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Archive for the tag “Zenique Gardner”

How I Fell in Love with “Shaniqua”: Why African-Americans DON’T Need New Names

I spent my formative years in the small predominately black city of East Saint Louis, Illinois.  I grew up with friends whose names were Shaunta, Kwintessa, LaCreshia, Tameka, Ariana, Tanisha, and Miesha.  The boys who chased us had names like Lamont, Tyrone, Demetrius, Terrell, Malik, Darnell and Jamal. Everything about what we called each other felt right.  These were our names and we carried them with pride, correcting pronunciation when warranted, enunciating each consonant and vowel, spelling it when the listener didn’t return the right phonetic sounds associated with our identity.     

It wasn’t until I moved to the suburbs that I realized the shame that had been misappropriated upon such names.  How both black and white folks with plainer names snickered at those of us who had more intricately “ethnic” names. It was when I shared classrooms with the Sarahs, Emilys, Kates, Connors, Dustins and Lukes that I embraced nicknames—dropping “-nique” and adding an extra “e” to “Ze” or taking on the highly regarded Buddhist term which also happens to be the first syllable of my name. 

As I got older and my social circles continued to diversify, I became more lenient about how others referred to me, readily offering “Zee” as an alternative during quick introductions and in insignificant small-talk interactions. 

Then, last year, these things happened:

  • A reporter dismissed Quvenzhane’ Wallis’ name altogether and wanted to call her by the character she will play in an upcoming movie   
  • Following that debacle, this quote from Somali poet, Warsan Shire surfaced:

“Give your daughters difficult names.

Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue.

My name makes you want to tell me the truth.

My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

  • At an event, a stranger scolded me when I allowed a man to automatically shorten my name after I had uttered my full first name to him twice
  • I spent two weeks in Nigeria and attended a workshop in Lagos with Damilola, Okechukwu, Timendu, Kelechi, Arinze, and Uchenna who represented the Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa tribes
  • And then I went to Uganda for three months and hung out with Margaret, Ruth, Alice, Ben, Mark, and Alex – my Baganda, Bakiga, and Acholi friends who preferred their “Christian” names versus the names of their ancestors
  • I had a conversation with a close Ugandan friend who gave her daughter an African name after a talk with her husband where he suggested that they give their children African names. She quoted his question, “Why should we take on the names of white people? Would they take on ours?”

Somewhere in the midst of these experiences, I began to see the beauty of African-American names, both subtle and extreme.  Yes, even the stereotypical “black” names that are used in sitcoms and parodies—the Shananaes and Shaniquas and Tyrones; the names we chuckle at when reading it on applications and Facebook profiles; the names we laugh and ask, “Now what were his/her parents thinking about when they named that child that?”

I will tell you what they were probably thinking: They were probably thinking of a unique and royal title for their child—something strong, significant, and complicated, much like our history, our legacy, our obstacles.  They were probably thinking of a name that curls and catches on the tongue with the clicks and slits reminiscent of the languages we lost long ago.  They were probably proud of their blackness, their heritage, their culture and they made the decision NOT to give in to the societal pressures of dumbing down a name to something common and insignificant to appease the naysayers.

Today, I think these names deserve an apology and applause—even if only in our hearts and even if these are names that we wouldn’t choose for our own children. Let us uplift the parents who are brave enough to bestow such a brand of names on their children who, in turn, should be able to bear them proudly.       

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Could 2014 Be My PEN-ULTIMATE Year??

I have declared 2014 my Write or Die Year.

Of course I don’t plan to physically die, but I do plan to let the dream of becoming a full-time, novel/short-story writer die if I can’t prove to myself that I can be totally committed and disciplined to write—not just regularly—but on a daily basis.

My vision board for 2014 is all about writing, submitting and applying to contests, publications, residencies and MFA programs.  I promised myself to complete two short stories that have been on my computer for over a year and begin the rigorous process of writing a novel. To be sure I stay focused, I have even sworn off Facebook for the first six months of this year (with a few exceptions).

