(from ‘Cunt-Tree: The Map to Liberation’)
What cunt-tree are you from?
What tree of cunts do you descend from?
What is your maternal lineage?
Who are the women who came before you,
what are the names that you cannot remember?
Or perhaps you do?
Stitch your lineage back together again.
Who is the woman through whose body you passed
between the unseen to the seen?
And who was the woman through which she passed?
And over and over again, all the way back
until she is free.
And if you do not know –
how does that play into perpetuating the powers-that-be?
How does it play in strengthening patriarchy?
Why is it that the mother has been othered?
Why is it that the mother has been smothered?
Why is it that you know not your mothers?
Find out what gets in the way of that
And destroy it.
I think of the children torn from mothers.
I think of the children whose mothers were raped.
I think of the women whose lives are not valued.
Who are the women who came before you?
What are their stories?
What are their names?
Say their names.
Smash patriarchy with their names.
Cunt-trees have no borders.
Cunt-trees have no flags.
Cunt-trees have no military.
Cunt-trees have no visas.
Cunt-trees have no passports.
From cunt-trees we do not flee.
They are in y/our blood.
What is your cunt-tree?
—So, the next time someone asks you,
What cunt-tree are you from?
Start with the name of your mother. And your mother’s mother. And if you should not know them, name the name of the woman/women who have mothered you. And if you are without that, invent them from the very fabric of mythology that have come before you, so that in your utterance they become real and present.
I believe it is in the answering of this question that paves the road to liberation.
I am the daughter of Beryl Balbirsingh
She is the daughter of Hildred Charles
& Hildred Charles is the daughter of
Frances Lopez who is the daughter of
“THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, FROM WHOSE BOURN ALL TRAVELLERS RETURN”
In an attempt to do what those before could not do for me, I hope that by piecing our lineage back together again, through fact and conjecture, I can better equip you for life. I grew up with the knowledge that I shared the same birthday as my maternal great-grandmother, something that I was made to feel was of some import. Perhaps this explains why all my life, I have been obsessed with trying to decipher the whispers of the women in my family, with trying to salvage a story that would explain where I came from and how, perhaps, I could move forward.
(from ‘On Baldwin’)
When Raoul Peck’s 2016 award-winning documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, first screened in Denmark, a group of activists got together and alerted the organisers that they felt such an occasion would benefit from inviting someone who could contextualise the film for a Danish audience. Bwalya Sørensen was among those who recommended me. This is what I read, although I’ve edited it with you as a reader in mind:
I first met the work of Baldwin when I was twelve years old and living in the small twin-island nation in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago. An avid reader, I was looking through my Uncle John’s books when I stumbled across a worn paperback of If Beale Street Could Talk. The story takes place in Harlem in the 1970s and chronicles the love between Fonny and Tish, and how that love is challenged when Fonny is falsely accused of rape.
I’ll never forget the feeling that overcame me as I read the book under the hot Caribbean sun. I had moved to Trinidad from Brooklyn only about a year or two before, and the world of which he wrote was familiar to me. In fact, just a few years before, I had written a short story in Brooklyn — I was just ten — about a young couple who learned that the main female character was pregnant. In Brooklyn, tales of teenage pregnancy were not uncommon, told to instil fear in the minds of young girls about the consequences of sex. When I flipped to the back of the book and saw his iconic face I immediately set off to learn more about this man.
As he did for so many others, through his work Baldwin became my mentor, my friend, my mother, my father. He was my go-to guide in life and my comfort. He helped me navigate the slippery slope of questioning my religion, Christianity; and put words and order to the world I had been born into. For too many of us whose lives have been damaged by the ravages of European colonialism and the enslavement of our ancestors, there was a need for humanitarian heroes, a hunger for those who look the devil in the eyes and proclaim, loudly, eloquently, “You are indeed a monster.” What resonated most profoundly for me and many others about Baldwin was that he’d managed to leave the United States of America to live abroad, gaining a completely different vantage point of America as well as American Blackness. Wrapped up in this migration is a hope that many Blacks harbour — that of escaping white American racism. Further reading of any of his over twenty books and countless essays taught us, his starving young fan base, that the peace that is longed to be experienced in Europe is all too easily punctured. He taught us about the colonial relationship of France towards Algeria and reminded us, lest we forget, that Europe is indeed the birthplace of racism.
