Learning to be free
I learnt to swim by throwing myself at the deep end. Quite literally. Pun absolutely intended. I was only a child. I had not learnt to swim unaided. But that day, I climbed my way up the highest point on the diving platform and jumped.
I was utterly petrified.
It was six to eight metres up from the pool. Quite a distance for shaky skinny black legs.
I absolutely did not have to do this. No one had asked me nor was I dared. But I took that plunge. Even at the age of eight or nine, I believed this was the only way I would not be controlled by my fears and learn to swim. I still remember every instant of the dive. The short-lived sense of free-falling then, the getting sucked deeper and deeper into a bottomless world of blue before I started emerging lighter than air, carried upwards by the determination that that day, was the day I would learn to swim.
And indeed I did swim. I swam up from the bottom of that pool of fears. Somehow, I wiggled myself all the way to the ladder and got out of the pool. I mundanely walked away from the water composed. Not hurried. Not even out of breath. Not elated. Just satisfied. I said nothing to anyone at the time.
I think about this story often. What it signifies. Its symbolism. How representative it is of my liberation praxis. My relationship with fear. How brave it may be seen as, by some. Or how reckless by others. I wonder what Sartre would have made of this jump, then I hear Freud. Then my mother. I think she would have found me courageous. Eventually. But only after a solid and lengthy telling off. That is probably why I had kept quiet.
Diving and writing
Looking back on this anecdote as an adult, sometimes there is a sense of sadness I did not share it then. Mostly though, I feel quietly triumphant. And proud, the shy and scared child that was me, dared to dare the water. Daring to swim for the first time, while afraid and unaided is also daring to write. I have for long harboured insecurities about my writing. A bulk of these I have no doubt, are racialised.
English is not my first Language. However, I have not written seriously or academically in French for so long, it is starting to feel more homely to actually write in English. But that is not the whole story. If I am honest, as a child of African migrants, the command of my French has always been contemptuously scrutinised. I have learnt that as a child too. I have recognised the echoes of this ever so subtle mission civilisatrice in the extra attention in the enunciation, tone, grammar and syntax of Black children. We have surprised many with how well we speak our first and often our only language.
When the default position is that we cannot write or speak intelligibly, we forever are covertly evaluated to make sure that we can and, the policing of our words becomes kindness. It is for our own good. I know, I have the scars. Language policing is so often a relational way to reproduce power. Still… imagine being so deeply insecure about your words that you choose to expose your writing, for the world to read. Some may find it an odd manoeuvre. But it’s a familiar one. Feels like a dive.
The internal master
I try not to force my writing on Race Reflections in particular directions, these days. I am deliberate in letting my words come to their own being. Sometimes this means bracketing any original idea about what I meant to write, writing the first words or sentences that come to mind and following them, not necessarily knowing where I am being taken. Words choose us as much as we choose them.
So here it is. When I decided to write this piece, I wanted it to be about assimilation. I aimed to write about people of colour policing other people of colour and the tyranny we often befall onto one another particularly onto those we deem to be falling out of line. Those trespassing the white line of our internal master.
My intention was to say a little bit about the many Black and Brown voices who over the years have attempted to convince me, always for my own good, of being silent and those voices who have shunned me when I have kindly refused, spoke out and took a stand anyway. Those who have tried to forcefully teach me how to be a less transgressive Black woman, a more compliant Black woman, a more likeable Black Woman, a less targetable Black woman, a more accommodating Black woman, a less radical Black woman. A Black woman who is less free.
I wanted to think about those who have felt offended or angered, I did not choose to live my life the way they chose to live theirs and, have experienced my choice as a criticism of theirs. That critical voice they have been so hurt by, was never mine. It has always been theirs. The voice of their internal slave. But…the first thing that came to ‘the tip of my pen’ was the memory of that dive.
The fear. The blue. The plunge. The hope.
The fear. The fear. The courage.
Or the recklessness?
I usually write my articles in one go. But I put this piece down. I was supposed to go to bed. I struggled to articulate clearly how my learning to swim was connected to assimilation, and to internalised oppression. It was clearly in me somewhere. Otherwise, how could my mind produce such an association?
Then I picked up James Baldwin’s Dark Days which I was about to read for a few minutes, before I had hoped falling asleep. I read the first couple of paragraphs; and there it was again. The fall. The fear. The not knowing. The plunge. The yearning for freedom. The freedom. The freedom?
‘To be black is to confront, and to be forced to alter a condition forged in history …not one of us… knows how to walk when we get there, none of us know how to master a staircase. We are absolutely ignorant of the almost certainty of falling out of a five-story window’ (Baldwin, 1980)
Perhaps these words capture something of that connection. The fear. The blue. The plunge. The hope. That fear again. Not one of us indeed knows what the outcome of our liberatory or ontological choices will be. But history has taught us there is little protection to be enjoyed in silence, in toeing that white line, in smiling. History has taught us we are controlled through fear. Often white fear.
Fear of losing face. Fear of losing that good job. Fear of jeopardising our position in the organisation. Fear of not paying the bills. Fear of losing credibility and network and support and friends and allies and of becoming the target of violent structures. Fear of losing the crumbs we’ve been handed. The fear of freedom always hides behind some other fear. Everyday we must decide whether we are going to choose freedom. I do not know that we can ever not be afraid. But I know that to not become consumed by fear, we must confront it over and over and over again.
Each moment we decide to embrace fear, we make the choice of no longer being controlled. We choose fear over the subjugation of the slave inside.
That’s what freedom is to me. The everyday choice of taking a dive amidst the disapproving voice of our internal master.
I do not force this praxis on anyone.
Please stop forcing yours on me.
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