Golden Halo

Her body is a brown-specked,
Yellow canvas
Made of blue blood and
Green veins,

A body that you forced to sprawl flat
On the ground in front of you
As you attempted to excavate
The life from it–

Surprised when her ashes
Rose up from the dead
And funneled,
Like a hurricane,
Around you,

When a low thrum
Emanated from her
Previously lifeless body
To create a baseline for the earth.

You may have killed her once,
Have stopped her heart,
But does a heart with love in it
Ever really stop?

She is a queen,
And you know
Where royalty goes.

She stands in front of you,
In all her nakedness–
Which you have seen already,
But not anymore.

She gets to decide who sees it,
When,
How,
Whether or not your eyes
Are on her now.

There is a halo around her from the light of the sun.
Whatever power you thought you had,
You better run, chile,
Run, run.

She is awake now,
And this will be fun.

Featured post

The National Anthem for Survivors of Sexual Assault

*TW for references to sexual assault.*

I told myself I’d write a poem.
I wanted to write about him.
I wanted to write about how the “nice guys” are nice,
But they’re still guys.

I wanted to write about how startlingly white
His legs were the next time I saw him,
Strutting around campus in cargo shorts.

I wanted to write about how the length reminded me of
The hem of my dress
And how a single piece of clothing hardly kept myself protected.

I wanted to write about my grandmother,
And how she has been waiting for two calls all my life.
She has been waiting for a call about police brutality
And a call in which a man has violated me.

I wanted to write about her warnings,
The fights we had when I was in high school.
She told me I was too trusting and naïve.

I told her that it was not my responsibility
To protect myself from other people.
My only job in life is to humanize and respect
Those around me.

What I didn’t realize was
How difficult it can be to extend humanity
When you are constantly denied it–
Denied,
Disparaged,
Defiled.

I wanted to write about how much love I had in my heart,
Still have in my heart,
Dispensing into every source of joy around me.

I wanted to write about how much it hurt,
That all that joy is riddled with pain–somehow,
That I have to actively stop myself from hating someone
That I once loved even though I didn’t know him,
Because deep down I want to love everyone.
Deep down, I do love everyone.
Deep down, I still love him.

Isn’t that incredible?
Isn’t that insane?
I wanted to write a poem about me,
And it was still about him.

Can you imagine a universe
In which my life isn’t shaped
By what white men think of me?

Or is that too greedy?

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f*ck men.

They walk around filling beautiful black women with 
Ugly white sticks 
Like jamming a gun 
With ammo
And pointing it at a home 
Made with bricks, 
With a cross on fire in the front yard,  
Filling black bodies
With bullet holes. 

I wish I could decenter him–
Didn’t wake up with a fresh face of tears
And a subconscious riddled with fears 
Every morning since it happened. 
How do I erase him from my memory? 
How do I not see his face in every  
Charming smile 
And set of green eyes
Around me? 

A playlist titled, 
“Fuck the patriarchy,”
Blue eyeshadow, 
And lots of leather
To make it better.

A recipe for breaking up with my trauma. 

Then, why does my stomach hurt?
Why does it lurch
When I still see his face on campus? 
Why do I have to run to the toilet to vomit or
Pant or 
Cry? 
Why do the walls fold in 
Like I’m going to die? 
Why can’t I fly? 
He clipped my wings. 
I was soaring, and he wanted to fly higher than me. 
Where’s the sun? 
Is it 
White too? 

What do I do? 
I can’t hide my face in my hands. 
They’re detached from my body. 
My soul is black and 
Floating above a clouded earth. 
I thought it was heaven until I realized 
There was nothing black in sight,
And it was quiet. 

“Don’t try to fight it,” 
In a masculine voice, 
That tells me it’s neither my body nor my choice. 
What did I do to you
To make you hate me? 
Did you want to date me
Or just fuck me, rape me? 

I’m duck-taping myself to the sky, 
In the shape of an X 
That covers my eyes–
Want to fly high but
Don’t want to see it.
Is there a heaven that you can’t be in?
I cry 
When you put your thing between my thighs 
And I multiply 
And multiply. 

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Sexual Frustration, Sexual Imagination

Is it wrong of me to imagine
The slide of soft brown hands between thighs so thick they stick together? 
Is it wrong of me to imagine 
The sensation of perfectly shaped nail beds digging into the dimpled skin of 
Hardened muscles and skillfully sculpted calves? 
Is it wrong of me to imagine
The way his tongue dances across the smooth skin of a toned stomach–
My toned stomach–
Or the way my breath hitches as he hovers above the folds of my skin?
Is it wrong of me 
To want all of him?  

Our eyes meet across the room, both shielded by glasses that don’t protect our hearts, 
Pink organs that jump dramatically and dance in step to a music that we start. 
Shy smiles carry with them cheeks the color of the flames in our hearts. 
He is a work of art.  
He pulls me closer. 

Can’t you just imagine
The taste of my tongue and the feel of my mouth? 
Am I grossing you out? 

You should be afraid of me, not disgusted. 
I’ve conquered femininity with my sexuality, 
And I love it. 

Imprints, impressions, impressive moans, 
Giddy laughter and jumping bones. 
Hands clumsily unclasping bra 
And giggles interrupting moments of awe.  

The look he gives me when he finds the spot, 
Like the union of our bodies connects the dots–
No time for thoughts. 

We make love until the sun goes down, 
And then we frown. 
We lie in bed and 
Drown and drown. 

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the “strong Black woman”

Face full of makeup and hair done 
To fit the femininity you’ve pressed upon 
White women, to hold them subservient to men. 
You wouldn’t even let Black women in. 

Is the kinkiness of my hair too short? 
Is my nose too big to snort? 
Do my hips and breasts carry 
The temptation of men to fuck but never marry? 