My personal goal is 1000 words a day.  To the seasoned novelist, I am sure this goal is equivalent to a text message word count. I get it. However, what I am really aiming for is a consistent writing schedule instead of sporadic, manic writing fits where I type 3000 words in one night, but won’t fit in another writing day for two or more weeks.

Those stories are usually left untold.

In addition to signing out of my most addictive social media site, I also did a few other things to prepare for my PEN-ULTIMATE Year. Here’s a glance at my plan:

  • Taking advice from Pinar Tarhan who had a feature in the November 8th Funds for Writers newsletter (if you’re a writer and you don’t already receive this free weekly newsletter, you absolutely should subscribe!), I decided to commit to a part-time retail job for the months that I will be writing.  My job provides enough flexibility to allow me to stay up late nights to write while also being lucrative enough to pay the bills.
  • I scaled back on social time, allowing myself only certain days and times for play.  Before, I jumped at too many events without considering my work first.  This year, I intend to maintain a good balance of work and play.
  • I decided to take a break from freelancing, journalist gigs and blogging until my stories are complete.

Ten days into the year and my writing commitment and I am feeling pretty good.  However, I have decided to keep my blog going, contributing to it at least once a week. I am very excited about this endeavor and I think sharing my writing experiences—or whatever other stories I feel compelled to share— here on lastletterfirstword will also help me build brain muscle!

What are your writing goals for 2014? Could this be your Write or Die Year, too? Pens up!

White Privilege at UCU

This is an Opinion article (before the published edits) that I recently submitted to Uganda Christian University’s campus paper, The Standard, and was subsequently published this week (21 October 2013).  In 2008, I studied here with BestSemester.com’s Uganda Studies Program (USP) offered through my alma mater, Eastern University and I am currently in Mukono visiting the campus often working on a personal writing project.  I welcome your (constructive) feedback, comments, and questions. 

This may be uncomfortable, but I think it’s time we talk about “white privilege” at UCU.  Although it is rarely addressed publicly, people on campus—Ugandan, white, and other—are not oblivious to it.

I am an “other” though I am often mistaken for a Ugandan.  However, I am a dark-skinned Black-American woman.  My host mom often reminds me that if I stay quiet, I can pass for a Muganda woman and move around like any other Ugandan.  Mostly, I am grateful for this, especially when I am around my fairer friends who lament about being so obviously different and the unwanted attention it regularly attracts.  Alternatively, I have also been engaged in conversations where I have heard white students (and sometimes staff), either proud or embarrassed, talk about the passes they receive or rules they are allowed to break because they are bzungus. 

For example, in a recent conversation, an instructor told me how some of her students privately expressed elation about having a white professor versus a Ugandan one.  In another conversation, where I complained about going to the library because of the mandatory bag and water bottle check, my white friends said that they were rarely stopped and asked to check their items.  And finally, in light of the heightened security checks at the gates of UCU, one USP’er reluctantly confessed that he has frequently been allowed to bypass the line and enter without scrutiny.  Whether all of this happens because of deference or indifference, it seems white visitors are able to move around with a little more freedom and favor than their darker counterparts.

As a USP’er in 2008, such occurrences paired with my own experiences of racial inequity that is ever-present in the U.S. frustrated me and somehow left me struggling with Christianity and the imagery of Jesus Christ as represented across nations.  Is it because white people so closely resemble the image of God that we are compelled to revere them?

With the help of prayer, personal revelations, and the Word of God, I eventually reconciled my issues around Jesus Christ and the color line.  The Bible speaks repeatedly to the uniqueness of us all and, yet, our still undeniable likeness to Him.  From all men and women being created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27) which also means that we are each “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), to the New Testament promise that “we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2) and that Christ’s purpose was “to create in Himself one new man out of the two” (Ephesians 2:15), the Scriptures helped me understand that it is not God’s will for any of us to be treated differently—whether it is for better or for worse.  But rather, especially as Christians, that we strive to treat each other the same—with love, respect, and honor, upholding the same expectations for all peoples.  I hope that at UCU the focus will not be to please those in our world who are lighter, but to always aspire to please the One who is The Light of the world.

