To my fabulous Great-grandmother, Sedina Nako Née Joké, and Nieces Selna and Camila.
You are the lullabies that rest our heads gently when darkness falls.
What's in a place?
When I think about the men in my family, my body grows feeble, murky, and tired. It is as if by the mere utterance of the terms men and family, every white blood cell in my body sucks itself dry in protest of what it has just heard. A kind of gradual weakness overcomes my body. It traverses in two directions. It moves below my knees where it paralyzes my feet first - before it decides to voyage upwards, towards every vital organ that keeps the motor running. When it reaches my stomach, it settles. It sits in. It relaxes its weary head and pauses for a while. The wait is denoted by what becomes a permanent invasion. As the idea of men and family assimilates and colonizes me from the inside, my eyes trapeze. My hair grows temporarily into something that resembles an intersection of a current that swerves into a thousand little streamlets. My body feels a tingling sensation and I am immediately reminded of something in departure - of a body laid to rest - of a promise abandoned. And I become unsure about what its absence means to my own reality.
I was raised by a congregation of illustrious women from the hills of Fako, Cameroon who ran households, put multiple children through schools, organized around their communities, cultivated farms, sold crops and livestock in open markets, etc. They do ordinary things. They smile and breathe on their way to Baptist churches on Sunday mornings. At funerals, they wear damask and carry white handkerchiefs to dry their ebony faces. They have names that roll off tongues like endless possibilities. They are love in the flesh. They are the peaceful sweet thoughts that lay hearts to rest when daylight shuts its eyes and night seizes the day. They are so illustrious, you can't see them until after their bodies are thrown against white walls. They are colors the rainbow's crawling back can!t carry - they are black. Black resourceful, black strong, with black gums and deep black roots - buried far into the earth. They sport womanhood like nooses around their necks. They have necks. And shoulders. And bodies. They have ambitions. And miseries. And prayers. They say them on bended knees from the corners of their mattresses at night and on their way to farms and in kitchens while they pound away Cassava and Coco-yam leaves.
Amongst the numerous things they taught us as children, masculinity was a subject that somehow to us never seemed of interest to them. It was as if they never stopped to interrogate its consequences on their lives. When they did, it was simply to acknowledge the sex of their sons, brothers, husbands, and friends. And to talk about whether or not a person who identified as male had found a wife. Additionally, masculinity was talked about in passing as something that lingered. Not like the sweet smell of hot coco-yam porridge in a bowl but rather like something that existed without a traceable source. Like smoke without a fire. Commonly, boys are raised to become providers, protectors, property owners, etc. while girls are raised to become women - who take on names, the bearing and raising of children, and many responsibilities men reject. They are trained to be at the whims first of their fathers, uncles, brothers, and subsequently, at the beg and call of men who will eventually become their husbands. This is why it is not the faces of men that come to mind when I hear the word Masculinity. It is the faces of women, girls, and boys. It is their faces that harbor the definition of masculinity to me. Masculinity: a legacy of loneliness, absence, complete disregard, a desire to own and control, open wounds, etc. It is their bodies that recollect the treachery and constant domination of masculinity.
What's in the idea of a father?
I am somehow simultaneously crushed and consoled by the fact that I was spared any and every indignity and toxicity that comes with a man who doesn't value the efforts of a woman he lives with. That also meant I wasn!t taught about what a man is. Beyond the occasional: a man needs to be sensible, a provider, he ought to marry and father sons to fill his house, he ought to be propertied and monied or else when people think of him only the desire for laughter and rejection will ensue, I did not know the complexities that came with that territory. In 1995, there were no YouTube videos to aid my curiosity of how to knot a tie - nor was there someone to instruct me on the significance of grooming. The one-man whose responsibility it was, decided it was okay to free himself of his responsibilities to my mother and me. By the time I was old enough to question him on his withdrawal and his refusal to provide an actual male role model to his young son, he had been dead for at least five years. Around that same time, I learned that I was not like any of the boys around me. I began to discover that what was expected and seen as masculine in others were things I could not live up to. They were things I had to fight hard to see in myself. A self that could only be loved, respected, and regarded as equally worthy when seen as adequately male. His absence taught me something. It taught me that masculinity is a myriad of things. A legacy of loneliness passed down from one generation to the next. A bed without a body. A room without a door. A picture without a frame. It is something on a pedestal seated with knees spread wide open. Its countries are looted and void of emotional foundations. In addition, it taught me that the term father carries a question mark as its tail.
On days where I am not self-loathing, I drag my body across a room in Wedding to the corner where a mirror resides to scrutinize and look at it closely. Doing so, I challenge its existence, its function, and what it becomes when it is standing next to something or someone. It's insecurities, its anxieties, its passions. I ask about what keeps it chained to the idea of oppressive masculinity and I wonder whether it is the security performative masculinity guarantees. The many mouths that reside within, who have become responsible for whether or not I see me as worthy of love and kindness on any given day because of the things they tell me, say: 'it is something else'. So I begin to wonder. 'Maybe it is my face - maybe it is my skin. Maybe, it is my body'. And then I realize I have no control over what people think its function is.
What's in a name?
A legacy - perpetual subjugation? What I learned about masculinity from living vicariously through uncles, friends, cousins, and other men in my life is as follows: masculinity is undisputed. It is set in stone, sowed at the roots of trees, cemented in records like birth certificates, property deeds, etc. When a man has a son, he teaches himself to have hope, pride, and wealth. He invites his ancestors, the elders in his community, his brothers, friends, and allies to celebrate and dine on his dime. What he is honoring is not simply the gift of a new life. He is celebrating a name and an idea of a future he believes rests exclusively on the shoulders of a male child. That is; he is glorifying the fact that he has been given a body he can colonize. He starts by marking that body with a name. A name to which the body must become indebted. A name that suggests responsibilities, and a certain way of being. A name that signifies the body's function to its community, and to its father's desires without fully taking into account what it means to live a life of service to others while having nothing to one's self.
What's in a desire?
A need to revise. A deep yearning to heal from all of the despairs of toxic masculinity. A wish for men temperate enough to welcome difficult conversations about who we are becoming - and fathers who are okay with evolving. Fathers who articulate what they feel without fear of judgment. Fathers who make mistakes and own up to it - fathers whose sentences do not begin and end with: a real man is... We long for brothers and uncles who send hand-written letters covered in stickers and emojis. We desire fathers who hold hands with their sons and watch them cross finish lines - we demand fathers whose words are their bonds - we want fathers whose voices are so soft, they are sweet tales in our ears. Fathers whose masculinity is a song that embraces itself in its harmonies. Fathers who break the cycle of generational trauma.