African Poetry: Kayombo Chingonyi

Image| Jerry Riley |
Image| Jerry Riley |

Since I’m remembering this, or making it up,
there is only darkness; our bodies speaking.
Eat, your pelvis tells me. I eat—savoring
your aftertaste: tart but sweet, the inside
of a cheek, cured meat, a local delicacy.
--“In Defense of Darkness”

I come to this erotic image in at least three ways. First, thinking about the tradition of the blazon in poetry (as dismembered flesh and heraldic marking, as Lili Loofbourow reminds me), and the broader trope of men consuming women. Second, as a stubborn, fighting-for-survival, working-through-disidentification queer undergrad (a residual self) who insisted that the absence of obvious gendered designations created a queer opening. Today, having learned from trans activists and thinkers, I would say that even the appearance of standard gendered pronouns creates queer openings. Finally, I’d juxtapose this image alongside Nyachiro Lydia Kasese’s poems to ask how the speaker’s pleasure is experienced by his (I’m gendering the speaker based on the poet’s male signature) partner.

Readers of poetry can—and should—question whether such “interested” readings (feminist and queer) are fair to a poem that situates itself in the in-between space of memory (“Since I’m remembering this”) and imagination (“or making it up”). Here, the tricky question of whether the creative process should have any ethical tethers. I think this is a question all creative people must grapple with, and I have no patience for the lazy contingent who insist, “we’re creative, it’s inspiration,” and then proceed to (inevitably) reproduce toxic, unthought versions of the world.

Writing that simply reproduces dominant hierarchies is lazy and uncreative: it is an aesthetic failure.
I keep returning to the poems from From Calling a Spade a Spade, a previous collection that is excerpted in The Color of James Brown’s Scream. These poems treat the quotidian instances of anti-blackness. For instance, these excerpts from “The N Word”:

You sly devil. Lounging in a Pinter script
or pitched from a transit van’s rolled-down window;
. . .
These days I can’t watch a music video
online without you trolling in the comments
dressed to kill in your new age binary clothes.

The (n)epithet (as Christina Sharpe terms it) sits comfortably in acclaimed literature and is hurled out of passing cars. And it flourishes in digital spaces. None of these spaces are safe or free. Fanon describes the tensed muscles that accompany unhumaning, and I’m thinking about the psychic and physical postures (literal and figurative) adopted to anticipate such moments, and about what happens when (as happens often) one attempts to relax, only to experience the violence of unhumaning. In one fantasy, one builds a carapace that can always ward off hurt, but this is an unsustainable fantasy that permits no space for ethical imagining and freedom.

How, then, does one live with the ubiquity of unhumaning? To be clear: the (n)epithet always aims to unmake the possibility of human being and human relation. If one understands that it functions in this way, then one is baffled when well-meaning (“well-meaning”?) people attempt to explain it away, as in this encounter:

Just when I think I’ve shaken you off, you’re there,
innocuous, in Lowell’s poem—a flag
out of fashion, still flown by a patriot.
The seminar tutor tiptoes round you now.
Ours is to note the working mind behind the word,
not what remains unsaid: there is us and them.
--“On Reading ‘Colloquy in Black Rock’”

Because Chingonyi writes from England, it would be possible to dismiss his engagements with the (n)epithet as “over there” experiences, and to ask what they have to do with African poetry. After all, the most famous African poem detailing a racist encounter, Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation,” is located “over there.” Likewise, the most famous denunciation of racism by an African, Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa,” locates itself “over there”:

It was a fine autumn morning at the beginning of this academic year such as encouraged friendliness to passing strangers. Brisk youngsters were hurrying in all directions, many of them freshmen in their first flush of enthusiasm. An older man, going the same way as I, turned and remarked to me how very young they came these days. I agreed. Then he asked me if I was a student too. I said no, I was a teacher. What did I teach? African literature. Now that was funny, he said, because he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff, you know. By this time I was walking much faster. "Oh well," I heard him say finally, behind me, "I guess I have to take your course to find out.”

A few weeks later I received two very touching letters from high school children in Yonkers, New York, who, bless their teacher, had just read Things Fall Apart. One of them was particularly happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe.

A handy note tells us,

This paper was given as a Chancellor's Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, February 18, 1975.

“Most famous” describes networks of publishing and distribution, and the activist and intellectual work in England and the U.S. that has made quotidian acts of racist unhumaning visible and available for critique and action.

It has been in the interests of white-dominated (owned, administered, and providing donor support) publishing in Africa to locate quotidian racism “over there,” so that while Soyinka’s poem is easily found in poetry and literature anthologies across Africa, poems that detail anti-black racism in Africa seldom (if ever) appear in the same anthologies. (I’m happy to be corrected about this.)

