culturally, politically, psychically – to blackness.” And this is her central spin throughout. Solange frequently incorporates the chopped n screwed hip-hop style in her core jazz and hip-hop music, inflecting her work with black musical forms that specifically nod to her city. A song celebrating black and brown things – “Black baes, black days”‘ – is named Almeda, an area in south-west Houston. S McGregor is for S MacGregor Way, where the aforementioned sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad grew up. Way to the Show’s “candy paint” lyric pays homage to Houston’s staple slab scene, where cars are painted to look candy-coated. Meanwhile, Beltway refers to the road looping around Houston, which, on the tracklist, is cleverly followed by Exit Scott, a real exit off the Beltway 8 in southern Houston. In visuals for the album, Solange prominently features a ranch, with horses and dancers in modern cowboy outfits. “Hundreds and hundreds of people every weekend are getting on horses and trail-riding from Texas to Louisiana,” Solange told Billboard. “It’s a part of black history you don’t hear about.” It is clear the geography serves as scaffolding for the album, propping up every vision executed by the artist.

It is in Exit Scott (interlude) where Solange showcases the poetry of Pat Parker, a lesbian black woman from Houston itself. The poem is about love. In the intermission, We Deal With the Freak’n, Solange includes audio of Alexyss Tylor from her show Sperm Power 2: “We are not only sexual beings, we are the walking embodiment of god consciousness”, a track that is preceded by the Gucci Mane feature My Skin My Logo, which contains an outro resembling sexual climax. Solange explores the nuances and spaces of black love and sexuality through the lens of actual black women, from Parker to Tylor, each exercising agency and ownership of their sexual and romantic narratives.

These also expand to the topic of spirituality. In ‘Nothing Without Intention’, Solange cites the black beauty blogger Goddess Lula Belle’s video on Florida water, an item Solange carried with her to the Met Gala in 2018. Florida water is a unisex cologne made with alcohol and essential oils, used for purification, spells and spiritual cleansing. It is also a prominent part of Afro-American spiritual culture. In the track Almeda, there is a lyric that declares “Black faith still can’t be washed away/ Not even in that Florida water.” Solange simultaneously celebrates black spirituality while asserting the resilience and strength of black faith as transcending every hope symbolized by any spiritual object; black faith is stronger than any spell. On top of that, the refrain “nothing without intention” is a call to the listener, perhaps, to examine Solange’s full cartography as painstakingly and thoroughly mapped. As in an exquisitely made poem, every element is cherry-picked for maximum fruition. But invoking intention is also a rallying cry to her community, to the black community, to the black women before, with, and after her, to know and find and search for their beauty and being.

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The title My Skin My Logo is a reclamation of the idea of using blackness as a brand (re: blaxploitation) and exacting power over it. Binz offers a similar celebration of wealth in this lens – “Dollars never come on CP time/ Wish I could wake up on CP time” – where CP time is ‘colored people time’, a historically derogatory phrase used to imply that black people were lazy and tardy. Solange basks in her wealth and power, spinning the narrative that has historically held people like her down for their success.

Pride, having pride in an inconstant state of self and history, and comfort with this pride, are key factors of When I Get Home. A lyric in My Skin My Logo states to “blackberry the masses”, a gorgeous play on words that recalls the saying “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice”, which elevates dark skin. At the same time, there is the darker double meaning in “bury the masses.” It’s an invocation, to and for the black community, that is sweet-bitter; like the Houston cars lacquered to look like candy, this lyric draws on both the pain and beauty of blackness in a political world, invoking, above all, hope, the sweetness and necessity of it.

In the same NYT magazine profile mentioned earlier, Solange recalls being afraid of the Holy Ghost as a young girl at church. This fear, not just of that imaginary phantom, but a wide-encompassing fear, found in the pit of every artist’s chest, manifests in the intro track Things I Imagined. Solange ends this song with the lyric “Takin’ on the lie.” By the time we reach the last track, Solange no longer imagines but declares: I’m a Witness. This song transforms the old lyric into “Takin’ on the light.” There is a movement here between imagination and vision, fear and realization, off-track to grounded, intention to execution. In When I Get Home, a title itself implying a road and destination tied to self, Solange sketches for us this journey, maps out the paths that have led her to this exact moment as both artist and woman and black being. How strange, how searching, and how beautiful it all is.

Map of Houston, Texas