So I had a conversation with an Uber driver…

Before I begin, I just want to say…e be like say “chatterbox” be some Uber driver prerequisite or something. Also, I suspect several people daily have noteworthy conversations with Uber drivers, enough that there should probably be a website/blog dedicated just to recording drivers’ experiences. Maybe one already exists. If you find one, tell me. It might be interesting enough to hold my attention.

A few weeks ago, I needed to get to the mall pretty quickly, too fast to afford to take my bicycle. So, as much as I hate to spend money, I decided to take an Uber. For the first time ever, I got a Black woman as my Uber driver.

You know how it is when Uber drivers pick you up on college campuses. Nearly the first question they’re going to ask you is what your major is – and soon enough, this woman brought the troublesome question up. Now, I don’t know if I am incriminating myself by blogging my answer to it, but I told her the truth: that I was contemplating between English major and Africana Studies major. Now see, the latter option got her excited, as an African-American woman, although at that point, she hadn’t yet caught completely on to the fact that I am African ankasa.

She started going on and on about how she used to be a teacher and how her goal had been to start a Swahili class for Black people. In her opinion, it was a sad thing that all these Black people had lost their native tongue through slavery and being uprooted to America, and then forced to learn English, and even that, circumstances had not allowed many of them to learn it well. She broke off for a while to lament about her cousin or uncle or something who spoke only broken English and what a pity that was. You see, she told me believed that once all the Black people learned their true native language (Swahili), they would be able to communicate, unite and break out of oppressive dominance structures.

I could tell that she was sincere and incredibly passionate about everything she was saying, including her goal to bring in Swahili speakers to teach a group of Black people including herself their rightful language. She was probably in her forties, you know. And here I was, a teenage college student, casually about to shatter this idealistic bubble she must have lived in for decades. I didn’t yet fully realize the extent of her knowledge either. So, without thinking much, I casually pointed out that because I was from West Africa, I did not speak Swahili.

Yo. This woman nearly stopped the car. Her “what?!” reaction was so profound. Only then did I realize that she legit believed that all Africans spoke Swahili. I wonder if she had ever met another straight-off-the-continent West African before in her life.

So, now that she had attempted to register that different languages were spoken between West Africa and East Africa, her next question was, understandably, what language West Africans spoke. Language. Singular. And I honestly felt sad about what I was about to reveal to her: that there was no single language; there were multiple. Not just in West Africa, but throughout the continent, including the countries that did speak Swahili.

Imagine the most stereotypically indoctrinated child discovering for the first time that his/her parents, not Santa Claus, puts presents under the tree on Christmas. That’s what her dismay reminded me of. I couldn’t even count the number of shocked variations of “Are you being serious right now?” that escaped her lips.

She asked me where I was from and I said Ghana. She asked me what language was spoken in Ghana. I told her I didn’t know the exact number of languages because there were several, and I only spoke one. (And then she wanted to confirm that Swahili truly wasn’t one of them.) She marveled over this for a few minutes and tried to wrap her mind around this knowledge, then wrap the knowledge around her dream of teaching African-Americans how to speak African languages. She wasted no time in trying to incorporate all of it. She began to re-strategize out loud, going, well, fine, then. I’ll just have to make sure my class teaches all the African languages. She still wasn’t fully getting it. I had to tell her that as small as Ghana itself was, even I didn’t know how possible it was to become fluent in all its languages and I doubted the possibility. To become fluently conversational in the major languages, yes, I could envision that. But all the dialects of Ghana alone? Massa, forget. To try to teach all the languages of Africa? How big was this classroom she envisioned, and how many decades at the least could each student spare?

I can’t remember the last time I had ever seen anybody so profoundly sad. She nearly gave up on the idea completely there and then, because she said she couldn’t see the point of having a class in the first place if she couldn’t teach every language. And how could Black people unite, then, even if people from the northern part of one country could barely communicate with people from the south? There was clearly no point. I told her not to give up on the idea just yet, that she could go ahead and try to set it up, and if she wanted to do more than Swahili, she would just have to pick and choose between which other African languages to include.

She asked me at some point why everyone else she knew didn’t seem to know there were even African languages besides Swahili. I said, well, I couldn’t fully answer that question, I could only hypothesize – and my hypotheses were that Swahili itself is probably one of the most widely-spoken African languages, and that it has either infusions of Arabic or roots in it, and of course, it is the primary (frequently only) African language of whose existence Americans generally teach their students of.

I wouldn’t say that this incident was as dramatically revealing for me as it was for her, but I definitely can say that I was struck by it. You’re always struck when something you always assumed to be an obvious piece of knowledge – common sense, even – turns out not to be a part of someone else’s knowledge framework. Goodness knows, I’ve probably given several people throughout my life similar shocks as a result of my ignorance, but oh well. It was an interesting conversation nonetheless.

“And we were jealous you had a homeland, a native tongue and your parents spoke it

and we were just the offspring of the broken.

Hopeless, so we all learnt Swahili as if we knew we were from that region

Silly, we know,

but what you ‘posed to do when all you know,

Your closest cultural customs are similar to your captors’?”

