The Most Important Part of the Work
2020 has been an intense year. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd to a wildfire blowup the likes of which the Western US had not seen in a hundred years: it’s been a bit of a doozy. Closer to home, 2020 witnessed the death of my mother — with all of my complicated feelings surrounding that, Riva’s long sought after and finally achieved pregnancy following several years of fertility struggles, my own fraught grappling this summer over questions of what it means to be Black in America, managing our dog’s recovery from bone surgery over the summer, and the birth of our wonderful daughter, Batya. Taking stock of all of this and the lessons I’ve taken away from it all has me looking in 2021 to improve myself and the world around me through increasing my understanding of the world and lending my lens to help others understand it well. To that end, I’m intending to hone several skills:
- Learning how to listen more effectively to the many voices out there I the world who can help explain it.
- Learning how to tell the stories these voices help me uncover.
- Learning how to be more vulnerable to the unknown as I open myself up to this journey.
Looking back on this past year:
Three points stand out as key to how I’m looking at this next year
- It’s been an extraordinary thing losing a mother and gaining a daughter in the same year. The death of my mother was a long-expected event. She’d been in poor health for years, and it was only a matter of time before the strains on her body became too much to maintain life. When I visited her last December to say my goodbyes, I knew it was the last time I would see her and made my peace with that. Looking back on her life as I knew her, though, I’m left with a lot to reflect on. My relationship with my mother was never very great. She was a deeply and irreparably narcissistic person. Whether that came down to her own upbringing and her own cold and detached German mother and childhood struggles with parental and sibling attachment as the youngest of nine kids in a small Western Pennsylvania coal country town, or due to a traumatic brain injury she’d suffered as a young child following a car accident after which she nearly died, I don’t know. But she was always incapable of viewing me as separate from herself and my agency as anything other than a reflection of her wishes and identity. While perhaps this is a curse suffered by many a parent to some extent, it took until adulthood to realize that she was incapable of further reflection or understanding in this regard. What resulted was a strained relationship between us starting after I outgrew infancy and the period in which a child can be looked at as an intimate pet, and continuing for the rest of her life. It took me until fairly recently to realize that I had no culpability in this matter. I cannot forgive my mother for this, and frankly, she doesn’t deserve it. She was as she was, whether through forces of nature or nurture, and that’s that. I can only hope not to repeat her mistakes in my own parenting.
- After a long struggle with infertility, gaining a daughter feels about as epic as the book of Genesis would have one expect. The emotional burrs and brambles of the trauma of prior failures never fully let go of you. They warp the mind, even after you’ve finally succeeded in your endeavors, and make it difficult to settle into the enjoyment of acknowledging that “this time is different, and you have arrived at your destination.” Even now, as I sit writing this and have the ability to look over and see my daughter laying next to me, I have an inkling of the suspicion that she can’t be possible and that this is all an illusion. Nevertheless, the stresses of the first two months of parenting serve frequently to shake me from that feeling. Parenting is a wild experience. A dialogue from the 1989 movie Parenthood — starring Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen — keeps coming to mind. Gil Buckman (Steve Martin) discusses parenthood with his father, Frank Buckman (played by Jason Robards):
Frank: “It goes on forever, and it’s just as frightening.”
Gil: “That’s true.”
Frank: “There is no end zone. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball and do your touchdown dance. Never.”
This snippet and the rest of the movie around it make this film — in my opinion — one of the best sources of preparation for the relentlessness of becoming a new parent. If you have kids or intend to have kids and haven’t seen it, I definitely recommend it. From learning Batya’s needs, cues, and signs to learning how to cope with managing Riva and my own needs, the past two months have been more dramatically life-altering than I can presently put into words. All of this has been made harder with the COVID-19 pandemic brewing, as many of the typical avenues of community support have become closed to — or at least postponed for — us. Learning to parent during a global pandemic is an epochal experience that those of us fortunate to have brought the nearly 140 million children born into the world this year share. We’ll carry our reflections on it for life.
- With America’s summer of painful and cathartic rage — a summer like many another for generations in America — I, like many Black Americans, felt the sting of the pain of generations. The murder of George Floyd — not unique or even very remarkable by any standard — reached out through skins calloused by our long sojourn in the house of blades bequeathed to us by the settler-colonial Xibalba-in-parody that is North America in the 21st century. This — and the events that followed — left us with questions concerning our place in America and what the future holds for us regarding it. But, what is the birthright of a perenially traumatized and uprooted people if not our questions? What is our fate if not to seek knowledge and wisdom as we reconcile our visible selves with the static shadows of “unfinished business” and far too many interrupted narratives? Our burden is to toil after truths that heal, and in so doing, to nurture and grow a better future.
