Over the past year, I’ve returned to this quote from Hurston’s 1928 essay “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” almost daily. I’ve written it down on sticky notes and scraps of used paper tucked into notebooks and novels. I’m always looking for ways to work it into conversation, or to cite it my academic work even if it is only tangentially related to my chosen topic. I’ve typed it at the top of pages of my thesis as a way to help me remain vigilant, to defy the urge to give up and do something “more immediately useful” than my writing or to give in to the lethargy and helplessness of depressive moments.
This quote from Zora Neale Hurston, the prolific and defiant novelist, scholar and anthropologist, makes me feel ready, more than adequate, powerful, even when I’m not, which is most of the time. Hurston’s image and words are plastered all over my working space and my things, from my laptop home screen to my journal. Everyone who tolerates me for at least five minutes will know how much strength I draw from her work, especially since I’ve been known to refer to myself as “Young Zora” (I’m not proud of this), or to complain that my mother decided to name me Zoë after considering Zora who is also one of her favorite authors.
Lately, I’ve started thinking more deeply about how I’m engaging with her image and with quotes like these that are convenient sound bites, with just the right fire and catchy construction for a tweet or an Etsy mug. I have phases where I dive deep into every single work I can find of an artist I admire, and paging through letters, rare essays and short fiction from Hurston is the sharp jolt I may have needed to treat this message as just another a trivial addition to a “fierce Black artist” aesthetic. What is she really calling me to do? What does it mean for me to engage Zora Neale Hurston in this way, to claim her as part of my literary lineage of Black women from all over the African diaspora; me, a person who definitely spends far more of my time weeping than sharpening? Am I picking on and misappropriating the struggles and triumphs of Black women artists, without forwarding their work in any meaningful way?
There are several other women I fear I may be turning into empty symbols for my own selfish purposes, like the fearsome warrior women of Dahomey (now Benin) with whom I grew fascinated and wrote about in different ways for months on end. Me, an Anlo-Ewe who can claim present-day Fon people as distant cousins (Maybe? The Ewe origin stories I’ve been reading and listening to can’t seem to agree). What does their legacy mean, if anything, for women in Benin today? Who am I to carve them into my imagined lineage? I’m thinking also, of images of Erzulie Dantor, Haitian divine spirit and revolutionary force with her scarred face and knife in hand, or the photos of Gloria Richardson brushing aside a National Guardsman’s gun during civil rights protests in Maryland, 1963. And then, there are those women whose names I just learnt and whose faces are buried deep in the archive, if they are there at all; Hannah Cudjoe, Mabel Dove Danquah and Susanna Al-Hassan, who are conspicuously missing from history lessons and extravagant state-sponsored celebrations of Ghanaian independence from British rule.
Apart from my own self-centered and unending circuits of questioning, I’m still angry. I’m also ashamed of the times I chose to settle smugly into respectability, pointing out things like “Why do they have to shout?” or “Why is that person always so abrasive?” Me, with the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother I have, believing that being gentle-voiced and close-legged was the way to go. Me, having now reclaimed words like ‘arrogant’ and ‘abrasive’ because they make me feel invincible on days when I hear more microagressions than kind words, and when the endless horror of the news cycle have left me feeling raw and defenseless.
Some of my anger is directed inwards, for years I spent playing along with the middle-class (comfortable elite? Willfully ignorant elite? Middle-class doesn’t quite seem to cut it) Ghanaian charade; avert your eyes when you see the neighborhood people getting ready to burn someone for stealing, spare a few coins for the children younger than you begging when you can, shake your head because it’s such a shame, if only they had gone to school. I was devouring all that Toni Morrison and all that Ama Ata Aidoo and still didn’t know any better. And even if I did…this kind of ego is useless in the face of a matrix that keeps you immobilized with one of its many feet on your neck and one of its many arms holding down your foot on someone else’s neck.
Especially now, when white supremacy, and all the other deadly systems with which it is welded, are shifting boldly in broad daylight– as they have since the dreadful dawn of European colonialism– my anger feels more like an urgent shove in my back to keep working, to keep creating and imagining.
Showing “kindness” and “love” to “the other side” isn’t even an option for me. It’s not sustainable or wise, considering that this “side” is deeply invested in the dehumanization and death of anyone that isn’t a (rich) white (heterosexual) man. I can’t over extend myself to the point of harm, to prove our humanity to people whose “racial anxiety” (I’m out of sarcastic quotation marks) relies on them denying that very humanity.
During a 1993 PBS interview with Charlie Rose, Toni Morrison described racists as “bereft,” pointing out the detrimental effect of racism on white people, and their need to cling to whiteness without which “all you’ve got is your little self.” She also said,
“If you can only be tall, because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is, white people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking, what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”
Yet, still I feel that I am taking out of both sides of my mouth, showcasing righteous anger steeped in the legacy of generations of Black women before me, when I’m benefitting from an education system that uses inequality to build (or not to build) its classroom blocks. The highest bidders get air-conditioned classrooms and all the assistance they need to pursue higher education abroad, and those with insufficient coins to toss are left mourning children crushed beneath unsafe school buildings, or chasing jobs and qualifications they may likely never access because they don’t have the right connections.
So yes, anger is the thing I’m carrying around these days, and it is justified. There was a time when it threatened to consume me, when my written work was so laden with rage and capital letters for emphasis that I find it almost unbearable to read now. In an effort to be kinder to me of the recent past, I won’t be berating myself for this, but rather will appreciate that some of the toxicity has turned into a motivating force.
If you are inclined to turn your nose up at a Black woman’s anger, to try to dampen or contain it, or to shrug indifference because “this is just how the world is,” I don’t owe you any more space or explanation than I have already provided. Put on the news and pay attention. What you will not do, is ask me to condense centuries of history for you to maybe understand facts that ultimately will be dismissed as the unintelligible screams of a faceless Black mob, because your continued privilege and comfort rely on your intentional ignorance.
I have no more time to spend playing along with the farce that discrimination on any grounds– sexuality, race, gender identity, ability, class– are valid ideological positions that should be allowed room for fair debate. I’ve spent time weeping that I will never be able to reclaim if I continue in this way. I’m not interested in explaining why “violence shouldn’t be met with violence” is a lazy cliché that really means “bow your head and die quietly.”
Meanwhile, human life is still disposable fodder for a global machine with an unending appetite.
I’m sharpening my words so I can turn them not on myself, to portray the “Black woman in pain” role that the academy and literary establishment loves so much and is most comfortable with, as it allows them to clutch benevolence to their chests and dress up their pity as empathy.
I’m sharpening my words for anyone who dares to believe that they are more human and deserving of life than other people.
In her keynote speech at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in June 1981 entitled “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” Audre Lorde stated,
“Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation or learning. But that time is over. My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.”
Black women do not exist simply as vessels for the fulfillment of the desires of other people. My rage is mine to do as I please, even as I’m aware that it can consume me. And still, I resent that this anger that has been a driving force behind so much of my work is in reaction to constant violence and antagonism.
Here I go all the same, sharpening and raging in pursuit of clarity, and a more sustainable kind of life.
(Image: Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston courtesy of Florida Memory via Wikimedia Commons.)
Zoë Gadegbeku is the Communications Manager for the Elma Lewis Center. She blogs at shewhowritesreality.com.