where beauty lives in memory
Where beauty lives in memory – I open the door, and my eyes, ears and body flush with the singing of bright salmon walls, life-size paintings of Junkanoo drums, Nigerian carvings hanging on the walls, the radio blaring with calypso steel drums and my mother’s big smile as she dances towards me with open arms. We are in a small town in the colonial state of Illinois, but we feel the breeze of the Bahamas.
This dream of my last visit to my parents contains many complications in the memories of migration, where home is in many spaces. In this essay, I introduce moments with my family from the Bahamas and Biafra, proposing them as sites to prioritize black experiences and simultaneously interrogate anti-black colonial frames lived out in family histories. I listen to those complicated articulations of beauty in the constellations of “anti-black formations” that sustain humanity.
Drawing on the work of feminist scholars and Black Caribbean feminists, I weave memories of my family’s wedding with a children’s storybook by Haitian artist Francie Latour (2018)- Aunt Luce’s Talking Paintings(Auntie Luce’s Talking Paintings)-, and the historical poetry of Hurricane Dancers(Hurricane Dancers) by Cuban author Margarita Engle (2011). I begin by introducing you to my family through memories and then describe the lens of black geographies that guide this work. Later, I return to the Junkanoo stories to seize opportunities for resistance in our everyday moments.
where beauty lives in memory
Lastly, I address children to encourage their liberation offerings. I predominantly use blackness in this work to discuss some experiences related to beautiful black and brown skin. We have experiences that overlap, intersect, and conflict. Blackness and Black experiences are not a monolith, but the written word asks us to label and encapsulate our experiences to explain them to others.
I continue with the terms and thoughts of Aimé Césaire (2005) when he points out that “the racial question is complex, ambiguous and any withdrawal into oneself becomes another form of segregation” (Césaire in conversations with Françoise Vergès, 2005, 98I engage these particular moments within a theoretical framework of Black geographies to elevate power in African ancestral knowledge while simultaneously questioning an anti-Black climate that is “location-specific but not necessarily location-bound” (Alexander and Mohanty, 2010). In this way, we uproot and stifle anti-blackness as a beautiful acknowledgement of how solidarity lives in the black uprising.
My parents moved from their lands in the Bahamas and Biafra, carrying family dreams to the grounds of the Kiikaapoi, Peoria, Kaskaskia, Bodéwadmiakiwen, and Myaamia peoples, known colonially as Chicago. However, my mom is from Nassau, Bahamas and is a descendant of the Arawaks in the Caribbean. My father is from the Igbo and Biafran people in the country named by British settlers in Nigeria. I maintain complicated relationships with that land where solid cultural values have intertwined, which entail separating from family lands to search for colonial dreams such as access to “good schools”, stable jobs and financial security.
These access markers are woven with the colonial logic of commodifying labour and the infrastructures of the fight against the blackness. My mom and dad maintained family connections in many ways, but a strong bond was sustained through my brother and my frequent trips to family lands. Regularly treading the Igbo soil the colour of roasted berries, climbing the island’s mature mango trees, and smelling the salt water as the waves crashed the barrier and the Hammertan breezes was our entrance into daily family traditions.
Where beauty lives in memory
These moments are smelling the salt water as the waves crashed over the wall, and the Hammertan breezes were our ticket to customary family traditions. Moreover, these moments are smelling the salt water as the waves crashed over the wall, and the Hammertan breezes were our ticket to familiar family traditions. These moments are meant files (Pérez, 2014), intimate notions of oneself that I place next to, within and above the anti-black capitalist dictates and technologies of domination.
I carve my name on the wall of this archive, Nnenna. Many of my experiences meeting people begin with saying, pronouncing, spelling, and explaining my name frequently while watching tongues curl and lips clenched. Sometimes even their eyes roll up as their mouths animate around three letters to expel what they think is wrong. It could be my name Nnenna, in the Igbo language, means the mother of the father and is pronounced Ne-na; for the Igbos, the term invokes poetics as a “philosophical contraction” of what their parents and the community were feeling at the moment of birth (Irobi, 2009, 10). My dad is from Arabia, a place full of rolling hills and trees that meet as far as he can see, a town in Biafra about four hours from Lagos, Nigeria. With an English accent from the Midwestern United States, my name is Nay-Nah.
