But Have You Compromised Your Inner Landscape?


Image on the left: Sketch of  a brain with two thought bubbles. One thought bubble is labeled “Water” and includes ideas we should grow, including equity, education as the practice of freedom, critically interrogating your conditioning, resistance to systems of domination, inner reflection, imagination, decolonizing education, collectivity, radical love, courage, revolution, growth, and interconnectedness. The other thought bubble is labeled “Weed Out” and includes ways of thinking that should be weeded out of our minds, including violence, deference to authority, domination, white supremacy, sexism and patriarchy, anti-blackness, myth of meritocracy, abuse is normal, unquestioned allegiance to religion, rugged individualism, oversimplification, money over everything, and hollow love. Image on the right: A direct quote from the writing, “From dating to art to our sense of justice to how we conceptualize labor…there is a set of beliefs, of irrigated ideas, that govern our every move.” 

The partners we choose and the people we opt out of choosing as partners reflect the recesses of our inner world.

These words evaded my lips when I heard a friend of over ten years utter that she’s failed in romantic relationships. There was something about this language that struck me immediately. To say “I’ve failed in romantic relationships” is to flatten our field of sight. It’s to negate that whom we date is a direct manifestation of what we believe to be true about ourselves. Simplifying patterns of unhealthy coupling as “failed” makes it easier to maintain unhealthy bonds because severing that relationship inevitably signals personal lack, failure. When, truthfully, understanding when it may be necessary to sever, to cut off, to restrict from penetrating only becomes optional through an ongoing commitment to honor our most authentic selves in thought and action. This inner digging, unearthing, confronting, and ultimately transforming what we’ve dug up into maneuvering differently prepares us for what Sunni Patterson refers to as “extended sight.”

Sunni describes extended sight as the ability to expand our vision “so that you see more than what you are going through.” She probes: “What seeds have we allowed to be planted that we can weed out? What can we get out of here, (pointing to her head) that really is not serving us?” This line of inquiry becomes possible when we realize we are living out implanted ideas in everything we do. From dating to art to our sense of justice to how we conceptualize labor to family to community, to loving, there is a set of beliefs, of irrigated ideas, that govern our every move. Some of these ideas embedded in the recesses of our mind must be pulled out in order to see anew. Sunni continues:

“We [have] to constantly ask…who am I? Who am I? Who am I? See when you’re grounded in this who am I, you’re moving from a different kind of space…We are bombarded and hit with trauma after trauma after trauma after trauma every day, but one thing for certain—I know who I am. So see when I know who I am, I’m in a less-compromising position. There are things that I will not compromise when I know who I am. It’s only when I don’t know who I am when I don’t have faith in who I am…when I deem myself unworthy that I will gravel.”

If we are operating out of self-belief that some aspect of our being has failed, we are choosing a language of lack. Deeming ourselves failed—that is, damaged—simultaneously makes it harder to imagine ourselves whole and prevents us from asking the type of questions that may actually lead to inner and outer disruptions: What aspects of myself do I compromise, do I negotiate in order to stay in relationships and situations that I admit are unfulfilling? Am I worthy of a partnership, of conscious coupling, that is fundamentally rooted in respect, compassion, kindness, and trust? Do I make exceptions for what respect, compassion, kindness, and trust look like based on ways of understanding I witnessed in childhood but haven’t divested from as an adult? How did I come to understand love? How has what I was taught about love served me and worked against me in adulthood? What concessions have I made that were detrimental to my personal wellbeing? What bruised parts of my inner world allowed me to make those concessions? What messages am I subconsciously sending myself about what I deserve when I accept anything that is thrown my way? What language do I use to speak to myself? What allowances have I made that are misaligned with the values I claim to hold? What am I willing to abandon to open myself up to the type of world I’ve never even imagined? This type of critical interrogation is key if we wish to unlock and overcome our complicity in toxic relationships.

In our society, toxic relationships are romanticized. If you’re in a romantic relationship and your partner attempts to control your movements, they are often described or interpreted as expressing their love for you. And of course, this way of thinking seems legitimate because, well, we learned this in childhood. Many of us were raised in environments where we couldn’t even control what time we went to sleep or how short our hair could be. If you were raised in a strict household where everything you did was heavily monitored and you rarely, if ever, had opportunities to make informed decisions for yourself, you were socialized to normalize symptoms of domination. So moving from a controlling household to a controlling partner doesn’t seem that abnormal. Reflecting on the sometimes tumultuous and remarkably painful moments in childhood can lead to new routes that circumvent the allure of toxic relationships. Without deep and honest reflection, however, we are prone to overlook childhood connections that may have trapped us in a cycle of psychological servitude.

