Stakes Is High—and Black Lives Are Worthy of Elaboration
The following is a True Stories conversation between Kameelah Janan Rasheed and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah.
When I think about being in a different socioeconomic class than my parents and the privilege I possess in being able to share my narrative, I think about what's lost when people do not hear about Black experiences from Black people like my parents. You see these politics of acceptability when the people who are deemed acceptable and respectable are able to say we are now a post-racial nation and race is done.
"I suspect that once the 'post-racial' rug that poor black Americans have been swept under is lifted, undun will be the record that reminded us to watch not the throne but the streets instead" writes the Brooklyn-based essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in Don't let the green grass fool you: The Roots are one of the most respected hip-hop acts in the world; why can't they leave the sad stuff alone? It is from under that rug that Ghansah retrieves and assembles fragments that elaborate on the lives of black people, beyond categorization.
Ghansah has written essays and criticism for The Paris Review, Bookforum, Transition, the Virginia Quarterly Review. In March, she was a finalist for the National Magazine award for "If He Hollers, Let Him Go," published in The Believer. It is a profile of comedian Dave Chappelle that explores the cult of questioning around his departure from The Chappelle Show, the politics of black performance and the context shaping his race consciousness through several interviews with his mother. Ghansah has written profiles on everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Beyoncé's Beyhive, and interviewed such greats as the black science fiction author Samuel Delany and African-American Studies scholar Manning Marable.
While her mother's family has roots in Alexandria, Louisiana, and her father's family in Ghana, Ghansah grew up in Philadelphia. It is there that she spent almost two years working with the Roots.
Like many essayists who are invested in writing about people who live in the margins, Ghansah follows the ghosts—the stories that haunt her, and the "shadow books" —the unwritten, the removed, and the lost narrative. Ghansah follows the ghosts and picks up where a footnote has left off. Her essays weave in references to everyone from Nietzsche to Greg Tate and are often punctuated by a question or a point of departure for further inquiry, leaving the reader to recall Umberto Eco's assertion that "texts are lazy machineries that ask someone to do part of their job". Ghansah wants the reader to do some work. It's the teacher in her. Seeing her writing as landscape or geography, Ghansah "plots points of consideration" and asks the reader to build another layer of relationships to superimpose over the ones she's already mapped. One is forced to listen for the echoes.
For our interview, Rachel sat across from me on a red couch in her TV-less living room, which was crowded with bookcases and stacks of books that included Russian literature (Tolstoy and Sergei Dovlatev), a set of books by Donna Haraway, and another by Kwame Nkrumah. Her hallways were adorned with framed old black-and-white family photos and the tabletop held a shell full of sage and sweetgrass. Ghansah drank water from a mason jar as we spoke about about her work as an educator and writer, the subjects she pursues, the necessity of longform journalism and the vulnerability writers must exhibit.
—Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Gawker: You were 18 or 19 when you began working with the Roots. Can you talk about your time with the Roots?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: I grew up in Philadelphia and the Roots were this ubiquitous force, especially then. At the time, I was listening to a ton of Public Enemy and De La Soul so it seemed incredible to me that there was this local group making the same kind of music. I was young and I had a mom who really trusted me so I was allowed to go to clubs, parties and listening events when I was a freshman in high school. And I just fell in love with the music and the culture. A few years later, during my senior year of high school, I met this NPR editor named Steve Rowlands at a career day and after telling him I didn't plan to go immediately to college, he told me to call this guy named Rich Nichols who happened to be the manager of The Roots.
Rich Nichols is a national treasure. In some ways, he was the closest thing that I had to a mentor because I talked to him every day for many years and for a long time for me he was this looming intellectual force. I've heard that he appears in Ahmir ["Questlove" Thompson]'s book, Mo' Meta Blues as this Yoda-like intellectual personality and for many years he held a similar position in my life. I just told him this the other day but I am really grateful for that because I don't think that a lot of young black people have opportunities to take gap years with black mentors and sit around discussing Archie Shepp and evolutionary biology with them. In retrospect, it was crazy that I had a space to say, "I don't know what I want to do but here are the ideas I'm thinking about in the meantime" and Rich would talk me through these the capacious ideas. On the best days I spent my days doing that and later that night I'd get to hear Erykah Badu rock out at the Five Spot. It was fun.
