I want to believe Don West
when he writes: none of mine
ever made their living by driving slaves.
But in my grandfather’s mouth that utterance
would’ve taken on another meaning:
In the memory my mother shares,
he is flitting across Louisville
in his taxi, passing back-and-forth
like a cardinal, red-faced, proud-breasted,
delivering Black folks their dry cleaning—
had to, she tells me, as part of his route—
but once he started his second shift and turned
on the cab light, he wouldn’t accept
Black fare. I recall him reciting
the early presidents’
at its liver—to rationalize his hatred
of my father, his denial
of my Blackness. That denial a peril
I survived, a cliff he could have driven me over
at any moment of my childhood. Maybe,
I want to think, because they were poor men
who labored, farmed tobacco and dug for oil,
my grandfather’s people resisted
slavery, felt a kinship with my father’s people.
Or that because my grandfather
was one of eleven mouths to feed
on their homestead—reduced to dirt
across the Great Depression—
he had a white identity to be proud of, a legacy
that didn’t join our names
in a bill of sale, but in struggle.
I search his surname and it travels
back to Germany, appears
on the deed to the house he inherited,
retired and died in, poor-white resentment
inflaming his stomach and liver.
But when I search the name I share with my father,
my only inheritance disappears
into the 19th century, sixth generation:
my ancestor bred
to produce 248 offspring
for his owner, from whence comes
our family name. Mr. West, here
we are different. Here, is where
my grandfather found his love for me discordant
as the voice of the dead whispering
history. Here is where we are connected,
not by class, but blood & slavery.
Copyright © 2020 by Joy Priest. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 28, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.