Browse Category: Gender and LGBT Issues

Afrofeminist Film Review of “Beautiful Sentence”: Women in Prison Write Poetry for Healing and Salvation

A Beautiful Sentence, A Short Film about Women in Prison

When I read the title and synopsis of Suzanne Cohen’s short documentary about “women in prison as they experience the liberating effect of creative writing,” in the UK, I assumed that I would be watching a feel-good film about the wrongly accused; that I’d get to play jury over a group of alleged femme fatales gathered in a sister circle, discovering together the power of words as they wrote down “what really happened”.

But, thankfully, what I got instead was a poetic exploration of the meaning of “freedom”, and a refreshing re-framing of a familiar narrative, from the political and theoretical to the personal and heart warming, from the black and white of “issues” to vivid, colorful stories; from the sensationalism of harsh sentences to the mundane of living through them.

The first frame usurps the audience’s freedom as passive witness and replaces our eyes with that of a prisoner’s, through which we are forced to view the gray nothingness of the story’s landscape for three whole seconds: a barren prison ground from behind bars.

We soon meet poet Leah Thorn, a writer-in-residence at the high security women’s prison; she is standing outside an iron door as she offers instruction on “line breaks” into the window of a solitary confinement unit through which we see only a middle-aged woman’s head bobbing up and down, her eyes squinted as she smiles from ear to ear awaiting feedback on her latest poem; the contrast between the joy radiating from her face and the dark, rusted, metal door that separates her from the source of her temporary happiness takes a beat to digest.

In Beautiful Sentence, director Suzanne Cohen, holds no punches; this is a film about women in prison, in varying phases of searching and knowing, denial and confession, using poetry as a vessel to transport them to meaning, perhaps some form of self-determined salvation. Each scene in itself, feels like a poem that intentionally feeds the audience’s minds with enough personal truths to shatter single-minded perceptions, to know the prisoners as people, perhaps even, people like us.

I’m reminded of a line in a recent piece that called for transgender women to embrace writing as creative healing: “Poetry is the way I reveal the vital force that creates my being. It is the vehicle by which I can tell the world who I am,” writes Morgan, a transgender woman of color from Texas.

Incidentally, I first learned about the hardships faced by women behind bars when I became interested in better informing myself about issues facing transgender women, including the compounded hardships faced by transgender women of color.  In the US, trans women of color are particularly at risk, as they are more frequently arrested due to a racist criminal system, and experience the highest rate of hate crimes against any subset of the transgender community. And on top of that, they experience harsh sentences for their crimes, such as CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman of color who was jailed for defending herself against a violent assault.

Hence, as an LGBTI activist, I  learned to question prisons as an intrinsically flawed, racist, and sexist system. Thus, even though I hold the names and faces of the trans women of color I know in my heart as I unleash my critique of this system, my almost exclusive focus on the crimes, the sentences, the statistics, has held my perspective captive; admittedly, I’ve only been able to understand the impact of the prison system on a small segment of women, and in theory, until now.

For many of the women in Beautiful Sentence, poetry is freeing, but freedom from the confines of their quarters, and even from the memories of their crimes, and the circumstances that led up to them, remains an ever-elusive concept.

In the middle of a lively group workshop, Leah, the workshop facilitator, fans herself before she suggests, “It’s hot in this corner. Maybe we should go outside.” A woman shackled in prison garb eagerly replies, “Think we’d be allowed to?” to which Leah replies, “God, I forgot where we were.” They all laugh.

Perhaps some of the women are guilty of committing crimes, and some are not; Suzanne Cohen clearly isn’t interested in passing judgment, again. Her film doesn’t cast its subject into a shade of guilty or innocent, but rather, pleas “human”. From the margins of faceless prison statistics, she reveals her subjects as so much more: hopeful, anguished, flawed, good-humored, regretful, silly, an ambitious undertaking for 20 minutes, but, a beautiful sentence, indeed.

“This is more of a prayer than a poem,” a woman living with mental illness writes.

Narrated through vivid poetry, the experiences of these women living behind bars evoke a wide range of emotions: guilt, sadness, anger, hope, even pride. Though these women are behind bars, their lives and their feelings are familiar to those of us on the other side. Beautiful Sentence offers a poignant reminder to extend our hands (and our love) to our sisters behind bars, to celebrate their stories as our own, so that we too are never forgotten.

