Breaking Down the House by Zoe Gadegbeku

The night Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album burst into my life, I scribbled page upon page of notes when I should have been putting myself to bed. I wrote down quotes from Warsan Shire’s poetry that served as the narration for the entire film, the familiar verses from her poetry collection and the new lines I would soon commit to memory. I traced connections I saw with imagery from literary works by Black women and the characters they had brought to life; Sula, Esi Sekyi, and maybe even Aïssatou.

I headed to Emerson’s Iwasaki Library a few days later in the hopes of escaping my fog of unproductiveness that even Beyoncé couldn’t clear. As I scanned the room for a seat, I noticed a new addition; a shelf arranged with several familiar texts, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf and Sula among others, and topped with the cover shot of Lemonade, Beyoncé’s cornrowed head bent, her face obscured by the sleeve of her fur coat. The twinge of interest I felt was followed by a kind of anger I was accustomed to feeling within the walls of this campus. Standing in front of the shelf for a few moments, all I could do was to fantasize about the infamous baseball bat “Hot Sauce” materializing next to me so I could go to work on this carefully curated display, or perhaps I could just kick it over with my boot before settling down at one of the empty tables to work. I thought, how dare they? I didn’t know who had put this selection together, it may have been a Black woman. Still, I was broiling in my discomfort, as though someone had placed my private love letters on a bulletin board for public consumption.

What may have been an attempt to celebrate Black women’s artistic and intellectual brilliance seemed to me more like yet another example, albeit a small one, of a predominantly white institution that had perfected the art of posturing to show off “progress” and “diversity” that meant little in terms of institutional change. Black women may matter after publishing a bestseller or releasing a number one album (and even then not so much), but absolutely not when we are struggling to get out of bed, dreading another day of frustration and casual racism ahead. At best, this Lemonade resource collection was an attempt to plug into pop culture in a way that would resonate with students, and encourage them to patronize the library’s services. At worst, this moment echoed a reminder that I had and would continue to receive every time the College provided some narrow breathing space for Black women on campus.

Before the Lemonade incident, I felt these faint but unmistakable traces of ironic alienation at a panel discussion with Opal Tometi and Janaya Khan, leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. I would sense this again later in the semester at a screening of Sembène!, a documentary about pioneering Senegalese filmmaker and writer Ousmane Sembène, and again a few months later at a talk given by Angela Davis. All these experiences were affirming and fortifying in a way that Lemonade was for me, particularly as a graduate student who often felt untethered and isolated without the kind of strong community I had enjoyed as an undergraduate in DC. Yet, the whiteness of the institution was never far away. This is for you, but not really. Don’t get too comfortable. At these events, white students would ask puzzling and at times ignorant questions about misogyny in the movement for Black lives, or about Africa in opposition to a “global” audience, like we Africans fell off the map somewhere around 1471. When Black women snapped and talked back in emphatic agreement with Ms. Davis, the eye rolls and sighs from some white people in the crowd were not lost on me. Don’t get too comfortable.

The decision to write from within an academic institution such as this as a Black woman is not one I relish. What does it mean to evoke and immerse myself in the works of Black women who would have been anti- everything the College holds dear? Every student loan and scholarship check seems to signify the way I continue to participate in and benefit from the deathly matrix (theorized by Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins) that enforces a strict hierarchy of oppressions based on race, gender, sexuality, class, etc, and thrives off the exploitation and killing of human beings. Incessant microaggressions from peers and professors alike, devolve into trivia when compared with the awareness that my success is contingent on someone else’s suffering, that by striving towards this graduate degree I am in a way accepting the respectability politics that dictate more respect and credibility for people with a few letters after their name. It is difficult to keep sight of the fact that I am valuable and deserving of care just for existing as who I am, and not, as my roommate once reminded me during a depressive episode, and not because of the price tag that can be placed on my talents. Even more infuriating is the fact that I cannot at this moment find a way to live and write sustainably without institutional funding. I cannot quote Audre Lorde as saying, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” without considering the power and privilege that is conferred along with college degrees. I cannot spend time standing in a crumbling ruin without expecting to emerge coated in dust.

What does it mean for me, a Ghanaian woman, to produce work that celebrates the links that remain intact between Black women across the diaspora as well as the fractures? How can I resist the pressure to center whiteness in my fiction and my academic research where it doesn’t belong? I often experience Black women’s work being decontextualized daily in classrooms and social interactions; in tag lines for events held by the College, with classmates using intersectionality with no acknowledgment of how Crenshaw developed this theory from Black women’s experiences, or sharing their own writing that objectifies and degrades Black women’s bodies under the guise of admiration. As a co-curator of the Hidden Figures Syllabus, I often swing between the euphoria of uplifting Black women whose work is foundational to so many genres of art and modes of intellectual inquiry, and back again towards the anxiety of this work being swallowed up and eventually rendered meaningless by the College as another sign of an “inclusive” environment.

For now, I continue to find solace and sustenance in works like Lemonade that are unashamedly for and about Black women, in delving into the œuvres of my favorite Black women authors (I am currently working my way through every piece of writing published by Zora Neale Hurston that I can get my hands on), and in curating this archive to recognize Black women whose works refuse co-optation and the curse of being turned into empty buzzwords or talking points for diversity seminars with no action attached. The master’s house may not fall in my lifetime, but I will not underestimate the power my work has to deepen the cracks forming in the plaster.

Zoe Gadegbeku is an MFA candidate at Emerson and a Communications Associate for the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement.