position politics / politics of sides: “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers”

Blog, Founder’s Note / May. 20th, 2022

My mind wanders back to a time when I was way way younger – back when I was 16, and years before my mother transitioned (I will be 37 this July, do the calculation yourself). So years before she joined the ancestral plane, my uncles and aunties were very disrespectful; they went out of their way to disrespect my parents. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a one-sided story, because I can’t say that my father wasn’t also disrespectful to his siblings; he was, and they were all building a very toxic environment. For my mother, I can say that she wasn’t the one to be physically or verbally violent, but she was aware of her presence, her voice, and she took advantage of it. I bet, sometimes, when my father moved with his venom towards others or even when they were aggressive towards her, maybe he and they were all responding to the whispers and presence of my mother. who knows. Put it all together- business, family, tension, envy, hatred, love, bitterness, the violence and identity of being Esan and Benin – that was my family.

Still, with all the different crazy scenarios, my mother found a way to always let my siblings and I know that these people were still family. She found a way to make us not hate these people (who we easily could hate). I have cousins who have completely cut off my dad, uncles and aunties, and I have uncles and aunties who don’t fuck with each other, can’t stand each other’s presence. But my mother always found a way for my siblings and I to be in good light or, at least, on speaking terms with relatives. I am sure she also had people that she didn’t like, but she didn’t allow her personal relationships to affect or overshadow our relationships. You could argue that she didn’t protect us, that she exposed us, or you could say that she allowed us to have our own experience. There are multiple arguments here. Whichever side you pick, you might not be wrong. Today, I know the people in my family with whom I don’t want to share space, people I love and those that I don’t like. I have come to my own decision, from my own experience, and this I am thankful to my mother for. The politics of taking sides is so complicated.

What does it mean to take sides? This comes to my mind regularly, and recently it has been brought up again through a series of conversations I have been having with my fellows at Universität der Künste Berlin (UDK), Germany. A few of them are passionate about the importance of having a position or taking sides and making it known. This confuses me because sides change.

Whenever I hear a politician say, “I am on the side of the people” – for me, this is just a politician playing mind games with the people. Period. Because truly ask yourself, what is the “side” of the people? Are the murderers, drug dealers, evil doers et al not amongst the people? But I don’t think this is what people hear. I guess what they hear is the moral side. Does that mean I don’t have the moral high ground? Do I have morals? I do. I just accept that my moral high ground isn’t the only high ground and that my political views, as complex as they come, are not for everybody.

My sweet sister in-law, one of the sweetest souls you might ever meet, and who I now consider my sister a truly beautiful soul -saw me gardening this morning and gave me a series of compliments, like “this is honorable, this is kind” and a few other words of affection, that she normally gives whenever I seem to be doing any heavy lifting around the house. In my confusion, I just stood there staring, she noticed and added, “oh what,” and I thought, I don’t think she expects me to use those same words for her if she gardens or is doing some heavy house chores. Is she complimenting me because she doesn’t think it is my position to garden? If so, does that mean that though she is doing this sweet thing, she also doesn’t see me as a full part of this house? In my confusion, I responded to her and said, “ I live here, you know.” So many sides to everything.

SIDES: it’s a very complex thing; sides, very complex. Where I grew up in Benin City, I have witnessed the families of muderers care and love the people who murdered others in “cold blood”. Does that mean that those who show murderers love are wicked or bad? What confusion is that, what does that look like? When I was younger, I judged those people. “Take a side,” I would say, how can you love a murderer? This same memory reminds me of a question I asked one of my fellows last week. I actually think he is admirable for the side he has taken, in connection to the country he is from, a very troubled country, with troubled leaders and violence in the community. While in conversation, he questioned my political multiplicities, which is my ability to empathise with all sides, and my ability to take or change sides at any given moment. This, I feel, was opposite to his philosophy of taking a side, and in that moment and in his quest to explain why it is important to take a side, he shared the story of how he had been troubled by his grandfather’s past history of owning a plantation. In the process of writing his grandfather’s eulogy, he had to take a side. As he shared the story, though,I looked into his eyes and I saw a love for his grandfather and a distaste for his grandfather’s actions. I could see his struggles. And as he spoke, I also couldn’t help thinking about some of my ancestors –

I say some because not all my ancestors were enslaved or colonised by white European
people. That isn’t the only ancestral link I have. But in listening to my colleague speak about
his grandfather owning plantations, and in thinking about the history of plantations in which
some of my ancestors were the lowest crop, while at the same time seeing the love he had
for his grandfather, I could have clinged to that and fired at him about our ancestral
entanglements. But I didn’t. Instead, I asked him a question in response to his statement
about the need for him to “ take a side.” I asked, “what does it look like to take a side in the
moment where your grandfather was a plantation owner?” He couldn’t answer me directly.
I am sure we will continue this someday…

For some people, taking a side would mean my fellow damning his grandfather during the eulogy, going on stage and saying that his grandfather was a wicked and bad man, disowning one’s family and cutting everyone in one’s family who doesn’t go in y(our) direction, changing y(our) family name etc. What do sides really look like? I chose to see whatever side my fellow presented, I chose to see his struggles and I empathised with him.

The amazing administrative staff of my current research fellowship in Berlin, at UDK, work in an institution socialised in whiteness.You can see them constantly attempting to create a safe space, you can see them making the effort. If I was to only look at them as just people, they are as lovely as it could get, maybe. But they are white people, socialised in whiteness, caught up in a line of race corruption, a corruption rooted in all the isms. They are unconsciously socialised to feel superior and they are working in a white institution that is designed for people like them to flourish and for people like me to struggle. So I am looking at these nice people who are holding positions in a system that is, directly and indirectly, abusive and aggressive to people like me. I am also looking at people who sometimes are unconscious as to how they take up space. So, as I look at them through the lens of an Esan, Benin, Nigerian, African, Black person, I am aware that there are so many sides towards them that I could take. I have decided to take the side that is outspoken about an oppressive system(and they represent that system), so when I speak with them, I want my voice to be a reminder that they represent an oppressive system. This might present as aggressive, abrasive, offensive – whatever word you want to use-toward them (as people?). There are multiple sides from which to look at this.

If they are true allies, they could also take the side of people who recognise that they represent a problematic system and understand that when I speak, I am not speaking to them but about the system. They might actually applaud the fact that I am reclaiming my ancestral voice and using it, but I don’t know if they do. This conflict doesn’t change the fact that I see them as lovely people. That won’t change because they represent multiplicities; their work doesn’t completely sum all they are.

Do you know how many sides I present?

I have witnessed a father experience being a father for the first time, and was right beside him as he saw his child for the first time. I have seen people die violently. I have seen people die “unexpectedly.” I have experienced people become millionaires unexpectedly and seen people work hard and make it in whatever materialistic way “making it” could look like. I have seen some end up with nothing.

I have worked hard, very very hard. If you were to gauge me from whatever materialistic standpoint, I might or might not have the money to show how hard I have worked. If I am to look at myself from what I think wealth is, I am one of the richest persons walking through space. So which side should I bring into space when I move? There are so many versions of me that are unique to me. I truly can’t guarantee that you meet the same version of me every time we meet.

I move with different memories, some attached to trauma, joy, pain, love… I move with memories attached to memories that I don’t even know about.

So what side do you ask me to take when you say, “take a side”? Don’t I have the right to decide my side each time I have to take one?

In this world where everyone is directly or indirectly affected by the language of the internet world and of performing an idea, performing a version of ourselves once we step out into the world, we constantly choose the performance we give depending on who our audience is. How often do you go to the same show multiple times and have the same experience? Can you guarantee that you will notice the same things from the show every time? In this world when we talk about intrinsic topics, where no one person has a full handle on the answer, it’s not really in vogue to bring in beliefs, spirituality and all, but I am bringing in spirituality, because I know there is a spirit realm.

Even though my spirit realm may differ from yours, there is a spirit realm. And in the spirit realm, I don’t think the goal is to decide what is good or bad. In partnership, when my partner protects me or I protect them in ways that may be violent to another, does that mean our actions are void of love? Are we now just bad people? Are we now rooted in evil? Is the goal to try to be good in your eyes? What does a safe space look like? If we protect each other from the world, does that mean our actions are loveless?

If we as people begin to point the light we shine on scenarios and other people back on ourselves, then maybe we will see morality with a constant dent.