How to Support Women in Prison

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to watch documentaries without experiencing emotions that demand I take some kind of action. So, if you’re interested in supporting women in prison, or learning more about how the prison system impacts women in general (including the LGBTI community), here are a few resources:

1) Documentary Films about (Trans) Women in Prison: Check out Beautiful Sentence at the first annual London Feminist Film Festival being held at the Hackney Picturehouse from Thursday November 29th – Sunday December 2nd. Also, check out Cruel and Unusual, a 2006 documentary about the experiences of male-to-female transexual women in the United States prison system. You can order it from Outcast Films to support conscious filmmaking for social justice, or you can watch it via this upload I just found on YouTube.

2) Women in Prison (WIP), a UK-based organization (founded by a former woman prisoner) provides specialist services to women affected by the criminal justice system. On their website, WIP offers a number of ways for people who are interested in supporting prison reform, including writing a letter to government officials, making a donation, or joining their SWAP network which organizes campaigns to educate the general public about the impact of prisons on incarcerated women’s lives. Visit www.womeninprison.org.uk for more info.

3) Black and Pink, a US-based prison abolitionist organization, is an open family of LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” (i.e. not in prison) allies who support each other through education, direct service volunteering, and letter writing. Their pen-pal letter-writing program has reached hundreds of LGBTQ prisoners, especially the most marginalized, transgender women of color, throughout the US.  As the short film, Beautiful Sentence, highlights, writing comes with immense healing power. We may not be able to right the wrongs the prison system perpetuates against women, but through our words and our love, we may be able to make their sentences a little less gray, a little less hopeless, for them, and for us.

My BET.com Interview about LGBT Africa and the Media: “Being Gay in Africa Is Neither Good Nor Bad”

Great news! I was recently interviewed by BET.com about my work as an LGBT activist. The piece highlighted my new media volunteer project, which has been training African women and LGBTI organizations to use new media to tell their own stories. #win

My favorite part of the interview has got to be the title, African Gay Rights Activist Rewrites the Story of a Struggle. 

Because I’ve chosen to lend my talents as a wordsmith to social justice and philanthropy, and am often very immersed in discussing (and being recognized for) the issues I’m writing about, even I sometimes forget what is that I’m actually doing i.e. writing to change the world, and encouraging others to do the same.

Above anything else, I’m a writer and a storyteller. So, even though the title of the interview felt a tad grandiose (and made me do a double take: “Whoa! Is that me??”), I really am honored that BET.com decided to recognize my efforts and profile me in such a generous way.

I must admit, however, that the opening line from the article gave me pause: “Believe it or not, it’s good to be gay in Africa.” 

I should probably point out that the aim of my work isn’t just to see more “positive” news about LGBTI African in mainstream media; I believe that “Being gay in Africa is bad” and “Being gay in Africa is good” are both overly simplistic, reductive narratives we should avoid in mass scale. Instead of “positive” stories, I want real stories, authentic, complex stories. Thus, even though it was refreshing to see a positive slant to LGBTI Africa coverage, I wouldn’t be enthused if LGBTI Africa was constantly depicted wearing a smiley face.

Now, with so much sensationalism and victimization of LGBTI African people in the media, it’s understandable that a fervent call to the media to share more stories of resistance and empowerment could be taken as saying “all is good.” But let’s be clear: all is not good. While the current narrative (i.e. “Being gay in Africa is bad”) reinforces stigma within communities and chips away at the already dwindling hope of young queer Africans living on the continent, the reverse could do just as much (if not more) harm.

For instance, the BET.com article highlighted a few of the organizations I’ve worked with who are leading change; Iranti.org, a media advocacy organization based in South Africa, and WHER, a community-building organization for queer Nigerian women, to name a few. Many of these organizations would not be able to operate in the absence of international support; LGBTI Africans are barely permitted to exist in certain countries, let alone organize.

What if funding for LGBTI organizations like SMUG of Uganda and TIER Nigeria were left at the mercy of their homophobic governments? How would activists such as Zanele Muholi, continue to receive support from individuals overseas for her work photographing south African black lesbians in the townships if the story of LGBTI Africa was presented as “all good”?

Last I checked, all is not good. But my point is that all is not bad, either; we need complexity, we need balance.

