wonju street

the whole day was lost to worry
and so on for three odd years.

they tell me to stay detached,
how does that work?

if i could not drown in things i know
why would i leave the house?

in mornings when the sun sends shards
of light at my head from the eastern

windows where i lie on
my many dawn lusts:

your great eyes and easy and
naked drunken light?

in evenings when the sky goes dark
before its time, six o’clock maybe,

and after lashings of rain pass seems to
reel backwards before the sunset into

the pale torpor of an afternoon that
that could not have existed?

the core of the world is doom
like magma the color of blood

never more than a couple miles
below my feet

and the ground is a worrisome place;
there is no time for irony.

vanish down the canyon of fate
or do so with eyes shut

is the only choice we really ever have—
easy days and friendless nights

slow little towns in nowhere and journeys
so often untaken

unrequited feelings and
uncertain twenty-four year old dreams—
why would i love all this,

is the wrong question, darling.
why wouldn’t i?

for findlay, ohio

lying by a picnic table
in the belly of the night

somewhere so nondescript
it was in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan
all at the same time:

a town with a name
like Fayetteville
you know is everywhere

having wandered through rain
through thin corridors
of oaks not yet in leaf

he was trying to think of
somewhere better than
between sodden cotton

and whatever else;
Wild Turkey in a little
plastic bottle

but realized he only
imagined elsewhere in
a certain kind of way:

disembodied like a
waking dream, silent
with distant music

and no voices there,
but time maybe,
time maybe finally.

thinking what if
beauty was actually
not having to think

all the time about picturesque
desolations and stolen moments
or ambient music and the psalm

nisi dominus aedificaverit;
but a loud place, full of
people instead of images.

vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:
imagine instead
a cacophony of voices

and the pleasure of motion
non confundetur cum loquetur
inimicis suis in porta, do you see?

it need not be so grey.
enamor yourself with
neighbors, he thought.

sleeping on gravel
in a lonely wayside park
somewhere unknown

wishing for horizons on
his back, but seeing only
the faint furrows of low cloud

and the pathlessness of space beyond
the rain.

parham road, henrico

(i called you last night late
because i’m going mad)

the sun comes down but the frogs
can’t rest because they know, the chain link
fence around the yard disappearing into
the mute lascivious grass. thunder as an abstract
concept, thunder as the truth;
lightning as a five year plan or
lightning as your meal.

(it was dark and
had rained; the mountain

was not there, just suburban
gloom. and the storm came)

first the sun goes down but you can still see fine:
you can take your glasses off and see a green sky,
the air shuddering in place with its own guilt,
full of noisome shame; wind but no rustling,
thunder somewhere close but nothing yet.
finally the obesity of drops, the rain left in
the faucet from last time.

(i called you last night
knowing that the worst was

going on. and madness means
knowing that but

it not stopping. i’m sorry
to be how i am)

and the storm rose like an exhumed body from
the harbor bottom, matted and vengeful,
drenching the world in souvenirs of its bondage,
its place where it had been, as if to say i was not
in the water, i was in drowning, and this is not
water, but what drowning is.
you tripped and fell in the sodden
immensity of the hillside

and you did not leave until the next morning;
not until it all stopped.

because you hoped
to leach into the soil, probably,
if you stayed still.

or you hoped for someone
to come get you,
but no one even knew
you were there.

(i called you last night. i’m sorry;
this is very probably the end.

i was curious how long
i could last;

it’s okay,

it’s okay—

in hyattsville

truth be told, i do so little good for this world;
far below my share, mostly think about
getting married.

mostly walk alone familiar roads, mostly seek
the same old spirits out, wish for when i
finally settle down.

mostly dream unfashionable dreams, houses and
children and a thousand things like that: i impress
myself with the smallness of my hope—

three acres in Highland and someone who
can stand me, i think, you would never hear from me
again.

this is how i sleep at night; can you believe that shit?
spend your life trying to figure out the
endless child in you:

finicky and petty thing, a heart.
it would invent miseries
no matter what you have.

and as parent to yourself, you spend a life
feeding what never stays fed, even dreaming modestly you
almost lose your mind

for what? for a golden hill, the laughter of a featureless woman
yet unknown, for what gladness might be—
but what is gladness really

if it always just might be?

