“This sort of metaphorical literacy, the learning to decipher complex codes, is just about the blackest aspect of the black tradition.” – Mark Dery
I. Transnational Spatio-Temporal Flows (the Diaspora)
Abidjan 2001 and my mother has lost her mind.
It starts with the car. Picked out gleaming in aubergine on a gently used lot in Houston, Texas, it arrives in the land of red earth stillborn. Thieves stripped everything of use from it; the dashboard is a mess of exposed wires and cracked motherboards. Looking at it, one is in awe that so much chaos could add up to something functional. But this is as West Africa is, constantly trapped somewhere in the binary of finite and fracture. I never go down to the port to see what’s left of the car but my mother shows me photos where empty window frames are reminiscent of milky, blinded eyes; I don’t look too long. After it was the car, it was the driver. Not the first one, whose name was maybe Emmanuel. Not Emmanuel of the dark skin and slight hand gestures. Not the lavender shirt-wearing Emmanuel who quietly excused himself to go back to his home village and die of HIV. Not him, but the second driver, whose name is maybe Lost Forever and who wore supremely shiny black loafers with little pieces of grit lodged in the cheap stitching. He talked quickly and drove quicker and when my mother starts checking the odometer after sending him out on runs, cross referencing the kilometers to the grocery store, wondering why every task takes three hours and he comes back beer-scented, he is out the door quickest. Too familiar with deceit, the small-scale brand of third world corruption, my mother buys a digital camera, places it on a bookshelf in the living room, grows used to watching days of flickering nothing. She catches the maid stealing and is divested of what is left of her trusting heart. The maid is fired, and we move on. At night, I lay awake thinking of the unblinking eye downstairs, how it records everything. For the first time in a long time, I say my prayers before bed.
Summertimes in North Carolina my sister and I sit inside.
Our thighs stick to the humid linoleum floor while thunderstorms rage outside. Our Grandma sits at the table, and, I don’t know why, but when I think of the word ‘grandma’ this is exactly what I envision. Her, facing the window with her back to us, silhouetted, her wig static-y with the weight of the air. We are waiting for it to pass. No one is allowed to use the faucet, turn on the tv, use the washer or dryer, take a bath, go outside. For hours, it’s as if we are simple folk, invited into the Big House and too afraid to touch anything. The lights are off, and in the stormlight our sunfed summer skin is dark with a waxy sheen—like ropes of fresh liquorice. The heavy sky and the closeness of the clouds makes us feel isolated, suspended; these memories are blanched of color, faded, like bible pages left in the sun, and, sitting on the floor, we grow nostalgic for the present. My mother sees our frustration, says, “When I was a kid, most of our adults were still fieldworkers. Storms like this were dangerous. My grandpa got struck by lightning two times. People got struck all the time. It wasn’t unusual back then.”
II. Alienation and the Conquering of the Nü-Self—Futurisms
Accra, 2014, and, on winter break from my sophomore year of college, I find my mother’s high school yearbook photo and hold it up to my fleshy cheek.
In the mirror, the effect is like some kind of joke, forty years between the photo and my present reality and nothing has changed. I have always been like my mother—darker-skinned like my mother, stout like my mother, funny like my mother. Even as a baby, I was like a shrunken-head version of my mother, the dried-fruit version of my mother. In Ghana, where despite our limp effort our African-ness is affect, this is even more true. There, where people are so plainspoken you are sure you misunderstand their intentions, my thrice-removed auntie grabs my hand at a family gathering and says “You are Delali! I remember that because you are fat, like your mother.” One time, I forgot my own face. I was barely born, raisinified Jessica, fat baby Delali, and my mother had to move across the country for work. In the three months of her absence, I forgot who she was. I read once that it is important for blacks to invest time in engineering and imagining their future because the enslaver stole their past. But no one ever took the memory of my mother away from me; it just faded. I like to imagine rediscovering her for the first time, touching her face and then my own, understanding.
Worldwide post-1999 and my mother starts injuring herself violently and on a regular basis.
She has just turned forty and I can see that the age hangs, alien, around her neck. It is from my mother that I learn distrust of my own body, to scrub between my legs before bed every night, that marriage is great but it will make you fat, that it’s never truly under your control. First, it’s a family vacation to the beach town of Durban, South Africa, where she accidentally pours a pan of popping grease down her left leg, covers it with a towel, feeds my sister and I plates of burgers and fries then drives all three of us to the hospital where they rip off the towel and the three first layers of her skin in one piece. Under the bandage, her skin regrows the shade of a flesh-colored crayon. Something about her skin looks fetal, wet. Next, on another vacation in Koh Samui, Thailand, where she accelerates a motorbike too quickly, gets flung in a ditch and impales her thigh on a pole that leaves a perfectly round wound. This all happens while I am asleep, and I wake in the morning to find her sitting across from me, her leg bandaged in white gauze with a red crop circle blossoming out into the fibers. The last accident takes place at home in Accra where she slips on the wet marble of our entranceway and slams the back of her head against a set of stairs. Blood arcs onto the wall in a thin stream that looks too red. She blacks out for several minutes, comes inside, keeps preparing dinner. I wake from a nap on the couch and join her in the kitchen, where she refuses to show me her backside. I am reminded of a Trinidadian friend from my boarding school in Michigan, high on some hallucinogen in a five-foot drift of snow, twirling with something that looked uncannily like a smile on her face and screaming “there is no behind, there is no behind.” I tell my mother my head hurts. She smiles and says, “Me too.”
III. The Secularization of Global Macro-Truths: The Difference Between Sign and Signifier
Present day and my mother has developed into an uncalibrated risk assessment tool.
Paranoia is where she achieves her species-being. Our conversations are rhetorical and heightened. Do you really leave your side-door unlocked? If you’re going to put that shopping bag in the car aren’t you going to want to move it to another parking space? When I mention this new proclivity for suspicion, she reverts back to sass, humor, but there is always something a little fearful and lost in her expression, like she can’t remember precisely what version of herself she is reverting back to. I told my mother I’d rather have faith in the universe and be proven wrong than be wary of everything. This is not entirely true. Huddles of men in shadowy corners scare me. Men in general scare me. I don’t wear skirts that are too short or walk around with my purse open because I believe in the goodness of mankind. I do it because someone once told me that a writer has to have good stories. My mother is not an artist. I do not expect her to understand.
A friend once told me that he loved the way my father said my name, and I’ve never been able to hear it the same since.
It is like home. One of the questions I get asked most often about Ghana is, “What is it like?” and I constantly wonder how anyone could ever be expected to answer that question. At first, it was a blur of noise and color sliding past my passenger side window, now it is the memory of a Bedouin nomad reaching through the partition of my school bus window to run one dust encrusted finger from my hairline to my chin while we were stopped at an intersection. That happened in Abidjan, but that matters not at all. This is what I think of when I think of home; Africa is my altar. But, my name: it is like a stone in my father’s mouth, a weight. I dreamt once of bending, my mouth opened by honey that streamed in golden ropes. This is my name on my father’s tongue, “Delali” as it was meant to be, a sweetness that gags, a surrender.
Rumpus original art by David Dodd Lee.