Check out an excerpt from the interview here: 

With the spread of technology and social media, today’s African LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) communities have greater access to resources and their greatest asset to speak of: each other.

However, given the mainstream news coverage of Africa’s many LGBTI communities that exploits the narrative of a sad, shameful Africa, it’s hard to imagine that anything other than repression and brutal violence is happening. Nigerian LGBTI activist Spectra says that although Africa has its issues, gay rights activists on the continent are seeing success in their movement for equality.

“We’re constantly hearing about people being murdered, constantly hearing about women being raped,” Spectra told BET.com. “It’s the very, very reductive, very simplistic narrative, and what’s missing is everything else quite honestly.”

Final Thoughts: The more stories we have in the media, the more likelihood we’ll see the range of experiences needed to reflect what is wholly true about LGBTI Africans; that our experiences are neither good, nor bad, that we face challenges from our governments and from each other, that there is pain and suffering, healing and joy in being queer and African, in being human; no single “positive” or “negative” story is capable of conveying our humanity.

My story is one of many, just as the BET.com article is one of many that contributes to LGBTI Africa’s depiction in the big picture. There’s still more work to be done. Let’s get “write” to it. ;)

Relevant Links on My Blog:

Making It In Media, Accidentally: One Queer African Writer’s Journey to Paradise

I recently spent some time reflecting on my work as a media activist and advocate.

This reflection came partly in preparation for my feature at New York University’s “Making it in Media” panel, a lunchtime panel series that provides an opportunity for students interested in careers in media to connect with media professionals of diverse backgrounds.

I had been looking forward to sharing my experience as a media activist with students, and hopefully, making a case for the importance of alternative media as a tool for advocacy as well as a worthwhile career path. But as the event approached, and I tried to think about what I’d say to students who were just starting out, I realized I wasn’t quite clear on what I would say exactly.

My career path in media hasn’t been linear or conventional by any means.

I went to MIT to study Mathematics, which I thoroughly enjoyed before realizing that I really enjoyed writing and had to “come out” to my parents as an artist hoping to end up with a liberal arts degree from a science school. (It went well, considering…)

In an effort to earn my stripes as a certified nerd (and rid myself of immigrant parent guilt — “you mean we sacrificed so much for you to attend the best science school just for you to be a “writer”?), I worked in the software industry for about five years. I hated it. Yes, hated it. So I channeled all the frustration that came with working 60-70 hr work weeks into my passion for new media and social justice, which culminated in my founding and growing a social networking organization for Queer Women of Color in Boston, then later on, QWOC Media Wire, a media hub for LBTQ women of color and the Diaspora.

When the recession hit and I lost my job, I realized I still had a reason to get up every day and ‘go to work.’ My organization had grown, and was receiving national exposure due to our social media campaigning efforts. So, even though I wasn’t getting paid for my work (whether as a writer or activist) the show had to go on.

With new media as my focus, I continued down the path of social justice, and very quickly, the successes in my community work earned me a reputation for “applying” what I knew about media and diversity. People started inviting me to come speak, train, coach on how to use social media for thought leadership, community outreach,  and online fundraising. I couldn’t work with everyone that asked, so I relaunched this blog, and began writing about the issues I was working on, sharing my ideas.

What Does Success in Alternative Media Look Like?

Flash forward a few years, and here I am with an international blog readership, a few more accolades, and the privilege of making a decent living through various writing, consulting, and media projects for good.

I raised over $15,000 in less than 30 days for my Africans for Africa project this year; I was just offered a contract position to advise a prominent foundation on how to re-write their site’s content to make it snappier, more engaging, and reflective of their brand; and I’m constantly invited to sit on panels that indicate people think I know a thing or two about “How to Make It In Media.”

I know my parents are proud of me, but I’m also pretty sure that this isn’t quite what they had in mind when they dropped me off at college. They hadn’t banked on my tendency to strive to be the best at nearly everything I did to manifest as my becoming the “gayest Nigerian ever” (seriously, my site stats report that this is what someone searched for one day and found my blog). And, to be honest, this isn’t what I’d imagined my life would be like either. Thus, when people ask me, “How does one make it in media, exactly?” I’m not quite sure how to answer.