On Carnival in Trinidad (and Plans for the Future!)

I’m still getting the hand of this website thing, and I’d like to post more African history-related content, but it’s difficult to convert papers that I write in Pages or Word to a WordPress post.  As such, I think what I’m going to do is upload papers to my Academia.edu profile and post the links here.

Here you can access the somewhat monstrous but perhaps interesting term paper I wrote for Prof. Glenn Chambers‘s excellent Comparative Black History seminar this spring.  It deals with the historiography of Carnival in Trinidad, a topic I don’t mind admitting that I knew nothing about before I embarked on my research.  I’ve long been interested in Carnival (mostly Cape Town’s Tweede Nuwejaar celebration), and after reading Colin Palmer’s 2008 book on Eric Williams for class, I became curious about the state of the historiography on a topic so fundamental to Trinidadian nationalism.  I was blown away by the profusion and quality of the extant work on Trinidad’s Carnival, particularly compared to the dearth of serious scholarship on similar revels at the Cape.

This May and June, before I leave for South Africa, is a time of relative calm, and I’m thinking of posting more of my academic work from the past semester here.  Once I start my research trips, my hope is to use the African history side of this site more like a traditional blog, with descriptions of my activities and hopefully lots of pictures.

I’ve never been to Trinidad, so unfortunately I can’t offer up any exciting pictures or anecdotes.  I will, however, leave you with some videos that gave me a better appreciation for the incredible artistry at work in Carnival.  The first, appropriately enough, is a calypso from The Mighty Sparrow entitled “Education”:

The second is a video from the 2013 Panorama competition illustrating the sheer sonic power of a massive pan orchestra.  Steel pans have become so fundamental to American stereotypes about the Caribbean that it’s easy to forget just how extraordinary they are as instruments, and how wide-ranging their repertoire can be.

Keep checking back this summer for more poetry, papers, updates about my work in South Africa, and who knows what else.  All the best, y’all.

three clippings

i

i have told myself a thousand lies
about my own face,

my own beard, like a bristlecone pine.

when i was low, i said,
i looked how i felt:
like a monster.

but did you notice how i kept it
when i smiled at you last?

was i a monster then?
this is how i lie
to you and to myself.

ii

the night is kind,
it can reveal the obvious,

and surely you already know
how i love my ugliness and hate

the beauty.

until i confessed myself
and you said—no,
not in that way—

i was naïve, not
because of any surprise, but my face

in the hotel mirror behind you;
because i looked so old
and felt so young,

a mere child hid
in the brambles of a
face—i thought

it would be better not to have a face at all;
let them just imagine me.

iii

i really love it all because i must;
its gnarls threaten fate itself—saying

it will be like this or it will not be,
like so much else;

i hated every hair until the blade,
hated this whole town until i left,

i sang all night until i fell asleep,
dreamed of her until the morning came.

i loved her to my doom until it passed,
died until i was no longer dying,

bearded with a smile on my face,
naked eyed but covering my teeth.

richmond, twenty-fifth and broad

what is the meaning of this new falling in love
at a time of great stress? for richmond is

yet unexhausted in may perfection with its
canal and secret places smelling of mist and soil

like a garden choked with banana trees and
butterflies, hemmed in and yet hemmed in

by nothing. i waited, because i knew the sun
shone, to see your tanned and serene shoulders

by and by behind the delight of eyes and think
of saying “let us run away, smash ourselves into one

and disappear into the thick groves of belle isle,
haunt it for eternity.” but i have spent three years

explaining what a terrible notion it would be
to do it, and this is the real shame: my old illness

scorched the seeds before they were planted
and now that i am well and the ground is prepared,

i fear very much that they can bear nothing
without more sickness and great pain.

today i saw you in richmond and the movement
of your jaw in laughing and i was changed

into something young and heedless of many lessons.
indeed, it would be a disaster; grave

to say this thing, i fall in love.

dear God

the story of the world
in two words

why was the city built?
why did it burn? dear God

why did the people die
but these love each other?

