Doing What I Feel

February 7,

At a recent event for his new book, “Open Water,” British author Caleb Azumah Nelson read an excerpt from it which included a line that was completely arresting. It was: “I’m doing what I feel.” Those five words hit me right in the solar plexus. I was exhilarated and afraid. I mean, who’d be cocky enough to exclaim that out loud? Especially right now, when even the idea of leaving the house feels risky?

The fact that those words left the lips of a Black man made them all the more dangerous to me. We’ve never had the freedom to ‘do what we like.’ I’m still guffawing at the concept as I type this. How many times have you been accused of being for being too loud, aggressive – or arrogant when you express confidence or joy? Exactly. One moment stands out for me. It was during a geography class at school – I was 14 years old. After suffering through the indignity of watching a dated video about the Ghanaian economy (which included only interviews with Ghanaian farmers) I raised my hand, hoping to highlight that Ghana also had urban economic centers. I won’t lie, I wanted to debunk the idea that Ghanaians – and Africans – couldn’t survive without help from Europe or America. The teacher took my question, and as I spoke, I realized I’d messed up as I saw her expression darken with every word. She accused me of being disruptive and disrespectful and threw me out of the class. I, being a nerd, was petrified I’d be suspended. Looking back, I’m proud of that kid.

There was something else I felt when I heard Caleb Azumah Nelson’s bold words: tenderness. He was urging his character, and the rest of us, to lean into the vulnerability that we’ve become so afraid of. Think about ‘the talk’ we give young Black boys. We ask them not to answer back and stay calm when they’re confronted by the police, because losing control could be fatal. What a scary load to dump on kids like my nephew, who at the age of 14, shared with me how he’d started keep his head down when he walked around his neighbourhood. All because he’d noticed the same people who thought he was cute five years earlier, were crossing the street when they saw him. He never told me how he felt, but I could hear his weariness.

We’ve even learned to police the emotions of people we love too. Recently, an elder praised me for ‘controlling myself’ after my dad died. I knew what she meant; she was proud of me for not crumbling. Yet, her words had me wondering, ‘does that mean you’d be less proud of me if I was drowning in my tears?’

For all of these reasons, we owe it to ourselves to lean into our vulnerability, freely and fully. That’s why Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ is important, both as a piece of art and a way to affirm Black British personhood. She showed the world the fullness of who we are, from our cultural dislocation to our cultural richness; our joys, stress, and (unparalleled) wit. She normalized our lives and said Black kids deserve to be looked after too. 

That message resonated with everybody, which is why I see why people were up in arms about Coel’s Golden Globes snub. Afterall, her message was so powerful, how could this group of international journalists not feel it too? But, here’s the thing:

  1.  The Golden Globes is an institution based in Hollywood. A city run by mostly ageing white men. 
  2. Sure, you can argue that it’s filled with international journalists, but they are journalists living and working in Hollywood. A city run mostly by ageing white men! 
  3. The global unrest of 2020 didn’t change people overnight.

See what I’m saying? So, onward! Let’s not wait for archaic systems to catch up with us. Celebrate those people who are brave enough to do and say what they feel. And let’s all keep it truckin’.

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