Selected Writers for 2013 Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop

I am extremely honored to be counted among these amazing writers and to be learning under the tutelage of Chimamanda Adichie, Binyavanga Wainaina and our other esteemed teachers. These are the moments when you are affirmed in the work that you do and the choices that you make to pursue your craft. I won’t get to preaching here, will save it for another day. But I am feeling really blessed.

Farafina Books

Chimamanda Adichie

In April, Farafina Trust called for entries for the 2013 Farafina Trust creative writing workshop, inviting writers from all over the world to submit their short pieces. From the numerous applicants, twenty-five outstanding writers have been selected to participate in the workshop this year, which will be taught by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eghosa Imasuen, Binyavanga Wainaina and other writers of note.

The selected writers this year are:

1. Zenique Gardner (USA)
2. Maryam  Shuaib (Minna)
3. Tolu Agunbiade (Ketu)
4. Timendu Aghahowa (Ikeja)
5. Abdulrashid Muhammad (Abuja)
6. Uchenna Ude (Lagos)
7. Udoh Charles Rapulu (Onitsha)
8. Gbolahan Adeola (USA)
9. Lilian Izuorah (Minna)
10. Suleiman Agbonkhianmen ( Lagos)
11. Nicholas Ochiel (Kenya)
12. Yakubu Damilola Daniel (Kwara)
13. Kelechi Njoku (Abuja)
14. Lesley Nneka Arimah (USA)
15. Tajudeen Sagaya (Lagos)
16. Adaora Nwankwo (Onitsha)
17. Chidinma Nnamani (Enugu)
18. Arinze Daniel Ifeakandu (Kano)
19. Okpanachi Eyo Michael (Zaria)
20. Okechukwu Otukwu…

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Before Living Where the Yellow Wallpaper Is

Day 8.  Reflections while People watching. Journal entry. Circa 2013

She stood at the corner of 18th and Sansom talking to herself– poised in business attire with an oversized wool coat and a pair of shabby brown boots, likely all digs found in a thrift store or taken from a soup kitchen. Her head was shorn and what grew on top had been dyed blonde and already pushed out by new black growth. She stood there all theatrical with a full face of makeup– mostly hues of pink and much too light for her skin tone– and lamented about what went wrong between “them”. This wasn’t a monologue, it was a dialogue. She saw her companion before her and pleaded for understanding, “You just don’t see what has happened with us, do you? I don’t know what you want me to do. I’m torn and you don’t even see it.”  There was a shrill in her voice, but the words came out proper and perfect– so perfect she would be accused of sounding “white” in the most urban parts of the city. A couple of young girls passed her and took a second look back and chuckled loudly with confusion at the woman. I took in an eyeful of her as I passed and dared not laughed or even smirk at her position– tall but hunkered over with desperation in her eyes. My brain rattled with how close I have come to losing myself in hurt and in love– never seeing myself on corners cursing or sobbing or begging, but coming pretty damn close.

Grave

Day 7. For Granny. November 2012

Yesterday I learned
That death is cold and gray.
Facing stone
Kneeling on new grass
Arms outstretched
And splayed fingers
Reaching for what my soul
Had lost.
I brought no gifts
I performed no ancient rituals
Nor did I recite religious rants
For the lost.
I only sat
Sinking into broken earth
the wind washing over me
Offering my tears
For all that is no more.

Sister Girlfriends

Day 6. Excerpt from “Same-Sex Spirituality” an essay from the “Faith and Bullshit” collection. Circa 2011.

She had a lot to drink at the party and it has become pretty typical for her to get into some type of funk once the music stops and she has to move from dim-lit dance floors to concrete sidewalks to the carpet in her bedroom, a new mood unveiling itself along the way.  But tonight she is more contemplative than usual.  She and her partner of four years recently ended their stint and it’s obvious that the idea of her ex-girlfriend dating men and moving on makes her feel empty.