I get emails all the time from younger people who want to know how it is that I get to do what I do. What did I study? What courses would I recommend? How do they get started in their own media careers?

What to tell them when my own “career path” (it feels so weird to even think of it that way!) hasn’t been straight-forward? I don’t have the answers. I’m not even sure I can say that I’ve actually “made it”. I posed the question of #howtomakeitinmedia on Twitter followers and got a few great responses. I’ll share my favorite one from Soli Philander:

“I think what’s most important is to define what “Making It In Media” means for you.”

Because I’ve felt like an outsider most of my life, “Making It In Media”, for me, has meant using media to connect with “my people”, whether African women, Nigerian feminists, LGBTI Diaspora, queer bois, and more, for the purpose of affirming each other’s experiences, growing and healing together.

“Making It In Media” has meant being able to build for myself and others, a support network, so we all can feel less alone, using my voice to advocate for people who don’t have as much access to resources as I do, filling the spaces between the black and white of political agendas with the personal stories that are often missing from policy implementation, a result which when botched, impacts marginalized communities the most.

“Making It In Media” for me means nurturing a younger generation of women (and other marginalized people) to claim their right to their own histories, by writing it; equipping them with one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever received — that we do not need to sit around waiting to be written about; we can write our own histories, influence policy, and change the world from where we are.

And yes, “Making It In Media” means, also, one day, being interviewed by Ellen. Maybe for winning a Pulitzer.  That’s obviously nowhere near happening yet, but I’m working on it. ;)

So You Want to Make It In Media: Now What?

I don’t know what “Making It In Media” means to you — you who are still reading this, and I might guess, are interested in doing the same. I don’t know where you should begin or where you are. But, I do know this: regardless of who you are, or what your parents wanted you to be, irrespective of what you studied or didn’t study in college, whether or not you event went to college, if you can’t find your ideal job description at your school’s career fair or on Craigslist, you absolutely possess the power, more now than ever, to transform what you love into what you do for a living.

I’m more fulfilled in my work as a writer and media activist than I ever would have been as just another ivy league consultant on wall street. I’ve met smart, passionate, inspiring people from all walks of life who have taught and given me so much. The passion and drive I have for helping others has been so rewarding, and I know it will continue to be as long as I remain true to myself, and lead from within. Maya Angelou puts it best: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

So I offer this to you: Don’t drive your career with someone else’s rear view mirror. Don’t tailgate an externally constructed ambition or let someone else’s version of success distract you from the most important driver on the road… you. 

This is especially true for people you look up to. It’s easy to compare yourself–especially in media–to others who may seem more visible (more press mentions), more influential (more followers), more “successful” than you. Resist the urge to veer off your path chasing someone else, whose destination you do not know.

Be the center that guides your trajectory. Shine brightly enough from within and your path will become clearly illuminated ahead of you. And when that happens, follow it.

Follow it even though it feels endless and like you’re headed nowhere. Follow it when you’re the only one on that road and you see no other cars next to you. Follow it when the voices in your head tell you that it’s time to give up, admit that you’re wrong and turn around. Don’t turn around. Follow it, and one day you will arrive at your very own version of paradise.

I have spent years navigating awkward relationships with my parents, who couldn’t understand why I would invest so much time and energy into something that wasn’t helping me pay my bills. There were times when I went weeks with just eating ramen noodles because I couldn’t afford to go grocery shopping. I worked jobs I hated, took gigs that paid me a fraction of what I was worth. I doubted myself whenever a classmate, or a close friend got a promotion, bought a new car, or took an expensive vacation; whenever my straight friends would ask me why I write so much about LGBT issues all the time, “Isn’t it pigeon-holing you?”

I would ask myself over and over again each morning, “What are you doing?” But what’s most important is that I could always answer, “I’m doing what I love. And I’m doing it as me.” When you are down in the trenches of your own epic movie, and there’s no one to look to for inspiration (for fear of jealousy, envy, or that they’ll see that you’re not quite so sure of yourself), all you have is your own voice. Make sure it’s always honest. Make sure it’s always true to you. Listen to it. Lead with it. And you’ll make it, not the right way, but your way, and find all the love, fulfillment, and pride you were denied in your journey, waiting for you at your destination.