why fish? why water?
dear God. why does the night end

or envelop? dear God,
why can’t the only one i love—

or why did i heal,
the doctors save me

years ago, to break me
another way? dear God,

how many times?
how many jokes or sunsets?

whose evil? devils hide
or angels fly? dear God

words fail but two;
the whole vast legion

of universes bent end
over end:

dear God,
in prayer—

i can’t say if that’s the proof of it,
but it’s how i know.

salvation and subversion and
religion, a great ambush,

dear God.

wealthy street

think about your hands please.
let there be space between your fingers.
use as many words as it needs—they don’t mean much
but they don’t cost money.

once you’re walking and it becomes dark
no night descending, no oppressive weight
it just becomes dark—nothing else changed
but the streetlights

think what, my God
is happening? that the dusk has no fingers,
no cacophony of insects damp with the
memory of a failed season.

raving at the winter
like one dying—
it must be the empty summer instead,
the one that fled by day.

what does it mean, anyway,
for the world not to be on fire?
the road in the woods
the dusk without fingers.

think about your hands,
can you see them anymore?
moon and water, receding bands of day—
i never imagined being here with you

passed alone in the forest,
melting ice and distant winter birds
how? with whose eyes can i look
and live?

where must my feet go?
where my past? into whose arms
or whose night? it’s been a long time
getting well.

The Work of Prostitution: Sexual Labor and the African Colonial City

Prostitution is routinely described as the world’s oldest profession. It’s an epithet that stresses both its universality and its apparent inevitability in human societies. Regardless of cultural context, it seems—and in spite of the agency and heterogenous circumstances of the people we might call prostitutes—the practice is thus reduced to an appendage of male sexuality, a kind of spontaneous sociological generation. Like worms appearing in rancid meat, women of ill repute appear wherever large groups of morally suspect men are gathered together. As Luise White explains in the introduction to her 1990 monograph The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, it’s this deterministic view of male lust was that inspired the anti-“white slave trade” policies of nineteenth century Europe and North America, policies that simultaneously sought to regulate and contain the phenomenon in cities and rescue those women “trapped in prostitution” by evil, violent pimps.[1] Ironically, White notes, in ignoring the possibility of female agency in prostitution, this heavy-handed judicial approach actually resulted in more violence and exploitation without decreasing male demand for paid sex (a demand which, though regrettable, reformers presumed to be basically inelastic anyway). A century later, in societies where sex workers were for a long time rendered largely invisible, White laments that neither scholars nor policymakers have been eager to revisit past mistakes.

 
White’s introductory argument in The Comforts of Home is basic: European and American views of prostitution are deeply warped and culture-bound. For while prostitution is indeed a widespread phenomenon worldwide, it frequently fails to conform to the neat clichés of Western popular culture. Underscoring the parochialism of the modern Eurocentric understanding of prostitution, it’s worth noting that it was none other than the Victorian arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling who first called it “the most ancient profession in the world,” in an 1889 short story about an Indian courtesan named Lalun.[2] “In the West,” Kipling added—getting right to the heart of the matter—“people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it. In the East, where the profession is hereditary, nobody writes any lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.”[3]

 
In foregrounding the testimonies of women who worked as prostitutes in colonial Nairobi (eschewing the term “sex worker” in order to emphasize the multifarious domestic services such women often provided in addition to sex), White’s study seeks to shift focus away from prostitution as a social ill that mindlessly emerged from the African colonial city like maggots from flesh. According to White, prostitution was big business in colonial Nairobi: a stable and sometimes downright lucrative source of income for urban women from across Kenya’s ethnic and religious spectrum, as well a vital means of daily social reproduction in a migrancy-driven male economy. Crucially, pimps and brothels were wholly absent from the landscape of colonial Nairobi, and finding clients was entirely a matter of individual entrepreneurship and networking. Though its original popularity as a female profession is clearly tied to social upheavals in rural Kenya and women’s exclusion from the urban wage labor force, White insists that prostitution was usually safe and often highly profitable—as well as an important path to property ownership: “between 1946 and 1948,” she reports, “all the new African landlords in Eastleigh [a multiethnic suburb of Nairobi] were women, former or still working prostitutes.”[4] As early as 1947, some of these women owned multiple houses and were able to purchase cars—some of the first to be owned by black people in Kenya.

