Updated: May 18, 2021
“generations of women whose works were stolen, displayed in your museums with no name and you think I’m creating to be anonymous” – Ijeoma Umebinyou
I was fourteen years old when I wrote my first poem, well, rap.
I was a rapper who went by the name of Ms. Fill-osophy, and I thought I was a genius for the spelling and what it meant, but it went over people’s heads most of the time. Anyway, I still think that was genius. Gold star for my fourteen year old self.
I just recently remembered the name of the Life Orientation teacher who gave our grade nine class the assignment to write a rap, poem, or prose about abstinence, safe sex or whatever it was Life Orientation was, or even still is designed to teach grade nine learners about. I spent most of grade nine writing raps, poems and plays – mostly for church and some for competitions and school concerts. The contents of which largely centred around God or my tumultuous relationship with faith. Fourteen, was also the year I had my first queer relationship; she was in matric, bi-polar and navigating the trauma of having been sexually assaulted by a family member – (in another blog remind me to write about my introduction to sexuality and faith). I also spent most of my grade nine year in ministry – teaching Sunday school, spiritual dancing and writing / directing plays with friends and peers in youth for special Sunday services like Easter, Christmas, and Youth focused services etc. Looking back, I’m just like, grade nine was a mess – generally I think being fourteen or a teenager is messy and confusing, and this is often confounded by your environment and experiences that are thrust on you.
That was his name, my grade nine Life Orientation teacher. He would catapult my writing / poetry career into dimensions I didn’t even expect and he didn’t even know it. Bless him. No, really. Bless that guy.
Before that life orientation assignment I did not know I could write, I didn’t even know that I had the ability to stand in front of people and speak anything, let alone rap or poetry. That was the first significant encounter I had with writing, the power of sharing writing and feeling a sense of validation from others, from authority, from an institution of learning. To be referred to, to matter because I had something to say, was foreign and exhilarating. For the first time in my teenage years I felt seen and heard, and that was huge. It is also weird being able to trace the first time you felt seen and heard. There’s a certain level of invisibility and erasure I grew accustomed to as a black girl child, and as the child who the family didn’t feel like they had to worry too much about, the one who has their shit together. The spotlight cast on our delinquent siblings or family members who needed more attention, unconsciously taught us that it is ok when we are not seen – that we must wait our turn to be attended to or made visible, and even then, not in the ways that matter. Our girlhoods were loaded with subliminal messages of silence and erasure. There is a decorum and aesthetic I learned and adhered to as a black girl growing up around loud and naughty boys who were rewarded with attention and extra care just because they needed to be reformed and disciplined. So when I found rap, I found a thing that made me stand out, I found something that affirmed my existence out loud in public, I was no longer so-and-so’s sister or so-and-so’s daughter, I was me, Ms Fill-osophy with a shitty and corny stage name, but it was still mine. The raps and ideas were mine. I had something that belonged to me, that made me visible, that insisted on my name at the roll-call when they counted who was worthy of being seen…
I was messy as a teenager in ways that would not be safe to mention here. You could not pay me enough money to repeat the ages between twelve and seventeen. There’s no price worth reliving that level of chaos and foolery, there was beauty and wonder there, but also so much chaos and so much what-the-fuckness. Looking back now, I applaud the fourteen year old me who noticed a kind of solace and escape in writing and theatre and just went for it, buried herself in it, sought it out when the world got a bit too much. She is the reason we are here, and I am so grateful for her. Today, I celebrate and see her for all the times she could not celebrate or see herself.
I insist on making visible what the world has been wired to make invisible because I know what it took to get here, to combat the moments where people would rather have me silent or absent from my own work. I insist on celebrating what the world has been prone to diminish because it is an everyday struggle to stand in the light of your glory and feel like there is purpose, and I use the word purpose here lightly because I am at a cross roads with this word (in another blog post remind me to write about the intersection of purpose, hope, inequality and suicide and the fallacies of dreaming while hustling, and dreaming while black. Remind me that I also said I would use the Oprah Winfrey Show, Ellen DeGeneres and Bréne Brown as case studies).
Growing up, I wrote to stay alive. I wrote to stay the course, to remind myself that there were worlds bigger than anything I had been exposed to, that words had the power to shift one's reality. I don’t believe in half the things those plays were about when I was fourteen, but I can recognise the impact they had on people and the purpose they served in terms of “winning” souls for Christ etc etc. Using writing as ministry and as a weapon to tell the devil “NOT TODAY! SIR!”was a tool I learned to exercise early on. I wrote to buy time, to accumulate enough lifelines that would get me to a version of myself that could dream a little bigger and see some sort of future for myself that did not end in a coffin. Writing made me visible, not just to others but to myself and my family – which would later become important, particularly as a queer somebody. (In another blog post I want to write about how fame and money affords queer some folks status and importance in certain parts of society and in their family - and the voices that status gives us in turn – remind me, ok!)