While the glorification of toxic relationships are rampant onscreen, in families, and friendships, there is also an overarching sense of urgency fueling unconscious coupling. And the pressure to partner up regardless of signs of toxicity can be debilitating. To measure what is deemed valuable in any society, you can begin by dissecting frequently asked questions. As a woman, I am often asked the same two questions. Whether it’s from a family member or a stranger, I can be sure to hear: Have you found someone yet? When are you having a baby? These questions, while well meaning at best and presumptuous at worst, reveal a larger phenomenon. Both questions indicate assumed interest. According to these two questions, I should be interested in pursuing a romantic relationship and motherhood. It presupposes that my number one priority is in finding someone, and if my response is that I am not in a romantic relationship, I receive reactions of pity: “Oh you’ll find him soon. I know he’s out there.” Which illuminates other presuppositions because I’m sexually fluid and I am highly attracted to one’s personality regardless of genitalia and gender identity. More fitting questions we might consider exploring frequently include: How is your inner landscape? What’s the energy of your inner circle like these days? By ritualizing questions and thought processes that provide space to contemplate and assess our individual selves, we reprioritize self-reflection.

Too many of us are seeking peace and comfort in dysfunctional romantic relationships at the expense of our inner landscape. When I speak of inner landscape, I am speaking of the interconnected aspects of our psychosocial, sociopolitical, emotional, intellectual, relational, collective, imaginative selves. Who are we when we are sitting alone with our individual vulnerabilities? Who are we when we are in the company of selected comrades? What are we craving when we select our comrades and lovers? Who are we in relation to the broader communities in which we belong? How do we grapple with the larger context of our peculiar social conditions? How do we extend our sight and imagine that which seems improbable? To determine if you are compromising your inner landscape to date, I implore you to wrestle with these questions in the most radically honest way.

So to my dear friend of over ten years, I’d like to say explicitly that you have not failed at relationships. You have, however, compromised your inner landscape to date, and I can only hope that one day you ask the type of questions and move in such a way that announces instantly to any prospective partner, “I am worthy of and will accept nothing less than radical love!”

Did They Know? (Part I)


Cousins Assata, Natalia, and Sanaa are having an intergenerational conversation with their Grandma Angela-Yvonne and Auntie Bell about the psychic toll of witnessing black bodies lynched across the nation and how deep anti-black girlhood/womanhood runs. They are sitting around the kitchen table when Natalia begins to think about whether black people of various ages knew their sheer presence was deemed threatening by the decided majority before they were murdered.

  • Assata          20-year old young black woman attending college
  • Natalia         16-year old black girl about to graduate early
  • Sanaa           6-year old black girl being homeschooled
  • Grandma     Angela-Yvonne, 68 years old, retired school teacher
  • Auntie         Bell, 44 years old, writer

(Natalia)  Do you think they knew?

(Grandma)  I don’t know if they all knew how deep it runs. But I think on some level, we all know. It’s almost impossible not to.

(Assata)  Well we’ve been sold a list of instances that marked the beginning of our ever-growing ascension and supposedly ushered us into an era of color blindness. I mean one of my professor even said it.

(Auntie)  Oh please. We’ve never bought into that.

(Assata)  You sure about that? I think quite a few of us have.

(Auntie) Well, if they have they were simply masking or too detached from the masses to acknowledge the facts.

(Sanaa)  Auntie, what you mean by masking and detaching?

(Grandma)  (stuttering) You, you know how we talk about our ancestors, those people who lived before us and still live in our hearts? Well, that there is an ancestral trait we had to cultivate to survive and we still learning how to remove it and use other tools in our toolkit.

(Sanaa)  Well, I wanna survive but sometimes I’m not sure why. I mean it seems like we’re hated by the bad cop guys and the black boys, too.

(Grandma)  Oooh my sweet, sweet baby. What on earth could you possibly mean?

(Sanaa)  Well, Lela told me that black people are dying everywhere and that bad cop guys  are killing ‘em and some were shot when they were asking for help and others when they were selling things like CDs, or even when they were sitting in their own car listening to music, or when they were outside playing with toys, and somebody else got shot just a few years younger than TT by a different kinda cop after he bought a pack of skittles.

(Sanaa)  Sometimes I ask for help, auntie. And I like CDs, music, toys, and candy, too. I don’t wanna be next.

(Sanaa)  And as far as the boys go… when I told Taplin I liked him more than friends, he said I was too dark skinned and that his dad said black girls like me are crazy.