-Propaganda, “Three Cord Bond

-Akotowaa

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Retrograde and the Nightmare

I can feel the panic rising within you. There is too much that feels familiar. Your worst fear is repetition of the years-long nightmare you only just got out of. But everything seems to be happening all over again, maybe a little faster this time, with the major difference being that you already know how it’s going to go. You know everybody’s reaction beforehand, and the cyclic nature of it all exhausts you. You are discovering that lacerations you thought had been mended cleanly only had weak thread holding the sides together, now unravelling at the least opportunity. You allowed yourself to hope that your relationships had changed, that perhaps transparent honesty might lead to different, fruitful results this time. Now that you have attempted transparency once again, even though you vowed to yourself a while ago not to anymore, the reactions to it have shocked and disappointed you back into despair.

You have been in deliberate denial for ages about the apparent relapse. There is no one who wants it not to be happening more than you. But on that day last week, when you could not get out of bed once again, could not contain the sadness anymore, could not control any aspect of your life, you were convinced you were done. You would rather die than go through another round of it all (as ironic as it is that the desire to die is also part of repeating the experience). You were convinced that if you did not leave, you would die. But you have not been allowed to terminate either your breath or your circumstance, and so now, with next to no hope, you keep trudging, keep putting one foot in front of the other on the days when you have enough energy to swing yourself out of bed. But every step forward feels like it’s taking you backwards into that place you were in before. You can’t see a future, you can only envision inevitable returns to the past, into the darkness of those dreary days when your own lyrics to “Dear God” were the only accurate summary of your life. You never want to be able to relate to those lyrics again, for the rest of your life. But here you are, locked inside a brain that keeps repeating the words to you especially when you don’t want to hear them. You hate cycles. This is what depression is: an inability to see a way out, ever; the belief that there is none, at least not for you.

You’ve tried to fight it though, through distraction, by focusing obsessively on any writing project. But there is a tragedy you experience each time you pick up a pen: you can only write about one thing.

Three weeks ago, you were sitting in a plane high among the clouds, reading a James Baldwin essay in which he says that “One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience.” When you read it, it struck you so hard that you had to pause to catch your breath. This is not a good sign; you have only been able to write about one thing for the past two years. Every character is once more turning into yourself and the different scenarios of each story morph eventually into the same setting. Your method of escape has turned into a trap. You have too many pages in your old notebooks that the pages of your new notebooks are echoing.

No! You cannot go back to the way things used to be because if you do, you will never be able to write another word.

You must not allow your experience to repeat itself. You do not want more versions of pieces of art you have already created. You don’t need the same shirt in all the colors of the rainbow. That is your nightmare: that your next EP just might be identical to your last, that you will never be able to write another short story that isn’t a shadow of one you have already written. You are eighteen years old, and it already feels like you have written everything you will ever be able to write. Because if Baldwin is right, if we write out of our experiences alone, and if you are only going to keep experiencing the same thing in repetitive cycles, you cannot figure out how you could possibly keep saying the same things in your writing for the rest of your time on earth. Everyone will get bored extremely quickly, beginning with yourself.

Last week, you had your first real panic attack since you began college. It lasted several days, and you are not entirely sure it has ended. You are now living in fear and anxiety of what you think is the inevitable, living also in cheerful resignation to despair about the future.

A few days ago, someone asked the members of the Twitterverse what the title of this chapter of their lives was. You had to think about it for a few minutes, but soon, it was like the perfect word had dropped right from the sky into your waiting mind: “Retrograde.” (It’s getting stranger and stranger, isn’t it, how nearly every part of your life, every activity, almost every metaphorical thought that occurs to you seems somehow related to the cosmos? Astronomy is underlying every part of your life.)

You call this chapter “Retrograde” because of your backwards motion. There is no language you understand more than the metaphorical. It is what helps you navigate through life. Nothing anyone can say to encourage you will work more effectively on you than this. So, let us hold on to the astronomical concept of retrograde.

Observing a moving thing while standing on a moving thing is always going to be complicated. We have given a name to a thing that by all rights appears from our circumstantial locations to be true but is not. Thank goodness, the retrograde does not exist. Planets appear to loop backwards in their orbits, but not a single one ever does, despite what our eyes on the moving earth claim to see, and it baffled us for ages and ages.

You are in “Retrograde,” you say. But if you had the omniscience to see your trajectory from outwards and above, you would know that in reality you are still moving forward perfectly on your designated course. Hold on to knowledge apart from the senses, contrary to feeling. Hold on to the illusory concept of retrograde. I am talking to you. Read yourself through this chapter, and make sure it has a period that marks its end, when it ends. It will end.

“You mock me

And I’ll probably do my best to convince you that I’m the victim

and you just don’t believe me.

You insist you are me.

And I’ve ran and I’ve ran,

yet your stride is identical.

Every step I took, your foot fit right in it

Why can’t I shake you?

I just can’t shake you.

You are my past.

Why won’t you stay there?

You, that pain that guides us

the strings that tie us

the coincidence that proves to us God’s existence

the joy I misplaced

beautiful mistakes

a scarlet thread

my crimson cord.”

-Propaganda, “You Mock Me

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retrogrademars2014_tezel_1080
Mars’ retrograde. Source: NASA

 

This is a video that explains astronomical retrograde.

-Akotowaa