My grievance with people’s allergies to citation and particularly the citation of Black women’s work comes from this sentiment shared by Ijeoma Umebinyou “generations of women whose works were stolen, displayed in your museums with no name and you think I’m creating to be anonymous”.
I also think about Zora Neale Hurston who said “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” And the more I think about how many times I have publicly and privately expressed my grievances with being erased from my work, the more I think I have not done it enough actually.
It is not a form of flattery to share someone’s work and not cite them.
Plagiarism is not validation or celebration.
Theft is also when you post something written by someone else and you do not cite them.
Plagiarism is a violence and death inflicted on people who are erased from their work.
The biggest irony is when I see work shared by NGOs, Activists or people at protests who advocate for making Black women’s voices visible, who share placards and quotes that are uncited in the name of combating the violence against women.
Even this thing of GIVING Black women voices is a issue - Black women’s voices are not for you to give, they are not a party packet at a six year-olds birthday party. Stop that!
I think the sequel to “I don’t want to die with my hands up or legs open” should be “I don’t want to die as anonymous when I had a name and insisted on it”
When you post a quote by a black woman on social media and not credit the source, you perpetuate the culture and lineage of erasure.
When you include quotes or paragraphs of intellectual property generated by Black women in your academic papers and not credit them appropriately, you are a fraud.
When you devise a theatre production or any kind of production or idea with black women and you don't credit them in any way when the final product is monetised or shared with the world - that's exploitation.
The next time you stand at a protest against the erasure and death of Black women, with a placard that holds a quote by a Black woman that is uncited – know that you are also protesting against yourself.
Celebration and flattery often come dressed as erasure.
And while we are here, say this with me:
“I am dripping melanin and honey. I am black without apology.” Belongs to Upile Chisala
“I am dripping melanin and honey. I am black without apology.” Belongs to Upile Chisala
There are multiple forms of erasure and they are all connected.
The era of social media has often meant not questioning what you consume and how it reaches you.
Level One Erasure Offence:
You see the post or quote on social media, someone hasn’t cited it either, so, you copy and paste and continue with your day.
You see the post on social media, it belongs to Nayyirah Waheed or Safia Elhilo or Alysia Harris, but to include their names at the end of the quote would actually ruin the vibe of the caption, so you don’t add their name but add “ “ at the end of the text to make it known that it’s a quote. (I often say these people are capable of murder) and they are, because they see you, they know the work belongs to you but they’d rather make your work visible while erasing you from it.
These people also favour the twitter character limit more than they honour the ethics of citation.
Level Two Erasure Offence:
They don’t mean any harm, your words just speak to them so much. I really really love you, but not enough to cite you.
They carry your words at protests without citation.
They refer to you by your first name in their papers whilst referring to white scholars by their last names. (in another blog post remind me to write about the gift and fuckery of having your work included in the curriculum, remind me to talk about and reference the essays of first year Stellenbosch English students who were tasked with reading and writing on Collective Amnesia)
Sometimes, level 2 offenders are your friends. They use your work in their research and plays. They respect you, but not like that.
Level Three Erasure offence:
People in academia who just disregard the practice of citation altogether, or lift parts of your intellectual labour and tweak them a little bit to disguise their msunery.
Another blog post will look at the erasure of Black women in institutions of learning and the canon.
Another blog must touch on that one time the editor of a major newspaper, who also happened to be a dear friend at the time, published my work and erased my name from it.
Maybe this is the blogpost for it. Maybe I have already said it, so moving on.
These levels are not even in order of importance or severity, but I group and separate them here for the purposes of understanding the different kinds of erasures that happen and why they perpetuate the praxis of anti-citation that dishonour Black women and their intellectual production.
Things I think about: how to little-by-little start to demolish the culture of erasure in a world that has taught people that Black women are to be taken from or “displayed in museums with no name” or adjacent to someone else’s history and glory. What does the work of dismantling systems of erasure look like in a world that thrives on the carcasses and silences of Black women, in a world that appropriates the ideas and knowledge productions of black women for its own agendas and exploitations. There’s a whole lineage and practice of Black women being erased from their labour, their lives, their bodies, it is nothing new. I am not the first to write or riot about it, and, it is because I am not the first to write or riot about it that I must insist on writing and rioting about it until another Black girl doesn’t have to.
The next time you encounter a status or protest placard or essay that erases the author or scholar or thinker who wrote those words - insert that person’s name. Challenge the people who carry our words without our names, who insist on making us invisible. One of the things I like to do is comment on people’s statuses and say so-and-so wrote that, or this quote belongs to so-and-so – cite them!
“You owe your dreams your courage”
“I don’t want to die with my hands up or legs open”
Are words that insist on my name at the roll-call when they count who is worthy of being seen.
In another blog post, remind me to write about the ways it will hurt the most when other Black women do this to you as another Black woman because the way the system is rigged and set up makes us subscribe to all sorts of internal msunery (but that’s a family matter, and we will address it when we are gathered).
In the meantime, cite Black women!
Erasure has never been cute or ethical.
Images created by @mxrhood