NourbeSe Philip

I was once on a panel with NourbeSe Philip and Katherine McKittrick. I was nervous; I had been reading and citing both women for years, but I had never met either of them.

NourbeSe is best known for her work Zong! an “untelling” of the Zong massacre: a 1781 case where the crew of a slave ship threw enslaved people into the sea to drown and made a claim for compensation for the loss of cargo. McKittrick writes on the the geography of the plantation to the prison and the inscribing of anti-Blackness into our landscape: their work has framed and allowed mine, has given voice to my own namings and un-namings.

Before the panel, I jittered to OmiSoore that I was intimidated speaking beside these giants of Black feminist thought and writing; woman I so admired, women I did not think I had done enough to sit beside. She encouraged me, as one does, to be myself: to do what I do and not to worry.

Still, I worried. It is the human condition I suppose to be bound up in our own internal dramas. When Philip spoke, I imagined her unfolding some literary speech, something brilliant and untouchable, something I would be expected to match. I dreaded following her.

Instead, what she read was a speech once written and buried until now. In 1995, Philip sued radio host Michael Coren for comments he made about her. He called her a woman who had done nothing but “defecate upon this country.” She read out the statement she had written for court, speaking of the damage his comments had caused her. As she read, she began weeping. She read the details of how he described her as wearing a “dirty head wrap,” the dehumanization she felt, the deep pain. It was nearly 25 years later, and this woman, this poet, this giant of literature, still cried — sobbed — as she recalled his words.

Every Black woman in the audience wept with her. Oh, how we knew that pain, and the hiding of it. The feeling that to show it is to let our tormentors win. And so we go on, year after year, holding our heads high. To let it out is to let them know they got to us. And yet, all those awards, those reviews, those accomplishments, all her own transformative words: and all the while inside her his terrible words still silently eating away.

I was, and am, so grateful to NourbeSe Philip for that moment. She read those words for herself, but also for us. She read them for our own wounds, and the healing of them. Those wounds we have borne from long before we were given life, and that persist after we have passed away, from the ship and the chain and the rape and the scrubbing brush and the back door and the second class and the police in the store. All of it she gave to us, and told us it was okay to not be over it, to never be over it. To be hurt. To be human.

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I say, “I had been reading and citing” NourbeSe Philip for years. What I mean, what I brushed over, is that for years I have quoted her in job talks for positions I have failed to get. I have quoted her to try to soothe the fears of committees who see my work as too radical, too political, too angry. I have quoted her in the hope that they might think I belonged in some way beside her. I have tried to establish for them a motherhood: a line from NourbeSe who they must respect, to me, who they must not. And so, her words have been tied up in my own wounding.

I think of these wounds in these times when so many of the institutions who have caused us harm over and over again, who have taken from us, who have left our lives in ruins and not looked back, release statements on how they value and stand with Black lives.

These statements are not soothing. They are in fact enraging. When we have gone to them for help, for sustenance, for dignity, we have been ignored and marginalized. These statements feel more unjust than the original sin, the worse so because we know the writing has nothing to do with us: we never mattered, and we are not even dust under their heels. They are not thinking of us in the writing, and there will be no reparation.

Our rage is the greater because of this, and it lives in us without recourse. In fact, we risk looking petty and churlish if we even bring it up.

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And yet, I believe in the possibility of transformative justice, and healing, and forgiveness. How do I sit with the knowledge of the deepness, the endless wringing out, of wounding, and the equally strong belief that we can — and must — build communities of care, of radical compassion, beyond punishment?

Those of us who work with transformative justice do not believe it is easy; it is, in the words of Rachel Zellars, leaning over and over and over into the most broken, traumatized places in ourselves.

I believe this healing work can be done. I have seen it done. It is not done by silencing or swallowing or pretending or hiding or brushing over. It is done by confronting the wounds head on.

I often say that there is an essay I would write called “On Vindication.” The premise of this essay is that there is no such thing as vindication. In our most despairing moments, we often survive by thinking “someday I will be proven right.” And yet, when that day comes, nothing changes.

I am, as a matter of fact, being proven right in this very moment. And yet, it is all as it ever was. The people who hate you, I have come to learn, do not even remember why they hate you, and so they cannot be proven wrong. Their hatred is the more justified for being inexplicable, vague, because it says to them there is something in you deserving of it.

The jobs do not return. The joy does not come back.  Those who opposed our struggle and called us crazy simply convince themselves that they too were right all along, or that they would have supported us if it were not for something we did, or that it was our fault in the first place for them not listening.

One time in my life a woman told told me she was wrong. She did not have to. I did not call her out, or confront her. I did not even know, and had no way of knowing, that she had said things about me until she told me. She came to me with tears in her eyes and told me that she had heard hateful things about me, and repeated them. I had done some small act of kindness to her, and so she came and told me how ashamed she felt of listening to those who did not know me, but thought they knew who I was anyway.

I have never forgotten this. I forgave her immediately, in a way where I felt there was nothing to forgive. I have longed for this, only this, from others, knowing that if only they would say sorry, I would ask for nothing else. I am quick to frustration often, but simple in my forgiveness.

In undergrad, when we read King Lear, I was both touched and disturbed by Cordelia’s unconditional and prior forgiveness of her father, “no cause, no cause.” It is a beautiful moment in the play, but other readers than I have noticed that there is indeed cause, and have been troubled by how Cordelia’s forgiveness can be forgiveness at all. Would it not be better to acknowledge the cause? But perhaps this kind of forgiveness is already granted in certain types of love.

For the rest of us, we wait upon a sorry, a recognition, that will not come, and does not exist, not even for harms caused publicly. It is us to whom they feel is “no cause,” for they have already forgotten, if they ever knew, that they wounded us.