Is the brown tone of my skin too chocolate for you?
Did the dentist raise you not to have a sweet tooth? 
Do I look like dirt? 
Are you upset that your men gaze and flirt? 
Do you support the power structures I am trying to subvert? 

It’s not that we wanted to be like whites
We needed our own way to step into the fight. 
When you asked for women’s rights, 
You meant rights for all whites. 

So, we participated. 
You took over your birch, 
So we rustled and bustled in the schools and the church. 
Education–
A principle of our great nation, 
Once argued as a way to keep Blacks in our station,
As preservation
Of the white man’s capacity to learn
And the scorn of Black people as you watched us burn. 

We wanted to prove that we were human. 
We could do all the same things that white women were doing–
We could do better
From the wellness of our dress to getting our nails pressed, 
We’d be the best. 

It was less about wanting to be like anyone else
And more about wanting to be at all. 
We knew you would not let us stand 
Without waiting for our fall. 
So, we stand tall. 

In our careers,
In our hopes and our fears, 
In all that we hold dear,
We take the wheel and steer.
Then, we veer.
It’s somewhat of a cycle.

Somewhere in the midst of all the races,
We realized we were at the start line.
We had never been there before.
We mistook start for finish,
And the lines began to blur.

Seeing our advancement,
We thought we could choose to get ahead.
We were misled.
How much do we sacrifice–
How much do we compromise–
To forge promise on this stolen land?

We begin to teach our daughters
That to be a mother is to be a mother and a father.
We stop relying on anyone else
And begin to get the job done ourselves.

Humans are so fickle,
It’s that simple.
We realized we could not depend
On anyone else to let us in.
We erected doors
Where there had been no passage before.

Our tales represented strength, resistance, and hope,
But white hands tied a knot into the rope,
And held knives to our throats.

I am in a box, and I cannot move.
I try to pick myself up by the straps of my boots.
They are loose.
Yet, the soles are stuck to the floor.
I am human no more.
I am a pair of boots,
With shiny chains and platform heels
Affixed to an abyss by white Elmer’s glue.
What do I do?

In our greatest efforts,
Whites began to poke holes.
Our image was intrinsically tied to our goals.
Inherently, Black women are bearers of all.
If you need a punching bag, a Black woman you’ll call.
We had not seen progress, and so thought we wanted more.
We put our feelings aside and forced open more doors,
Took on more chores.
Raising three kids and working three jobs,
We held our heads high and choked back sobs.
We wore our jewelry around our necks,
Yet, somehow, we were robbed.

And so, the story goes.

Post-Reconstruction, Black women needed a way in.
We saw the roles put in place for white women by white men.
We put in the work of domesticity and femininity,
And it wasn’t enough.
We bought more stuff.
If we could just do it all,
White people would not be so keen to see us fall.
What does it take to be humanized?
You just have to be capable in the law’s eyes.
We forgot the laws were different for Black people and white.
Capability takes on different meanings,
An inheritance for whites and Black people’s breeding.
To undo the rhetoric that had been pushed,
We shoved ourselves in every pocket of society where we had been shushed.
We rushed.
We spread ourselves to every corner,
And in doing so, gave fuel to every scorner.
The more we attained,
The less movement there would be for our offspring in the game.
They would have to use the same playing card and walk the same spaces.
White people became graceless.
What was, at first, a resistance attempt
Became expected of Black women,
And we keep giving in.
I don’t blame us.
I blame every Sue, Karen, and Jan
That preaches about Black women’s strength without lifting a hand.
And
The next time you call a Black woman strong,
Think about the ways that depiction is wrong.
We are strong, but the strength you prescribe is limited.
When you say strong, what do you mean?
That we have abnormal strength, thus othering?
Or that in the face of a nation in which we as people were not welcome,
We persisted?
Until other people stop using Black women’s strength to
Dehumanize, defeminize, and colonize our beings,
Use an addendum.

This Black woman is human.
This Black woman deserves a break.
This Black woman has feelings.
No matter how “respectable”
Or “domestic”
Or “chaste”
This Black woman seems,
She is She.
What will it take for you to see She?
What will it take for you to see Me?
I want to breathe.
Keyboard at my fingers, pen to paper, words flow.
It is the only place I am welcome to let myself go
Without somehow undermining
My position as a Black woman
In a society where that label is gatekept
By the same people who side-swept
Racist remarks and appropriation under the guise of colorblindness and America’s diverse appreciation
Take your nation,
And tear it apart.
Rebuild it from scratch,
Revisit the start,
And memorialize, historicize, and erect modern art.
Me?
I am a work of art.
I contain multitudes.
I?
I am.
I am This Black Woman.
I am not Every Black Woman,
And I do not have “a Black Woman’s strength.”
I am strong,
And I am a Black woman.
I am a strong Black woman.
I am not strong because I am a Black woman.
I am strong because, as a Black woman, I have to be.
You have required it of me.
So, start saying what you mean.
Stop using Black women’s strength to support your rhetoric
That intersectionality should be given a sedative.
Don’t act like it’s meditative.
You have used “strength” to barricade me.
Access to healthcare,
Is that a thing I don’t need?
Why don’t you just let me be?
I am strong, I am Black, and I am free.