Gawker: I imagine those conversations had some impression on your writing. How did working with the Roots right out of high school influence not only the content of your writing but also the style?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Well, so many people and things are influences. I'll say them by name because I'm also grateful to them. More than anyone, my mother is the alpha and the omega. My mother pulled my sister and I out of grade school for a week to go to MIT to go see Angela Davis speak at the Black Women's Conference. She also convinced Sonia Sanchez to come and do a poetry reading for my eighth-grade class. I remember going to BBQs in Philadelphia where Toni Cade Bambara would tell us stories. Growing up and seeing that energy was formative.
I worked for dream hampton for three months after I quit the Lily and was a lousy assistant to her. Still, she was the first writer I got to observe up close and that created a huge impression on me. Then I met Lewis Lapham at a Veblen conference as a college a student and he insisted that I apply for the Harper's internship. He is also a huge influence on me and my interest in writing histories.
That said, growing up watching a band that wasn't sitting around accepting anybody else's definition of their blackness helped me see that I could invent these ideas for myself and I did not have to take anyone's ready-mades. There is this quiet as kept sense in America that all of black life is about performance and servitude and those guys taught me the lesson that it doesn't have to be that way. It remains a formative lesson for me.
Gawker: What do you mean by ready-mades?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Anything that was invented for you but not by you. I realize that is not really the "real" definition but still. Watching Rich and them as a young person helped me see that I could invent and not rely on other people's inventions.
Gawker: You can create worlds.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Exactly.
Gawker: How did you transition from working with the Roots to writing?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: I have always written to some extent. When I left that job, I worked as an assistant. I went back to Eugene Lang College, however, I had no idea what I wanted to do or wanted to study. I ended up taking cultural studies and getting really into it. I was studying with amazing professors like Deena Burton, McKenzie Wark and Ferentz LaFargue. They first introduced me to theatre studies, post-colonial studies, theory, and serious African American history. A lot of my interest in writing came out of that because I was interested in the relationship between history, cultural theory and cultural studies.
Gawker: Do you consider yourself as just a writer?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: No, I don't really think of myself as a writer. Writing is something that I do, but it's not something that's more important than the teaching that I do or the other elements of the work such as being a reader. I definitely try to never call myself a writer.
Gawker: As a former public-school teacher, I am curious about your pedagogical approach and why you decided to teach.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Books are really fascinating and they are points of entry and they can be sites of departure. That is why I really prefer teaching young students and why I also love teaching young people who look like me.
One of the groups I worked with were special education students as they are called in the New York City school system. In those classrooms you have a disproportionate number of black boys for all sorts of reasons. I have very specific thoughts on No Child Left Behind and those sorts of standardization movements in education because I think they deny these students the rewards that come from thinking outside of the box. I'd watched them have to take these standardized test and they would look at me and say, "Ms. G, this is not the right answer." Because the idea was that you'd choose the simplest answer because these other ideas were too complicated for them to work with. But the children are really, really smart. They would want to parse them all because in reality the answers often weren't mutually exclusive.
A lot of time I spent in the classroom was just spent reminding them of that. Like, goddamn you guys are brilliant. Let's acknowledge that and start there.
One awesome moment that I remember was with my class of ninth-grade boys I was teaching parts of Moby Dick and they were able to grasp so much in this book and they especially took to the metaphor around the whiteness of the whale. To me, the issue isn't that these children are incapable; it's that the people in charge haven't found points of connection to honor the ways they think critically, the spaces they emerge from or the way they are translating what's around them. My great grandmother was a teacher and my mom is a professor, so teaching was very much part of my household. I dream of teaching at HBCU in part because that is where my family got their start.
Gawker: How do you make sense of your work as an educator, as a writer and as a reader?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: It is the only place where all these elements come together to feed one another.
Gawker: The place where it all comes together?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: When I write, there is something that I want to say. It can come from these really odd moments of sitting around for months and months and getting very upset about the high levels of black unemployment in this country and feeling only Kendrick Lamar was speaking to that angst, then saying "If I have to get this out to someone, I want to see if someone else wants to engage in this conversation." And so with these heavy ideas you always consider what's the way to make sure all of these ideas I'm feeling get understood? So the writing becomes this larger landscape or a geography of making sense of things. I think about writing as mapping out points of consideration.
