“You almost scared us to death,” my mother muttered
as she stripped the leaves from a tree limb to prepare
it for my back.
—Richard Wright, Black Boy
My son nests—pawing
each pillow like a breast
fleshed out and so newly
forgotten. I’ve spanked him
once tonight. He takes turns
laughing, then crying, defiant,
then hungry. In his mouth
my name—all need. Pursed
lips plead, Mommy and I
am guilty of the same sin.
I miss his curled and tucked
weight. Embryo, the deepest
root yanked clean. This is why
babies are born crying
into this world, having held
fast to such an intimate tether
who willingly would let go?
But today another white cop walked
free, another black body was still
on the ground. “Not indicted”
undoubtedly the future outcome.
Four years ago I crossed labor’s
red sea of pain to birth a boy—
no doctor hit his backside, now I raise
my hand to complete an act
older than me, breaking the black
back of the boy to make a man
who can survive in America.
Mommy he calls me and my teats
threaten to weep old milk at our stasis.
Both of us needing the succor of sleep,
both of us fighting—him, to keep me near
me, punishing him to be left alone.
He crawls into my lap, his heart
is three, his body, a lanky four.
I cover him with a blanket
too thin to mean it. We rock
on the edge of his bed. Listening
to the symphony’s fourth movement:
the crescendo sweet, full of tension,
taut violin strings singing. I think
Mozart must have known something
of loving with such a tender fear
that it breaks you open like a welt
that bleeds to heal. Tonight I give up,
cuddling this boy so full of belief
in himself, I’m too tired with love
to beat it out of him.
Copyright © 2017 Teri Ellen Cross Davis. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Fall 2017.
My son’s head is a fist
rapping against the door of the world.
For now, it’s dressers, kitchen islands,
dining room tables that coax his clumsy, creating
small molehills of hurt breaching
the surface. The ice pack,
a cold kiss to lessen the blow equals
a frigid intrusion, a boy cannot be a boy
with all this mothering getting in the way.
Sometimes the floor plays accomplice
snagging an ankle, elbow, top lip to swell.
Other times it’s a tantrum, when he spills his limbs
onto the hardwood, frenzied then limp with anger,
tongue clotted with frustration,
a splay of 2 year-old emotion voiced in one winding wail.
My son cannot continue this path.
Black boys can’t lose control at 21, 30, even 45.
They don’t get do-overs.
So I let him flail about now,
let him run headfirst into the wall
learn how unyielding perceptions can be.
Bear the bruising now,
before he grows, enters a world
too eager to spill his blood, too blind to how red it is.
Copyright © 2016 by Teri Ellen Cross Davis. “Knuckle Head” originally appeared in North American Review. Reprinted with permission of the author.
June 18, 2015
So I’m at this party, right. Low lights, champagne, Michael
Bublé & a gang of loafers I’m forever dancing around
in unduly charged conversations, your favorite
accompanist—Bill Evans behind Miles, ever present
in few strokes—when, into the room walks
this potentially well-meaning Waspy woman obviously
from Connecticut-money, boasting an extensive background
in nonprofit arts management. & without much coaxing
from me, really, none at all, she whoops, Gosh, you’re just
so well spoken! & I’m like, Duh, Son. So then we both
clink glasses, drink to whatever that was. Naturally,
not till the next morning & from under a scalding
shower do I shout: Yes, ma’am. Some of us does talk good!
to no one in particular but the drain holes. No one
but the off-white tile grout, the loofah’s yellow pores.
Because I come from a long braid of dangerous men
who learned to talk their way out of small compartments.
My own Spartan walls lined with their faces—Ellison
& Ellington. Langston, Robeson. Frederick Douglass
above the bench press in the gym, but to no avail—
Without fail, when I’m at the Cross Eyed Cricket
(That’s a real diner. It’s in Indiana.) & some pimple-
face ginger waiter lingers nervous & doth protest
too much, it’s always Sir, you ever been told you sound like
Bryant Gumbel? Which is cute. Because he’s probably
ten. But then sometimes I sit in his twin’s section, & he
once predicted I could do a really wicked impression
of Wayne Brady. I know for a fact his name is Jim.
I’ve got Jim’s eighteenth birthday blazed on my bedside
calendar. It reads: Ass whippin’. Twelve a.m.—& like
actually, that woman from the bimonthly
CV-building gala can kick rocks. Because she’s old
enough to be my mother, & educated, if only
by her own appraisal, but boy. Dear boys. Sweet
freckled What’s-His-Face & Dipshit Jim,
we can still be play friends. Your folks didn’t explain
I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade—
a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath
my skin. Little buddies, that sore’s on me.
I know what you mean. That I must seem, “safe.”
But let’s get this straight. Let’s call a spade a—
Poor choice of words. Ali, I might not
be. Though, at the very least, a heavyweight
throwback: Nat King Cole singing silky
& subliminal about the unforgettable model
minority. NBC believed N at & his eloquence
could single-handedly defeat Jim Crow.
Fact: They were wrong. Of this I know
& not because they canceled his show
in ’57 after one season, citing insufficient
sponsorship. Or because, in 1948,
the KKK flamed a cross on his LA lawn.
But because yesterday, literally yesterday,
some simple American citizen—throwback
supremacist Straight Outta Birmingham, 1963—
aimed his .45 & emptied the life from nine
black believers at an AME church in Charleston.
Among them a pastor-senator, an elderly tenor,
beloved librarian, a barber with a business degree
who adored his mom & wrote poems about
the same age as me. I’m sorry. No, friends.
None of us is safe.
From Silencer (Mariner Books, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Marcus Wicker. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
translated by Francisco Aragón
in a country
in a glass
has been being
what I’ve been
all my life
en un país
en un vaso
no se puede
ni se debe
de la historia
ha sido ser
lo que he sido
toda mi vida
From From the Other Side of Night/del otro lado de la noche: New and Selected Poems by Francisco X. Alarcón. © 2002 The Arizona Board of Regents. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.
lately, when asked how are you, i
respond with a name no longer living
Rekia, Jamar, Sandra
i am alive by luck at this point. i wonder
often: if the gun that will unmake me
is yet made, what white birth
will bury me, how many bullets, like a
flock of blue jays, will come carry my black
to its final bed, which photo will be used
to water down my blood. today i did
not die and there is no god or law to
thank. the bullet missed my head
and landed in another. today, i passed
a mirror and did not see a body, instead
a suggestion, a debate, a blank
post-it note there looking back. i
haven't enough room to both rage and
weep. i go to cry and each tear turns
to steam. I say I matter and a ghost
white hand appears over my mouth
"what the dead know by heart" by Donte Collins. Copyright © 2016 by Donte Collins. Used with permission of the author.