We arrive at her house, sloppily climb the stairs and fall on the bed.  Any other night, she is rambling off obscenities and spewing slurred lyrics that make us both laugh until sleep overtakes us.  But not now.  We lay in bed fully clothed.  Close.  The sole light source comes from beyond the windows and the quiet is interrupted only by the swoosh-swoosh of cars on Broad Street and the low hum of the miniature heater that we turned on to knock out the 2am March morning chill that hovered in the room.

I am fading to sleep.  I turn over first to make sure she is already dozing before allowing myself to slip into slumber.  She is staring up at the ceiling.  In the darkness, I see her lashes move with each blink, but otherwise her eyes are wide open.  I turn my body towards hers and move closer, resting my chin on her shoulder.

“What’s wrong, Pumkin?” I ask her through her dreadlocks which are splayed across the pillow.

“I’m sad, Nique.” The sniffles begin and the tears follow. “I miss her.  And I hate this dating shit.  And I don’t feel like I can talk to anybody about how I feel,” she managed between heaves.

“Awww, Pumkin,” I kiss her wet cheek and taste the salt on my lips. “You can always talk to me.  I’m here.”

I wrap my arm snugly around her. She tilts her head to rest on my forehead and continues to cry.  She doesn’t acknowledge my offer tonight and we say nothing more before going to sleep.

Cigarettes and Oil

Day 5. Circa 2010.

He holds the cigarette in his hand, a stream of smoke ascending from the lit tip.  It’s halfway done, even though he has only taken two draws from it.   It burns between his fingers more than it burns between his lips and, at this moment, I wish I smoked so I could take a few hits on it to both taste the wetness he leaves on the paper and to ease my angst about the wastefulness of the thing.

Why do I care? I think to myself.  After all, no one wants anyone to smoke these days with ubiquitous posters and billboards screaming:  “YOUR CIGARETTE KILLS THE AIR AND UNBORN BABIES!” Perhaps I too should preach about the atrocities of burning up an American Spirit and blowing its smoke out your mouth.   That’s not my thing, though—I leave that for the environment freaks and fault-finding Christians.

I inhale the secondhand smoke that mingles with the scent of his body which smells of sandalwood or patchouli, likely a fragrance oil that he purchased from some Muslim guy who sells them on a North Philly street or in an underground subway car.

Who can resist an aromatic roll of scented oil from the strange hand extended to you on your commute from City Hall to Cecil B. Moore?  You know this guy in the long robe and short pants makes a living from these miniature vials and if you have a five dollar bill, you hand it to him—still crumpled from your pants pocket—and watch a smile appear somewhere between the bushy beard on his chin and the knit kufi pulled over his brow.  With this, he uses both hands to place the small bottles in your palm, gives a hearty thanks and then glides over to the other passengers, occasionally bidding “Salaam-ailakum” to the burka-covered woman or other bearded brother dressed just like him.      

I am thankful for those pious palm-holding, vial-selling, subway peddlers when I am in his presence.  I am even thankful for menthol Newports, Marlboro soft packs, and Camel Lights when he’s around.  If he ever asks if the smoke bothers me, I would tell him how hopeful I am that the scent of his cigarette stays with me until I arrive home and get in bed—just let the smell of smoke ascend above my head and form a halo around me as I sleep. 

Or I would just say to him, “No, it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Confession in a Parked Car

Day 4. a poetry class journal entry. Circa 2009

 

There is only stale air and failed words

Between us

There has been no truth for days

Now silence

Endless deliberation

Be honest or tell lies?

Lies

That have fallen flat for days

And widened the chasm

Between us

He sits up straight

Separated

only by the inches

Between us

Steering wheel in hand,

His head low,

He confessed.

I cried.

Four months apart

Had been too long.

Of Silent Types

Day 3. Poetry. Circa 2009.

Lately,

I have tried to refrain

from saying I love you

and, instead, be like you.

Lately, I see

that love ain’t about

the words formed

in my mouth

or in cursive

on little lime-green post-its

that I have placed

in your brown bagged lunch with chips,

but on your face

and in your eyes

when you pick me up

on rainy days.

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