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the case against higher education (the way you do it)

Spent my whole life trying not to think about race, but I can’t escape it. 
In claims of colorblindness, race is so pervasive. 
I hate it. 
My temperament is always on the cusp. 
Raise conscious, but you just want a tough rebuff. 
Put a pencil in my hand and tell me to take it. 
I write with your words, in your schools, and you praise it. 
I color outside the lines, and you slightly awaken. 
My words stir up your insides and leave you SHAKEN. 
Take your pencil back and ask me to erase it. 
Downturned lips, disapproving facial statements. 
I take the pencil from your hand and break it. 
With one half, I’ll make it. 
You put me on your posters to promote admission, 
But refuse to acknowledge the damage that’s been done. 
Entering a classroom, feeling alienated
By intellectual competitors in my community who fake it. 
Their lips curl when my experience takes up space in a room. 
But to take classes with my shadow is a different doom. 
I am constantly awaiting a thrust into the light. 
I’m bumping up against shoulders to enter the fight. 
So keep turning up your noses and demanding world peace. 
Meanwhile, I’ll be laying traps at your feet. 
I shouldn’t have to play by your rules to be offered a seat. 
We are working toward a future where that’s what it means to be free. 
Until then, you can stop benefitting off the backs of those like me,
And don’t count me among your Black friends when you preach 
To an experience you don’t know but think that you want to
So that you can stop being held accountable for all that you do
By living in white skin in a society you did not create 
With identities you perform and hierarchies you perpetuate
And STOP calling Black people divisive. 
Not thinking about race? We’ve tried it! You revived it. 
I’ll stop thinking about race when I can walk into a class
Without the white gaze penetrating through me like eyes through glass. 

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They don’t grow up too fast–they don’t grow up at all.

Laughter penetrated the mornings with too-blue skies.
Skin got tan. Cucumbers were peeled from eyes.
Dirt got under fingernails which were later clipped–
Clothes peeled off as you skinny-dipped.

“Childish ambition.” Church ladies bowed their heads.
They pretended to pray while judging you instead.
Y’all came into church late and laughed in the pew.
The pastor laughed heartily and took a good look at you.
“They grow up so fast.”

Too fast, you think now, looking back on your past.
You thought that summer was built to last.
Pink and blue thread adorned your wrists
Before everything went tumbling with two types of a kiss.

The first was unexpected–slow and sweet.
She took you around the playground slide and made your knees weak.
You had just grown boobs and smiled with your chest. 
You felt blessed. 
Arms entwined, and you forgot the rest.

At church, you were advised to stop sitting in the sun.
“Look at these children–dark, every one of ‘em!”
You looked around the congregation and thought, “Everyone’s black.”
When you said this to your grandma, her jaw went slack.

After church, you got ice cream with lemonade-stand coins.
Y’all went swimming as an excuse for your legs to join.
She kicked you under the water with a mirthless wraith.
When you dried off in your bedroom, you stood back to back.
You remember that she didn’t kiss you.

Grandparents had had enough and confined kids to bed.
She knocked on your window and slipped inside while you read.
“Whatchu reading?” she asked as you showed her Huck Finn.
You condemned the book as racist, and she kissed you again.

The latter half of that summer was stolen glimpses of skin–
Lips too close and gazes stuck to shins.
Bodies were stretched across hammocks and rocks.
You kept everything on, but you really hated socks.
When you reached for hers, she stopped you.

Summer grew into fall, and bruised legs raced through halls.
Teachers demanded silence in thick-accented drawls.
Shades were drawn and soup prepared,
And all the while you stopped and stared.

“I don’t think we should do this anymore.”
She climbed off her bed and threw her books in her bag.
You nodded quietly, yet your shoulders sagged.
When you got to your room, though, she kissed you on your cheek.
“It’s fine if we do this, but it stays between you and me.”

Your mother got suspicious about you spending so much time
“With a girl that dark with no reason or rhyme.”
“I think she’s pretty,” you argued back.
It got you spanked and nearly smacked.

Then one day, she didn’t show up to school.
She didn’t call you or text, and you felt like a fool.
Your mother said there was no church on Sunday, which you found odd.
Your grandmother said, “Always make time for God.”
You didn’t go back to church for three months.

You went on thinking that she was sick.
The teacher sent a card around the room, and you signed it.
More months passed and you still hadn’t seen her.
Your mother yelled when you asked where they were.
Three years passed.

Assigned a history project with a boy who still picked his nose,
You ended up doing most of the work on a topic he chose.
Religiosity, Protestantism, and the church.
You scaled back the results to a local search.
You shuddered at what your search results yielded.

The second type of kiss was from an old man with no hair.
You remember her once saying, “He touched me there.”
You had asked her to repeat herself, and she shuddered with fear.
She took your face in her hands. “I just said ‘come here.’”

The family packed up their things and moved right out.
You wanted to scream–you wanted to shout.
You were filled with rage for something from three summers ago.
You stomped out of the house and told your mother, “I know.” 

When your parents sat down to talk it out,
They said they didn’t want ideas in your head to sprout.
They thought you would follow your friend’s “temptation.” 
You didn’t understand a single word they were saying. 

It was only then that you really found out.
She was abused by a rapist disguised as a scout.
“Honor the Lord,” he yelled every Sunday for years.
Your childhood is now riddled with doubts and fears.

The charges were dropped because they didn’t believe her.
He was fired from his post, but you still can’t see her.
After she moved away, she lost herself
In the memory of a man still hidden behind stealth.

You visit her grave, where the truth is revealed.
Her mother tells you through tears that her daughter has been killed.
You think you understand what she means.
Though it was her own hands that held the gun,
“We are all responsible for killing this one.”

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Sour Grapes

Salted watermelon danced across desperate tongues,
Above mud-caked Chucks and panting lungs.
Plastic chairs painted patterns across the backs of too-thick thighs.
Lingering sensation of limbs too close,
As toes curled in the sand, eyes observing the coast.  

Fingers fit around bottlenecks, naturally so,
And beer caps littered the beach, unwilling to go.
Lips tasted like salt water­–
A tear? A droplet of rain?
The memories of that summer a blur in your brain.

