From You’ve Got Mail to Nollywood classics, Fopé Ajanaku explains what their favourite films have taught them about love in this extract from the anthology Black Joy.
Black Joy is a first of its kind anthology, exploring race, identity and belonging through love, community and pleasure. Curated and edited by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire, the book features 28 essays from Black British voices including author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Little Mix star Leigh-Anne Pinnock, and Britain’s first Black woman MP Diane Abbott. Each one focuses on the unique cultural makeup of Black Britishness by exploring everything from friendship and carnival to barbershops and food. This extract is taken from writer and youth worker Fopé Ajanaku’s essay “First Kiss: How I make space for remembering love”.
I think about kissing a lot. In the abstract sense, being close enough to someone to bestow a kiss is a fantasy I held on to with clenched fingers throughout lockdown. But, if I’m honest, I think about kissing in a very real and horny sense a lot more. Feeling the sweat of someone’s upper lip against yours, the clack of your teeth before you readjust into a smooth glide. Clammy hands tensing against your waist, relaxing if only for a moment to grip you closer when you press into them. The wet squelch of your tongues, and a fleshy bottom lip held between your canines. It’s intoxicating in a way that I cannot fully describe.
I constantly daydream about grabbing someone’s head closer to mine, the shorter hairs on the nape of their neck tucked away in my fingers. In movies, the orchestral accompaniment swells at a good finale kiss, but in my good and earnest opinion it will always pale in comparison to the real thing: the rhythm of their moans working in tandem with yours as you try to climb into each other, the percussion of your gasps leaving your lips in staccato bursts. A whispered plea, once, twice. You are a god and they are your supplicant. Praise and worship has never sounded so good – no film soundtrack can beat that.
Are you thinking about kissing? Did you pause to take a breath?
We don’t get to pause and think about love a lot, do we? As the eldest child of a single Black mother, there was never enough time. There’s always something to do. There’s always more surviving to do. We’ll think of love when we get there. My mum used to say, ‘That’s life, and life isn’t fair,’ whenever I complained, and it would infuriate me no end. Why can’t we spend eternity trapped bathing in what makes us feel alive?
Being in love is being in cahoots: the conspiring activity of people up to no good. It’s the best ploy or narrative device of them all, and only you and I are in on it. Don’t you love a secret? (Don’t you love a ruse?) You can create whole galaxies within a kiss, unearthed languages within a touch, and a shared ancient codex with your eyes. It is the best thing we have to offer in this bleak and quickly decaying society we call the present. Black people have refused to let go of love and clung on to it desperately throughout our entire history. I always think of the fact that even when enslaved, our ancestors still Black people have refused to let go of love and clung on to it desperately throughout our entire history had wedding ceremonies. Imagine that. The ceremonies were small and had no legal standing (since enslaved people were denied citizenship or the right of marriage), but they were soaked with tradition carried over oceans. The world right now feels as if it is getting older and meaner and harsher, and as Black people sometimes we need to remind ourselves of, to quote the indomitable Céline Dion, the power of love.
For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with the fantasy of love in all its manifestations. Films, books, TV shows – you name it, I have been there. Both tangible and immaterial, yet incredibly elusive, love is something I have spent the better part of my life sniffing out wherever and whenever I can. I yearned to be like the movie heroines, to have weak knees and be silly and giddy and in love.
It all started with one film. I remember clutching a beaded pillow to my chest when Nora Ephron’s Shopgirl (Meg Ryan) and NY152 (Tom Hanks) in You’ve Got Mail (1988) revealed themselves to one another and finally kissed. Meg Ryan’s tearful I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly and that perfect pale blue dress and matching cardigan have lived on the top floor of my mind for over two decades now. They hold my heart entirely.
Even as my mother did my hair and held steadfast control of the remote, amid the yanking of my roots and the continuous reprimand of ‘Face that way!’, I would still find ways to sneak peeks at the Nollywood film she had stuck on. Despite the chaos, those films felt familiar to me in a way that Hollywood never did. Famous 2000s Nigerian actresses such as Genevieve Nnaji, Ini Edo and Omotola Jalade Ekeinde were my starlets of the green-and-white screen, existing perfectly separately to the stars of Hollywood, and they looked just like me. We had a mountain of copied DVDs leaning precariously against the PC, and once a week I was allowed to choose one. Sordid tales of adultery, dubious morals and the power of love conquering everything under the banner of puritanical West African Christianity were my bread and butter throughout my adolescence. I mean, what is faith if not love sustained?
The first time I really conceptualised what love was and what it meant to me was in a middling primary school in south-east London, when I was utterly and miserably in love with my best friend. His name was Daniel. Our mums always said hello to each other at the school gates. His laugh made my belly flutter before I knew what butterflies were.
I still remember the day I told him I like liked him, mainly because that level of embarrassment is hard to forget. It’s amazing what you can tell from the slight twitch of a hand, the small pause before they reply and the beginnings of a frown. In a millisecond I had my answer, but I still had to endure the excruciating five minutes and subsequent weeks of ritual humiliation that followed my first ever rejection.
‘I’m sorry – I’ve only ever seen you as a friend.’ (By lunchtime everyone knew.)
Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the only rejection I faced. I was seventeen in Delphi, Greece, on a school trip and drunker than I had been in my entire life thus far. I’m watching the most beautiful girl in my year slowly grind with someone else to ‘Timber’ by Kesha featuring Pitbull. I am miserably in love and I think we’re meant to be. I watch as her hand curves past the swell of an arse and comes to rest on the sweaty peekaboo of a back. In a moment of true recklessness, obviously encouraged by three consecutive shots of tequila that definitely should not have been sold to me, I tell her.
We’re standing opposite one another on a funny little cobbled street, straight out of a storybook. The air is warm and balmy, and my hands are wet and sticky. I tell her how her name is tattooed on my heart. I tell her of my jealousy.
I tell her that I love her.
‘Oh, I thought we were just friends?’
(I try to play it off, but our friendship is never the same.)
I broke up with my first proper boyfriend over the phone. This was a turbulent and short-lived relationship in my second year of university, filled with slamming doors and screaming matches at least once a week. On that last ever phone call, I sat anxiously perched on the edge of the bed, like a bird getting ready to take flight. ‘This isn’t love, is it? This can’t be it, because I’m never happy. Are you?’ Looking back, I was so sure that if I explained it reasonably and logically, he would understand and we would part ways as great friends. Instead, he told me he lied the first time he said he loved me; he told me I was broken; he told me that I wasn’t made to be loved.
I remember hearing the roar of a plane cruise across the sky through the open window, followed by the jarring buzzing of the downstairs entranceway as I cried fat, loud and ugly tears down the phone to a boy I was so sure was the love of my life five seconds prior. It’s weird, isn’t it? How certain memories will always stick with us? I couldn’t now tell you his surname or recount the way his lips felt on mine.
But I still remember the cruel twist of his words. I still remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is heartbreak. This is what it feels like to be dying over and over again in the same second. This is what they meant.’
I adore films because even the open endings are still that: endings. But there was no ending here – just vicious words, a lot of tears, years of therapy and then… nothing. I am not the main character; he is not the villain. There is no divine justice. There is just the rubble left in the remnants of our hearts and the weapons they choose to bludgeon you with.
I found freedom in an orgasm. (‘Is this still an essay about love?’)
(‘Yes. Desire is important, right? It’s the foundation of our attraction, the kernel that grows into love. Maybe. Keep reading.’)
I have grown to love hotel rooms and the emotional implications the empty rooms come with. I wonder if the memories of every body that has slid under the same crisp white sheets imprints on you. They are both neutral ground and a space to the left of reality, where anything can happen. It’s there I found sex to be freeing and truly pleasurable, without the limitations of a curfew or the imposition of a car pulling into the drive.
We undressed one another with none of the coyness of new lovers. His arms gripped me so tight I thought I would combust. I gasped in surprise as we fell on to the bed, like it hadn’t occurred to me until just that moment that this was something we were going to do. The heavens didn’t split open and the earth didn’t shake to pieces under me, but by the end I was breathing hard and fast, satisfied in a way I felt right down to the base of my spine.
Older and not a bit wiser, I care less about the explosive nature of love, less about the dramatic confessions and the big collisions that define our lives. The moments the films don’t show you intrigue me far more. Those moments that you forget about – not because they are forgettable but because they are mundane in a sort of precious way. When I look back at these small, loosely unfurled moments (memories that make you squeeze your legs tightly together and stop in the middle of a sentence), my heart swells with warmth and fondness. This is where I always fall in love.
It’s the shared shower the morning after. It’s when falling naked into bed feels intimate but somehow not sexual. When all conversations feel like a well-worn slipper, shared only between the two of you. When they say your name in the exact same way they whisper fuck in bed.
The pale dawn sunlight filters through my window. There is no one in my unmade bed, and there are no eyes watching the straps of my camisole slowly slide down my shoulder as I write. It seemed a romantic notion at the time, thinking about love through the films that made me. But as a flame the size of my fingernail flickers in the cold night air rolling into my bedroom, I can’t help but feel like I’m waiting for someone, my scene partner, to fill the silence with their scripted flirting, a dynamic foil to my role as the protagonist.
Sometimes I do have to ask, however, how do you still centre love, still have the energy to yearn, when life is telling you that it’s not yours to keep? At some point, choosing to love and be loved despite the pain it may bring is a radical choice. It’s a decision we make every day, to choose to go forward. As a child, I desperately wanted to hold love to my chest with my grubby little fingers and never let it out of my grasp. Today I still cling, but in truth my arms have grown weary.
I watched these films because they filled me with a sense of wonder. We live such long lives on this blue ball floating through the cosmos, and in a world where traditional norms that catered to the unbearable whiteness of being want us to feel isolated, to feel that we as Black people are unworthy and undeserving of love, I have come to realize that we owe it to ourselves to remain just as in love with the idea of love as being in love. To over-romanticize, to dream too big and to hope for too much. You are allowed to mull over the most minuscule of moments. To let that text exchange stay in your mind months after the fact.
The American philosopher Dr Joy James once said: ‘Love should be our right and the longevity of love is our birthright.’ I believe that. Do you?
Do you remember your first kiss? Do you remember that feeling of being held? Mine was stunning and gorgeous and I was sweaty and nervous and all I could think as they pressed me into my locker and as my heart bloomed was: It’s happening, holy fuck it’s happening.
This is what they were talking about. This was the joy they spoke of.
Taken from Black Joy curated and edited by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire, published by Penguin.
Images: Getty/Elena Sokolovskaya, Penguin