A few days ago, someone suggested I’m an Angry Black Person. I was startled because I was eating delicious guacamole, and couldn’t recall sharing my work or opinions with this person. It was automatic, but maybe to prove something to myself, to her, to the table, I gasp-laughed. Then I asked questions: “What does that mean to you, specifically?” I wanted to escape generalization. I wanted to release the perverse curiosity that asks: “Why did you characterize me?” I asked questions and swallowed my blush, my rising blood pressure because I didn’t want to take shortcuts. I wanted to offer increasing understanding, linked to increasing layers of specificity, rather than simplify her.
This is the shock of characterization, the quiet assumption that we can label each other. To say what I “am,” to observe me through a limitation, is a form of evaluation. It is saying: I can capture you. Whatever the intention, this is an attempt at erasing sovereignty. Evaluations seem to want something: to draw out or discourage some behavior. When the criteria are rooted in our identities, our bodies, this is dangerous. It’s also very human and commonplace. It may be evaluations have no intentions but then what do we do with their statement? How do we manage it, and with an audience? It has happened more than I would like, a comment at dinner that my worldview is unpalatable.
To ask the black body for verification, justification, performance via our communications about our particularities or our political collective is a pointed violence. Because I hold fast to generation, I don’t think this violence is intentional. I think it comes from our self-limits that we then enact on others.
I Am Sovereign. Put that on a t-shirt, in the font used by Memphis strikers in 1968. I require no justification or even acceptance. I refuse any invitation to non-specificity or to basic performances of complexities that actually demand ambiguity, changefulness.
Artists, cultural producers, grapple in public. We are required to think in real-time. Documentation sometimes follows. When you spend many hours straining to formulate rigorous critique, sweat in your dreams straining, you may do the human work of extending that rigor to everyday interactions. You may yearn for others do the same.
If they don’t, you may keep eating your dinner, mind in a greengreen place without borders of any kind, not even the border of your body.
I’m pleased to start as Co-Executive Editor of ROAR. I look forward to grappling in your company.
Ladan Osman is the author of The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony. Her writing and photographs have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Rumpus, Transition, and Washington Square Review. Osman is a contributing culture editor for The Blueshift Journal. She lives in Brooklyn.