I haven’t “made it”. But I’m proud to say that the gains I have made came with authenticity and integrity; all of me. I’m relieved to know that I will never have to fragment myself to fit into anyone else’s narrow lane, because from the very beginning, I promised to find my own way. I wish for so many of you, the same exact thrill.

Safe journey.

Now, because I do feel strongly about giving out practical advice, I’d also like to share some grounding principles I’ve acquired and tweaked during my “career” that have helped me gain the visibility and influence I do have in my own lane. Check them out via the post “Social Media for Social Change: 10 Tips from a Queer African Media Activist“. I hope you find them useful.

But hey, before you go, leave a comment so I know you’re listening, or relate. It’s always good to know that I’m not the only crazy driver trying to find my way off the main road. :) 

Celebrate LGBTI Africa’s Pride Everyday (and Everywhere, Not Just Uganda)

Uganda’s first gay pride has been hailed as a milestone of achievement for LGBT Africa. 

We often hear about African LGBTI people being persecuted by their governments, and in addition, being raped, murdered, and socially-ostracized from their communities. Their infantalization in the media is evident via the plethora of news reports that have essentially chronicled the queer African movement as mainly a series of violent acts, political debates, and perceivably (at least to the west) rare moments of triumph.

But is there ever triumph without steadfast resistance? More importantly, what exactly is triumph to queer African people whose lives and humanity exist in the every day, and not just within the 5 minute scan of the latest sensationalized news story?

How often do we hear stories about two African lesbians falling in love, not as part of a political debate, but as idle banter over fish and chips? When was the last time we heard about a group of LGBT Africans partying just because — and not necessarily tied to a social cause?

When people think about queer African people, how often do they imagine them as happy, empowered, and even ordinary? Can we really only picture their liberation as a photo of a scantily clad African man wearing a fusion of traditional garb and rainbow colors, an imported western symbol of gay pride?

Given the viral sharing of the photo of gay Africans participating in their first gay pride in Uganda (a country described by BBC as “the worst place to be gay”), my guess is that the west has succeeded in painting the faces of LGBT Africans as sad, helpless victims by default, rendering testaments to the opposite surprising, an exception that warrants mass (international) celebration.

Make no mistake. I am thrilled beyond words for my brothers and sisters in Uganda. Given all what they have faced these past few years — from that dreadful “Kill Bill” to the loss of an endeared community leader and activist, David Kato, and even amidst their pride celebration, harassment and arrests by the police – the images of Uganda hosting their first pride backed by a group of happy kuchus is undeniably a powerful symbol of hope.

As Sokari Eine writes on her blog, “If Ugandan Kuchus could march through the streets then so could we all – Nigerians, Liberians, Cameroonians and well the whole continent.” No matter the politics of pride (or even the looming threat of US imperialism through the western foundations that support them), big acts such as the Uganda pride festival are an important part of Queer African history, and thus, worth documenting.

However, during my short time in Cape Town, South Africa, which I’ve spent almost exclusively with individuals from the LGBT community, I’ve seen other remarkable acts worth celebrating.

Nearly every day, I have been reminded of the power of the mundane acts we each take towards our own fulfillment: discussions about family and coming out with my Zimbabwean host, invoking both tears and laughter over Buchu tea; an eruption of giggles by an aspiring human rights lawyer after her girlfriend whispers something in her ear; the silence of a crowd of black South African lesbians as a passionate feminist poet spits truth about the impact of corrective rape on young girls.

I have witnessed the daily grind of empowerment of black South African lesbians, watched them sink and wade through the cultural stigma that surrounds them like a mist, clouding the world’s perception of their lives as ordinarily human. Thus, I have come to re-affirm my belief that we must also celebrate our proud perseverance, our steady survival, just as fervently as we do big, bold acts of bravery. 

For those of us who have chosen media as our battlefield, it can be easy to forget that LGBTI Africans don’t just live online, or on the streets, for that matter, holding up cardboard signs in perpetual protest; they occupy small apartments with leaky faucets, the residence halls of liberal arts colleges where they hope to launch their careers, and small bungalows in the impoverished rural townships.

Their “pride” may not come in bright rainbow colors, but in the dull pastels of pink and blue collared shirts that call them “lady” when they wish to be “sir”, the dusty brown of their sneakers after practice with teammates that call each other “fag” in jest. Their “pride” will not be heard in the deafening blow of a bullhorn, nor from a platform or podium, but in the awkward silence that follows when they reveal themselves to the people they love, and amidst the painful sighs they let out when they are alone.

