Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
Poet Hafizah Augustus Geter Is Reclaiming her Story
Through her groundbreaking memoir, The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin, the Nigerian American author shares the many layers of her existence as the queer daughter of an immigrant.
"History was neither a marvel nor a mile marker, it was something we made every day between our hands." -- Hafizah Augustus Geter
In a bold reclamation of her history and identity, Hafizah Augustus Geter's second book, The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin is a memoir that traverses creative nonfiction, investigative journalism and socio-political critique to deliver a climactic confrontation with grief, loss, chronic illness, systemic oppression, and her fervent wish for the book: hope.
As a writer, poet and literary agent, Geter has worked consistently to breath life into her words and thoughts. Her poetry collection Un-American was a PEN Open Book Award finalist, nominated for a 2021 NAACP Image Award and also long-listed for the 2021 Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize. Now, her latest offering travels across journalism and politics to situate her own personal story.
The daughter of a Nigerian Muslim mother and a Black American father -- the renowned artist Tyrone Geter – she was born in Zaria, Nigeria and raised in Akron, Ohio and Columbia, South Carolina. When Geter's mother suddenly dies and her heartsick father needs triple bypass heart surgery weeks later, the grieving 19-year-old surrounded by American socio-political systems must pivot on the lessons from their parenting – a deliberate curation of Black art and practice of African traditions – to embark on her own exploration of "Personhood, Race and Origin".
OkayAfrica spoke to her to about moving through grief and living across continents.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the hardest part about writing this book?
I think it was figuring out what story I wanted to make out of mine. Figuring out what part of it I was going to tell. But also as a child of a Nigerian Muslim woman and a Black American man whose stories are part of mine, I needed to look at how stories were told across those continents, the structures in which they were raised and then leading up to how I was raised. While my story is made out of colonialism and white supremacy for example, I am a descendant of two people one of who is a descendant of slave trade and another who isn't. Then trying to unify that around an identity that is new to both my parents which is Queerness. I had to both look with a critical eye, while also having the courage to be as vulnerable as the story required.
Was there hesitation about how deep you were willing to go with the vulnerability? And what moment did you decide: okay, I am fully going in?
So, the first draft of a book was me mostly looking at the outside world and removing myself. My agent was one of the first people to ask: okay, where is yourself in this? And throughout the process I had women of color who I really trusted reading the book. Eventually you have to start listening to the people you're asking feedback from. It came down to me thinking that if I was going to do this thing, I had to do it all the way. You can find history inside every single life, and the life I had the most access to was my own. I had to explore it.
Your first book was a critically acclaimed poetry collection. Is there a particular reason you felt the need to switch to prose this time?
There are things I needed to say, some of which were dicey, that I couldn't quite explain in a poetry collection. The world is this complicated thing and I wanted to detail my thoughts on it a bit more carefully – prose gave me the space for that. In my poetry, for example, I am coming at it like: how do I tell the story of experiencing this loss, and coming out of it. In this fully non-fiction project, I am looking at how words and stories get made. There's a lot that has to be untangled and researched. First I had to tell my own story, and when other people's stories came up, I had to do the work that it required in advance so I could be a trustworthy storyteller. Still, my poetry influences and background are clear here. I use some of those tools.
You move through the genres, too. It is a memoir, which covers creative nonfiction but in many ways this is also a journalistic piece with critical political analysis…
Yes. The memoir straddles nonfiction, journalism – thanks for picking up on that – and political analysis because as Black and African women, we don't get to live in memoir alone. Explaining our identities requires a mix of all these genres. The amount of information we have to absorb is so complicated that I wanted my book to recognize and speak to that.
Photo: Penguin Random House
What did you learn about yourself in the process?
On a mental level, we all understand that we deal with shame. I had processed some of that through therapy. But to process it through historical culture, and learning where it stems from, revealed to me that shame is the fuel I was running on all along. And that all of that shame, whether it was attached to a country or a political system, was poisoning me.
I had to confront that everything is connected. That learning about one thing would afford you the clarity required to ask better questions. We're trained to simply look at data, which can be overwhelming because a lot of times we don't understand how all of it connects. Seeing that connection was a comfort for me. To know that how we feel in this world isn't a mystery. For example, learning that my struggle to connect with my mother had a lot to do with the political culture which we lived in, especially at the time of her death. An African Muslim woman living in the South during 9/11 was a terrible time. I remember not understanding why the sympathy and empathy I got, or didn't get, after her death, didn't look like what my white classmates got. Understanding how that was attached to Islamophobia and Anti-Blackness. In South Carolina where there's a large military base and most of my classmates were military children, they were conditioned to view that as patriotism. In retrospect, a decade later, understanding that helped me move past a level of grief that I had been frozen at. Whereas before I'd felt like I wasn't worthy of the grief, I now know that the indifference stemmed from all of these systems and structures that made something difficult even worse.
You reference many women outside your family who stood with you throughout your life – as friends, editors, teachers and even authors. What role does sisterhood play in navigating all the grief?
There's something particular in the way that especially Black women have to experience the world that I don't think anyone else truly understands. Even in books it's often dismissed as this fantastical thing. So the Black women friends and editors who read the book helped me see certain cracks and gaps that I would otherwise not have recognized. One of my editors insisted on me staying attentive to the joy, even as I wrote about all this pain and grief. That was really important.
What's your hope for this book?
I really wanted this to be a hopeful book. To say that on the other side of grief there was hope, especially in community. To show the ways that Black people create and experience joy. And live in it. Things feel hopeless because we're in an algorithm. But no matter how I initially came to this book, I came out with hope, especially through the research. So this is a model for what and how to hope in what we're sold as hopeless times. To look at our immediate communities and lean into those many efforts being made to come out the other side.
To also highlight that while history is full of violence, it's also full of lessons. When we lean into studying our histories instead of shunning them, we can derive lessons that are roadmaps for the future.