The soft slide of ice cream melting from the cone.
Fears shared and tears shed over dying alone.
The memories of panicked screams echoing off the walls.
Nights spent stretched out on the bed or backyard floor,
Star-speckled sky and drunk confessions of wanting more.

An overwarmed gaze on a set of tanned legs,
Muscles flexed by bespectacled boys who handled the kegs.
These boys carried with them confessions of a crush.
Clothes peeled off, abandoned by the lukewarm lake,
Underwater tangle of legs like fate.

The friction of mouths teasing out moans,
Parent-authorized curfews resulting in groans.  
The evolution of a kiss–
Once a feather-light touch, curious and young,
Now a dash of desire danced out by the tongue.

Palms pushed against chest and weight shifted with vibe,
The squeak of the bed and lovers trying to survive.
Morning spent with comforter in a heap on the floor.
Hands held together or brushing at sides,
The close of summer and the lowering of tides.

Glances exchanged at school behind separate hives,
A pulsating heart through a back stabbed by knives.
You didn’t know each other at school.
Giggles concealed in church while the pastor looms near,
A pained conversation about publicity and fear.

A knock on the door and mother entering the room.
An issue of Women’s Health hurled at the broom.
Her hand rests on the handle, the other on a white basket.
She bends over and picks the magazine up.
“I’m grabbing your laundry.” She collects your stuff.

Jerseys are exchanged with girl locker room talks.
You’re on separate teams, and the loser’s team walks.
She raises her eyebrows and wishes you luck on the game.
Your eyes glance over a rib cage you once knew,
And you stare a moment too long as her eyes condemn you.

Part of you wishes you didn’t hate yourself so much,
The way your body still sizzles at the slightest touch.
You spike the ball angrily and hear her skull crack.
It’s the sound of her ass hitting the floor.
She points a finger at your chest and calls you a whore.

The anger you should feel is overshadowed by sorrow.  
The principal tells you you’re expelled from school tomorrow.
You try to remember where it all went wrong.
Principal Brown is lecturing you about anger in sports.
Your mother slaps your hand at your undignified snort.

The boy from the beach takes you for milkshakes that night.
He tells your mother he’s your tutor, and she squeals in delight.
Somewhere in the evening, he gets a little too eager.
He puts his hands in your curls and studies them a beat too long.
He tells you his parents are racist, and the moment is gone.

At graduation years later, she is the girl most known.
You study her from afar alongside pictures in your phone.
She and her boyfriend speak in hushed tones.
The camera around your neck is where you feel you belong.
It has a strap, so it doesn’t have to be strong.

She’s going miles away to a school out of state.
She’s leaving you in the closet to lie in wait.
You blame her for your chest–
For all this pain.
You place the camera around your neck and take pictures in vain.

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Passing

You came to me in seasons.
In summer, you were bright and full of life. 
You climbed your way up the staircase on all fours 
And dared me to do the same. 
You had a nice smile, 
So I listened to you. 

I tripped over those stairs. 
That summer was a series of awkward renditions, 
With me squeamishly asking for your patience 
As we traversed the great unknown. 
After a time, things stopped being exciting for you.
We did them more, and I became more comfortable.  
Things got less awkward for me as the sun got paler 
And the clear, starry nights passed away. 
But when I asked you to do the things we used to, 
You didn’t smile so bright anymore. 

Fall was lukewarm,
Like hot chocolate too watered down–
More for lack of appropriate timing than for anything else.
I pulled out my sweaters and my autumn decorations, 
And you shrugged your shoulders and frowned. 
When you looked at me, 
I was not in front of you.
You were looking at something beyond me, 
That I was in the way of now.  
I felt our time was running out. 

Winter came, first a bitter and biting breeze, 
Then an avalanche outside our door, 
Yelling at us and banging on the wood to let it in. 
I was comfortable being in the house, but we were angry
As we hid in our respective corners of the room, 
We were more upset at being trapped with one another
Than at not being able to get out. 

Then one night, 
You fell into my arms and cried. 
It felt like old times. 
Snow fell in fat flakes against your curls 
And dissolved the way your tears did 
Against my fingers as I captured them. 
You told me you felt cold,
So I offered you my jacket, 
My shoulder, 
My ear, 
And my whole heart. 
It was warm there. 
I gave you all the things I thought I was supposed to give you, 
And that was still not enough. 
I didn’t realize that you can’t formulate relationships
For them to work, like math. 
It’s more like English, 
But we never talked to each other, 
Because you squirmed when you thought we had nothing to say. 
I had everything to say to you,
I just hadn’t warmed up. 
You never gave me time. 
Suddenly, your patience with my problems was a compromise, 
But I had to pull that information out of you. 
You expected that my fire would always be kindled–
But by who? 
Because it could no longer be you. 

I pretended that it was. 
And then you stopped needing me. 
You went to other sources for warmth and comfort, 
Because you seemed to have forgotten that 
You kindled my fire 
As much as I did yours. 
You seemed to think that 
My wood was not enough. 
You seemed to think that 
Our wood could not exist together, 
That we weren’t built to last in this weather. 

I thought I did everything I could to repay you,
But I let you get too close. 
You didn’t just provide warmth. 
You burned me at the stake. 
You let me take and take, 
Even when I told you not to. 
It’s my fault, too. 
Somewhere in the fire I got lost 
And couldn’t figure out when the water was enough. 
So I stopped watering you, 
And you stopped watering me too. 
There were hidden places in the house, 
And eventually, it all got burned down. 

When you burned out, 
Spring came. 
You were surrounded by tons of budding flowers. 
They tilted your way, in the way of the sun. 
You watered their soil, 
And they watered yours. 
It was all one giant circle. 
I was somewhere on the outskirts, 
With a large floppy hat and unnecessary gardening tools. 
Whatever you had asked of me before, 
You did not need now. 
You were getting it from somewhere better, 
From somebody else. 

