I have always wanted to be a writer. If I had been born in a different place, in a different time, a different world, I may have become one. But who knows? We can only play the hand that we are dealt. But I have always written. Though, I have mostly written for myself. I have tried writing everything – fiction, non-fiction (academic work), poetry, prose, music and spoken word. But the question I have to answer for myself, each time I begin a new attempt is: ‘why?’ Why am I writing? What do I hope to achieve? I think sometimes we write to fulfil certain visions of the world – academics write what will get them promoted, get them the job, get them tenure. We do what is expected. Professional writers write words that they know will sell, because those words sold before. And so we lose the transformational power of words, because we play it safe. We put chains on our words and so put chains on our world. We hold back and do not send our words on errands into the darkness. Nina Simone said that an artist’s duty is to reflect the times. But often we fail in our duty, we speak words that distort the times, that erase some people from the times… we use our words to silence the times.
But… it is the 21st century And we have lived in fear too long, we have sat in the shadows debilitated by fear for too long. As Audre Lorde said:
when we speak we are afraidour words will not be heardnor welcomedbut when we are silentwe are still afraid
We are afraid anyway. This is why silence is unacceptable. You are the solution to something. In the fullness of time, the tendrils of the light will return to you manifold and multiply. Be strong, be courageous, be persistent. Be present. Speak.
Whatever form of words you engage in – fiction, non-fiction, music, spoken word, blogging, media, vlogging, screen writing, poetry or prose… remember… words have always been powerful. Africans have always believed in the power of words, most especially in the power of the spoken word. Which is why the Yoruba people say, a se, after a prayer – it will happen.
The Mande people say:
“Speech is not in people’s hands. People are in the hands of speech”
Chinua Achebe in Anthills of the Savannah (1987) wrote:
“It is the story … that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind… it is the story that owns us and directs us.”
Some artists and writers across the years have demonstrated a grasp of the power of words, especially in relation to social justice, for what is social justice but the art of audaciously imagining a better world with equal dignity for all humanity?
Books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Alex Haley’s Roots, use the power of words to unveil the true nature of humanity. To show us humanity’s injustice, when law and society refuse to do so. To unveil forgotten and deliberately hidden histories and societal memories. To visualise, understand, confront the rupture that is created between othered bodies and the rest of humanity. To put flesh on abstract moments in time, such that we can almost taste, feel, hear and smell the stench of injustice and so we are compelled to act. Words can force the world to turn injustice into justice.
As mostly a non-fiction writer myself, writers in this genre have a special place in my heart. Writers like Reni Eddo-Lodge, Afua Hirsch, Akala and James Baldwin, among others, use their prose to breach the silence, to bring sharp clarity to the racial inequalities upon which nations and the world is built. Their writing upsets, because we are faced with the possibility that the normal is not normal, normal is not acceptable and that our silence is unacceptable. Words are always a call to action.
Audre Lorde says, ‘Poetry is not a luxury… to the black mothers in each of us-the poet whispers in our dreams, “I feel therefore I can be free”. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand, the implementation of that freedom.‘ It is in poetry that I find the most meaning, not in the standard pentameters of rhyming couplets, but in the deep and sometimes crippling emotion in which pure poetry is written and performed. I often find that something too heavy to be said in prose, forces its way out of me in verse. Poetry is not a luxury. When we cannot breathe, poetry bursts forth from us, drags our discouraged souls into the light. Words can make us come alive, again.
And sometimes these verses are put to music, resistance songs and songs of lament and songs of remembrance. They can be a way of reclaiming and re-asserting humanity and personhood that has been violently stolen. For example, Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol and performed by Billie Holiday in 1939. It was a protest song against the racism and lynchings which were extremely common in the South of the US at the time. According to the Tuskegee Institute, during this time, 1,953 Americans were murdered by lynching, about three quarters of them black. Strange Fruit is a musical memorial monument to them. The long opening bars on the wind instruments almost echoes the swaying back and forth of bodies hung up trees, swaying in the breeze. When Holiday first began performing in the clubs of New York, it was always the last song of the set (nothing could follow it); the room would be plunged into darkness, save for a single spotlight on her face, and the waiters would halt service for the duration of the performance. The force of the delivery and the message never left its audience. It was a declaration of war. Some words can reach the soul like others are unable to.
In the 21st century, the use of the screen as social commentary or to bring about social change is dwindling, with the advent of big blockbuster movies, even a film like Black Panther (Not that we are unable to learn anything from it) lost its narrative to studio agenda, big guns and fancy gadgets. Movies with a strong moral core are less likely to appear at the box office and even when they do people are not likely to watch them, as quite a number of people said to me about 12 Years a Slave, ‘it is not for me.’ Meaning, to me anyway, that this is trauma that we are allowed, permitted to look away from, because the trauma does not affect us directly. But humanity has not earned the right to look away from itself. We have not done enough to say that in good conscience. All forms of art and literature can show us the personal is always political and the political must be personal to be political. Words make evident the persisting nostalgic fantasies and delusions that lie beneath the surface of our ‘normal’. (For my list of movies and documentaries relevant to social justice see here)
As the writer JJ Bola tell us,
‘The greatest of writers and storytellers in the plenitudes of civilisations that have existed since the dawn of time, have written to stimulate and capture the imagination of the people. To inspire and enthuse political change, more so, a change in humanity.’
We are in the 21st century. Do you. Write. Blog. Sing. Speak. But do not be silent. We are afraid, but we must not be silent. Speak.
So to reiterate from something I wrote before, these are my suggestions for this century:
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison
“Citation is feminist memory. It is how we leave a trail of where we have been and who helped us along the way.” Sara Ahmed
Read like your life depends on it, because it probably does, the humanity of the world definitely does; write from your heart, from the darkest recesses of your mind, write with all your imagination, write in prose in verse in speech or in song, just write. And cite. Citation is not just feminist memory. Citation is all sorts of othered bodies memory. If we do not cite othered bodies we write them into darkness. Citation, here, is not just in the context of referencing othered bodies in your academic work, but making sure the work of othered bodies get cited in your life. Do we learn from what we have read? Do we put those words into action? Do we change our behaviour based on what we have read? Who do you invite to speak? Whose books and works do you buy as gifts, do you recommend, do you talk about?
It is the story that owns and directs us. Whose story owns you?