•          •          •

Sometimes, I play a game with myself I call the “just alien simulation.” When I am particularly angry, I imagine that aliens descend on earth. The premise of this scenario is that everyone is to live out what they wished on others. If you opposed admitting refugees, you will find yourself fleeing to a border, unable to find safety. If you decided others should be policed, you shall live in a neighbourhood surveilled and brutalized, and so on.

But even in my imagination, I am not comforted by the thought of inflicting cruelty on others. So in my fantasy, this turns out to be a virtual reality simulation, where after we live out our karmic punishment, the aliens reveal to us their presence, and we live, perhaps more chastened, compassionate lives.

But this fails too. Because who is to decide what anyone deserves? Plato understood this problem in The Republic when his Socrates rejects the definition of justice as everyone getting what they deserve. And anyway, we know that it is also fantasy that suffering injustice gives people perspective on the pain of others. Workers at abortion clinics speak regularly of pro-life protestors who seek abortions, and go right back to marching outside, spitting on others. We are more likely, when experiencing an unjust injury, to believe that it is unjust for us precisely because it is just for other people: we perhaps should not be punished, but only because we are not like those others who should be.

Dante, embittered and enraged and suffering in exile, placed his political enemies into hell, devising systematic layers of punishment. It is one of the most famous works in literature, and more famous than the other two books which are rarely read or referenced (unless one is a FYP student, I suppose.) It maybe says something about us, that the vivid portraits of hell are what sticks, and not the books where Dante climbs the mountain in Purgatory and emerges into heaven (the most boring book.) Who wants to read about aligning with God’s will when we can enjoy the spectre of our enemies being tortured?

I once asked students in a class of mine who they would place into hell. Many students listed a person I knew, who I had written with in prison. I had met her on my first visits into prison. When I met her, I did not know her crime. By the time I found out, I had already seen her as human. George Steiner, writing about annunciation paintings — when God appears to Mary — links the moment of revelation to that which we feel when we connect through art and literature, which he describes as, “their heart has touched our heart, with nothing in between.”

Driving home, Ardath mused, “If only we could find forgiveness for people in the rest of our lives as easily as we do in here.” In Purgatorio, Dante climbs together with sinners, and his own sins fall away. Bryan Stevenson talks of the work he does on the death penalty not as the work of saving, but of being broken too. We lean into the broken places again and again, until the edges are worn smooth.

•          •          •

I do not always know my own anger. For this, I turn to Audre Lorde, who describes how gracefully, how calmly we deal with racism, and then return home and find ourselves raging over not being able to find our keys. I am often surprised at how things no longer touch me, until I wake up at night in a fit of deep anxiety about something inconsequential, and realize this wounding has lived in me all along.

I think here of the line in the film Jacob’s Ladder, “…if you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the world. It all depends on how you look at it.” But in real life, it’s not that easy. It takes work to make our anger feel freeing, rather than as a prison.

When I started doing advocacy and support work with people in prison, I would cry all the time. I would time my crying during the drive to work, then make myself stop in the parking lot and go and teach. If I missed a call, I would sit there, in unbearable stress until they called back.

But that state of being cannot last. I had to learn to let go. Life is long, I now tell myself in a double-irony: not only the length of the sentences themselves, which can only be endured, but in my sense that whatever happens now, our only comfort is that years from now, in one way or another it will be over. This work has taught me a kind of daily forgiveness, borne out of long-term thinking. As W.H. Auden says of the stars, “The things I did could not/Be as shocking as they said/If that would still be there/After the shocked were dead.”

We can only learn to live with our wounds, and in the living of them, know they will re-open. We cannot be at peace with this, so we must also sit in our anger.

This dance with anger is a constant struggle between it turning to bitterness, to pettiness, to obsession — and here Audre Lorde teaches us to transform our anger, and our silence, into action. Or, as a friend tells me, “you might as well say it and laugh later about how mad people got at you that one time, because otherwise you will never shut up about it.” If we do not speak our words, Lorde tells us, they will come out anyway, and punch us in the mouth on the way out.

This speaking is not forgiveness, nor will it grant us any gentleness, or love, or recognition. But absent those things, as NourbeSe knew, it is all we have, and so she cried for us all those years later, and let us know it is okay for those wounds to be made public, for the burden to be shared. Virgil guiding Dante through hell.

To return to my undergrad studies, at the end of Willa Cather’s book Lucy Gayheart, mourning and regretting the wounded pride that led to a final act of negligence to Lucy, Harry Gordon thinks about why he has not left, moved on to leave the site of these regrets behind. He concludes, “what else is our home except the place where we have had our struggles, and learned to bear them.”

And so, we live with our wounds, and attempt to make them ours.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Just finished a second reading of this. In awe of El’s still-increasing power as a messenger.

  2. It is easy to hate, and even easier to project our own faults onto others, and hate them for the faults we project onto them.

  3. Straight to the heart, el (my heart). Stunning writing and I know so many of us who need these words (your words). Grateful for you.

  4. I hope people read this whole piece by El. it is being shared on FB as well. thank you, El.

  5. I relate to the feeling of ‘well, I’m rolling through this stress really well’ and then blowing up over something stupid and unrelated. During this COVID period, my stress is manifesting as losing words. I’ll be talking about whatever, and suddenly will not have the word for…. whatever. Colander. Sun spots. Moisturizer. Random things. The word is just gone, and it never fails to set me raging, at least in part due to fear. But this isn’t about me.

    We rarely have the opportunity to hear someone we respect interrogate their own experience, with references like Dante, King Lear and Plato running up against Audre Lord. As a white woman seeking ways to learn and improve my personal interactions, and use my privilege to lever the system to a fairer balance, I cherish El’s writing. Thank you.