We read bell hooks today. Stood by the mirror and let her words slide through us. There will be days where bad moods will force you to grump, groan, or growl. Whether as a child or an adult. In the end, just let it pass, no need to hide it, let the feelings be.
The bits and pieces of my heart are slowly coming together through words. The prolific writer, bell hooks is my muse and guide through this process of undoing as well as so many other writers. But Ms. hooks speaks to my heart. I have been reading a lot about bell hooks of late. I began dancing in her words more when the pandemic began. She was the perfect salve for healing in a time of uncertainty. I buried myself deeply into everything she wrote. Her death took it to another level and well, not a day goes by these days that I am not pouring into anything she has ever written. She was a rare breed. My sister, my mother, my confidant, my friend, all in my head of course. She is the writer I long and dream to become. One unafraid to simply write. With no fear of sanctions or anything. I began reading about why she wrote her memoir “Bone Black,” which mostly focused on memories of her childhood. One thing I remember was her struggle to even begin. She once shared that when she made the decision to write about her journey to becoming a writer, there were no words.
Secrecy and silence for example, initially blocked her ability to write. To write about one’s life, to leave a trace of it, was frightening for her. Writing for her though became something to hold on to, to keep close. Writing ultimately helped her see the world clearly. These days, for me, writing has become a way of looking and seeing, a way to of undoing all that keeps holding me back from telling the stories I want to tell. I too have stared and continue to stare at blank screens, holding back for fear of breaking whatever bond, I have for keeping my thoughts hidden. Becoming bell hooks, choosing that named helped her kill Gloria Jean Watkins, her real name, and real self. To Ms. hooks, telling one’s story, even the process of telling, is tied to a longing to recover the past in such a way that one experiences both a sense of reunion and release. This longing for release compelled writing but concurrently fostered reunion, one that enabled her to write about her life in a way that allowed her to find herself. Like a living memory writing about the past can shape and inform the present, can foster self-growth and change in a practical way. One that I am truly looking forward to now that I am slowly delve into my undoing.
In killing rage, bell hooks talked about the need to heal our wounds. Not to be misconstrued with moments where we survive with grace, elegance, or beauty, but rather the wounds that are often hidden or fundamentally traumatic. Living and coping with the ongoing pandemic is fundamentally traumatic and we are all not okay. I have always known this. Tried to move past it too. There is so much as stake and stopping to hold myself longer was never really an option when so many people are relying on you to be strong. Relying on you to be okay. But yesterday, in the middle of watching snow fall and learning about how trees withstand freezing rain, I realized that I have been holding on to a collective wound for too long.
It may seem trivial, but there was a time, I was always on the go, traveling from one country to another in the name of Global Health Research. Research for me was never to be done in the US. So I travelled whereever and whenever work called. I have not travelled for work in 2 years. The last time I did was to South Africa in January 2020. I call myself a global health researcher. I describe myself too as one who learns about global health in person, connecting and weaving stories about our field with people themselves whose stories I am privileged to tell. Such an approach focuses more on the dynamics of the story listener, which is as equally important as, if not more important, that those who tell the stories. I have not listened to stories in person in 2 years. I have not seen people as I normally would, to listen and learn from them in 2 years.
I have also stayed in the shadows with the pandemic. Not spoken eloquently like others or even written eloquently in academic papers about it. Honestly, I am exhausted with the way research is framed in academia. I am tired too with who gets to tell the story for others and who doesn’t. I am also longing for new ways to listen to stories and tell the stories I hear in ways that do not silence or ignore people. It wouldn’t and shouldn’t be based on impact factors within journals. It should be people factors, everything that allows us to connect first as humans and not experts or others. I want to be counted among the people that break this cycle for good.
So many things have inspired this insight within. Becoming a mother during the pandemic, while mothering 3 others, and being there for a frontline spouse may have played a role. Telling diverse stories matters, that doesn’t silence but names the woundedness within our field is so powerful too. But honestly, as we all start gearing for a post-pandemic phase, the one thing I long for is knowledge production uplift with my work. Similar to what bell hooks described as racial uplift. If I wasn’t listening and telling stories pre-pandemic, in ways that make sense to the people I work with, now and post this pandemic, I intend to retain the ideals of the people I serve.
I want my work to focus more on how we see ourselves. To enter spaces and create stories that break so many diligences. To also reclaim spaces where our lives and our stories are heard as loud as we want is also an urgent desire. One where we cannot resort to collective failure anymore. If academia has ushered in learned helplessness as with the way we write, or for whom we write, then the time for change is now, if we really want to attend to the needs of the people we serve. I don’t know what this may look like, but I am working on it and in due time, I look forward to sharing ways that I plan to heal from the trauma inflicted upon all of us that would rather listen and be in the service of others and not institutions or programs shaped by white supremacy. I know that when we all start to address our collective suffering, we fill find ways to health and recover that can be sustained long after this pandemic end. It’s now my life’s work, openly healing wounds from this pandemic.
Like many, I have been reading and rereading all the bell hooks books I have in my possession. I have been struck with how urgent her work is for those desperate for word work that awakens us all to our possibilities. bell hooks was a prolific writer. As I looked through her writings, I gathered she knew writing was supposed to do something. You don’t pen these many diverse thoughts if you don’t expect the words to do something. That’s the urgency I felt just looking at book after book. She knew writing was supposed to do something. Not things that keep you powerless or inarticulate or unable to assert your agency. To her and from what I have read these past days, writing is supposed to be something meaningful. Writing is supposed to be courageous that all I can say to you this morning is that you should keep writing. Your words matter.
Keep it because writing is supposed to reveal. Illuminate. Challenge. Or simple stir up. Writing is not supposed to traumatize. Exploit. Oppress. Or simply cause suffering. Rather writing is supposed to testify. Best witness. Feel. Or simply engage. Writing is not supposed to shame. Violate. Humiliate. Or simply frighten. Rather writing is supposed to nurture. Heal. Uplift. Or simply affirm. Writing is not supposed to dehumanize, distort, deny, or simply destroy. Writing is supposed love. Celebrate. Remember. Or simply awaken. Writing is not supposed to silence. Dominate. Punish. Or simply exile. Rather writing is supposed to resist. Critique. Demand. Or simply voice. Writing is not supposed to threaten. Marginalize. Alienate. Or simply colonize. Rather writing is supposed to value. Imagine. Desire. Or simply create. Writing is not supposed to abandon. Diminish. Ridicule. Or simply ignore. Writing is supposed to liberate. Burn. Renew. Or simply free. Writing is not supposed to erase. Deprive. Annihilate. Or simply be racisit. Writing is supposed to be radical. Sustain. Open. Or simply transform. However you choose to write, I hope you use it to reveal, illuminate, challenge, stir up, testify, bear witness, feel, engage, nurture, heal, uplift, affirm, love, celebrate, remember, awaken, resist, critique, demand, voice, value, imagine, desire, create, liberate, burn, renew, free, be radical, sustain, open and transform.
Sixty-nine seems like a very odd age to rest. My dad left at sixty-nine. I have never felt completely at ease with it. We are all supposed to have 70 years. 80 years if we are strong. So leaving at 69 just doesn’t sit right with me. bell hooks left at 69. I am sure if I created a list, I would come across many other notable figures that left at 69. We will all one day return to what we are. Dust. We will all last like a dream too. Life is short. The only thing left is to be wise and speak our hearts to God. No one will understand. But he will. Especially when you open your heart and talk to him unafraid. My heart is open and I am wondering why 69. Her gifts were immeasurable.
Nestled within book after book by bell hooks were hidden treasures. To her seeing ourselves should be pleasure. For there is power, freedom too when you see yourself. With her, I saw myself. There were no boundaries. Light was revealed in unthinkable ways. Light that remain uninhibited with each passing day. I am able to write out all in my head because she allowed me to see myself for what I am: A woman. A black woman with value.