Gawker: It's interesting to hear you talk about your work as a form of mapping because it reminds me of Peter Turchi's book Maps of Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. It has me thinking about mapping worlds and world building. In your Transition Magazine article, "The B-Boy's Guide to the Galaxy: a review of the RZA's The Tao of the Wu," you wrote about how this text was a triumph in the hip-hop genre because it created an entire world. It was mapping in a way.
Can you talk more about this idea of world building through literature?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: When I picked up the RZA's book, I was absolutely mesmerized. Seriously mesmerized. It is peopled with so many emotions and so much grief. It is so alive. As a Wu-Tang fan, the only word that I could think of as I was reading it and writing about it was that everything "zepplined" up and became three-dimensional. You could feel his uncle Hollis, you feel the realities of being a child in the largest projects in America (Brownsville), and you could almost hear his first beats being created in flooded basement in Staten Island.
What I loved most about that book was that he was so confessional and vulnerable. I kept reading it and I kept thinking, Wow this is some Moll Flanders shit! And his use of the first person just really nailed that template that is so popular in the West of "Here I am. This is my story. These are my people." To me, that is hyper-literary and the Wu-Tang is hyper-literary in that you are always dealing with characters as well as far out metaphor as a means of explaining how blackness feels.
Gawker: What do you think it mean for RZA to tell his own story? What does it mean for you to tell the stories of other black people?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Well, there is this real fear of hearing about black life from black people, isn't there? It's almost easier to accept it coming from David Simon. The Wire might be fantastic. In fact, I own all of it. And in the same vein, I love Jackie Brown. Love it. But I think Quentin Tarantino is complicated as fuck, even if he can write his ass off. I sort of feel the same way about David Simon because it is really about the old problem of privilege. And there is still this resistance of, "Do we want to hear about these worlds from the people that actually exist in them for whom these things are real?" And to me, that is a very serious problem. We are often structurally denied the ability to tell our stories.
Gawker: I reread your Kendrick Lamar piece, "When the Lights Shut Off: Kendrick Lamar and the Decline of the black Blues Narrative." Something that stood out to me that I didn't notice the first time was your discussion of stories and the stories told about poor blacks and middle-class blacks in the Obama era or the so-called "post-racial" era. Why do you think it's important to talk about the multiplicity of blackness and black experiences in America? What happens when we rely on what you term "curated experiences"?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: The curated experience is something that is really important to be aware of so that we come to question the gatekeepers and the politics of their publishing practices. Are we paying tithes to the wrong gods? Why should I read you if you wouldn't employ someone who looks like me? The question that follows is once you are employed, you wonder how did I get over and at what cost.
That is why I think gender diversity polling like the work that VIDA does is brilliant, and I'd love to see something for the demographics of writers and editors of color at these magazines. I'm a hesitant observer of Twitter because at times it terrifies the Luddite in me, but a few months ago, I watched that whole conversation of "Is Twitter toxic?" that emerged and it was really fascinating because Twitter has become this space where people who have been marginalized by publishing or the academy are having this triumphant moment of reclaiming their space and their identities. In these spaces, they are saying, "This is what we think and we don't need you to filter or edit or tell us what we should say and how we should say it." "Forget your slush pile." "Your rejection".
And what we are seeing now are that established magazines that praised the use of Twitter in the Arab Spring are running stories about black feminists on Twitter saying "Oh my gosh, Twitter is so scary?" but what isn't scary? Let's be real. Is not hearing these other voices scary? Isn't it scary that they have very few to zero people of color editors on their magazines? Isn't it scary that your office looks like a John Cheever novel and it is 2014. And you have been around since the Civil War?
Gawker: Probably not.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: That is the curated experience. And its regressive and limiting not just for us as people of color but for us all.
Gawker: Because it's not their experience or reality so the experience or reality doesn't exist at all.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Right! So maybe race is not part of your reality or experience, but for a lot of other people, it's still very much there and it's very entrenched. It's every day. I'm here for writing down the everyday. There is always this question of history and preserving those narratives. Ultimately, I see all of my pieces being these discrete histories. A way of keeping a private record.