I have come to deeply appreciate activists who often have no time to engage in sensationalized international discourse, because they are too busy doing the heavy lifting that comes with supporting LGBTI Africans living in rural townships. I  have come to honor the “others” who don’t call themselves activists–the every day queer African with financial commitments, awkward first dates, the pursuit of lucrative careers to sustain their families, and who despite all odds, wake up every day and renew their determination to keep living.

Unfortunately, many of these small, every day “triumphs” hardly ever get the attention they deserve. Perhaps part of this has to do with the tendency of western countries like the U.S. (who are operating from a different cultural and legislative framework) to re-tell and shape our stories and, in so doing, suggest which parts are worthy of global applause. Or, perhaps many of us are too deep in the trenches to reflect upon our work (and our lives) long enough to view them as achievements in the larger context. In any case, I believe it is time LGBTI Africans begin chronicling our failures and successes as we define them, and more importantly, fill in the spaces in between the bigger milestones, with our voices, our stories, our personal anecdotes.

So, as we celebrate Uganda’s first pride, consider these ten milestones – both big and small, personal and political – that are also part of the Queer African movement and history. These brave and remarkable acts provide me with daily inspiration to celebrate LGBTI African pride everyday, and everywhere, not just in Uganda:

5 Political Milestones

1) Health: The opening of an LGBT clinic Kampala, a milestone that would mean year-round care for LGBT Ugandans (vs. a single day-long festival) is worth celebrating, which is why QWOC Media Wire covered it: This is What Africa’s Resistance Looks Like

2) Entertainment: Miss Sahara, a Nigerian Igbo woman, competed in the Miss International Queen pageant for transgender women, and came in second!

She became Nigeria’s first openly transgender celebrity. Her visibility (and success) at the pageant, incited many conversations about what it means to be a trans person from Africa.

My name is Miss Sahara, and I’m from Nigeria …I just want to make a statement that because I’m a Nigerian doesn’t mean I can’t be a transgender woman… I would like to believe that I am beautiful. I’m here to make a statement.

3) Politics: Joyce Banda, president of Malawi, released a statement asserting she will support LGBT rights and protections, making her the second African woman president (after Liberia’s president Sirleaf) to come out in support of LGBTI African people, sort of.

4) MediaPambuzuka Press recently announced the release of the Queer African Reader, a collection of writings, analysis and artistic work (intended primarily for an African audience).

The anthology, edited by activists, Sokari Eine and Hakima Abbas, focuses on intersectionality while including experiences from a variety of contexts including rural communities, from exile, from conflict and post-conflict situations as well as diverse religious and cultural contexts.

5) Community: Amidst the racism and xenophobia in Cape Town’s male- and white-dominated gay scene, HOLAA (Hub of Lesbian Action for Africans), a new Black South African queer community-building organization and group blog hosted their first event, Poetic Just-Us. Simply put, it was beautiful.

5 Personal (And, Yes, Also Political) Milestones

6) The Power of Community: My Africans for Africa fundraising campaign to offer free social media and online fundraising training to African women and LGBT organizations surpassed its goal of $7.5K and raised well over $10K! Over 160 individuals contributed to the idea that LGBT African people can and should speak for themselves; the support I’ve received via this project has re-affirmed my belief in the statement, “It takes a village…”

7) The Power of Friendships: My best friend, who I nearly lost due to a clash between her religious views and my sexuality, came full circle after nearly five years apart and wrote a guest post for my blog, “Homophobia is UnChristian.”

8) The Power of Words: A queer Nigerian reader and supporter sent me a message recently letting me know that my writing had inspired her to come out to her own parents!

“Just wanted to say, thank you for all that you do… Your bravery and humongous heart have inspired me to come out to my Nigerian parents as well as ignited a passion to aid LGBTQ Africans, especially Nigerians in our fight to be visible.”

What I love about this milestone it’s that it’s actually not one, but two; it is mine, certainly, for knowing that my words are meaningful, but it is also my dear friend’s, for taking the big leap and sharing her whole self with the people she loves.