I can’t figure out what happened. 
When I argued that “it happened to you,” 
You crumbled, dust slipping between my fingers. 
That had not been what I had meant to say. 
I felt my heart explode. 
It seemed that no matter what I said to you, 
It was never right anymore. 
And sure, some things were wrong. 
But some things you ran from, 
Things that I depended on you for, 
And things I gave to you because I needed to.
I needed to give to you to feel needed,
And I think you felt that way too.
At the end of the day, 
Our relationship was an exercise in who could give the most to who
Until we both burned out. 

In the summer, 
We passed.
I wish I knew who and where you are now, 
But your grass is growing miles high, 
And mine is too. 
I just always imagined that my grass would grow with you. 

Featured post

bridges

For Pete. Because perspectives from the white gaze still exist, and there’s a way for them to produce less harm. Because you are the best example I have found of this. Because we’ve had these discussions, even when they weren’t easy. Because I appreciate you.

The girl on the bridge is plain-faced. She wears overly round glasses and a middle part down bone-straight black hair. She hugs her arms to her chest, wearing a white baby tee and velvet black lounge pants, dangling her legs over the edge of the bridge when I join her.

“Hi.” She doesn’t look surprised to see me. In fact, she looks like she is somewhere else entirely. I slide into the seat next to her, and she jumps slightly when our elbows brush. “What are you doing out here?”

When she finally looks at me, I realize that she isn’t so plain-faced at all. There is a dusting of orange freckles across her light brown cheeks, and her eyes are espresso-colored and agonizingly open. By looking into her eyes for five seconds, I feel like I know her whole story. I see so much thought, so much anxiety, and so much pain. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, kicking her memory foam sneakers back and forth as cars pass on the highway beneath us. Her eyes return to the stretch of this pavement as if seeing it anew. “I always come here when I want to clear my mind.”

“To the bridge?” I ask her, concern laced under the sarcasm in my voice.

She narrows her eyes at me, bumping my shoulder slightly. “To the bridge, yes.” The girl is young. She is probably sixteen or seventeen, but her shoulders sag in defeat as if she has lived for an eternity.

“What are you running away from today?” It’s cold out. I see her breath when she blows out a heavy sigh. I stuff my hands into the pockets of my black jacket–the same color as her hair, a size too big, and not mine.

“I’m not running from anything.” She shrugs her shoulders, and her eyes travel to the jacket around me. I take the hint, shrugging it off and placing it around her shoulders.

“What are you running towards?” I revise my question.

As she looks at me, a single tear escapes her eyes, and everything around us seems to crumble. She gulps, scooting closer to me. “I knew a man like you, once.” When my eyebrows raise, she shakes her head. “No, no. He was nothing like you. You were only alike on the outside.” I look down at myself and take note of my own white skin. It’s strange to be so aware of it, and I immediately blush for thinking that. I nod, encouraging her to go on. “I met him on this bridge.”

She sniffs, and I struggle to consider what I can provide her at this moment. In the end, I choose to offer her a stick of gum from my pocket. She laughs hysterically for a beat too long, a beat in which my concern for her escalates, before she stops laughing abruptly and completely. She takes the stick of gum, opens it, and extends the wrapper toward me. In our two-second exchange, she folded the paper in the shape of a heart. “It’s the only thing I can make,” she explains. I look at the time on my watch discreetly. It’s almost time, but something about this moment with her feels important to me.

She looks at me again, and her face cycles through a myriad of emotions. “I hate you,” she says to me. She balls her hands into fists and covers her face with them as if she’s going to fight me. “I hate you. I hate you.” She closes her eyes and punches my shoulder weakly before falling into my chest.

I let her cry against the fabric of my old gray t-shirt and pat her back gently. There are things in life that seem to require some instruction, but no one tells you how to do them properly. Comforting someone is one of those things. Yet, somehow, we manage. She sniffs loudly, mumbling words into my chest. I pull back slightly. “I’m sorry. I can’t hear you.”

“I really didn’t want to hate you.” She wipes tears from her eyes in order to look at me evenly. She squints as if trying to see something that no one else can. “But it didn’t just happen once. It happened six times, and they all looked like you.”

Her words feel like a slap in the face. I consider the fact that maybe they should. “Okay.” I’m not sure if it’s the right thing to say. Who am I to comfort her? My sorries don’t mean anything.

She furrows her brows as if she didn’t expect this response. “They all judged me because of how I look. I don’t want to do the same thing to you, but aren’t I owed it? I mean… after everything people have done to me because they’ve assumed things, do I have some right to do the same? I don’t want to do the same. I just want some accountability.” Her ideas are beginning to sound less and less cohesive but more and more emotional.

I blink. “So, hate me.”

She narrows her eyes. “Are you serious?”

I shrug my shoulders, placing my hands on my lap. “I’m not sure that I can answer your question. What do reparations look like for inhumane acts? We can never put a price tag on dehumanizing other people. I don’t need to tell you that. Until we figure it out, hate me.”

She laughs, and it grows maniacal. I notice that she’s crying even as she chuckles. “That’s so silly.”

“It’s not silly.” I kick my legs over the side of the bridge, turning to face her. I hug my knees to my chest, the distance of my lower half between us. “But will this even help you? Having my permission to hate me? I’m still in this privileged position of allowing something to you. There’s no way to go about this where I don’t have the power.”

I shake my head. “It doesn’t really matter what you think of me. Take what you need. I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

The clock across the street ticks loudly, and the bell above it chimes.

This is the anniversary of the day my brother committed suicide.

She looks at me, and her features finally relax. “I don’t think I can be okay.”

I nod. “Okay.”

When she looks at me, she smiles. “How are you saying all the right things?”  