Gawker: How do you go about crafting these discrete histories?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: So say that I want to write about the crack era and the intensity of suffering that occurred in the community then I look for someone who embodies that narrative. I'll write about the RZA because he explains the crack era in a way that made sense to me in terms of it being surreal and horrific. And in telling his story I get to tell a few other histories/stories along the way.
Gawker: As we get into history, I am interested in what black people have done with the discontinuities and fractures. This idea of fragments kept coming up in your work –-black people as cultural producers working with fragments, as alchemists to reconstruct these worlds and identities.
Could you talk more about black people and cultural production and the use of fragments to create new worlds?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: What I find so fascinating about our history is how seldom we ask permission. If jazz is interesting, if Ali is interesting, if hip-hop is interesting, if Romare Bearden is interesting, if Charlie Parker is interesting, if Rahsaan Roland Kirk is interesting, if Michael Jordan is interesting, if Toni Morrison is interesting, if Tupac is interesting, it's because they do not ask permission to be fearless and to piecemeal fearlessness out what to me has been a pretty terrifying existence in this country.
Gawker: And your work is very referential, which gives me this feeling that you are pulling from a lot of places and fragments to craft this whole narrative about these people who are not asking permission.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: I get this question of "Why are you citing so much?" or the comment of "There is so much context, context, context," but in Black America we're talking about being within the context of no context. To quote once again! And there is no truer statement for what it means to be black in the 21st century than to be living in the "context of no context." (George W.S. Trow) There has been this great erasure of context around the black experience in America so everything seems to come out of nowhere.
For me, because I don't always know what to do with all of these parts, I am always asking: "How do we recalibrate?" "How do I figure out what I can take with me?" "How do I create a context that makes sense?" This is something that everyone is doing constantly, but my external process just gets to be seen because I write about it. I just write in that way where I just show how I approach all the books in my house and the books I have encountered. When I write, I am saying this is my way of explaining the things that I can't let them go. They are stuck in my head.
But if I can take some parts with me and piece them into my context or my version of context, then that's the good moment. That's the moment I can be African, black, a woman, the child of a single mother, a Catholic, a newlywed, etc. I can be all of these things without having to place them on someone else's terms and just write about how I see the world.
Another reason I cite so much is because, trust me, if you want to have your ideas debated, write about race or gender. I put that context in there so you know that if you have a refutation of what I'm saying, that's great, but come and put as much effort into your claim as I have. Bring it. If I tell you what we have is a severe problem with unemployment in this country as it pertains to people of color, I understand that you are going to think that I am talking out of my ass, but to make sure that I am not, here are 20 sources.
This also has to do with trepidations of calling myself a writer and the questions of legitimacy women and people color answers constantly of whether I have the right or place to say these things. There is the "What right do you have to be here telling me anything?" attitude. Rather than presume that anyone can have the right to ask me that question, I try to get that out of the way immediately.
Gawker: I want to revisit the comment on context because when I first read your work, that's what I immediately noticed. I enjoyed it because as a teacher, it read like an embedded syllabus and I made a steady list of books and articles I now need to read. When you're writing, who is your audience and does that change for each piece?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: No, I don't think about audience, especially not while I'm writing. It is for anyone. I definitely like it when my former students write to me and say, "Hey, Ms. G, I read your piece and I liked it." My guy gives me the best but the toughest advice so definitely him. I also like it when my mother reads my work, but that is a very recent development.
Gawker: Being able to build in this context and embed these sources requires a lot of research. What is that research process you engage in like?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: For the Chappelle article, this came up because I came to understand comedy as this whole other alternate universe. It became about spending time in the stacks and watching Pryor every night, which is so strange to do two weeks before you are getting married. I found myself turning to my husband and saying, "You want to watch another Chappelle show. You want to watch Pryor? You want to watch Groucho Marx? Hey, read this thing Mark Twain wrote. It is so hilarious." I wanted to be able to say, I know this universe of comedy and I've done the work to talk about this.
