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Celebrating Black Life: Tracy Chapman singing “Stand by Me”

“The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated. There is a very low value placed upon Black women’s psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist.’ – The Combahee River Collective Statement

I am tired, so very tired of being black. Last week I was excited to be black, and the week before that I was on the side of dispassionate that you sometimes lean towards as a coping mechanism, rather than as a reflection of how much you care. I need an approach to understanding my blackness that doesn’t lean so heavily on how it’s being maligned by the press or failed by Western states, or failed by corruption in various African governments.

Part of me wonders if this my failure to assert the positive project of my blackness isn’t itself a kind of capitulation to white supremacy, where I wait idly by to receive the claims of those who would denigrate me on that axis of my person.  I need a practise of celebration that is consistent and largely unwavering in the face of both white supremacy and the universal tumbles and shakes of life. I think that there is some part of this that involves the celebration of black life, in all its forms. I don’t know yet what this means- my brain works like a tractor and not a Lamborghini, so sometimes I encounter something within myself and then need weeks or months to dig at every side before I uncover its roots. For now though, I want to just celebrate and leave the aggressive and relentless pursuit of the foundations of all my thoughts to another day.

Today, I’m celebrating Tracy Chapman, and her voice. For Christmas last year, a dear and cherished friend gave me a copy of Chapman’s album “Crossroads”. This gift is particularly special to me because it was one in a many years long tradition between myself and the friend. Every year for Christmas, she gives me a collection of fiction and music by Africans both on the continent and in the diaspora. She was a champion of my black feminism before I had words for it.

When we chatted, she heard the 50 different ways I was reaching for a healthy way to be black and be a woman and be a scholar and leave room for all the parts of me and things I want to do that I cannot yet imagine, all at the same time. She did not name any of the things I was searching for, but instead gave me books she thought “reminded me of you, but you don’t have to read them”, and music by people who play beautifully, and wax printed fabrics she “just thought were beautiful”, all gentle reminders that Africa has meaning outside of oppression. They were little breadcrumbs towards having examples of blackness expressed in a way that was tenable with my personal liberation. I cherish and celebrate Tracy Chapman’s music as one of the breadcrumbs given to me in the ancient Yoruba tradition and exceptionally difficult art of an elder guiding a younger woman towards wisdom. It is difficult to do well, and I am always grateful and humbled whenever I realise that I’ve been the recipient of that kind of love.

It doesn’t hurt any that Tracy Chapman also has a beautiful voice, and writes songs that capture what it’s like to be poor and black and hopeful. I can’t find the words right now to describe how her rendition of “Stand By Me” makes me feel, other than weepy and content.

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