I invoke Achebe not simply because of the “over there” of his work, but because “An Image of Africa” explicitly addresses the kind of aesthetic criticism that refuses to assess unhumaning as a problem of aesthetics. An author whose work I have learned much from writes, for instance,

I am aware that the recent exposure of Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism has discouraged engagement with his work. For a student of racism to apply such a standard would be counterproductive, however, since so many of the world’s great thinkers (Aristotle, Locke, Hegel, for instance) held unsavory racial views.

First, “unsavory racial views” does not contend with the profound damage these thinkers have enabled, if not caused. Second, I would go beyond Achebe and ask whether those who believe in the black’s sub- and un-human status deserve to be considered “great thinkers.” I would demote them to influential and, perhaps, useful, but not great. Never great. They do not pass the ethical tests set by Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Sylvia Wynter.
Have I diminished Chingonyi’s collection by offering yet another “interested” reading?
Finally, it would be a crime to discuss The Color of James Brown’s Scream without mentioning the musical experiences it details. Unlike Alex Weheliye, Robin James, and Lili Loofbourow, I do not know how to write about music. Thus, approximations, with the same fluency as an untalented student having a first violin lesson.

“Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee” narrates a familiar story of a displaced young person (a teenager, I suspect, though no age is mentioned), displaced in a move from “South West London” to “117 Retford Road, Harold Hill, Essex.” In that move, to a “grieving house,” sold after the owner died (“the old girl, God rest her soul, wasn’t found for days”), the speaker struggles to settle in (“I can’t sleep because there are no sirens / no neighbor’s screams to lull me into / lurid dreams of Natasha Laurent”). Soundscapes take central stage as he finds a position in his new social world through music:

I started saving the odd pound coin here and there,
buying cassettes in bulk so I could record emcees,
study their lyrics, and pass off their bars as mine
. . .
In the time it took the teacher on duty to run the corner
and he regulars to form a ragtag circle [,] I had a following;
girls two years older asking my name and could you do
the one about the cartoon characters again

Social effects follow:

Since I could spit lyrics, every last stone
thrown by those two boys, whose cries of Nig Nog still follow me,
bounced off my scrawny back and fell to reverence at my feet.

Stones (and sticks?) fall “to reverence,” but words “still follow me.” While Chingonyi focuses on acts of world-imagining and world-making, he locates them within the afterlife of slavery, recognizing the persistence of race-making and anti-blackness. It is this persistence that accounts for the tragicomedic ending to the poem, where the black amateur emcee is found lacking:

Eminem ruined everything. I had to learn the words to “Stan,”
borrow the nasal whine, slide into a drawl midway between
London and New York and nowhere near Detroit. Though,
in time, I could rattle off the Slim Shady LP line for line,
no amount of practice could conjure pale skin and blue eyes.
The eyes that made Marshall a poet and me just another
brother who could rhyme, wasting time on Garage when
anyone with sense know it was all about hip hop now.

The volume of commentary on the role of white artists in hip hop (Macklemore and Iggy Azalea, though one could point to Elvis and those who followed his lead) makes anything I might have to add superfluous. I would only point to how white supremacy continues to work through displacement and dispossession.

Finally, a note on how music practices assemble.

We loved the casual bravado of emcees with forty-a-day
voices and too many ladies to big up from last week’s rave,
years out of reach but our to keep on a TDK cassette
bought, four in a pack, for a pound.

When the speaker doesn’t have money,

I’d plunder my mum’s cache of cassettes for something
she wouldn’t miss or couldn’t bring herself to admit
she once loved.

It is nostalgia, I confess.

New, precious music traveled to Nairobi on dubbed cassettes: TDK, Maxwell (I forget the other brands), music taped from radio shows in the U.K. and the U.S. Occasionally, someone with means would buy an original cassette, and it would do the rounds. I spent hours dubbing tapes—copying from originals and from copies, copying the degraded sound of tapes that had been copied too many times, and still finding that sound precious. It’s difficult to explain the clarity of the CD after the degraded noise of tapes that had been played too many times and records that were more scratch and jump than sound. A few times, I got large numbers of empty tapes—I forget how. And I hoarded them, saving them for the music that really counted.

As far as I can remember, most of what circulated in the 80s was dubbed from radio. And I think (memory is unreliable) that most of what was dubbed in the 90s was from tapes and CDs: something about sound had started to change, though I lack the language for it now. One noticeable effect—caused, in part, by my shifting continents—is that music became less social in its materiality. One stopped lending tapes and CDs, one stopped complaining about friends who never returned tapes and CDs (some people still have my music!), and one stopped thinking of dubbing tapes and CDs. The sharing economy changed: now, friends will send me digital files, but the traces of sharing are different. We speak of damaged files and not of chewed tape. And with each new digital remastering, we lose some of the noise that accompanies music.

ps: with the exception of one poem set in Zambia, Chingonyi’s collection locates itself in England, with brief forays into U.S. elsewheres enabled by the global circulation of music. A claim is made about the geographies of African-ness, about the experiences that speak through and across geohistories. We find each other not in shared sound, but in the strategies to preserve and transmit sound, even as we anticipate straining to hear our attachments as they degrade beyond repair.