Othered: Karla Njathi
“How simple a thing it seems to me that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers’ names, yet, we do not know them. Or if we do, it is only the names we know and not the lives.” -Alice Walker Karla Njathi is dancing with a translucent rainbow of scarves draped around her shoulders and arms. She is skipping, twirling, flying. The scarves blow, flow, ripple in the energy she emits from her body; reflecting her power. She is free. She is free to be an individual who loves, thinks, and wants many things simultaneously and is never forced to choose or postpone or ignore. She is free to know herself beyond what she is told; beyond how she is seen. She bounces from home to home, neighborhood to neighborhood, village to village, country to country and she is welcomed, everywhere, to sit for dinner and eat and laugh. She realizes that no matter where she lands, she is at home. I believe that both her humanity and her Blackness, which may or may not be very different things should be affirmed in the spaces that Black folx occupy. I believe that I’ll be free, my wife will be free, my family will be free, my community will be free, Pan-Africa will be free when Karla Njathi is free. And so, her freedom is my dream. There is an arrogance one develops when one’s own thoughts and experiences are affirmed, validated and uplifted within the context of revolutionary struggle at the expense of others’ ability to enjoy the same process. Said arrogance is deeply detrimental to the movement for Black freedom. It breeds division, individualism, and hierarchy; habits and principles that have been exploited by the oppressor in pursuit of sustained cultural and political hegemony. There is a particular alienation that we subject members of the Pan-African community to when we fail to develop revolutionary constructs and liberatory theory that factor in the depth of our collective humanity; the gradation of politicized existence that each of our individual engagements with oppressive systems comprise. It is possible to forget that the struggle for Black liberation must be deeply informed by the polylithic Diasporic experience. It is possible to forget that our efforts to free ourselves should take shape around an acknowledgment that each of us possesses critical knowledge and sacred understanding that we must collectively concentrate if there is to be any hope of of transcending racism, misogynoir, anti-Black homophobia, or economic oppression. This series was crafted with the goal of eradicating that possibility; of making acknowledgement and affirmation so deeply ingrained in our culture, in our politics, and in our conceptualization of revolutionary struggle that none of us ever again forget. It is important to acknowledge the ancestors and elders who have also done and continue to do the work of eradicating the possibility of cultural amnesia, monolithic narratives, and individual alienation. It is in their honor and with their guidance, that our contribution to this work must emerge. Zora Neale Hurston, our grandmother, who devoted her life to telling our stories, who prioritized fruit pickers, lovers, sawmill workers, and hoodoo practitioners when she studied, when she wrote, and when she struggled is one such ancestor. She committed herself to seeing those rendered invisible by cultural manifestations of white supremacy; those whom the Black bourgeois prefered to pretend didn’t exist. Zora saw our people as as a spectrum of solutions to systemic oppression. This series centers that spectrum.
Cedric Robinson, who died two years ago, deserves that acknowledgement as well. At an academic conference in Chicago in 2013, Uncle Cedric spoke on our enslaved ancestors’ visions of liberation. He posited that negro spirituals are a blueprint designed by our ancestors to inform future generations’ comprehension, navigation, and survival of their oppression. What our ancestors understood to be an alternative system of communication, their oppressors regarded, foolishly, and shortsightedly, as babble. At the conference, Robinson challenged attendees to identify the “babble” of our time. He was speaking to the necessity of Black investment in Black intuition, in Black experience, and in Black expertise. Within that context, introspection and the prioritization of our own individual narratives, our own individual truths are crucial components of developing our own blueprints and of establishing our own alternative systems of communication. It is hugely important for each and everyone of us to acknowledge our own expertise and to regard with reverence our own well of sacred knowledge. That being said, it is equally important for us to pursue the potential guidance lent to us by those very attributes in every other member of the African diasporic community.
I choose to begin my pursuit with Karla Njathi.
We met in February 2018, after her father and I shared the stage for an episode of Blackademics TV that was recorded before a live audience. Karla was a member of the audience. “I’m at the Blackademics taping. Thank you for your talk. I’m interested in following up with you and contributing in any way I can.” She sent the message before I exited the stage. It meant alot to me because my performance on Blackademics was poor and I was encouraged that my rhetoric had been substantial enough to eclipse my visible nerves. Later, we had dinner with a mutual friend, a white friend. “I thought I would be doing a lot more at thirty,” she told me. She didn’t seem sad when she said it, though that doesn’t mean she wasn’t.