Gawker: I appreciate that the reader gets to see into your mind through your writing. It is very process-oriented. When I was reading the Chappelle piece, it wasn't until about a third way in that I realized that you didn't even have the opportunity to talk to this man. You saw him as you were leaving Yellow Springs but chose not to approach him about your piece. After the article is published, how did you feel about crafting a narrative from interviews with people around him but not him?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Profiles are my favorite thing to write. They are incredibly stressful but I love writing profiles and I love reading profiles. I love reading Gay Talese's old profiles, Joan Didion's, Hunter S. Thompson's profiles. Profiles are these deeply intimate pieces of writing where hopefully you are working towards an empathetic study of someone. This doesn't mean you hold their hand or that it becomes hagiography, but that you definitely get to say, "This is what I see about you." It is very empathetic work.
What happened with the Chappelle piece is that Chappelle turned me down immediately, so after weeks of wallowing I got the idea that this is a man who hadn't been provided a lot of empathy in the autopsy of him which happens to celebrities constantly. I sincerely thought that Dave Chappelle had been done the great disservice of not being listened to. It is not as if he hadn't stated why he left. And that he was still being questioned at some point becomes both silly and sort of insulting. It is as if you are going up to a person and asking them the same question 10 times.
Gawker: And hoping for a different answer.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Yes. It is that constant sense that our lives are always on display and we are always on stage. It's like saying, "Dance again, please" and I am not interested in subjecting people to that. He has answered the question about why he left, so maybe the greatest service we can do is listen and interpret it. For the Chappelle piece, I chose to do interpretive work and not some rehashing of everything that he's said about that issue again. I think the amazing thing was the support I got early on from my editor Karolina Waclawiak at The Believer. I realized that the story was about his very remarkable mother and him saying, No. And she was down with that.
Gawker: When you decided not to approach him about the story, he was smoking a cigarette with his friends, in his town and you were thinking it's best to—-
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Best to leave well enough alone. Lauryn Hill said something so apt recently. She was late for her show and people complained that she was selfish in her tardiness and she said, "I gave you all of my twenties." These performers get up and they give us part of their lives and that's kind of generous.
Gawker: NPR published your BeyHive piece this March and what struck me was where you wrote, that while you were uncertain if Beyonce was feminist or womanist, but was certain that she was a cyborg or representative of "the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other." This got me thinking about Audre Lorde's assertion that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Are the tools that mark us forever imbued with the legacy of oppressive actions or can they be repurposed?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Shit. That is a great question. That is a tricky one! I'll be honest though.I am sort of not looking for Beyoncé to dismantle the master's house. Not in the same way as Audre Lorde. Not at all.
Gawker: That's interesting. Why not Beyoncé?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Well, I am not looking for anyone who has 300 million dollars and is a pretty proud capitalist to disassemble the master's house, because I know how capitalism works. At the same time, who am I to talk? What is the master's house? Don't we all exist within it at times?
I think there is sense that we need to deeply interrogate people's practices all the time without saying what it all means or admitting how complicated everything is. But people are like family members that come around, and while you may not agree with all the decisions that doesn't mean you can't appreciate the context in which they operate. Even if you don't get down with them really.
What's strange to me is how angry people got that I was expressing love for another black woman who is seemingly different than me. I read the comments, I wanted to reply, I am sorry that you cannot see past all of our divergent personalities to see why I still get her. Understanding someone is not at all the same thing as agreeing with them. It was almost threatening to people that I was expressing understanding with someone who may be different from me.
But I have love for Bey like I have love for Audre Lorde—they do different work, but don't we all. At this point, I think I am searching for conversations and connections rather than dissension. Because I'm not sure how we disassemble the master's house. I just feel certain that we can. And I think to some extent we all have capacity to obtain and utilize the tools that might do so, including Beyoncé if she decides to do so. I certainly don't think Beyoncé is any more holistic than anyone else.
Gawker: What do you mean by holistic?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: I don't think she is moving as one solid entity. None of us are. It's a burden that's placed on people of color, poor people, the LBGT community, women, etc. to move as one solid. To be stagnant. To be perceived to be stagnant. Or simplified. That is why I find those conversations around identity policing sort of tired. I also really loathe the idea of post-raciality or post being brown. They are also tired. So often I'm like, No, thanks, to all of that stuff, just give me the room to exist both in the shit and stars. Why would you have
to sacrifice any part of yourself in order to have that ability. Sun-Ra certainly didn't. We have to fight to be understood as being distinct and incongruent. But I think it is worth fighting for.