One particular theme I’ve been forced to contend with repeatedly this year has been the distance between American realities and American illusions. The distance between the difficult realities we must contend with, and the comfortable illusions we cling to out of desperate hope for simplicity and easy escape is the battleground of our present political and cultural moment in America. As I am not one to be made comfortable by oversimple narratives that lie to us to shield us from difficult realities, I feel a sense of responsibility to the communities I am a part of — multivariate and nested like matryoshka dolls — to help bring clarity to the path ahead of us in our exodus from a fog of utter bullshit. I see this fog of bullshit regarding easy answers to the complexity of race in America, in half-assed shit-takes from liberals and leftists alike and in the rapid descent of so many disconnected and poorly educated Americans into madness and conspiratorial thinking promoted by those who would seek to manipulate them for personal or collective gain. I’m feeling a lot of urgency around building my contribution to this aim right now. I owe it to my communities to engage in this effort. I owe it to my daughter, to whom I want to reflect an engagement with the world outside our door. I owe it to myself as a Black man and an American living in an era of many moments of cultural truth, if not reconciliation. I owe it to the child I was three decades ago, who was forced to come into his own with the burden of a parent resistant to his needs in that. I owe it to children born into a world where I myself am an active participant in co-creating.
To that end, I’m launching myself off into the unknown as I delve into starting two blogs to hone my craft and build a foundation of interaction and familiarity with my two primary subjects. The first of these two projects — Discontinent — will be the most challenging writing project that I’ve ever taken on.
My subject: Sub-Saharan Africa. My intention: To convey African affairs in a manner which breaks the trite oversimple tropes of much of foreign affairs journalism directed at American audiences and connects my audience to the relatable elements of Africa, Africans, and African life. My intended vehicle for this is through stories taken from political tensions and conflicts in 30 African countries either in whole or largely south of the Sahel. My motivations: 1. To give me a structured approach to learning about African realities through a lens that helps me — as an African American with little connection to the continent — understand current events across the continent and to, in the process of learning, hone my skills at explaining these matters to a general American audience. 2. To fill a gap in narratives aimed at Americans about life on the continent. One hardly finds any African News content aimed at Americans not oriented toward either government policy, NGO-work, or IGO-projects. When one does, it’s generally focused primarily on the worst things happening on the continent. I want to present Africa and Africans as regular and relatable people. I am looking to walk the complicated tightrope of centering political tensions as my subject while doing so. I Recognize in this challenge the critique of Mark Pedelty, in his book War Stories:
“Dead bodies have served the metaphorical purpose of sustaining the first world view of third world society as conflicted, tortured, and perhaps barbaric.”
As well as the chastening critique of Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘How to Write About Africa’:
“Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.”
Meanwhile, I am heartened by the rich diversity of the subject region I have cast a wide enough net to include — Nigeria is a dramatically different place from eSwatini, or Namibia — the wonderful opportunities presently available to interact with and seek out input from African voices regarding modern African life, and a global Black zeitgeist whose burgeoning interconnectedness is only in its infancy.
The second project I’m launching in 2021 — Secessio Populi — is focused on separatist, secessionist, and autonomist movements in the wealthiest of nations.
I will be limiting myself to the upper end of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. This project will afford me a more irreverent outlet where I can explore a topic that, at times, interpolates between gravity and levity — occasionally even within the same particular movement. My basic intent with Secessio Populi is to clarify the many active and theoretical movements and claims to independence, separation, and autonomy among various groups and people throughout parts of the world where people’s quality of life, by global standards, might make this seem counter-intuitive. I expect this to be an exciting endeavor. It won’t be without its own challenges. I want to be very careful about what actors I’m providing a platform, and subsequently, which movements to cover and which to skip entirely.
I suppose I should touch upon my nom de plume of choice: David Nwa’eze. I put a lot of thought into it, and I’m measuring taking this on. I may even take it on as my legal surname replacing my current one handed down from the slavemasters of the paternal line of my non-biological grandfather. How I landed on “Nwa’eze “: The O’Bryants were a branch of the Bryant family who moved to Ireland from England and started appropriating Irish customs in an attempt to root themselves in their new home country. They took on the O’ and then all moved to America and settled largely in the Carolinas. Some of them migrated to Oregon in the 1850s, too. It’s a terrible surname. The O’ is redundant with the T at the end of Bryant (they both mean “son of”), and so, I guess it means grandson of Bryan, an old Celtic term for nobles. I’ve shortened the concept down to “prince” and translated it into Igbo (as this is at least one known component of my African heritage): “nwa eze.” I wouldn’t be the first to take it on a surname, so I’m comfortable with it.
I have other projects and potential future manifestations of these running around in my head, but right now is a time for first steps. I hope to bring many of you along for the ride. It’s going to be a fascinating one.