Some time passed before I saw her again. The next time we met, it was at Black Sovereign Nation’s community school event, Jumuiya. She’d never before attended a Black Sovereign Nation gathering, so I was surprised to see her. She seemed visibly uncomfortable when I greeted her, but I wasn’t sure why. Before long, she’d made friends with someone else and was chatting in a corner with him about an obscure topic. She seemed happy, relaxed, and more at ease than she was when she interacted with me. I briefly wondered why, but chalked it up to her quirkiness; a quality she shared with the guest she’d befriended. Neither of them left for some time. They stayed, deeply immersed in conversation, long after all the other guests had gone home. I felt, intuitively, that they needed the conversation; that they really needed each other in that moment.
“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” -African Proverb Seated at a table adorned with a red-checkered cloth, flowers, cornbread and cheese, we sipped tea from mismatched mugs and attempted to bridge the space that existed between us. From the moment she’d walked into Resistencia, a community bookstore in Austin, I knew the distance that separated us was significant. She was a whirlwind of high energy and never stopped talking. Talking makes Karla feel more secure. She believes that the more she shares about herself, her thoughts, her spontaneous urges, the more she is humanized in the eyes of those with whom she interacts. I wondered if I was doing anything in that moment to make her feel alienated; dehumanized. She’d confided that she often does feel alienated, particularly by Black folx, and that was why we were meeting. I wanted to understand more about her experiences with our community and with her Blackness; experiences she’d told me are weighted by the expectations of others.
“They wanted me to be really into rap music,” she told me; her large, intense eyes not betraying whether or not she really believed that to be the true and full explanation for the dynamic between herself and other Black students while she was in school. For the same reason I felt it important to acknowledge Karla’s own complexity, I certainly didn’t believe it was. I didn’t accept that the sum of the Black community’s expectation of Karla is that she be “loud and boisterous,” a term she used to describe her own perception of Black children when she was young.
“Why are you harping on that so much?” She asked me later, after our meeting. “The loud and boisterous thing? Was that triggering in some way to you?” She sounded genuinely curious.
“It wasn’t triggering,” I told her, shrugging, my body relaxed. We were on the phone, now, and I felt more comfortable than I had at the bookstore. “I found it problematic; problematic that you bought into the stereotype that all Black people are loud and boisterous, but mostly problematic that you were indoctrinated with that kind of conditioning at such a young age.”
Karla is a nineties baby, born during Cancer season. She was raised in South Memphis, Tennessee by her mother, a homebody and die-hard Prince fan of whom she now speaks fondly but with whom she didn’t initially have an intimate relationship.
“What kind of conversations would you have with your mom as a child?” I asked her.
She looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s say you were having dinner, after school, with your mom. What might the two of you be discussing?”
She laughed, sarcastically. “I would just be counting the minutes until I could go to my room.”
Karla recounts not having the space to truly express herself emotionally when she was with her mother. She wanted her to appear, constantly, to be a happy child; no matter the situation, no matter her environment.
Karla’s father, though, to her, a fascinating figure whom she felt eager to please, didn’t seem to see Karla for who she was as much as he saw her for who she wasn’t. She wasn’t explicitly socially conscious. He suspected that she was uninterested in marrying a Kenyan man, a man like him. When she talks about her father’s politics, Karla grows uncharacteristically serious. She says that, for her, it’s easy to feel separated from chattel slavery because it ended one hundred and thirty years ago. Kenyan independence from British colonization was achieved much more recently and Karla’s grandparents, people she feels connected to because she knows them by name and face, were deeply invested in the resistance.
Karla talks about how Black people were portrayed in the media when she was a child; how the stories mainstream media told her about Blackness were stories she believed and internalized. She saw Carlton Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air as a terribly ridiculed figure within Black culture whose only crime was being smart and The Parkers as celebrated figures within Black culture who epitomized raunchy stupidity. Somehow, for Karla, the Black people who surrounded her; especially Black children, began to morph into those same figures. She claims that those she knew listened to rap, ate flaming hot cheetos and disrupted learning environments. In her mind, it was because she failed to do those things that she was rejected by her community.
At her predominantly Black school in Tennessee, Karla did not feel she belonged. In kindergarten, she was called an “African booty scratcher.:” In middle school, her body didn’t develop in a way that was consistent with those of her peers or with Black beauty standards.