Gawker: It's a failed promise that we are cohesive and consistent people.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Yup. Or that our occasional disconnection to from certain things and people isn't fruitful and not at all life-threatening.
Gawker: Yes, and I also think that feeling of disconnection takes us to a necessary space as well. I reread a section of your interview with Sam Delany for the Paris Review where you say to Delany, "'You have suggested that the writers who influence us 'are not usually the ones we read thoroughly and confront with our complete attention, but rather the ill- and partially read writers we start on, often in troubled awe, only to close the book after pages or chapters, when our own imagination works up beyond the point where we can continue to submit our fancies to theirs.' What were some of your "ill-read" books?" I want to pass that question to you. What are your "ill-read" books — the texts that have felt impenetrable but deeply influential?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: The "ill-read" book is interesting because all "outsiders" deal with this relationship to literature with books that don't really like us. Richard Ford is my absolute favorite writer. But I don't know what it means that Frank Bascombe still uses the word "negro" in those Sportswriter books. I literally don't know what that all means, but it hasn't prevented me from thinking that Richard Ford is a genius.
So there are books that are at times emotionally hard for me to read, like Hemingway's or Richard Ford's work and then there are books that are structurally hard to read like Sianne Ngai, Viktor Shklovsky and Henri Lefebvre's writings on the city. I find Faulkner and Juan Rulfo hard to read but also really amazing
. A lot of the theory that I talk about in my writing; is the work I don't immediately understand so I am writing to understand it.
Gawker: Your pieces are mostly longform, which I think allows a lot of space for processing. At the same time it seems increasingly rare for people to sit and read long pieces in an information culture where excerpts are the accepted norm. Why do you push forward with longform?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: I would feel that I was adding to an erasure that already exists. I write longer pieces to provide context. It is very intentional. I ask, "Did I explain this enough?" because people love to say, "Well, I didn't know!" And they use that as a shield for the horrible things that they say and think, so I've provided a lot of context, so now you do know.
Gawker: It takes away that convenient opportunity to be ignorant of conditions.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: I love your way of putting it. You take away that opportunity of erasure—a historical erasure of the stories and context that certain communities experience. I don't think about my writing as longform; I think of it as "Did I explain this fully?" Did I explain how Rachel Jeantel's way of speaking on the stand during the Trayvon Martin case is tied to the work graffiti artists did in the late eighties in New York? I want to make sure that I am explaining everything fully because it's important.
Gawker: I am glad you brought up language and creating a language to express experiences of marginalized people. Rachel Jeantel, Rammellzee, Basquiat, and the Art of Being an Equation, the article you wrote in LARB about Rachel, Trayvon's friend, conjured up a lot for me. Can we talk a little about race and language?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Of course. What I am scared about is when people say, "These people aren't speaking correctly" or "These people are speaking so incorrectly that I couldn't understand what they were saying." That's absurd. In a time when most people are bilingual and trilingual, the idea that a segment of America is totally unintelligible to us because they speak slang, and that that segment also happens to just be the some of the poorest people in this country, the people who need to be heard, is a very dangerous fallacy.
Gawker: And a little convenient.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: It is very convenient. I am interested in the linguistics of African American Vernacular English or what some people call slang because it is completely valid. People said that Rachel Jeantel was not speaking correctly or that the importance of what she's saying was diminished because doesn't speak proper English or using grammatical English. AAVE has a well-defined grammar. She was using a form of grammatical English.
Gawker: Even if it isn't a form with which they are not familiar.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Yes and the linguist William Labov talks about how this is a vibrant, evolving language that has serious rules. So I just felt defensive of Rachel. And saw it as part of a long history of saying, "This is how I speak and I have something to say and you need to hear it." I think Rachel is such a wonderful example of that tradition of inventing your own language. Of course, there is this other piece of thinking, like if you were 19 and your friend was just shot and killed, you'd be "unintelligible" too.