We are all somehow part of a community. One of mine is back in Accra where a couple I used to be cool with fell out because the woman accused her partner of being an abuser. Before this came to light, I had already distanced myself from the man in the relationship because I felt that he was mentally abusive towards people, aggressive, ego driven and more. So it wasn’t hard for me to take the side of the woman when she spoke her truth, and in trying to give support, a smaller community was formed, sides were taken, friends became enemies. We used to be cool but now you disgust me just because you took a side. Regarding one particular woman I used to really respect, something changed after a few personal experiences with her, yet I saw her love people and others love her too and as we had the opportunity to talk about the case of the guy who was accused of being abusive, she may be felt we were on the same side and felt safe to share that she wished death on the man. That struck me and I had to really think about my response, and all I could say was that “I don’t wish death on him.” I said this to ensure that she knew we weren’t on the same side. But I wish I had said more to her, so permit me to finish my response here: If you are reading this, please know that when I said “I don’t wish death on him,” I actually meant that I wish that he finds love, healing, happiness and that the community that continues to stand by him continues to love him, and I also wish that he doesn’t continue to hurt, abuse, harass, oppress people, and I wish that he finds it in his heart to be a better person.

As you can see, one moment I am passing judgment and the next moment I am asking myself, who am I to even pass judgment. The spiritual student that I am understands that everything is right where it is meant to be, but it is also a world where we have white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism et al, all these oppressive things that feed a small group of people. Though I don’t agree with these ideas, I move through space with the understanding that things are where they are supposed to be, and out of that, I try out to make space inclusive, safer, more open, where marginalised voices can speak, can be seen and can be whatever they want to be. Here comes my spiritual body looking at my physical body saying – you are just foolish, because everything is where it’s supposed to be, and my physical body is looking at my spiritual body and saying – you are just too neutral, too high or too low. “No, this is right and this is wrong, you aren’t facing reality” – and to even think that I have other bodies( but won’t be introducing them here to spare you the confusion). As much as I am aware of these two bodies, I still have blindsides, physical and spiritual, and I struggle with the things I even think I understand. Do I even know sh*t? Why are both my physical and spiritual bodies in opposition sometimes, or even most times? What do sides really look like?

Love can present itself as hate, pain, sweetness, kindness, disaster, purity and so many ways. Whatever you think good or bad is, what the fuck is love? On my wedding week, I realised that a couple we already considered friends would become family judging by how present they were in our lives. This couple was going to be in our lives for as long as we remain family. And while we were having a sweet time, I found myself in conversation with the man(who is white)- someone I have had a series of political, in-depth, passionate and personal topics with, one of the few white people who I think moves with the awareness of his privilege and is willing to speak about it as honestly as he can. And I also know we love rap music. So in the moment of enjoyment and work, I looked at him and asked him this question –

“Do you say ‘nigga’ when you rap and sing these songs in private?” He looked at me with struggle and pain in his face and said, “nooo, I don’t”. The look I saw in his face that day is the same one I saw in my fellow’s face (the fellow at UDK I mentioned earlier). I could feel this sincere energy.He admitted, “sometimes it slips.” That’s when I realised what the look on his face was about. He couldn’t lie because he loved and cared for me, and instead he was willing to gamble our growing relationship to stay truthful to me and himself.

I don’t know what he expected my reaction to be, never asked him what he expected, but this is what I said to him, “the real work isn’t what we do or say when the world is watching, it is about what we do or say when no one is watching,” and I have continued to love him, even more now than I loved him back then. I respect him and care for him, and he knows this through actions. I don’t know if the word still slips. He knows I would wish that the word no longer slips, but that aside, I still love and respect him and I would never use our vulnerable moment as a weapon whenever we talk about positions of politics, race and all of these very important worldly topics. I know that he is more.I see how he loves people, how he cares for people, how he constantly tries to make space safer and open for people. So in this case, I can’t just see him as just a white man. He is my friend, my brother, and I will fight and protect him if he is in danger. I too take a different position when on panels speaking on all things racial related, while being the same person taking the position I am taking at UDK. So what side is that?

I started staying in Berlin in October 2021. The city has given me great opportunities, given me robust conversations that excite me, given me some beautiful experiences, given me sweet moments, and my partner likes the city. Some people will argue that because of all of these experiences in Berlin, I should already be falling in love with the city and my answer to them is this,

I don’t really like Berlin, yet.

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