The smile I usually wear started out as a nervous one. Kids at school always thought I was mean for some reason, so I figured that the best way to get around their assumptions would be to smile more. And it worked. Eventually, I started enjoying the world, and the smile stuck around. But my entire life, I’ve had to deal with people assuming my feelings because of the look on my face. Emoting for Black people is a marked phenomenon. Whether we’re seen as too loud, too ghetto, too intimidating, we’re never allowed to live without someone projecting their reality unto us.
But even if we are loud, ghetto, or intimidating, we deserve the right to be those and more.
I try my best not to let my emotions get the best of me. It’s a struggle, in particular, because I often find myself somewhere in between one feeling and another. Despite the smile usually plastered on my face, my interior is sometimes a tumultuous place to be; whether it’s a joy that makes my toes feel light, or a sadness that lodges itself in my throat, no matter the emotion, I experience it intensely.
This intensity is exponentiated by the fact that these feelings are not mutually exclusive, and most times, happen simultaneously. Though most times the storms blow past as quickly as they form, I’ve learned that the best way for me to deal with my feelings is simply to allow myself to feel them.
A few months ago, I had a night out with some new friends and coworkers of mine. We were having a good time, enjoying pre-COVID life when a fellow patron of the club we were at bumped into me and spilled some of his drink on me. The drink and ice cubes raced down my spine, taking my smile with them. And as I—cold and soggy—rejoined my friends after demanding an apology from the man, I felt that I was rightfully upset.
My anger and I have what I consider a healthy relationship—I try my darndest to allow myself to feel the full extent of my feelings, in particular, without doing anything that counts as taking it out on someone. What this boils down to most of the time is me frowning until something happens that takes my attention off my mood. And so I went about my night, pouting for around 10 minutes or so before a song that I liked came on and I, with my wet, sticky clothes, went about my business. It wasn’t until a few days later when I overheard my coworker I had been out with talking to another about how afraid of me he felt when he saw my smile drop that I was forced to consider the way that he perceived me, and why the sight of my non-smiling face struck fear into his heart.
This moment began to mean something to me beyond an uncomfortable memory when I listened to an album called grae, by Moses Sumney. There’s one track in particular with lyrics that struck me called “also also also and and and.” On this track, writer Taiye Selasi states, “I insist upon my right to be multiple…So I’ve reached a point where I am aware of my inherent multiplicity. And anyone wishing to meaningfully engage with me or my work must be too.”
After several listens, I began to understand that the way in which he demands the right for his complicated feelings to be acknowledged and accepted as an inherent part of himself was a practice I had already put into place. And with this realization came another; this wasn’t the first time I had heard an artist describe this sort of feeling.
On her 2019 album, When I Get Home, Solange has a brief interlude called “Can I Hold the Mic,” on which she says “I can’t be a singular expression of myself. There’s too many parts, too many spaces, Too many manifestations…” Here, Solange is refusing the possibility that she is anything less than multiple. She doesn’t even entertain the possibility of herself being any less than her full self.
Both of these songs imply the possibility of a presence and awareness of a sense of self for Black people that extends beyond the physical body. But both songs are also responses to the expectation that we flatten the richness of our experience, and answer to an authority for our feelings. My coworker had assumed that my behavior and actions at work were the extents of my identity, and in doing so, refused me the opportunity to be human.
I can’t help but think of why these expectations for Black people exist. I didn’t really have an answer until recently; I read an interview that Viola Davis gave to Vanity Fair about her role in The Help, and how she felt that it was a betrayal to herself and to her community. At first, I was shocked to read that. “Everyone knew who she was after that movie,” I thought. But then I thought about who she played, and who the story of The Help was actually about, and then it truly dawned on me; most of what people think that they know about Black people comes from media. You must be either Urkel or Pam, but not Malcolm or Assata; and never all of these things at once.
In the years since The Help, I’ve seen Viola describe several times the lack of quality roles for Black women. Hearing someone like Viola – who is one of the best, and most decorated actresses in the film industry – express this sentiment showed me that no matter what realm of the world we exist in, from Hollywood to the office space, Black people are always expected less of. We’re expected to be polite and subservient, and to never ask for more for ourselves.
That’s just not an option though. I, too, insist upon the right to be multiple.
Artwork titled ‘STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY’ by Damola Ayegbayo @damola_ayegbayo