When I was a young publishing professional in New York during the Nineties, every other Black writer I came across had pretty much the same experience with Baldwin. Although he wrote in a period decades before our existence, we found the topics that he touched upon still painfully relevant: racism and white America’s inability to confront it. Baldwin spoke about difficult subjects in a beautiful language. He was a Black, gay man — and not ashamed of it. In fact, he saw his homosexuality as an integral component of his art and political and social message. These things were not separate for him. His 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, was ground-breaking in that Baldwin not only put homosexuality at the centre of the novel, but interestingly took Blackness out: the main characters in this novel are white. When we think about the power of representation it is important to point out this crucial fact when reviewing his work. Baldwin is a pioneer in speaking truth to power, regarding not just race, but also the lived experiences of what it means to be gay. For a Black man to write a novel with a homosexual protagonist and no major Black characters in the late Fifties was indeed radical. It was a subversive usurpation of power. It is perhaps this novel that endears me the most to him; if just for the very fact that he demonstrates his own literary power and takes me to a place I would otherwise have never come to know. This is the power of art and literature.
No matter what work of Baldwin’s you pick up, you will experience the passion and the fury from which he writes. What is indeed most saddening to me is how relevant his work is, still. One of the world’s best-kept secrets is that in the United States, freedom has yet to come to the descendants of enslaved Africans. This you learn well even if you do not want to learn it. You learn that segregation continues, under a different language, a different guise. As you get older, if you are privileged enough to travel, you’ll learn that the vast majority of neighbourhoods in the US are still, mostly, exclusively white. You’ll see whose lives are valued and whose are not, whose lives matter — this information is now brought straight into our homes via social media and videos of assassinations of our men, women and children. However, son, I want to make clear that freedom is not possible under capitalism, for anyone. For the cogs of the capitalist machine are well-oiled by the death, labour and blood of Black and brown bodies.
Through Baldwin, you learn about what it means to be gay and Black, that some would prefer your existence to be invisible and that there is little protection for your life. You will learn that the woman who accused Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old who was brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955, just a year before Giovanni’s Room was published, admitted to lying about the whole case and that she is still alive and free, as well as the fact that his murderers were never convicted. It was this dead Black boy’s body that sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite being in the midst of the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent (2015–24), Western media continues to show people of African descent in an unflattering light. The imagery can be harsh when we talk about diaspora Blacks, whether in rubber boats in the Mediterranean or arriving via international airports. Whiteness will always attempt to wield its control over us, otherwise it will be devoid of power. Whiteness’s power is in its lack of empathy and unflinching ability to elicit violence on others. It doesn’t even matter if you are a world- renowned writer; in Denmark, you can still be mistaken for a sex worker, as happened to the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on her visit to this country.
I know it feels like there is not much to give hope these days, but know that I speak to you as a Black woman, who chose to leave the brutality of white racism in the United States of America for a softer, blunter, but no less damaging experience of racism here in Europe. My only wish is that Europe reckons with the dilemmas of race that her ancestors have struggled with and which are now our inheritance. Where we go now is entirely up to how Europe does this.
Lesley-Ann Brown is a Brooklyn-born writer, educator and activist who currently lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. Her parents hail from Trinidad and Tobago. She studied writing and literature at the New School for Social Research and has worked as a freelance journalist for Vibe and The Source. She also created the critically-acclaimed blackgirlonmars blog and in the founder of Bandit Queen Press.
Decolonial Daughter: Letters from a Black Woman to her European Son is published by Repeater Books. Author bio, book cover, and logo courtesy of the same.