 
Yet The Comforts of Home is much more than a polemic against the existing historiography of prostitution. Its biggest scholarly contribution is the way it positions the occupation of Nairobi prostitutes vis à vis African labor history. For White, drawing attention to the wealth and agency of prostitutes is more than sensationalism and provocation; from Marx via Frederick Cooper she understands prostitution as the sine qua non of social reproduction in the African city.[5] “Colonial states,” White observes, “could create and maintain a wage labor force, but they could not maintain it”; they were anxious to fulfill labor needs but had little to no interest—at least before World War II—in creating an aspirational urban proletariat.[6] Reluctant to expend their own resources on accommodating workers to this raw deal—either through improving working conditions or endorsing African family life in the city—they relied on prostitutes to provide not only sex but other domestic services like cooking, accommodation and laundry to numb the pain of daily life. Indeed, in contrast to the deep moralistic concerns that surrounded prostitution in the metropole, in Kenya White finds a colonial administration that was rather circumspect about prostitution and its importance to the life of the city. In the candid words of one Municipal Native Affairs Officer in 1938, “whereas the needs of eight men may be served by the provision of two rooms for the men and one for the prostitute, were housing provided for these natives and their families six rooms would probably be needed.”[7] Simply put, tolerating prostitution made good fiscal sense in an overwhelmingly male city with an enormous housing shortage.

 
So colonial Nairobi would have looked very different without prostitution; likewise the look of prostitution there changed dramatically over time. While White makes significant use of archival records and colonial documents, it is her detailed study of the nature of prostitutes’ work that most often stands out, bolstering her core assertions about prostitution and the city. According to White, in different places and times prostitutes practiced their occupation in different ways, frequently modifying their work in order to respond to new market opportunities and challenges. The two world wars in particular were periods of growth and innovation in Nairobi prostitution. As large numbers of foreign military personnel found themselves in the city, prostitutes had to strike a balance between making themselves available to men with limited local knowledge and maintaining discretion—avoiding both official scrutiny and censure by their local community. In the long term, she argues, prostitution became more businesslike. Far from a desperate underclass, its practitioners were firmly situated in the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie; “women engaged in complex collective groups the purpose of which was to protect their earnings.”[8] Surprisingly, White is able to corroborate much of the information she gets from female interlocutors with former male customers. As a result, we not only gain a qualitative picture of Nairobi prostitution, but information about the price of women’s services and how that changed over time, from decade to decade.

 
Now, almost thirty years after its first publication, The Comforts of Home remains useful as a chronicle of prostitution in colonial Kenya’s capital. Even more importantly, however, by centering the lives and decisions made by Nairobi’s prostitutes in the life of the city, it places women at the center of African labor history, drawing attention not only to their collective inventiveness and agency, but also to the colonial state’s tacit acknowledgement of their importance. Wedded to a migrant labor model that sought in vain to keep black Kenyans from putting down roots in Nairobi, administrators were unwilling to crack down on prostitution in large part because it made their own jobs easier, not to mention the fact that, as White illustrates, white men also frequented black Nairobi prostitutes. Prostitution may or may not be the oldest profession in the world, but, if White is correct, it may be one of the most important.

  1. [1]Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1990): 5.
  2. [2]Rudyard Kipling, “On the City Wall,” in ibid., In Black and White (New York, N.Y.: R. F. Fenno and Co., 1899 [1889]): 133-173.
  3. [3]Ibid., 135.
  4. [4]White, The Comforts of Home, 202.
  5. [5]See Frederick Cooper “Urban Space, Industrial Time, and Wage Labor in Africa,” in Struggle for the City: Migrant Labor, Capital and the State in Urban Africa, ed. Frederick Cooper (New York, N.Y.: Sage Publications, 1983): 8-9.
  6. [6]White, The Comforts of Home, 221.
  7. [7]Ibid., 94.
  8. [8]Ibid., 175