9) The Power of New Media: As a wonderful addition to my Curve Magazine feature, “This is What an African Lesbian Looks Like”I was featured in Ms. Magazine as an African feminist blogger to watch.

Not only was I the only queer-identified one (which is important to note as LGBT Africans often experience silence in feminist spaces), but renowned black feminist scholar and NBC show host, Melissa Harris Perry, shared on Twitter that my interview was one of her favorite reads.

 

10) The Power of Love: I recently made the “the ultimate commitment” to my partner :) In a world in which queer Africans are persecuted simply for loving, the bold, boastful, boundless love I have for my partner (and that she has for me) is absolutely an act of rebellion, or healing, of liberation, worth celebrating.

 

What other remarkable acts should the LGBT African community be sharing? What acts or milestones often go unnoticed? Why do you think that is? How can we be mindful of sensationalism and the hierarchy of achievement it perpetuates in our movements?

Love and Afrofeminism: Is the Self Care Movement Individualist or Revolutionary?

My first two posts focused on Love for Others (i.e., relationships), so this week, I wanted to focus on Love for Self. Here we go…

Hi, My name is Spectra, and I’m a recovering first daughter of an African family. Many of you may not know what this means, but if there are any Africans (or better yet, Nigerians) reading this: You are not alone. For the rest of you, let me explain.

My first name, Adaora, in Igbo (a Nigerian language) means “Daughter of the People.” The root, “Ada”(pronounced, “Ah-Dah”) always refers to the first daughter of the family. So, when one meets other Adas (Adaobi, Adaeze, Adaaku, etc.), you instantly know they, too, are the first daughters in their families, and therefore share your plight.

Being the first daughter of an African family comes with many rewards: constant praise just for being the first girl, early leadership training due to your parents believing (for the mere fact that you were born first) that you can handle anything, doting Aunties, Grandmothers, and community members the instant they hear your name, and first dibs at every aspect of family life, including the stew pot, Christmas presents, and parenting mistakes.

Now that you know this, you’re ready for the good part. My name is particularly interesting; the second root word, “Ora” (pronounced “Ore-Rah”), translates to “community.” Thus, Adaora (my full name, pronounced Ah-dore-rah) suggests a permanent relationship between the daughter of a Nigerian family and her community. Adaora is the pride and joy of her people, the girl who will always lead by good example. Adaora is the child that will shoulder the responsibility of her siblings’ welfare (because she is the oldest) and her community’s livelihood (because she is a leader). Adaora’s roles, responsibilities, and indeed, obligations to her family (to run the house), her community (to lead it and make it proud), and to herself (to be perfect, and never think of self), were decided for her at birth.

Most Adas will wear this ribbon proudly, never questioning their parents’ casual, yet persistent dictations of their careers, paths, and romantic lives. The mother of an Ada looks forward to the day when her daughter will finally marry, make her the proudest mother in the city/village/planet, bear children (an Ada of her own), and never once question if any of this is what Ada wants.

Sound familiar? You don’t have to be Nigerian to recognize the challenge of traditional gender roles—and women being pigeon-holed into caregiving. Some of us have these roles upheld through political systems or religious faiths. However, in my case, the gendered role (of caring for everyone else and sacrificing my needs, constantly, for the betterment of my family and community) happens to be dictated by my culture. Still, my Nigerian/African heritage is a very central part of my identity; our family values, community-centric approach to everything, and the strong sense of duty that comes with both of those things have guided me for as long as I can remember. Thus, even with the heightened awareness that perhaps an unusual amount of self-sacrifice came with my name, I was reluctant to deviate from this for a very long time.

For instance, as the first daughter of my family, it was my unspoken responsibility to take care of my siblings when they first arrived in the US for school. I was just a freshman in college myself, but there was absolutely no question that I would find a way to pay for things they needed, host them during holidays (in my single coffin-sized bedroom, even against school policy that prohibited long-term guests), and play the role of surrogate parent until my parents could get back on their feet. That never happened. And so, while my friends could go afford to go shopping, party on weeknights, and get their hair done whenever they were having an unpretty day, every single decision I made about money or time revolved around my responsibility to care for my siblings (who, by the way, resented me for playing mother all the time, and thus rebelled constantly). I had become so accustomed to ignoring my own needs that I sank further and further into depression.

