I had high fucking hopes of drifting off to sleep like a baby tonight, but it appears that that isn’t going to happen, so I’ll write to you as I’m a big believer in not fighting to sleep – either enjoy just lying in the dark and not having to do anything, or enjoy the fact that night is quiet and still, and do something that brings you pleasure. I like writing, like this, so here you go.
I didn’t do any diary keeping last week – and I didn’t do any work today – I just couldn’t – I sent some emails and they were shit, and I just didn’t want to write about the time I was having. I sort of stopped eating a bit too. Not properly, lol, cus you know, IT’S ME. But just – no, I don’t want breakfast, I want like half a bowl of pasta for lunch, I don’t want any fruit or salad, I just want tea and maybe more of a pasta half bowl for dinner. Not eating, not sleeping, not writing. So I guess, not very happy.
Pining, a little bit, I think. Pining for my mum and my dad, and the friends that I love.
What to say –
“I was sat opposite the man at the Benin Visa place, white man, with glasses. And he’s got your passport, and mine in his hands, and the money’s on the table, and he’s saying that the people from Benin ‘are like animals to deal with, like feral children’ – and all I can do – like our money’s there, and our passports are there, so all I can do is just get the visas and get out of there”
I’m watching an officer tell another officer that Border Control at the Ivory Coast had presumed that we were sex workers, and they’re both laughing and I’m aware of our passports in his front pocket. And I’d have been surprised if we had got through the whole trip without somebody assuming that at some point – we’re two black women after all – and also I’m not too bothered about somebody thinking I’m a sex worker to be honest – but I wish there was a way that I could challenge the laughter that drips with unpleasantness but there are our passports and we’ve already been told we’re not allowed to film.
And another time –
“When he started saying that I looked at you and I could tell that you had just zoned out too, that thing where you let it all wash over you like a warm stream of piss – he’s saying ‘the worst racism is the racism from black people to other black people, you can’t trust them, nothing ever changes there, corruption, corruption, don’t think you’ll go out there and you’re all the same, you must be on your guard’ – there’s no point in arguing with people when they’re on that hype, you just let them get it out of their system, you just shut down”
And quietly, at dinner –
“What do you think the Italian word for black people is? I hear them say something that sounds like nigger a lot – nigger? Nigre? Maybe it’s a sea word? But I’m sure I heard them say Chinaman too I don’t know – “
Or with more of a giggle in a cabin
“And he said – ‘oh Dakar, it’s full of history – very ugly history, but ancient, long ago’ – and I thought, very true, it was a while ago, but the Romans were even earlier than that, but we ent gonna knock down the Coliseum are we? How uncomfortable does my shit make you that you need to dismiss it at every opportunity? How much discord and disruption do our bodies – black, female, mine fat, young and questioning bring to this environment?”
After certain conversations on board, it occurred to me that colourism was not something that was present in my childhood. So – I knew my hair was ‘a problem’, but skin tone wise, no major hang ups
Selina is that true?
– perhaps a vague sense that my little sister N was beautiful in a way that I wasn’t, and that that beauty was in some ways connected to the fact that she had ‘better’ hair and was lighter – I can remember looking at a pic of her, and thinking how light she was when she was a baby, and how dark I was comparatively.
And a sense that my nose was flat (my Dad used to say someone had sat on it – but it used to really make me laugh – I can remember us saying it to each other, holding each other’s noses and laughing) and there was the gap in my teeth (I did hate that, for years – that didn’t really change until I met someone else with a gap in their teeth, then I got over it very fast).
My hair and my gap teeth were my sources of distress, vis-à-vis beauty standards. And beauty standards are always, really, about whether we think we will be accepted, desired, loved, connected.
I can’t remember ever consciously wanting to be lighter.
And I can’t remember ever being encouraged to think that way either.
I can think of other, slightly more disturbing things – so day dreams about being an actress or a popstar, and the celebrity of popstar who I was projecting my body into being white – and that shit is dark, and I sigh when I think of it – but I don’t feel that that’s about wanting to be lighter – that’s about societal (and as such absorbed) notions of what a successful, beautiful, desirable actress looked like – a small part of my brain that was simply responding to the messages that surrounded it.
But no, not a sense that my black skin should be lighter, I don’t think – I never saw it as dark particularly – N was lighter, maybe, but I was not dark – I can’t remember devoting any thought to it. Maybe because we had such a massive family? I dunno. I never saw being dark skinned as a problem, and remember being a bit taken aback the first time I read about colourism – I get it, of course, and see it now, and I can feel myself responding to seeing visible dark women happily – Viola, Lupita –
But when I think of Dark Skin, the first thing that comes to mind for me, is my Dad, saying affectionately “you’ve caught the sun!” – If I’ve been outside all day, even in English summer (lol) my skin very quickly goes darker – so an hour in Cotonou had me very dark and a head inclined towards me, and the voice inside that head said
‘she’s already as black as the niggers’
And I said nothing – I felt it, bodily – but I can remember thinking five things
The first was my dad, saying ‘you’ve caught the sun’ and looking pleased and sort of in wonder of that fact – the phrase ‘you’ve caught the sun’ almost always came at the end of a good day. Was always a happy statement.
Of my family and I – Mum, Dad, N, Cousin, Aunt, Uncle and me, walking from our hotel in Greece, talking with raucous delight about how dark we’d gotten, and how healthy we looked, that we were glowing.
I think of my body, covered in scars – a doctor diagnosed a long term rash incorrectly, his words: ‘it’s so difficult to differentiate rashes on skin this dark’, and the medication I was prescribed I had a huge allergic reaction too – so now my entire body legs, arms, chest, stomach, all of it is covered in little scars, from where my skin formed sores and bled; huge source of shame and discomfort last year, it took me a long time to think about how I could start healing my skin and body. I think about my modest hopes that some sunlight and a couple of dips in the sea could exacerbate the fading process.
And a little later, of an Audre Lorde anecdote, of a woman drawing her coat away, repulsed, from little Audre on the subway, and it taking little Audre a while to realise that it was she that was being recoiled from, and feeling recognition in that moment.
But above all, loudest, amused
“you think this is black? You ain’t seen nothing yet! Come back to me after a week in Accra! Come back to me after two and a half weeks in Jamaica!
I’m as black as the niggers, you say?
Let me get darker still and make you even more uncomfortable.”
Always wear sunscreen and use after sun, UVA and UVB are not a joke.
I don’t know what any of this is – if its healthy, if its racked with denial, if its relevant, but I wanted to write this down and try and let it out of my body.
I’d like to sit down at some point and try to unpick the fucked up relationship that many of the officers seemed to have with West Africa, and the people that they worked with there at some point. I’d maybe want to think about how whiteness divides blackness – ‘not your type of black, their type of black; I think this about all black people, but not you, It’s a black thing, and African thing, so I can say it, because you’re from the UK’ – about the moment when a white authority figure knows he (so often a he, but not always) is in a position of power, and uses that opportunity to say things that are full of hate- knowing that you will have to listen, have to tolerate, and in doing so, validate those opinions because you need something.
There’s loads of stuff, but I’m bored of my own voice now.
Lots of people got in touch following the show to request a reading list of the various…