Soft Luxury in Chicago

The Mariane Ibrahim gallery is a consistently edifying experience. Last year, I found myself stunned and awed at the Mariane Ibrahim gallery in Paris. Stunned because who knew that my whimsical decision to explore Blackness in Paris could lead me to such a breathtaking experience? And awed because of the inspiration and comfort I felt in the face of Amoako Boafo’s expansive painting of a woman playing tennis. This moment was the impetus for my continued whimsy, and led to my walking into the Mariane Ibrahim gallery in Chicago’s West Town 9 months later.

What I felt this time was once again unpredictable. I was met in the entrance by a list of names, unknown to me, yet familiar in their Nigerian-ness. Upon seeing the first painting, I exhaled a breath I wasn’t aware I was holding. As I strolled, I was enveloped by feminine energy, Blackness, and a sound that embodied all the lovely parts of noise and all the juicy parts of quiet.

The highlight of my sojourn in the gallery this time around was the viewing of Olukemi Lijadu’s Guardian Angel. A piece which touched on love and history, family and art, religion and colonialism. In short, everything I could have asked for.

The Mariane Ibrahim gallery is a soft luxury that always rejuvenates my spirit. It was the ostentatious centerpiece of my Chicago experience.

My first stop in Chicago was Semicolon bookstore, a Black woman owned bookstore in River West. The store has a very homey vibe and the shelves are filled with every genre of Black literature a diaspora loving bibliophile like myself can enjoy. While there I bought a womanist poetry anthology: Wild Imperfections; I immediately sat down in the store to read and instantly felt I had started my trip off on the right foot.

Gallery Guichard in Bronzeville showcased dynamic art from across Africa and it’s diaspora, with an air of friendship and community wafting through the gallery as artists spoke of their drive to create.

Sofar Chicago’s Black History Month show in the historic building that was once Vee-Jay Records featured the incredible Mara Love. Mara blessed the audience with a deep soulful voice that seemed a serendipitous throwback to the legends who once recorded in the same space.

The American Writers Museum is an homage to literary legends and a muse to literary legends to be. There I learned: Your words will live forever, and will inspire the people your dreams are not even capable of imagining.

Slow is my poem reflecting on the many poems of Wild Imperfections that accompanied me around Chicago.


Your wild imperfection
you're perfectly wild

My companion
as I roam
this city
remind me
rest; read

Teach me
read, see, feel
the last word
the last touch
of ink on page

moving fingers
turn the page

I am
a slow learner
then become
slow, learning



A Familiar Resemblance

“Oh my gosh! I’ve never met anyone that looks like me!” These were the first words my teenage cousin, we’ll call her Sis, said to me after a decade of not speaking or seeing each other’s faces.

A divorce when we were young meant that those who were too young to keep in touch, lost touch. When I was finally old enough to make my own contact, and determined enough to find a current phone number, I reached out. After a phone call filled with joy and surprise, we hopped on facetime later that day, and the first words to leave my baby (though not a baby anymore) cousin’s mouth were like a shot to the heart. I was lucky enough to have remained in contact with the family from whom she had become estranged over the years. There are so many of us, and we all really do look very much alike. Yet, for her, at 15, to see herself reflected in someone else that wasn’t immediate family was a completely new experience.

My family is spread out across several countries on three separate continents. And while it’s cool to have lots of free-housing vacation options, it also means going years, and sometimes decades without seeing each other. Now, in my mid-twenties, I find that while it does take a concerted effort, keeping in touch with most people is definitely doable. But as a child, if I had never met you, or was too young to remember meeting you, it was basically out of sight out of mind.

I remember having a similar experience to Sis when I met some of our cousins for the first time a few years prior. I had always known these cousins existed, and had gotten the occasional email or card after a particularly joyous or tragic life event; but I had never met them, nor had any sort of meaningful relationship with them. I clearly recall walking around a corner and seeing my cousin’s face for the first time and thinking, hey, you look like me.

It was a rare family vacation during which a lot of us were meeting for the first time, or for the first time in many years. We spent a remarkable amount of time commenting on our similarly slender hands, wide noses, bow legs, and squinty eyes. Most of us were teenagers, living completely different lives with arguably very little in common. Yet, we saw ourselves in each other and that made us feel like family.