It became too much. I eventually exhausted my capacity to continue shouldering the burden of being “the first daughter” and, one night, could no longer stay shackled to being a role model of duty and self-sacrifice. I attempted to take my own life.

I have since then adopted self-love and self-care as a framework, and a lifestyle. And though I really want to tell you that it was the love for self that moved me to take better care of myself and tend to my needs, it happened to also be out of “duty” that I decided to get better. The thought of my siblings (especially my sister, who was undocumented and living with me in my dorm room at the time) being forced to fend for themselves in such a xenophobic country post-9/11 made the decision to take care of myself easier; after all, it was for them.

Before I go any further, I have to mention how uncomfortable I am with this notion of considering “duty” to others even in the face of severe depression. As a survivor who often speaks about suicide and mental health, I can’t tell you how infuriating it is to hear people talk about people who died by suicide as “selfish,” as this places blame on the person, and not on the system/environment that pushed them to the act in the first place. Yet, I also cannot deny the reality of my own experience, and that there is something very compelling (perhaps, due to my cultural values) about assessing either the benefit or liability of one’s actions on the community(ies) to which one belongs. In my case, assessing the impact of my own mental health on my siblings’ lives motivated me to better take care of myself, but this obviously isn’t always the case, and won’t work for everyone.

African culture prioritizes the welfare of the whole over the individual—perhaps too much so. But on the flipside, the individualism I’ve experienced in the US isn’t much better. For instance, LGBT people of color and members of the faith community are often judged by coming-out-obsessed mainstream “Gay, Inc.” for not being “strong” or “selfless” enough, essentially devaluing how strength is defined within their own contexts, perhaps as self-sacrifice. As such, people who literally “choose life” by prioritizing their self-care and general livelihood over family expectations are celebrated (whereas they’d be judged harshly in other contexts).

The tension between self-care and community care (or individualism and martyrdom, as I prefer to label them in extremes) are evident in the media: The ongoing debate about whether celebrities should be forced to come out (e.g., Queen Latifah’s ongoing battle with the media trying to out her), the way praise is delivered à la remarks of self-sacrifice when they do (e.g., Frank Ocean’s recent coming out in the face of a homophobic hip hop industry), and the incessant policing of how survivors deal with their trauma (e.g., Rihanna as a controversial role model for domestic violence survivors) are just a few examples.

But it’s not just celebrity that is plagued by the question of whether taking time out to care for oneself is individualist or truly a revolutionary act in a system that restricts women to caregiving; unhealthy nonprofit martydom culture, too, often celebrates the poor, harried, unappreciated activist while admonishing those who prioritize their financial stability over world peace.

Despite this tension, however, self-care is undoubtedly becoming increasingly popular, to the point that some debate has already been sparked about its tendency towards individualism, and lack of accountability. I certainly am not for a culture of shirking responsibilities under the guise of “self-care” and self-absorption—disregarding the impact of one’s actions on our community/environment/others is no better. Yet, as more and more people adopt self-care as a way of life, I potentially see irresponsibility charading as self-care as a trend.

Ultimately, here’s what I believe: We need balance. I believe that by taking care of ourselves, we’re in a better position to care for community. Whenever my mother was strained, I preferred she disappeared for a few hours into her room then came out in a better mood then stay nagging and snapping at us the entire day. As an activist, I find that I’m no different. I’m much more efficient, tempered, and capable of supporting others when I feel nourished and spiritually centered.

Historians often hail Mother Theresa as the icon of selflessness; a woman of meager economic means, she dedicated her life to serving others who were less fortunate. Yet, even she—the most popular saint in the entire world—preached the importance of self-love and self-care. Her quote, “Love begins at home,” is a constant reminder that our communities are only as strong as we are; caring for ourselves must be our top priority if we desire the capacity to continually care for others. So, despite the messages that tell us we’re selfish for caring for ourselves, we must remain steadfast in the belief that when we’re kinder to ourselves, we’re better to each other and stronger for our communities.

What do you think? How have messages around servitude impacted you? Do you feel guilty when you take care of yourself? How do you manage it? What factors determine your decision to ultimately care for yourself and act for the benefit of your community?

Previously: Queer Bois and the Gendered Politics of Partner Dancing, Gender Roles and First Dates, Who Pays?, Love and Afrofeminism: My New Blog Series, #AfroFemLove


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