I smile back at her, handing her the cell phone in my hand. Dialed in is a number that will connect her to resources far better than me–people that understand her and have more answers than me. As she looks at the phone skeptically, I shrug. “There are better things to say and better people than me.” I shake my head again, this time apologetically. Maybe a sorry can count for something–if you really mean it, if you know why you’re apologizing. Slowly, she takes the phone from my hand.

When I smile at her for the last time, my eyes glisten. “Take what you need.” 

Narratives of Trauma

What will it take for you to listen?
You elect committee members to make a decision,
Based on merit, about my admission.

What is merit?
A petite size flaunted by those who can wear it?
A family heirloom that one inherits?
The definition’s decided by those who share in it.

I do not have access to the “merit” you require,
No matter how big my brain or how much knowledge it desires.
Merit is more about the brand of wood than the brightness of the fire.

I will never be able to join your community
That gatekeeps insiders like they’re new royalty
So much that my failed attempts at entry look like disloyalty.

As I’m trying to find my way up, not in,
I raise the suspicion of family and friends,
Who don’t see a way up that includes them.

My goals and aspirations started out about them,
About creating a more just world for us to live in,
But when did it go from “us” to “me” and “them?”

Is there ever a world in which
My participation in social justice movements
Doesn’t involve appealing to crooked, powerful politicians?

I wrote an essay to get into college once.
Without “merit,” I had to make myself look like a dunce,
Capitalizing on my life’s most traumatic stunts.

At one point, I stopped feeling like me.
I was trying too hard to be somebody,
To give “the people” something they would finally see.

To be admitted into college, should I have to bare my soul?
Or sell it to the devil to reach my goal?
Do I have to talk about life’s debilitating toll?

Why can’t I write a poem about Black love?
Or my belief in a higher power reigning up above?
Why can’t I write about the good stuff?

Privilege is bright and flashy.
If I don’t have privilege, that leaves me
As a mascot on the margins. Will you see me?

My life must be so pathetic and sad,
That you could step in and save me with all your cash,
But I must be careful to beg and not to bash.

People call me a sellout
Because to get here, I had to want to get out,
Planting in our community little seeds of doubt.

If you’re reading this, I just want you to know.
I never had any plans to let my roots go.
I’ll share our stories of resistance, even if I start slow.

My life may have been filled with horrible things,
But it was at the hands of a society that causes suffering,
By people raised with hatred that they keep performing.

If this was my admissions essay, you wouldn’t let me in,
Because I would sound too human for you to save me from sin.
I’m condemning you for things you’ll do again and again.

I did not ask for a savior.
I asked you to stop separating the elite from the labor.
I didn’t ask you to do me any favors.

My admission was not contingent on speaking ill of my community.
It was a plea for you to let us be.
It was less of a photo and more of a mirror for you to see.

I wasn’t pointing out the horror of our nature,
I was pointing out the danger
Of a lineup of white saviors.

To all the people from back home
Who thought that what I’m doing is wrong,
I am not making us look weak; I am proving we are strong.

Speculating Sissy’s Strength

Mikayah Parsons
Professors Luschen and Sanchez-Eppler
AMST-468-01
09 March 2022

Speculating Sissy’s Strength

‘“No one has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him,’” states 1 Corinthians 2:9. You’ll also find the quote attached to the top of Anna Mae “Sissy” White’s guestbook if you look closely enough. The author of the quoted Bible verse, P.M. Anderson, characterizes Sissy as a demonstration to family and friends of “what Faith in God is about.” Of great significance is a single line in Anderson’s condolences about Sissy’s “strength.” After explaining Sissy’s religious security, he attributes her strength to her belief in God. One could chalk Anderson’s comment up to mourning customs, but the testament to Sissy’s strength baffled me. What does Anderson mean by attributing Sissy’s faith to her belief in a higher power? Does Anderson suggest that Sissy’s faithful capacity was admirable, or is it more sinister? Of all the things to remark on, Anderson chooses something not wholly about Sissy. Is Anderson attributing Sissy’s strength to her value system or to the God she worships? Is Anderson’s sentiment a condescending pat on the back for Sissy’s foreign, otherworldly resilience–so stupefying that it must be derived from the divine and in no part from Sissy herself? Is Anderson supporting Sissy’s unwavering faith as a beacon of resistance, a liberating commitment in a land where Black women’s choices are strictly policed and prohibited? Regardless of Anderson’s answer, the tensions implicit in Sissy’s obituary guestbook speak to larger sociological questions.

To unpack the questions surrounding Sissy’s posthumous characterization, I propose a story of my own. “Strength” is a term I’m all too familiar with. Growing up in a household with three Black maternal figures, I was constantly berated for my sensitivity and reminded of my strength as a Black woman. To hear myself called strong once flattered me. As I have gotten older, however, I have come to view “strength” and “resilience” as terms adapted by a white supremacist society to fit a harmful hierarchical narrative.

Born March 27, 1917, I imagine Sissy encountered similar tensions. Sissy was born Anna Mae Ray to Henry S. Ray and Ida Stewart Ray (“Anna Mae’s Obituary” par. 1). The Ray family resided on East Miner Street in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a town with a legacy. On their walkthrough of the city with People’s Light, Grant Landau-Williams reveals the cultural context of East Minster. Situated in southeast Pennsylvania, the town boasts attractions such as the Magnolia House Hotel, famed for housing Frederick Douglas and more. According to Landau-Williams, “other cornerstones of West Chester’s developing Civil Rights Movement [include] the Tent Sister’s Hall on South Adams Street, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and to provide scholarship money to students; [and] the Star Social Club on East Market Street, which became a town hall for the black men in West Chester, where they could discuss issues faced by the community” (par. 6). Even seemingly minor details such as the “black oyster salespeople of West Chester” show up in the landscape of scattered oyster shells.

