I time travel every day. Sometimes into the past. Sometimes I am surrounded by sisters, and we imagine futures. Worlds in which we and our ancestors can relax. For us, the present is a constant state of existence in opposition, resistance, fighting, defending, explaining. In Plantation Memories, Grada Kilomba describes how, in everyday life, a Black body can at any time and without warning be transported back to a colonial setting that awakens a trauma. The memory of our ancestors is inherited, rests within us, and becomes ours.
Next to me, the glass pane feels like a part of a vitrine containing a stolen “exotic” find, lying around in a German museum, waiting to be taken home. When the U-Bahn tunnel darkens, I feel like I am trapped in a narrow box filled with carefully labeled skeletons and skulls, gathering dust in a Berlin attic, waiting to be buried.
It is as if she wants to penetrate my hair with her eyes and measure my skull.
Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness describes the situation of seeing oneself through the eyes of others and measuring oneself against the standards of one’s white counterpart. I am sometimes ashamed of how much of my life I have spent thinking about how others see me. Maybe I barely know myself because I have to know the white gaze so well.
So I stare back, but the woman looks through me and sees, at most, a reflection of herself in me or in the window beside me. I give her a smile that I would like to take back, say, “Thank you,” hesitantly, and regret my words because I know that I only say them to prove to her that we speak a common language.
Maya Angelou dedicated the poem The Mask to a woman whose laughter she had observed on the bus. The woman always laughed when the bus moved abruptly. But she continued to laugh without any apparent reason, even when the bus just opened its doors or missed a stop. It was not a real laugh, but a mere mouth movement with sounds of laughter. In fact, she could laugh until her stomach ached, until she choked, until she cried. But she didn’t; she wore the grinning mask to hide the pain.
There are enough reasons not to be laughing. It is no coincidence that Black men in England are six times more likely than white men to be hospitalized for mental illness. Something like this can’t even be assessed in Germany. Without a statistical record of our existence and the systematic discrimination we experience, Black people are invisible on paper. So we are considered singular cases, just like the targeted acts of violence against us. Hanau, the NSU, or the death of Oury Jalloh were not singular incidents.
It took years until I learned that people who look like me have lived in this region for 400 years. For years, I didn’t know about the existence of Black German role models like May Ayim. The German language felt like it was borrowed. I could never bend it in such a way that it really took hold of my experiences until I was an adult, found words, and people who had already formed them. Even before I entered this world and could ever feel alienation, May Ayim had already said everything. Thirty years ago, she declared that she was not dealing with xenophobia or hatred of strangers, after all, she was not a stranger in this country. Everything has already been said, written, sung, shouted. We have appealed, pleaded, explained, demanded. Nothing is new. Not even George Floyd’s final words were really his. They already existed, they had already been Eric Garner’s final words and surely also those of someone whose last breaths were not caught on camera. They were protest slogans and prints on t-shirts before George Floyd was forced to utter them. They are also not his anymore because they have been repeated so often after his death. Even Berlin techno fans teetering on rubber dinghies repeated “I can’t breathe” on banners as they demonstrated to preserve club culture during lockdown, just one kilometer away from the Black Lives Matter protest. I am tired and almost bored of suffering.
One night in the summer of 2013, I felt a tiredness that I had never experienced before. My mother had been asleep for some time, but I stayed up despite the time difference, until the jury acquitted Trayvon Martin’s murderer after sixteen hours of deliberation. I had followed every second of the trial and, in the end, through tears of disbelief, I had to learn what justice really means.
I was fifteen at the time. Trayvon Martin was seventeen when he was shot. I became familiar with feelings of anger and fear I had not known;
I imaged how I am perceived wearing a hoodie and walking alone at night. I turned seventeen, too, but my life continued. Eight years have passed, and I am constantly as tired as I was that night. I am unable to count the dead, who live on as hashtags and grow in number daily. Sometimes I even consciously ignore them when scrolling through my phone; I do not want to see any more posts, watch any more videos, sign any more petitions. What would fifteen-year-old me say? Would I be disappointed to see myself fall asleep? To see myself doing coursework instead of being outraged at the sight of the dead body on the floor?
In Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, “The colonized subject frees himself night after night between nine in the evening and six in the morning.” Nightly dreams become expressions of subconscious fantasies of liberation, of fighting back, of fleeing. The colonized does the impossible: “I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, and climbing. I dream I burst out laughing, I am leaping across a river and chased by a pack of cars that never catches up with me.” I don’t want to run; I don’t want to have to run. I want to stay. As May Ayim said, “borderless and brazen,” that is how I want to stay. How can I do that even though I am tired, even though I am growing old? I once asked my father: “How have you survived moving through the world for sixty years in a Black body without having a nervous breakdown?” I looked at my mother and almost felt betrayed. I was overcome with childlike disappointment and anger. The promise of a certain light-heartedness that everyone is born with felt broken as I had to get used to the dead bodies. My father replied that you get used to it, you repress, you don’t let it get to you, youclose your eyes.
I am grateful that I am allowed to breathe because he has made it through decades of wearing the mask. Maya Angelou describes the mask as a survival strategy. No matter how staged it is, the laughter of our ancestors keeps us alive.
My eyes are gradually closing, Black bodies are passing me by. The next stop is announced.
Koleka Putuma describes how coffins are lowered down her throat, gravestones are sunken into her nostrils, and eventually, she is asked whether she is still breathing properly. Putuma is tired of Black women always being written about as if they were already dead; existence as an obituary. To her, it seems as if the world does not know what Black women look like when they are alive, walking, and breathing.
When I see the strong women who came before me, I find myself proud at times and melancholic at others. They had the same ideas, the same goals, wishes, role models, and yet we are still standing here, time and again, with protest signs in our hands. This is tiring. James Baldwin wrote: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” It is as if I feel the tiredness of the women that came before me.
It is no wonder that the trope of the “strong Black woman” is reflected in how medical staff systematically underestimates Black women’s pain and is less likely to prescribe medicine, or how Black girls are generally perceived as older in comparison to their white peers. Strength must not have to be our most important characteristic.
Vulnerability shall be my utopia. I want to be able to be any kind of Black, to sincerely laugh or cry if I want to.
In such a world, there would be room for all facets of our being. I would not have to decide whether I was Black, or woman, or queer, and what struggle I would dedicate myself to.
“But / isn’t it funny?” asks Koleka Putuma in the poem Black Joy, “That when they ask about black childhood, / all they are interested in is our pain, / as if the joy-parts were accidental.” Our struggles cannot be without our joy, just as our joy cannot exist without our struggles.
On the phone, my father said: “Did you see? A lot of statues are toppling over.” I had to laugh and think about how, once, in reference to a house shaken by an earthquake, he said: “The house shook itself.”* Now we are shaking the house. The statues of colonialists do not just fall, we are overturning them and everything they stand for.
Sometimes I have to remind myself: Not only did people come before me who felt the same pain, but there are also people who will come after me and us. That is a reason to knock things over. A reason to shout and hold up posters that say: “We are the last generation that will put up with this.” Maybe also a reason to laugh.
It is a reason to claim my place and the place of my predecessors and successors. I insist that you google who May Ayim was. I will take the mask off when I want to, be vulnerable when I want to. I will laugh deeply and sincerely if I want to, and take back every fake laugh.
I get out, ascend the stairs, and the blue sign grows steadily in size, which reads in large letters: Mohrenstraße (Moors Street). I could laugh as I walk away from the sign and pass the Ministry of Justice. Address: Mohrenstraße 37. A dramatic inscription adorns the building. The lettering is so large that the street sign is barely noticeable. These are the words of Albert Einstein: “In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems.” I could laugh until I cry. But I also think of a picture in which May Ayim stands in front of the same U-Bahn sign a few years before I was born, laughing as she puts a white chocolate-covered marshmallow kiss** in her mouth, and grinning into the camera. In me, past and future meet, anger and courage collide. I look up at the street sign, rejoice in the existence of the ö in the German alphabet***, and trust that we will soon overturn this monument as well.
*Author’s note: My father’s way of speaking about the earthquake in German, which is not his mother tongue, made it seem like the house shook itself by choice instead of being shaken.
** Editor’s note: Chocolate-covered marshmallow kisses used to be called „Mohrenköpfe“ (Moors Heads).
*** Translator’s note: Altering the spelling of Mohrenstraße to Möhrenstraße changes the name to Carrot Street.
Miriam Emefa Dzah was honored as one of three recipients of the Crespo Foundation Literature Prize for Critical Short Texts 2020 for the essay printed above. She is on the editorial board of Bait Magazine.
Taken from our F/W 2020 Issue on „Life“