“When I was in high school and middle school, no one looked twice at me. Sixth grade happened and everyone had big boobs and hips from L.A. to New York. I was just this invisible stick with a ‘ginormous’ forehead,” she told me with her trademark matter of factness.
Karla didn’t realize she was attractive until she got to college where she interacted with white people for the first time in her life. She found that with the white student community at East Tennessee State University, she had things in common. She found a group of folx with whom she could bond and she blossomed.
“Like anything, [my attraction to white culture] could be socially constructed. I grew up in South Memphis around nothing but Black people. I was freaking invisible….People made fun of me because of my funny last name and being Kenyan,” she said. “White people find out that I’m Kenyan and they fetishize me, but at least they’re paying attention to me. At least they’re curious about me.” As a college student and for the first time in her life, Karla felt desirable and valued. For the first time in her life, she felt affirmed. She realized that the white folx her dad regarded as her oppressors were actually people with whom she felt free.
Now, at almost 29, Karla is still fearful of what her father will think when he realizes that she is in pursuit of a life completely opposite the one he envisions for her. She experiences anxiety when disclosing her romantic and sexual preferences to other Black folx.
“Some of the things I find comfortable, I feel like I shouldn’t because it’s wrong; like white dudes. I like white dudes. The guy I’m dating right now is really tall. His dick is really big. He can do things with his hands; like build a house and fix a car. He’s developed emotionally and as a person….There’s a part of me that, even though, I tend to attract more white guys, that wonders if this is okay; if this is correct….”
When talking about women Karla admits that her fetish is white, fifties housewives with curves. While she understands that social conditioning may have led her to this preference, she is unwilling to condemn any part of herself. When asked if she has considered unlearning some of said social conditioning, she insists that even the framing of such a question implies that what she considers simple differences are actually some kind of sickness. She says she still struggles with her community’s expectations of her. She struggles to respect the opinions of Black folx whom she believes would have made fun of her, as children, for being African and yet proclaim themselves proponents of “Black power.” She resents that following her natural inclination means she’ll be seen as a race traitor. She feels overwhelmed by her mother’s desire for grandchildren because she can’t yet afford a child and realized, recently, during a pregnancy scare, that she can’t afford an abortion, either. She understands that her father is very serious about perpetual resistance against the globalization and christian hegemony running rampant in his home country. She understands that he wants her to share his values and marry a man who does as, well. Ultimately, though, Karla says she is who she is.
“I want to live my life and be who I am, but I would also like to be accepted.”
In Black Austin, Karla feels happier and more affirmed than she ever has in a Black community. From her perspective, Austin houses Black circles that are more invested in spiritual ascension than political empowerment.
“I’m into a lot of hippie shit. There’s a rainbow of humans that I’ve been coming into contact with. I feel this collective energy of kind of being over it all and wanting to focus on spiritual things and raising your chakras and wanting to raise the energy of the planet. The other stuff kind of weighs me down, but I am dissociating from it.”
The “other stuff” Karla refers to is racism and systemic oppression.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”-W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
With a stroke of brilliance, W.E.B. DuBois named a critical component of Black life, double consciousness, and pushed forward dialogue about the Black psychological experience. Troublesomely, when DuBois described the sensation of double consciousness, he wrote, presumptively, from the perspective of a Black and masculine identifying person. He wrote as though womanhood, queer identity, and disability either wouldn’t impact one’s experience with double consciousness or as though those experiences weren’t relevant. He spoke from the perspective of a Black man in America; as though there were not Brazilian slaves, Haitian slaves, Cuban slaves. He spoke as though capitalism, imperialism, and the slave trade, itself, did not leave all of Pan-Africa to the same fate. Additionally, his analysis was based on an implicit assertion that the Black man’s greatest aspiration was to be politically, economically, and culturally American.
Within these contexts and under these assumptions, DuBois’ double consciousness says nothing about and means little for Karla Njathi. But what if we combine his theory with the Combahee River Collective (CRC) analysis of the previously male-centric, heterocentric movement for Black liberation? An “integrated analysis”, as the CRC refers to it in their 1977 statement, of the sensation DuBois describes would suggest that double consciousness is informed by more than race and nationality; that, in actuality, double consciousness is not an appropriate term and that many of us see ourselves through the eyes of men, of the wealthy, of American born “citizens”, of heterosexual members of society, of cisgendered folks, of able bodied folx. DuBois’s theory of double consciousness also neglects elements of the Black psyche that are informed by other members of the Pan-African community’s standards for the performance of one’s Black identity.
