Yesterday, my heart broke.
Thus began my Facebook post the day after the National Readathon in Ghana on June 13.
Dubbed a Festival of Nine authors, the readathon was my introduction into the Ghanaian literary scene. Although I had participated in literary festivals on the continent, appeared on radio and television in several countries, I had never participated in anything of this magnitude in Ghana. Recently returned to my native country after more than two decades in the US, I was thrilled. Ghana was home.
Like other writers around the world, when the pandemic swept over us, we felt our walls collapse on us. Literary festivals, our social outlets, were cancelled. Determined to fight isolation and inspire our communities, Afrolit Sans Frontieres was born, the first-ever virtual festival. As we entertained audiences with light passages from our books, virtual festivals would pop up worldwide, including the National Readathon of Ghana.
Almost three weeks before the event, we had watched in horror a policeman’s knee pressed down on George Floyd’s neck, watched George reduced to a child calling for his mother as the life seeped out of him. Across the Atlantic, my Afrolit Sans Frontieres family had felt his death so keenly we had published a letter condemning it, and in support of Black Lives Matter. Even so, I felt relieved to be in Ghana, away from white people who reduced my humanity in micro ways, who clutched their purses and fled from sharing a supermarket aisle with me. I lived in a country where I was madamed, judged only by my personality and not by my skin.
I was on the other side of the ocean, basking in the adoration of family and colleagues. What was more, I was going to read to Ghana in the National Readathon for the very first time. I was so excited I showered an hour beforehand. Funny how one prepares for an online event. I mean, who was going to smell me? Still, I dabbed on perfume before selecting a Ghanaian print blouse made by my seamstress, a squatter who lives in a shack across from my house. She was thrilled I had given her a job during these hard times. I promised to give her more fabrics to sew if I looked good on screen. I checked the time. I was five minutes late. My skin prickled.
In the time it took me to log onto Zoom, the moderator had already introduced Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng, a popular Ghanaian author and fellow returnee from the US. The site thrummed. Apart from Ghanaians, audiences had logged in from the US, Canada, Australia, Asia and Europe. I recognised Afrolit members including founder Zukiswa Wanner, Goethe Gold Medal Recipient, and Leye Adenle, author of Easy Motion Tourist. Messages flashed across my phone. James Murua, Africa’s premier literary blogger, texted to confirm where more people could watch.
After Rodney read, the moderator was asking a question when a sound bomb exploded. At first, it seemed someone’s radio had erupted accidentally but we were quickly proven wrong. Country music blared, discordant. Insults flittered across the screen. American voices, mostly male, chattered like disturbed monkeys, some shouting “n*****”, others unintelligible. Osama bin Laden’s picture exploded onto the scene, a “death to blacks” symbol. And then a middle-aged white male popped into a frame, standing full-frontal naked, jacking off into the camera, his eyes aglow behind his glasses, his voice a conquering thrill. As fast as the host tried muting, more frames shifted before us. Stunned, I looked away. A text to my phone urged me to log off. We all did.
The organisers, DAkpabli Publishers, supplied new passwords and we started over. Author Rodney was attempting to answer a question when a loud crackle crashed through. An American male voice shouted, “Shut the f*** up, Rodney! No one wants to hear from you!” Then it was a mass of voices chattering again while R&B played this time, voices chanting “n*****, n*****, n*****,” a message flashing: “Kill all N******”. One chat message, captured on video by Leye Adenle, said: “Everyone kill all blacks”.
Once again, we logged off. This time we moved to StreamYard and were able to have a successful event, grateful to those who followed the live stream on Facebook.
I got through the readings, stumbling over my words but recovering towards the end. When it was all over, I folded into myself, mistrustful of the world. Even far away in Africa, white hate had found me. Feeling assaulted, I took to my bed and stayed there for most of the following day, the hateful words chanting in my ears, the jacking man flashing pink before me. In my nightmare that night, an American policeman chased me, his gun drawn. Even when I managed to lock myself up in my room, I saw him go after a male author friend. I snapped awake before anything bad happened. Now I know that I cannot escape racism. It comes to me vicariously through cable TV, taunts me with hatred or jacks at me with glee.
What should have been a joyful celebration of the arts turned ugly. It is a psychological assault. The question I keep asking myself is this: Who are the perpetrators, and who is letting this terrorism persist? As of May 30, Zoom supposedly upgraded their software to prevent such a bombing from happening, and the readathon organisers have a paid, corporate account, so we are at a loss to explain why this happened. How could white supremacists hack us even after we used passwords? The organisers reached out to Zoom and received an automatically generated “we-will-look-into-it” response. Nothing more.
Since the assault, people have reached out to me, including Mary Karr, author of the bestselling memoir, The Liars’ Club. It turns out she, too, has been subjected to men sending her naked pictures. Although hers was not racially motivated, the effect was the same. The intention is to reduce you to filth. As I tossed about on my bed talking to a cousin who had lived with racism throughout his life in the UK, I thought about the power of the written word. It occurred to me the only way to fight scum is to expose it to light and scour it.
I cannot process hate. But we will not, must not be destroyed by it. We have to continue creating and empowering ourselves. Two days after the assault, I wrote a new Facebook post: They did not. Will not erase us.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.