Gawker: I constantly question whether Standard English or any language that is not indigenous to a people can fully articulate the extent of their experiences. Are there enough words, intonations, and phrases in the English language to express what marginalized people have experienced in America?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Well, no, but what Junot Diaz is doing is really interesting. He reminds the reader that it isn't about you. There are some parts of the book that are just in Spanish because he is saying that this is his tongue and if you are to understand this world, you have to learn his speak. It does a disservice to that world and his writing if he makes you the fixed point in his narrative.
Gawker: I like this idea of interrogating what is considered the fixed point and to whom's subjectivity we are beholden.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: This is the reason why I love Amos Tutotola so much. He switches between English and Nigerian pidgin, leaving the reader to figure it out. He is asking the readers to stretch themselves and to go with him somewhere. That's the great thing about essays and challenging fiction—you end up differently then when you ventured out. I think that takes courage.
Gawker: I have four brothers and am constantly thinking about what it means to be a black man who can love another black man without getting wrapped up in homophobic fears or fears about vulnerability.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Those conversations around intimacy are so necessary. A very close friend of mine, who is a black man, recently told me that the one reason he really loves Spike Lee was because it was the first time he saw black people who looked like him loving each other in American cinema. This goes back to what RZA was doing in the Tao of the Wu and what Henry Dumas was doing in his fiction and his poetry: just being really vulnerable. I just saw Carrie Mae Weems' Kitchen Table series at her show that just closed at the Guggenheim and I was moved to tears by her vulnerability. I had seen very few things like it. For men and women of color, this work is really important but it is also really scary and not made very easy.
Gawker: You've written about growing up with your mother and grandmother in My Mother's House. Can you talk about that piece a little more in the context of what makes a loving home?
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: I grew up in the '80s where there was nothing worse than being a single black mother. There was nothing more stigmatizing. There was no greater social ill than the black single mother. She was the hydra made of many things: crack head, the lumpenproletariat, she was pregnant with children who were going to tax the system and girls who would get pregnant young. We were all infected with so much language which was "You are going to be worthless."
But never in my household. I was so lucky because for us that language existed in a parallel universe. So I wanted to write about the women who raised me. I wanted to write a love letter to them. There hasn't been enough writing about single mothers and what they mean in our society and how they are still perceived as threats. I watched Mitt Romney blame single mothers for gun violence in 2012 and I couldn't believe it. It is like shit this is still going? Even after Bill Clinton, Bill de Blasio, and Obama? They all had single mothers. This is what Hawthorne was writing about back in the 19th century, like The Scarlet Letter was one of the first defenses of single motherhood. But when that fear of a woman alone got mixed with poverty, and race, the stigma just loomed larger because it was just one more way to put down black women and to say your life choices need to be held up for examination and dismissal.
I suspect this is why the women in my life—my mother, aunts, and grandmother wrapped themselves around us. I just wanted to talk about the crazy love I experienced when all I was supposed to be experiencing is powerlessness and abandonment. So I wanted to remember all of that as my loving home and that was what I was writing about in My Mother's House. I also wanted to write about a king among men. The title I lifted from Colette's love letter to her mother, Sido.
Gawker: In the RZA article, you refer to the Nietzsche quote about us being "gravediggers of the present." We've spoken a lot about histories, microhistories, and reassembling narratives but I am interested in this idea of Afrofuturism you discuss in the RZA article as it relates to liberation ideologies.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: That is a quote I could not get out of my head. I love that Nietzsche is saying that you have to have some elasticity to survive. You want to dig deep, break form, and experiment constantly. You really don't get any freer than that. I see Outkast doing that. Rahsaan Roland Kirk did that. Jimi Hendrix did that. Basquiat did that. Rammellzee did that. Toni Morrison does that. Octavia Butler definitely did that. They were all here. They give me hope. And I am just interested in writing that history down.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist working primarily with photography, installation, and texts while also experimenting with audio and printmaking. Her writing has appeared in TheNation.com, Specter Literary Magazine, Libera.tor Magazine, Well & Often Press Reader, Pambazuka: Pan African Voices for Freedom and Justice, Wiretap Magazine, Make/Shift Magazine, and Blacklooks, among others.