This experience of literally seeing myself in others is pretty central to my experience of family. However, in Carmen Rita Wong’s memoir Why Didn’t You Tell Me? she describes a photo taken after a family dinner by noting, “Most people would look at that photo and not see one family but a hodgepodge of what looks like unrelated people of all different races. But we were family and are.”

In her book, Wong rivetingly accounts how uncovering a metaphorical Russian doll of her mother’s secrets leads her to question not only her familial relations, but also her entire racial and cultural identity. Wong’s story is shocking, and sometimes sad, but the aspect that really amazed me was that with every uncovered secret, she never lost a family member, she only continued to gain them.

Wong grew up in a family in which she felt like an outsider, not quite looking enough like her mother or sisters or brother. Yet she never reneged on the conviction that they were indeed her family, as disjointed and unconventional as they might be.

For me, oftentimes, I can physically see myself in the faces of my relatives. They literally remind me of the face I see in the mirror every single day. Wong, on the other hand, may not have literally seen herself in her relatives, but they shared so much more than a physical resemblance.

What if you looked at someone else and didn’t see your own face, but you saw your culture, and your language, and your childhood stories? Does this not lend the same immediate sense of recognition? Carmen Rita Wong’s incredibly diverse and convoluted story of family has caused me to question: What is it really that makes family familiar?



My Journey to the Sacred Black Feminine

One year ago today I wrote my first Signed, N.A. blog post. The creation of this blog is in large part owed to Transcendant Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, a book that taught me that books I can relate to actually exist. Since I read Transcendent Kingdom in January 2021, I’ve continued to find books that make me feel truly seen. And now, at the one year milestone of this blogging endeavor, one book stands out among the rest: Dr. Christena Cleveland’s God Is a Black Woman.

In my first Signed, N.A. post a year ago, I mused on my identification with the title Nwanyị Akwụkwọ and set an intention to write and share “reflections on what I’ve learned about myself and the world around me through literature.” When I read God Is a Black Woman I learned things about myself in a deeper way than I ever have before. I felt connection, not only to the author and her story, but also to my ancestors, and maybe even to my chi (s/o to the Signed, N.A. readers who know what I’m talking about). The things I learned and felt from this book were of such a personal nature that I wasn’t sure I wanted to share, and I went back and forth quite a bit on the decision. But, as we arrive at a year of Signed, N.A., and I reflect on the intentions I set at the beginning of this so called pilgrimage, I could only come to one conclusion: to share with you all My Journey to the Sacred Black Feminine

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In the church I grew up in, the most frequently used image of Christ is a painting of Jesus as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered, phenotypically white man wearing a bold red robe. Several times over the course of my life, and particularly during my time as an active member of this church, I have paused to think about the implications of this image, or similar ones, being the one I most easily associate with God or the Divine. In recent years, I have taken a furtive and concerted look inward to unpack how what Dr. Christena Cleveland refers to as white male god has influenced how I see myself and how I move through the world.

My journey away from the church I was raised in and toward a more personal divine experience has raised many questions from others, and I often find myself without what I would consider adequate answers. And while I have always and continue to assert that my experience needs no explanation as its depths defy the bounds of human language, I would also like to thank Dr. Cleveland for her book, God Is a Black Woman, which, for the first time, has provided me with some language that I feel comes close to explaining the transformative journey I am on.

Throughout the book, Dr. Cleveland introduces the readers to a Sacred Black Feminine who displays characteristics of a Divine Mother and who descends from on high to wallow in humanity with their child. The Sacred Black Feminine is not perfect and does not look down on me, rather, She shares my experiences, intimately knows my trials, and struggles alongside me. Dr. Cleveland also writes about the importance of valuing and giving credence to Black women’s lived experiences with divinity even when they contradict religious theory or doctrine. Personally, this is a principle I appreciate in all aspects of life. I truly believe that  just because something hasn’t been dissected and extrapolated using scientific theory doesn’t mean that what I or anyone else feels and/or experiences is not true and real. 