(Sanaa)  And then Kayla whispered in my ear and said she bet he would like her because her mom always says that she has the right complexion and perfect hair.

(Assata)  Do you see what we have to go through? She’s only six years old and she’s already being taught that she is despised by just about everyone. And they only seem to like our blackness when the evidence of intermingling is conspicuous.

(Natalia)  And it’s plastered all over TV auntie. On nearly every channel, they say the exact same thing.  And Mr. George-Bush-doesn’t-care-about-black-people is out here announcing that his manufactured wife is the finest person alive while we out here dying and he’s lying publicly about the cessation of racism while he begs for their money. And didn’t he just make another public announcement that he would have voted for a vocal bigot at a time when we got people being tear-gassed, shot in the back, shot while reading, shot while thinking, shooting each other because resources are depleted. I mean what would he have to do for us to refuse to support his modern-day minstrelsy?

(Sanaa)  And I used to love him too auntie because he said (rapping) “they made us hate ourselves and love they wealth.” And I don’t really know what that means but it sounded po-wer-ful. You think the boogeyman finally got to him, too?

(Natalia)  The boogeyman got to him alright and it’s gotten to several others, too. Black men and women outside the spotlight despise black women just as much. Did you see  what they did in Philly…to Joyce? How they stripped her naked, tied her up, and beat her to death?

(Assata)  (heavy sigh) I did. I even ended up writing about it. I was examining the larger societal messages we consume that contribute to the development of someone that could humiliate and berate someone, tie them up, beat them, beat them long enough to stop breathing, beat them while their children watched, and beat them in an attempt to get them to submit to their demands. I mean doesn’t this sound familiar? It sounds a lot like the governing principles of chattel slavery practiced on this very soil not too long ago. In the essay, I also explored the particular nuances of misogyny we experience within and outside the Black community and among other Black women. And we get these messages everywhere. I mean we are conditioned to believe in and normalize the philosophy of violence and submission every Sunday through our assigned religion.

(Sanaa)  And didn’t you say he said something ‘bout submission. And don’t the bible say something about us submittin’ too? Why our religion talking about submittin’? I got my own mind, too.

(Sanaa)  Who dat writer y’all always talking bout? Bald-men or somethin’? Didn’t he say if god has any use it would make us freer and more loving? And if he can’t then we need to get rid of him? Well, I think I like Bald-men instead of submittin’ so good riddance.

(Grandma)  Mmm oooh all this hurt and fear makes my spirit so weak. My sweet, sweet baby, now you listen up real good you hear? You come from a long line of Negro fighters, builders, healers, thinkers, and writers that survived and thrived. Now, you probably gon hear a lot of nonsense in ya day, and for that I am deeply pained. But I want you to remember this…and remember this always: The inner limitations of someone else’s imagination will never reflect the reality of the brilliance that is you, your voice, and your mind. Now your little friend Taplin may believe these delusions, these fictional tales of black girl inadequacy right now and he may very well hold on to it until his dying day, but I want you to practice radical compassion anyhow because they conditioning him that way. They teaching him to hate his reflection and compete for their acceptance. So when he sees you, he sees a part of himself he’s been taught to reject. But he can always unlearn, sweetie, and all black boys and all black girls and all black, what they say now, gender-benders will not mistreat you. Some will remind you of the best parts of yourself on the days you’ve developed amnesia. And some will feel like home immediately the very first time you meet them. And that Bald-men you speak of is James Bald-win. And yes, he was definitely on to something. But you gon have to find peace somewhere. And if it ain’t in organized religion, you write it out. And if you can’t find peace in the pen, then you paint it out. And if you can’t find peace in the paintbrush, then you dance it out. And if you can’t find peace in dancing then you march it out. But you must find it inside yourself some way somehow so you don’t go mad in this upside down world.

(Assata)  Granny, I was with you up until all that peace talk. I think I’m past peaceful reckonings. I’m tapping into my black rage and doing everything I can to fight back. And no one calls people gender-benders grandma. They identify as gender-nonconforming or genderqueer.

(Grandma)  (laughing) I knew it was something like that. Well sugar I’d definitely never tell you to stop fighting. We certainly need more people in the fight. But even freedom fighters have to protect their minds from the madness.

(Natalia)  Grandma how she s’posed to understand all that? And even if she could, you think she’s going to retain (exaggerating) all that?

(Grandma)  Oh she might not know all the words right now, but she’ll retain it (pauses), she’ll remember. We just have to keep telling her.

(Natalia)  But what happens when words aren’t enough—then what?