She once wrote that many people have difficulty with appreciating black women as we are. With her, I was appreciated just as I am. With her, I can cry like Sojourner Truth once did, ain’t I a woman? With her, I am as outstanding as Anna Julia Cooper and my voice will cry out in these Midwest rivers. bell hooks introduced me to her. With her, my horizons were extended, my empathy broadened, all because I finally stopped to smell the Dahilas in my life. They were many. With her, I touched nature in ways that stirred my spirits. She cleared a path for me to see myself, know myself, love myself. She helped me keep what mattered to me. Her death at 69 years is a blow and continues to weigh heavy on my heart this morning. I am consoled by the fact that because of her, I will forever learn all about love, know what it means to belong, teach communities how to love, how to transgress too, use art like writing to heal, teach myself how to yearn for things like fresh fields of green grass while I boldly declare to anyone listening, ain’t I a woman. I am. I am all woman and black and loved and blessed in light always.
I took my time to write this. Good people are remembered as a blessing. So I wanted to take my time to remember your blessings. For you have indeed blessed us all bell. Your blessings give life like a fountain of water. So I knew I had to take my time to write this. I knew I had to do right by you who loved words. And your words are like pure silver destined to shine brightly now that you are gone so taking my time to write this was crucial to me. You are crucial to me. I got the kids ready for bed early. By 7pm they were headed for sleep. I wanted to feel your warmth once again and none of my children as much as I love them will get in the way. At least not today. Once in bed, I headed for that quiet place I reserve for thinking. Not the kind that flows with whatever situation I find myself in, but the kind destined to move me to higher glory. For you, I am prepared to rise higher. So I took my time to write this. Got some food to nourish my soul. They call it African salad. I call it love. It always hit the right spot. I made myself a bowl, with some catfish. An unusual combination but perfect for writing these thoughts I have for such a sterling and unsual woman. There were no wine. I wanted to feel everything I wrote for myself first. And only lemon yogurt would do. The Noosa brand. The perfect combination for cleansing that I would need to write these thoughts down for you. For you were my everything. You were more than the brightest moon on a clear dark night. Even the night has nothing on your brilliance. If God came down from heaven today, he would truly announce that you are his daughter, the one he is truly pleased with. We mere mortals were not fit to tie your shoe lace. With words you stirred trouble. You showed us the transformative power of words. And how by themselves are manifestation of divine spirit. With words you forced us to write so we too could see ourselves. I see. I see myself. I have been doing so with everything I write here because of you. So I wanted to take my time to see you again.
I began writing vespers this week. The death toll from the pandemic was overwhelming. Majority have died this year too in a time of vaccine. So the only thing left to do at the time was pray. Hence the birth of develing into what I will be calling vesper. The first one was okay. It reflected how I felt about the deaths from the pandemic. Today’s own is for a woman who has touched my soul in way that I really can’t fully convey. I dreamt that we would meet one day. I dreamt often of what we would discuss together too. Waking up to the news of her death has left a big hole in my mind that the only thing left to do is pray for an eternal rest. bell hooks lived a life many of us can only dream to live. She lived it radically in her own terms and along the margins that made sense to her spirit. She was my spiritual mother in my quest to keep what matters to me on this blog. So many of my prior posts were inspired by her writing. I can never really do justice to her influence hence why I choose to pray. Keep Vesper or an evening prayer for the sterling spirit of bell hooks. May she sleep well and may her family know that she did her part to the fullest in this thing called life. I’m sure they are aware of this but I just want them know that because of her, I learnt to see. And that is a legacy worth keeping. May this evening prayer I write, give them peace as well.
If you ever forget how to see, I pray you look. I pray you look for spaces that touch you in unimagined ways. I pray these spaces whether you create them or not, are in harmony with the beauty and peace your spirit desires. There is safety in numbers. Find your safety. Find numbers too in harmony with your spirit so you remain open to seeing love. Not the kind that is hard to define but the one focused on choosing love. I pray your spirit chooses love in whatever space you find yourself in. I pray this love will help you learn to see. To become a being who simply sees. And when you do, I pray you see art in the intimate spaces of your life. See it as life giving. See it as love giving. Light-giving too. I pray art becomes life and love and light for you because you learnt to see. For what you see, in these spaces, everything you see is crucial for the struggle. Not to escape our plight but rather for its spiritual ecstasy. The type that lets us see light in all things. Know light too for yourself and in see it in all living beings. I pray you come alive to the resurrecting power of light. The intensity of light. The fullness of well-light light, the wholeness of life is transformative. I pray you see for yourself this transformative power of light. Though tears are falling down these evening, I pray you still let your light shine through the tears. Other needs to see you shine so they flourish. Everyone needs to be touched by you. So touch them.