While DuBois’ work speaks to Black existence under the gaze of white America, Njathi’s story speaks to Black girl children’s existence under the gaze of other Black, girl children, of Black boy children, of Black American mothers, of Kenyan fathers, and of public school systems.
Karla’s experience speaks to Black women’s existence under the gaze of other sexual beings, of the Black community, of the political community, and of the religious and spiritual communities. While DuBois teaches us of double consciousness, Karla teaches us that part of systemic oppression is alienation from self and intra-racial ostracism through coerced identity dissonance.
The pressure to exhibit Black excellence is a recurring theme in narratives that Black folx share about the demands their parents make of their performance of identity. In Michelle Obama’s Becoming, she says that she told people, as a child, that when grew up she would be a pediatrician. “I quickly learned that it was a pleasing answer for adults to hear,” she writes. “Oh a doctor? What a good choice!” This pressure is certainly not limited to children born of American parents. In “This Bridge Called My Back,” Nellie Wong writes of priding herself on her mastery of English, grammar, and spelling; of obsessively consuming American culture because her Chinese parents valued it.
What are the implications of being Black and excellent? What does it mean to be a model minority? Is there space within the scripts ascribed to those characters to learn one’s self; to cry, to laugh, to be free? Or must model minorities walk the tightrope strung up by society’s sterile definition of success? Must those who aspire to Black excellence allow themselves to be exploited by racial capitalism, a process one can only undergo after denying one’s own humanity? Can we afford to be all that our parents dream us? Or, are we, like Karla, left frozen in place on progress’s continuum, by the economic conditions under which we live; limited in decision making about even our wombs by our earning potential?
To be a politically, culturally, and economically marginalized child of politically, culturally, and economically marginalized parents is to perform one’s own trauma and to perform one’s parents’; is to wear one’s self-perceived identity and to wear the one conceptualized by one’s mother and father. It is impossible to have completely unique ambitions. It is impossible to know what you want for yourself and what you want in response to your parent’s behavior, to your conflicting and simultaneous desire to please and, yet, transcend them.
“For four or five years I have been watching the faces of young black men and women as they emerge from the movie houses of this city, their faces straight from Southern black homes and families which means upright, Christian, striving homes with mothers and fathers who are shown respect. I’ve watched them, innocence and determination to grow mingling in their bodies, respond to images of black women and men they never have seen before. Watched them stagger, slink, or strut way from the Sweetback flicks…. A doomed look on the faces of the young women, a cruelty or a look of disgust on the faces of the young men. ” -Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
The feelings of worthlessness and rage that plague Black youth as a result of the trauma bequeathed upon them by their parents are exacerbated and, partially, caused by ideas about themselves that they are force fed through media inundation. We’ve known for some time that holistic representation is crucial to the development of positive self-esteem among African children. What, then, are the implications of negative and stereotypical representation within the context of coerced identity dissonance? How do Black folx grow to regard their own identity performance(s) if they find them to be misaligned with popular and culturally reinforced characterizations of Blackness? The answer is that Black people, but especially Black children, begin to see themselves, just as DuBois saw himself through both the eyes of himself-a Black American-and white America, both from their own perspectives and from the perspective portrayed in mainstream media. The answer is that confusion and disorientation begin to settle and become deeply ingrained in the Black psyche when media fueled indoctrination and intuitive knowledge of self collide to form deep internal conflict.
Whether within media portrayals or in real life, Black girls and Black women are not allowed to exist outside of the male gaze be it Black or white. What Black girls and Black women are taught is beautiful is deeply and inextricably informed by patriarchal eroticism. Bernice Reagon, founding member of the SNCC Freedom Singers, once said that she was from a tradition where women with big legs, big hips, and black skin were valued above all. She said that in the Black community, it was considered beautiful to “have hips and be heavy.” But, she didn’t leave it at affirming curvier, full bodied, Black women. She also said that folx who value thinner body types are of another culture; that they do not stand in the imagery or legacy of Black women. This philosophy and philosophies like it contribute to fissures in Black women and girl’s conceptualization of self. In all of our pondering and pontificating on white supremacist beauty standards within the context of cultural oppression, we have failed to realize how ludicrous an idea it is that any aesthetic standard at all originated with Black women; women who know that their beauty is simultaneously equivalent and dississimilar, who know that their beauty transcends the physical. How male, the concept of comparison in the first place. And as comparison is an undeniable component of women’s relationship with themselves, their bodies and their femininity, we understand that male perspectives, both Black and white, guide the identity performance(s) of Black women; a phenomenon DuBois didn’t factor when he coined the term double consciousness, but one that Karla Njathi has come to know all too well.