WhatsApp family memory
My cousins live in the calm sway of the waters on the Bahamian islands of New Providence. We share a chat group on WhatsApp where we talk about the day’s events. We are seven, and some three or four people post almost daily. There are days when I forget to check it, and I can have 100 lost messages. Sometimes there are stories about disagreements in the store because there was too much waiting. Or stories about how tax dollars go when there are new police sports cars on the road. Or more recent stories about strict curfews related to the COVID-19 pandemic, when people have no food, unemployment is high, hotels are closed, and street vendors can’t sell food or merchandise.
That’s what I love about our family’s WhatsApp chats; we can share the hurts, the angry moments, and the funny stories or memes that keep us going. We tell jokes to help everyone feel better. From time to time, jokes and memes are shared mocking West Africans, generally and specifically Ghanaians, Nigerians, and the “Bushman” accents, clothing, and hair.
Alternative names for anti-blackness
You don’t sound like Nigerians.
Hmmm, you look a little more Indian.
Your skin is dark.
Your hair is so rough and bushy.
Chic, you’re not entirely Bahamian.
Following the poem “Alternate Names for Black Boys” (2014), written by Danez Smith, who identifies as a Poz, black, and queer writer, I think of all the ways I’ve heard a hint of what my blackness is not. . Since I was four years old, I visited my mother’s island, I walked the streets with my grandmother, listening, feeling her love. I spent time with my family—familiar moments are interwoven with flashes of colonially imposed self-hatred. I spent time learning the island’s customs, of my family, the neighbourhood of Valle, the sounds, the drums, the Junkanoo, the smell of salt water, and how to cook chicken and fry snails.
Where beauty lives in memory
These moments were possible because my grandmother wanted to ensure we learned things from home. And it could be due to mistrust of the African man her daughter married. My dad. Those Africans. And so, there I was. I was sitting on the floor, next to my family, on the sofas, sharing stories, and jokes about who was being a fool. Then, spontaneously, my uncle’s voice would say, well, Nnenna knows – (growling) Ooggbooooga, right Nnenna? The Bushmen of Nigeria probably have some wisdom as they lived off the land. These moments are like WhatsApp memes; somehow, these comments point to the knowledge of the Igbo people while degrading their ways of life.
Tan on tan. Black on black. What does this mean? Why is this accepted? How do these intense feelings of hate, disgust, and otherness feel towards someone who is a part of you? He looks like you. I. Am I that? I often dive in to find calm and reflect on questions. I think of how these anti-black notions have been forced upon us, how they have been absorbed by us and vomited out after our stomachs tasted their poison. This is where the eradication of anti-blackness in my family memories happens.
The black geographies
In framing Black geographies, I begin with the thoughts and work of Black women like Patricia Hill Collins and the women of the Combahee River Collective, who ground Black feminism in a systems analysis where race, class, gender, Sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually constructing landscapes of a community organization that shape Black women’s experiences and, in turn, shaped by Black women (CRC, 1983; Collins, 1989). Looking back on my family memories, I see incredibly generative black geographies to name how my memories contain the ever-flowing feelings of discomfort, joy, sadness, and beauty in blackness.
Black geography as a field goes by many names, predates black experiences, and includes an overwhelmingly broad discussion that touches almost every discipline. Learning how black people experience everyday moments is an opportunity to trample colonial borders. For the Canadian black feminist scholar Katherine McKittrick, to whom the term credited, black geography refers to the discourse of geography as an alterable terrain through which black women can assert their sense of place. Moreover, for McKittrick, race Sexuality or gender are contributions to black thought rather than just the sole indicators of identity or experience (McKittrick, 2006, 18). For the Ghanaian poet Ama Ata Aidoo (1977, sp ), this means choreographing the everyday experiences of Ghanaian and other West African women who navigate imperialist wars and colonial conquests to build a family.
Where beauty lives in memory
For the Martinic writer Edouard Glissant (1989), this means drawing attention to the written and unwritten geographical expressions of “saying, theorizing, feeling, knowing, writing and imagining space and place”, which he called the “landscape poetic” (McKittrick, 2006, 21). Here, the poetic landscape involves a narrative that weaves complicated relationships with the land because “describing the land is not enough. The individual, the community, the land are inseparable in the process of creating history” (McKittrick, 2006, 21). For the Ndwandwe thinker, Fikile Nxumalo (2019, sp), indigenous and black experiences are often separate discourses, but black geographies weave complicated relationships with ancestors, descendants, more-than-human beings (Nxumalo, 2019), and speculative futures to focus on the “radical relationality that centres, affirms, and values life
Leave a Reply