Then, I pray you find the power to be self-determining. I also pray you let nothing cloud your understanding. Cloud your commitment to act, to love, to light a world longing for your spirit. Let nothing stop you from stirring up your spirit for trouble too. Good trouble. The kind that doesn’t harden hearts. For every single close proximity to you is for our survival. So I pray you survive trouble. In winter, it’s not uncommon to see up to 12 Wrens roosting together for warmth. They learn to embrace their suffering together. I pray you find your dozen Wren. May they help you endure whatever sufferings you encounter. May they also help you awaken to your blessings. For you are blessed. You were blessed. I pray these blessings live on forever as we keep all that we learnt from you. I pray you also let it flow like rivers on days when you need warmth. Days like today. The world needs warmth now. But heaven needed it more. Rest in Power bell hooks, till we meet again.
We come home to ourselves. Our realized desiring selves. We also come home to spaces that are loving, spaces that are giving, spaces that are nurturing, spaces full of awareness, spaces that enable looking. Of all these spaces, looking is my keep for today.
Bell Hooks once described a power in looking. A power also with choosing to stop looking. She described it as a gesture of resistance. And when you return to looking, when you return after turning away, an oppositional gaze emerges. I am in this space, these days.
Not to be confrontational or difficult or even disrespectful, I am finally understanding the pleasure of saying no. I understand now what it means to say no to structures which had asked so much from me when I assumed a posture of subordination. Saying no is a radical gift that I gift myself these days, a gift that I use to nurture and protect me.
In the past, I was the first with ideas. I still am in circles that value my intellect. I was the first to say yes, to give myself fully to such spaces because we were all fighting the same beast. The truth is, our battle was personal and we wanted to come out victorious and unharmed. Until the fight turns on you. Until you realize you are now the beast and your head is on the chopping block. Hence why looking becomes critical.
Bell Hooks described this as having an oppositional gaze. Mainstream research circles in no way acknowledges that black women can thrive on their own. You don’t have to ask me, just do a quick search on who gets funded and you will see that they are not black or female. Look also at those in power in whatever space you find yourself in and again, whether at a grocery store or at a hospital, chances are that your leader isn’t black or female.
It’s for this reason that an oppositional gaze becomes vital, viral even if you are black and female.
Mainstream circles will remain ‘aggressively silent on the subject of blackness and representations of black womanhood,’ noted Bell Hooks. Many disallow the ‘possibilities of spaces, places even that include black women’s voices. It is also difficult to talk when you feel no one is listening, when you feel a special narrative has been created that only the chosen can understand’ she states. Yesterday, I was in such a space.
I know I shouldn’t be using this medium to air personal grievances. But I want growth and I need to continually gift myself the freedom to just say no to spaces that fail to enable me to discover or uncover all that I have. I did that internally, silently too when demands were asked. Not because I could not speak, but because it is difficult to speak when no one is listening. It’s is also difficult to speak when you are not valued.
So I stayed mute and looked. I stayed mute and applied Bell Hook’s oppositional gaze. I shared my thoughts with friends and they said, staying mute doesn’t help you grow. I disagreed. It helps me. That’s all that matters these days.
After going through this pandemic (we are still in it too), after going through moments of chaos with homeschooling, moments of stress with raising children, all I want these days are moments of healing for myself.
Even though silence will not protect me, and Ms. Lorde would want for me to transform it to action, I am, but for myself. I am learning to say no for myself first. This gesture protects me from whatever they think they have in store for me. I say yes always and all the time to spaces worthy of my yes. I say yes to spaces and people that know my worth.
