I do not like talking about race. I’ve reached the point of plain and simple exasperation, not the performed anger that so often characterizes social justice circles but just eye-rolling annoyance since it’s 2015- people should know better and it’s not my responsibility to enlighten them.
I read Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie last October around my 20th birthday, and I wasn’t able to write an extended piece on it until now because I didn’t know where to begin and I still can’t definitely explain why the book is so important to me. It’s about race, it’s about gender, and it’s about the immigrant experience, but on some level, it transcends every arbitrary distinction we have fashioned in order to establish and maintain power over our fellow human beings, love and longing and faith and other such sentiments that exist far beyond the definitions of what is and what isn’t and what cannot be. Adichie reminds me of Maya Angelou, who’s one of my favorite people of all time because she makes me feel that I’m allowed to be who I am and for a long time, I didn’t believe that. I’m not going to ever say that my womanhood transcends my race or my race transcends my upbringing because I shouldn’t have to do that for people to have consideration for those aspects of my identity as well as the conglomerated identity that results.
I hate intentional diversity, by which I mean the practice where white people applaud themselves on being diverse, consuming media about people of color without understanding the nuances to race and being so self congratulating and defensive of their goodness and separation from the “bad” white people. I don’t need something to be branded as DIVERSE or FEMINIST for it to be that way, and I’m not interested in calculating the p-value for every aspect of human existence and academizing these issues to the point where we neglect to acknowledge that first and foremost, it’s all about individual people, and that’s more important than so-called righteousness personified. Americanah is about Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant to the United States who deals with all the issues associated with being black in America, and it’s about her love affair with Obinze, the lover she left behind when she left Nigeria, and it’s about reducing the most complex, intricate issues of race to what can be understood by all. The point is, until we stop regarding women or people of color or LBGTQ people as the eternal “other”, we can never progress since it feels like most of the time, so many refuse to see other’s experiences as valid and real and human, especially when it might reflect poorly on their own group.
Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of rap music because a good deal of the frustration the blockage from actualized personhood due to a variety of factors, race, gender, etc. is something that I relate to a great deal. And I talk fast and I think even faster so it’s a medium that ideologically makes a lot of sense to me. I’m not black and there’s an excess of anti-Blackness among Indian and Indian American communities, but I’m female, and I’m an only child who was raised without the social conditioning that women are often raised with in our society so I often feel like a little girl, a pretty doll who should be thankful for what the world has given me but I endlessly want to stomp my foot in frustration and scream at the injustice of it all even though I know it won’t do any good for me or my cause. I pseudo seriously said a while ago that if I was famous, I’d be a lot like Kanye West, controversial and outspoken even when I would do better to hold my tongue, but also more often than not, objectively right in my convictions. I’m not excusing his misogyny but I’m sitting in Chicago O’Hare right now and it’s barely 7 in the morning after I haven’t slept and I’ve been listening to West’s “Homecoming” on repeat for the last few hours, and all I can construct in terms of a thesis on why I like Kanye West is this vague concept that I want to and will be remembered because I am worthy of it, which is a radical statement for a woman, and especially for a woman of color.
Kendrick Lamar just released To Pimp a Butterfly, and I genuinely loved “i”, the first single from the album, because that was the song that 16 year old Dhaaruni desperately needed and wasn’t given, but the upbeat optimism of the song makes a lot more sense in the context of the very obvious struggle of mental health and external conflicts with society that characterize rest of the album. I like Kendrick Lamar because he, along with the aforementioned Kanye West, is uncomfortably honest and he covers it with bravado but of a transparent sort, and it’s revolutionary for one who’s marginalized in any way because women who show emotion are inherently crazy, the conceptualization of the Ophelia, and black men who dare to show anger and thugs and almost seen as animals to be put down. I really, really, love “King Kunta” because it’s as real as it’s humanly possible to be, confident and angry and honestly speaking, balls out arrogant but not without reason, and infused with such emotional heaviness it can’t be forgotten. “Straight from the bottom, this the belly of the beast, From a peasant to a prince to a motherfucking king.” It’s also notable that he referenced Kunta Kinte, the protagonist of Alex Haley’s Roots because as a society, we like to forget that part of American history happened because it makes us look bad. The “We’d never cut off a guy’s foot how barbaric do you think we are” mythos that people like to spin about “good slaveowners” is actually inane and it’s embarrassing that people still adhere to it. And of course, “Black man taking no losses”, which actually might be the thesis of the entire album, especially in the downright chilling “The Blacker the Berry”, where Lamar apologized for his misplaced comments on Ferguson, with the “I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan.”
Kendrick is not apologetic in this album, because vulnerable is not the same as apologetic, and neither is Ifemelu in Americanah and one of the things that black men share with women is that we’re both conditioned to be nice, to apologize constantly and not cause a snag in the lives of our so-called superiors. Be the Daisy Buchanan, be the pretty girl with a waist that men can span with their hands, who doesn’t speak out or dare to openly condemn the actions of others, be the good black man who is fatherly and magical and honest but always stops short of threatening societal norms dictated by whiteness. It’s complete bullshit, and unlearning this narrative takes active effort because it requires actively ignoring the contradictory demands from every side and even that is counterintuitive in a society that thrives on unwritten directives. It’s distinctly freeing to be allowed to be someone who’s free of the rules and mandates but at the same time, it’s lonely because very few are brave enough to openly advocate your platform even if they agree because it’s risky and as human beings, we’re more often than not, inclined to save our own skins. But sometimes, sometimes our innate empathy wins out, and at the end of the day, that possibility of human kindness, no matter how small and elusive, is what makes the struggle and working against the grain worth it, and we can’t abandon hope because hope isn’t childish or trite. It’s the only way we can ever progress and I’m disinclined to ever give it up.