It is not difficult to imagine a thirteen-year-old Sissy walking barefoot across oyster shells in the town of 13,000 people. West Chester, rooted in communal Black living, often saw its various members interact as one large family, in conversation even with the architecture of the place. Some buildings are pivotal to understanding West Chester, such as St. Paul’s Baptist Church and Bethel A.M.E. Church. With such a small town, a prominent community heart, and five minutes walking distance from her street to her church, Sissy probably made her way to St. Paul’s Baptist Church every Wednesday and Sunday under the care of other family or the watchful eyes of the community members. Indeed, her biography shares that Sissy joined the church at thirteen and was a member of “the Senior Choir, Missionaries, Good Samaritans, The Caretakers, Usher, Kitchen Committee, and the Flower Committee. Anna was also active in the community as a member of the NAACP, former member of the Garnett Federated Club of West Chester, former member of the Mass Choir of West Chester” (par. 2).

In her early thirties until about fifty, Sissy spent most of her time cooking at Westtown School or church. Sissy occupied roles at Cottess Home, Clorox, and Pierce Middle School in her later life. At some point after 1936, Sissy was denied social security for an undocumented disability. Of five siblings, Sissy was the only girl and was preceded in death by all but her youngest sibling, Harold L. Ray. Sissy finished high school up to her third year and worked 70 hours a week before the 1940 census. Based on this plethora of information, it is not a reach to characterize Sissy as a community-based, religious woman with a big family and strong work ethic. It seems she may have struggled in her later life with some disability, and it is probable that the government did not see fit to assist or accommodate Sissy’s disability. The nature of this refusal is left up to speculation, but social security has always been racist. It is imagined that despite Sissy’s involvement in her community, she received limited support. Beyond her disability denial, Sissy’s records remain bare of a spousal stamp. Her husband is not even listed in her obituary.

In her analysis of the post-Reconstruction United States, Glenda Gilmore implies Sissy’s story, though powerful, is not totally unique. Black women were active participants in a society with limited opportunities for advancement. Their participation in social institutions such as churches, homes, and the labor market were all ways of making space for Black women in a room urging them to “keep out.” Therefore, we cannot reduce Sissy’s faith in God as naïve or convenient. We must read Sissy’s faith as an act of resistance, a beacon of hope that P.M. Anderson points out. However, it is equally as harmful to normalize Sissy’s seventy-hour work week and endurance in the racialized, post-Reconstruction labor force as characteristic of Black women. To do so promotes unrealistic and damaging cultural expectations. Then, the best thing to do is pat Sissy on the back for her strength in the face of oppression no one should ever suffer. In the words of Ty Patton from West Chester, “The Angels sang when she got to heaven and the Chorus was ‘Well Done, Well Done….Well….DONE!!!’”

Works Cited

Ancestry.com. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/51754941:6061?tid=&pid=&queryId=e9299a60d4c0d2f4cb495445bf72fbb0&_phsrc=hMO52&_phstart=successSourceA Walking Tour of West Chester – People’s Light, http://www.peopleslight.org/blog/2019/take-a-tour-of-west-chesters-east-end/.

Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/21351085:2442

Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/25183223:60901Tco

A Walking Tour of West Chester – People’s Light, www.peopleslight.org/blog/2019/take-a-tour-of-west-chesters-east-end/

Tco-Stpaulsbaptist. “Get To Know Us.” St. Paul’s Baptist Church, 21 Sept. 2020, stpaulsbaptist.org/get-to-know-us/.

Website by Batesville, Inc. “Obituary for Anna Mae ‘Sissy’ White at DeBaptiste Funeral Homes, Inc. – West Chester.” Obituary Guestbook | Anna Mae “Sissy” White | DeBaptiste Funeral Homes, Inc. West Chester and Bryn Mawr : www.debaptiste.com/guestbook/6300335.

Website by Batesville, Inc. “Obituary for Anna Mae ‘Sissy’ White at DeBaptiste Funeral Homes, Inc. – West Chester.” Obituary | Anna Mae “Sissy” White | DeBaptiste Funeral Homes, Inc. West Chester and Bryn Mawr : www.debaptiste.com/obituary/6300335.

Traipsing the Travel Narrative: Is Gulliver the Colonizer? Is Swift?

Mikayah Parsons
Professor Worsley
ENGL-307-01
10 March 2022

Traipsing the Travel Narrative: Is Gulliver the Colonizer? Is Swift?

Gareth Griffiths of Cambridge University Press states, “The early, random stories of encounter, which emerged as Europeans moved out to new lands, rapidly evolved into accounts that sought to impose European patterns and ideas on the experience of their expanding physical world” (par. 2). This understanding of travel narratives as complicit in upholding European colonialism serves as my introduction to the genre. For my Women Writers of Africa class, we studied Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy as an inverse of the traditional European travel narrative. Yet, with no background in genre analysis, I wondered what Aidoo “undid” and how travel narratives historically operated. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift offers readers insight into reading a travel narrative using first-person narration and satire. Readers prepare themselves for the travel narrative’s feeble reliability and potential harm by interpreting these literary devices.