I keep learning this every day. The power of saying no, the power of saying yes. It’s mine to gift first, to spaces that nurture and protect me. Spaces unafraid to affirm my subjectivity. My yes these days belong to people that are not afraid to hear me speak. People that know that my words are just that, words, with no desire to harm but to help them grow. People that don’t make me speechless. I was not born to be speechless.
This power that I gift myself, this power of oppositional gaze is to protect myself for the violence perpetuated and advocated in spaces that would rather I stifle my growth. And if I describe it as violence, it’s because this is still a battle, and the goal remains being victorious and unharmed. Writing in this way, about the power of oppositional gaze, makes my healing possible. I am also learning that there is more to looking. Keep it for yourself, especially in spaces where you gift yourself the power of saying no.
Bell Hooks took me on a journey today. The past few days have been full of work-related rejections with academic papers I wrote, one protocol and another a debate paper that I will dwell on another day. For now, transforming the language used by the rejectors is a profound passion. Bell Hooks reminded me of this. I am in the practice of freedom and language may be the deeply felt connection to rethinking how I deal with rejections, to reclaiming it for my own, even when it’s used to distract or keep you trapped as if you don’t know of all your untapped potential.
So I imagine language is always supposed to seduce you. Reduce you to nothing as it’s words intrude your thoughts, your being, you, even when used to reject you.
I imagine language is also supposed to be intimate. Fixate your thoughts to the way words violate you, or sedate you, as you anticipate the next sentence it creates, sentences that still may neglect you.
I also imagine that language should always be yours to possess. Caress too as it professes, rejections so intense, that no words can fully express, even as you try to digest the many ways words are used to suppress you, even upset you.
I still continue to imagine that language is supposed to be deeply luminescent. Omnipresent too as a weapon for every persistent resistance, even attempts to denounce you, that you can turn around in ways so profound that it astounds even you.
That’s what I am choosing to keep. The power of language. We have so little knowledge of ways to turn it against itself. We also downplay or ignore it’s essence as an oppressive weapon that can also be a blessing.
So I imagine that language is supposed to disrupt spaces too, interrupt oppressors that use it to only to obstruct where diverse voices seek to erupt. And so rather than speaking only in the oppressors language, I can be free to reconstruct language at my own will, not to destroy but to build me. So let me close in a vernacular that belonged to my forefathers and mothers.
I close by saying, language go have to change one dey. Even wen them dey use am to make you feel bad. Abeg free yourself. No be only them fit use this language too. Dem say your work no mata, no wahala. Show them say e go mata. No be them get this language alone. No be you sef too. The language wey I sabi speak supposed be the language wey I dey use all the time. Like for this tins wey I like to write but because I know say people no go understand wetin I write, that’s why I dey use their English. Yet many more people wey I know dey speak Pidgin English. I no say no be for everyone but if we go begin to change dey wey we learn from school, then people supposed to sabi Pidgin too. E fit help us all know each other better. E fit give us that freedom wey all of us dey look for. So even as I dey struggle with work, I know say dem no get anything where I dey because even the work no dey speak the language wey people I wan help dey use. And dey wonder why our work no dey last. How e go last when we dey use their language to talk to our people. Abeg may we free that mata for now. Instead, make una keep Pigin English and other broken English for your mind ooh especially if you dey in this business of health wey I dey.
I am on a mission to experience joy in my journey through life. To that, I am learning what makes me feel whole. Bell Hooks’s Sisters of Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery is leading the way too. From her, I learnt that I am moved by passion. It’s in everything I do these days. Reading and learning about myself, using words to shape my life, my own way, my hurdles and my hopes, makes me hungry for opportunities about the life-force inside of me. Passion has also helped me break free from the clutches of others. More than ever, I am reclaiming my life, reclaiming my dreams, reclaiming my peace and telling my story along the way. My sense of self is becoming more in union with those I call my community. For them and only them, I am moved by passion.