It was this distinct cognitive dissonance that caused me to leave behind white male god and seek out the Sacred Black Feminine. As a womanist and human rights advocate, I have a deep conviction for the ideals that we are not free until we are all free, and that the most marginalized hold the key to liberation. These are ideals I try my best to exemplify in my work for justice and equity. Yet, when I stepped back and examined the manner in which I was approaching my personal spiritual liberation, I realized the god I was acquainted with was very distant from my pain, was not familiar with my life experiences, and often made me feel as though I was sprinting in the sand to catch up with someone who started before me, ahead of me, and on solid ground.

It was about four years ago that I first began to more consciously and consistently notice this dissonance in how I saw the world and how I believed god saw me. But as I look back on the expanse of my short life, I do see that the Sacred Black Feminine was whispering in my ear all along.

The first time I heard Joan Osborne’s “One of Us ” in my early teens, I was enamored. It was the first time I remember considering a god like me rather than one whom I was trying to be like. And though I was raised to believe in a loving god, the kind of god Joan Osborne sang about seemed capable of a level of empathy I had never before attributed to the Divine.

This was one of my first whispers. Since then, I’ve become better acquainted with this sort of divine empathy. I’ve known and felt it from the Divine, as well as from the divinity I’ve encountered in others, and manifested in myself. And through a series of gentle whispers and words of encouragement I arrived at an undeniable fork in the road with white male god on high on one hand, and Sacred Black Feminine beside on the other. So, I chose the path of understanding and empathy, the path whose love was designed specifically for me, and was immense enough to be designed distinctly for each individual.

A large part of my journey since then has been arriving at the recognition and acknowledgment that the Divinity within me is just as important as the Divinity outside of me. I’m proud to say that I now exist in “the world of the Sacred Black Feminine in which [I can trust] my experience and embodied wisdom more than reason and tradition. “

So, to others who may be in my shoes, I would like to suggest that you may already know what you’re looking for and where to find it. Just trust yourself, and know that there is indeed a Divine Being who knows you and your experiences so well that she might just be you.



Black Women’s Exile

Exile. I’ve been pondering the concept quite a bit of late. Merriam-Webster has two definitions of the word: (1) the state or a period of forced absence from one’s country or home; and (2) the state or a period of voluntary absence from one’s country or home.

There is only one word of difference between the two definitions: “forced” versus “voluntary.” And I ask myself, who has ever voluntarily been in exile?? Is an exit voluntary simply because no one is physically pushing you out?

Tiffanie Drayton’s Black American Refugee elucidates how the United States’ relationship to Black people is abusive. Her book follows her journey of leaving two abusive relationships, one with her partner, and one with America, and returning to her home in Trinidad. Did Tiffanie choose exile?

In the autobiography of Assata Shakur, she details the witch hunt carried out by the US government and its security forces, that came very close to taking her life on more than one occasion, which led to her fleeing to Cuba. Did Assata choose exile?

Blue by Emmelie Prophète details the lives of (fictional) Black women who are trying to escape life in a country with the misfortune of being a former colony and not a former colonizer. But she laments that all that is truly achieved are lonely funerals that loved ones on both sides are too distant and too poor to attend. Do they too choose exile?

So what exactly is a “voluntary” exile? Maybe it is choosing personal liberation over hollow promises of opportunity; choosing a hard life over no life at all.

But are these really choices at all?

Another interesting detail of Merriam-Webster’s definitions is the use of the phrase “country or home.” While the dichotomy of “forced” versus “voluntary” exile leaves me disconcerted, I am at the same time affirmed by the explicit distinction between “country” and “home.” The type of exile I am most intrigued by is the type that afflicts those for whom country and home are not synonymous.

What makes a country a possession if not a feeling of home? What allows for ease of tongue in the utterance of the phrase “my country”? Is it the seal and color of a passport? Is it the culmination of one’s life experiences within a particular border? And what makes a home if there is no country on which it stands? Is it the language of one’s dreams? Is it the smell of a favorite dish ?

Maybe exile is the empty space in the Venn diagram of country and home. Maybe exile is the absence of the privilege, bestowed on so few, to see no delineation between country and home, between passport and pass the plate, between mother tongue and motherland.

It seems to me that there is no choice when it comes to exile. It seems to me that there is only a force, from within or without, but usually both, yearning for a reality in which home and country, and liberation and dignity can all coincide.