Karla is also devastatingly familiar with the guilt tied to her sexual preferences and desires. She experiences pleasure and judges herself all at once, a true manifestation of the coerced identity dissonance that she experiences in so many other aspects of her life. Her experience is not unique. As early as the late 18th century, Black literature featured themes of racially unsanctioned sex. In “Forbidden Fruits and Unholy Lusts: Illicit Sex in Black American Literature”, Sandra Y. Govan explores the idiosyncratic and taboo nature of depictions of interracial sexual relationships in the Black canon. She posits that the birth of the mulatto class and the sexual relationships between slave holding white men and Black slave women is and has been eroticized by representatives and descendants of both parties. Govan cites Linda Brent’s claim in “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl” to support her assertion that Black women’s relationships with white slaveholders were sometimes attempts to reconcile the reality of slavery with a deep desire for control over their own sexual identities. If what Govan suggests is true, then Black women who are sexually engaged by white men, see themselves, sexually, from their own perspectives, from the perspectives of their white, male partners, and from the eyes of those who observe their forbidden relationships.
Though she names them less explicitly, political and religious communities undergird Karla’s experience with coerced identity dissonance. She describes herself as more comfortable in an environment in which Black folx are growing more and more outwardly apolitical; grateful for the ability to simply collectively inhabit space and becoming less and less interested in vying for resource permanence and enfranchisement. She acknowledges a deepening split occurring between her spiritual and political self and notes that the split is reflected in her immediate community, as well. This is not unlike the orientation of Elizabeth Keckley, a Black woman, freed slave, and prolific writer who said of slavery “A wrong was inflicted, but [it] was also the fire of the crucible and the fire may inflict unjust punishment but then it purifies and renders stronger the principle….I was a feeble instrument in His hands, and through me and the enslaved millions of my race, one of the problems was solved that belongs to the great problems of human destiny.” Like Njathi and many Black folx, in general, Keckley began to dissociate from her political reality in favor of her spiritual beliefs.
Karla Njathi’s journey as an individual denied the privilege of singular consciousness is wholly representative of the broader Pan-African experience. Karla Njathi’s experience is undeniably Black, despite what she’s been told most of her life. There are lessons to be gleaned from her experience, but also questions to be answered. What does a conceptualization of revolutionary struggle that acknowledges singular consciousness as a component of freedom look like?
The implications of coerced identity dissonance as a form of self-perpetuated, systemically reinforced oppression are steep for the movement for Black liberation. Afterall, if one can become confused about the origin and integrity of one’s own ambition, body image, sexual proclivities, political values, and spiritual pursuits, can one truly be clear on the origin of one’s conceptualization of freedom? How can one conceptualize individual freedom, if one cannot first conceptualize themselves as an individual?
These implications are performed in the realm of art and human expression. Black folx don’t produce art that transcends the compartmentalization of Black identity. Attempting to imagine ourselves, as individual, as simply human, means first imagining ourselves as free. Racially privileged artists depict holistic human experiences that exist within an ecology of behaviors; pushing forward narratives that are vehicles to more intimate understandings of singular identities and making possible the emotional growth and evolution of communities with whom those singular identity narratives resonate.
Illustratively, Salinger is never tasked with humanizing Holden Caulfield in his widely revered Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s humanity is explored, but never questioned. This exploration undergirds Holden’s personal growth as well as the growth of the audience. In Toni Morrison's The Color Purple; however, the author sets about humanizing Celie almost immediately.
Black folx continue to imagine themselves through multiple consciousnesses in an effort to reconcile their humanity with traumatic experiences. Humanity is a given element in art produced by privileged communities. There is no reconciliation needed. They needn’t struggle and strive to imagine freedom before they can conceptualize a true, individual self. Black art isn’t used as a vehicle to a more intimate understanding of singular identities because singular identities don’t exist for Black artists.
What is revolutionary struggle if not an artistic work; if not an effort to imagine a world in which our humanity is affirmed? Can Black communities build frameworks for free societies if it is impossible, within their collective imaginations, to prioritize the liberation of one, cohesive self? Will even our efforts to free ourselves be polluted by the perspective of those who oppress us?