I am also moved by two things storytelling and grantwriting. I didn’t realize how both helped me love and live my life on my own terms. But they do. With stories, I am able to counter the narratives you may have of me. With stories I insert myself into herstory (her and story) so that myself has the final say on what they, you, anyone, say about me. With stories I am free to be me. When minds are decolonized, anything is possible. Nothing I say about myself can be used in contempt against me. Its my tools after all, sharpened in my hands. Just as knowing what you do is equally important with claiming your space in academia, it is so true that none of this will ever make sense, if you don’t understand your why, your reason for being, your core. So in meeting the challenge to create a space where I flourish, I am passionate about writing grants. It helps me understand my core a lot better. It is also storytelling at its finest. For to convince strangers to give you money, requires a very beautiful story worth telling over and over again. And when you have that story, once your iron out it’s kinks and make sense of its arc, it’s constraints, it’s opportunities, you will find out that it’s all connected to the core, the why, the reason for being. It’s an endless journey, this journey, my journey.
The ability to combine my pleasure for storytelling and grantwriting is the forth dimension to my life. Some may know me as a mother. I value this life immensely. Others may know me as a wife. I equally love this role with my partner in crime, my fiercest critic who is ready to tell me as it is, even when it hurts. Some truths about oneself are different when they come from those who love you. Others may know me as a professor, a researcher. I remain grateful for the opportunity to serve in this capacity. But few know me as a storyteller and a grant writer . It’s my best asset, my greatest secret, my strength and place of safety. In my stories and my grants, I am most alive whether I succeed or fail. I learn so much about my possibilities just because I tried. It’s this dimension that I intend to spend time honing. A movement is coming. One that will expand this experience of joy, the experience of companionship, one story at a time, one grant at a time, all of which I have learnt from this journey through life. It will be led by women for women and I will be part of it. Putting this movement together will be the greatest joy of my life. For know, keep this journey, my journey, our journey in mind.
There is a Black exodus happening in academia. It is female, oppressive, and recursive. The latest, Dena Simmons of Yale University. She left the university citing ‘racism and years of bullying.’ She didn’t feel ‘valued’ or ‘protected’ at Yale. I spent my Sunday afternoon reading brief but concise social media postings on Dena. They were mostly by Black women. Some still in academia. Some gone, and off to start their own enterprises, in spaces and places where they would feel safe and protected. There is a Black exodus happening in academia now. But it is a site of power. Black women are reclaiming, restoring, even rekindling their God given power to exit spaces and places that do not value or protect them.
But how do we bear witness to a moment that is often not recorded, not discussed, not visible, not even in mainstream media, but yet a lived experience of many black women in America? Writing, is the one place where we can retrieve, restore, recover and give voices back to the unknown and unshared invisible, experiences of all black women, those in or not in academia. It is the one place where our silence will not protect us. It is the space where no one tells us what to do. It is the place where we can create rooms for our own unique experiences. All the words I write, every phrase and every structure, is mine to do as I please. If I wanted to control the narrative, all you see and hear about me, even what my social spaces, or social interactions may look like, at home, at work, even at church, then I would have to be radically open and write from my soul. For it is in writing that we bear witness to our history, our stories, our ways of being, our lived reality, our gaze.
Bell Hooks shared in a glorious piece entitled ‘the oppositional gaze,’ the power inherent with looking that is in opposition. Our ‘gaze’ she said, has been and remains a site of resistance. But it can also be a site of power, a site that breaks silence, breaks constraints and makes us the subject rather than the object of dialogue. Yet one thing black women don’t do enough though, is value our process of looking, enough to publicly name it, she stated. Even when we have our own reality, our own history, our own lens, our imaginations, one that sees the world differently from anyone else, Hooks stated that we do not name it or even describe this experience of seeing things rather differently. Even when we create alternative lens, based on our own unique ways of contesting, resisting, revising, and interrogating the dominant ways of knowing and looking, we still do not define our realities. Yet, how we see ourselves, whether at the center or the margins of our stories, how we look at ourselves, Bell Hooks notes, is most is important.
So to is my writing, the place where I am most free to be myself, to see myself. This blog has become a space of agency for me and for every reader, both old and new. Know that every keep, every word written, is my way of looking at myself, my way of using my lived reality to know the present, and imagine the future. Every keep is my way of reclaiming, restoring and rekindling my power. So though there may be a Black exodus in academia right now, for those of us still around, do keep an oppositional gaze.