One of the greatest gifts I have allowed myself to receive in my life are the reminders that I find of things that I need to recall or remember. Sometimes a word, a conversation, a photograph. I just have to be ready to listen.
Last night I went to a celebration in Oakland in honor of Ghana’s 60th anniversary of independence. It was a wonderful night filled with reminiscing about trotro adventures, changing neighborhoods, favorite foods, and lots and lots of jollof rice. I was especially impressed with the young man sitting next to me who knew every Ghanaian song I was referencing based on a simple description of a few words or what someone was wearing in the music video.
On the way home my driver was a friendly Nigerian man, probably in his 30s. As the ride continued across the beautifully lit Bay Bridge, the driver expressed to me that people often ask him where his accent is from and that it was a way of them reminding him that he does not belong here; that this was not his home. The emotions in his voice rose as he talked about people who could never understand his sacrifices, and who had spent their whole lives in their geographic bubble. Such subtle reminders of how one views you is usually coupled with an inability to see the true nature of oneself or the other person.
In Citizen, Claudia Rankine describes this as, “For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person…you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such langauge acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all thew ays that you are present.” As an immigrant, such language about accents and ‘where are you from’ are language acts that exploit a perceived difference in the way someone looks or talks. The point of such visibility being that it is necessary to paint the exact outlines of difference. My driver went on to describe how he does not pay any attention to ignorance that comes from ignorant people. The refusal to engage in those language acts creates barriers toward exploitation. And I return to the wise words of my driver, reminding me of all that has made me that so many can never catch a glimpse of or understand. Clint Smith writes in his poem “what the ocean said to the black boy”: they call me blue because they don’t understand how the sky work/they call you black because they don’t understand how god work.
We must continue to create our armor against the exploitation of language acts bent to take that which makes us strong and use it to mark us ‘other.’