In fact, Swift immediately alerts audiences to one stitch of the travel narrative with Gulliver’s narrative voice. On page 2338 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, the Lilliputians demand a suspicious Gulliver to empty his pockets and prove himself safe. Gulliver’s height is massive compared with the average size of the Lilliputians, and questioning his motives as Gulliver invades their territory is only practical. However, this observation is easy to miss, given Gulliver’s account of events. He shares, “I took up the two officers in my hands, put them first into my coat-pockets, and then into every other pocket about me, except my two fobs, and another secret pocket which I had no mind should be searched, wherein I had some little necessaries of no consequence to any but myself.” Gulliver’s account reveals his subjectivity as his language belittles and reduces the impact of the items in his pockets. To prove his trustworthiness to the officers, he agrees to let the officers search him. Gulliver loses reliability as a narrator when he breaks his promise by withholding items and, therefore, information from the Lilliputians. However, Swift crafts Gulliver’s narrative as casual and confident enough that readers feel secure in Gulliver’s decision to keep the “little necessaries.” Audience members, without reading closely, entirely miss the subjectivity of Gulliver and, consequently, the biases implicit in his narration.

Similarly, Swift stresses subjectivity as Gulliver unfurls comical, exaggerated histories of the Lilliputian people. One such example comes when Gulliver recounts the tensions between the Tramecksan and the Slamecksan. A Lilliputian tells Gulliver, “Which two mighty powers have, as I was going to tell you, been engaged in a most obstinate war for six and thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger end: but his present Majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life and another his crown” (pg. 2346). Gulliver’s retelling stands out as a social commentary even without historical context. One of the most exciting tenets of Swift’s satire is its ability to transcend the standard conditions of time. Applying Gulliver’s Travels to our current political climate, readers pick up on Swift’s critique of any two-party system. In the case of Gulliver’s Travels, readers understand the Big Endians and Little Endians as metaphors for Catholics and Protestants in a tense religious moment. However, regardless of the context, Swift crafts a satirical narrative remarking on the absurdity of political customs and how humans apply them. The Lilliputians hold their beliefs so dearly that they are unwilling to compromise, and they engage in a ridiculous rivalry spurred by hate for their opposers. Gulliver’s severe presentation of the Lilliputian rivalry is an element of satire to further alert readers to the absurdity of their debate, a commentary on how readily readers adopt our own biases and apply them to our lives without question. Gulliver’s serious and unchallenging account also condemns Gulliver, though alerting readers to the dangers of biases, as not exempt from his own. If everyone is subject to biased perceptions of reality, as demonstrated by the Lilliputians, that does not exclude Gulliver. Readers are then cautioned about the trustworthiness of travel narratives and warned to read more closely to find potential gaps.

Paradoxically, though Swift uses the Lilliputians as a metaphor for the religious politics of his time, one must wonder if his positioning of the characters relative to his message reproduces rather than resists the travel narrative’s harms. To unpack this, though Swift’s comical and exaggerated construction of the Lilliputian people’s divide sends a political message, Swift uses his travel narrative to remark on the customs of foreigners as outlandish and ridiculous. While applicable as a satire on human nature more broadly, it is fair to wonder if Swift misses the mark of this message. By using humor, Swift’s commentary on the Lilliputians paints a small group foreign to the protagonist as self-gratifying and absurd. Though Swift’s satire applies to Gulliver, it is unclear if Swift’s portrayal of Gulliver as well-intentioned and ultimately hero-like reverses this reality. Regardless of his complicity or lack thereof, Swift’s contradictory construction of Gulliver against the prongs of his satire reveals Swift’s proneness to error. As Swift’s ethical responsibility as a writer come up, readers begin to apply Swift’s satire to Swift himself. Swift as a writer is also subject to biases, which could explain away Gulliver’s construction as a savior in a social commentary that pokes fun at heroic figures. Though the ethics of this explanation remain unsettled, Swift’s use of literary devices at the most basic level raises readers’ awareness of the potential dangers of a travel narrative. 

Therefore, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels uses perspective and satire to caution readers about the dangers of travel narratives due to their subjectivity. Gulliver is an example of a colonizer, a giant stumbling upon a people with fewer resources and characterizing them from an unreliable outside perspective. Swift’s literary devices have social implications, as he implied Gulliver’s responsibility to handle his perception and reception of the Lilliputians justly. Though travel narratives can be useful, as in learning about the Lilliputians, Gulliver holds responsibility for accurately depicting and representing people unlike himself. Of course, Swift’s use of a travel narrative to critique a travel narrative raises questions about the ethics of satire–whether Swift is undoing or reproducing the harms of a travel narrative by writing a travel narrative. With three more parts, Swift guarantees readers time to consider these questions and use them to understand the genre better–and perhaps think of more ethical ways to manipulate the genre to make a social impact.

Works Cited

Griffiths, Gareth. “Postcolonialism and Travel Writing.” The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature, edited by Ato Quayson, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 58–80. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cambridge-history-of-postcolonial-literature/postcolonialism-and-travel-writing/23F86EB907EC872BB76BFF2C3E4C6859

Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. “Gulliver’s Travels.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed., C, W.W. Norton, New York, 2006, pp. 2323–2462. The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century.

Olivia

For Olivia.

You don’t know her.
You know the ringlets of her hair,
The feeling of a curl coiled around your index finger.
You know the shape of her glasses as well as you know
The light dash of freckles across her face or
The exact place her lashes lay when she blinks.
You know best her smile–
That takes up her entire face and
Threatens to knock you out of place.

She asked for a poem.
You didn’t know what to say,
But you saw her heart hiding behind an oversized green sweater
And felt like you owed her this at least.
And while it may be true that you
Have never exchanged more than a few words,
And that you do not know her,
You know that she is the kind of person that deserves a poem
As much as she is the kind of person who has to ask for it.

She didn’t ask you to write this poem.
She asked someone else.
But you wanted her to know that
Even if she waits forever
For that person to live up to his word,
Other people are seeing her,
Recognizing her,
And writing her poems.
You wanted her to know
She deserves to be surrounded by people
Who will write her a poem whenever she asks for it
And do whatever else
Because you know she would gladly
Do the same for you,
But you don’t want her to.
For once in her life,
She should give the task to someone else.

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