(Excerpt from “On Currency”)

by Stella Akua Mensah

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published March 3, 2017

Oftentimes, people tell women not to wander off. When we are small, they mean to stay in the yard, and now they mean not to fly away or fight their tightening knuckles, or figure out how to love ourselves in a violent world. I wandered anyway, like always, but farther now than ever before. Some men want to keep us blissful, and others just want to keep us. I’ve never been kept for too long, or gobbled. So I wandered into the motherland of a violent world, one hand-crafted by the fists of foolish men who don’t know how to keep their hands to themselves.


When I was a little black girl, I collected quarters. So American, this currency, old white men’s faces irremovably stamped into its copper and nickel. I was a little black girl, and I loved my quarters—those tiny etchings of North American nature frozen into miniscule grandeur. I’d always wanted to be able to say I collected something, and without thinking of it with any significance, I decided on quarters. They were special only in that they were many, and they were mine. They’re sitting in a tiny jewelry gift-box on a shelf at the head of my childhood bed. 

When I returned to America, this currency felt so impenetrable, so oppressive. Taxi rides I’d spent ten cedis on in Ghana—the equivalent of $2.50—were now $45. A day’s worth of meals at the market would never have cost me more than twelve cedis—$3. The bills felt so aggressive in my palms, and nothing in this country ever seemed to warrant what it cost.

The only cost of mine that changes little across any ocean is that of walking while a woman, while Black. When my ancestors were stolen from our country and beaten into new names, new nakedness, the Women in my bloodstream stood upon an auction block, bare. Took up space, still, bore their teeth for inspection, made their bodies hard but could not ward off any finger or fist that made itself entitled to the curve of their hips, or glint of their ribs, emerging. Men placed a number value on each Woman’s form, her strength, her sexual “usefulness.” One Woman on the auction block, when asked to widen her lips and show her teeth, said, Why don’t you look between my legs and see what teeth are down there?

When I became a Big Black Woman, I felt my body morph into an item for the taking, years after auction blocks. Even in the motherland, the legacies of sale live in our flesh.

So how are we, who are never let walk without inspection, still able to place our feet to this red Earth? I’m asking myself this with building fury each day.

When I step off a filled-up page, folding into memory, I throw a coin into some water-body at my feet, and ask vein-Mothers for a road to take, and how.