“...The straitjackets of race prejudice and discrimination do not wear only southern labels. The subtle, psychological technique of the North has approached in its ugliness and victimization of the Negro the outright terror and open brutality of the South.”
            ― Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can't Wait (Beacon Press, 2011)

                      this       here       the      cradle      of      this      here
                      nation—everywhere  you   look,  roots   run   right
                      back  south.  every  vein filled with red dirt, blood,
                      cotton.   we   the   dirty  word  you  spit  out   your
                      mouth.  mason  dixon  is  an  imagined  line—you
                      can  theorize  it, or wish it real, but  it’s  the  same
                      old  ghost—see-through,   benign.   all   y’all  from
                      alabama;  we  the wheel  turning  cotton  to make
                      the nation move. we the scapegoat in a land built
                      from death. no longitude or latitude disproves
                      the truth of founding fathers’ sacred oath:
                                 we hold these truths like dark snuff in our jaw,
                                 Black oppression’s not happenstance; it’s law.

What It Means To Say Sally Hemings

Bright Girl Sally
Mulatto Sally
Well Dressed Sally
Sally With the Pretty Hair
Sally With the Irish Cotton Dress
Sally With the Smallpox Vaccine
Sally, Smelling of Clean White Soap
Sally Never Farmed A Day In Her Life
Available Sally
Nursemaid Sally
Sally, Filled with Milk
Sally Gone to Paris with Master’s Daughter
Sally in the Chamber with the President
Sally in the Chamber with the President’s Brother
Illiterate Sally
Capable Sally
Unmarried Sally
Sally, Mother of Madison, Harriet, Beverly, Eston
Sally, Mother of Eston Who Changed His Name
Sally, Mother of Eston Hemings Jefferson
Eston, Who Made Cabinets
Eston, Who Made Music
Eston, Who Moved to Wisconsin
Eston, Whose Children Were Jeffersons
Eston, Who Died A White Man
Grandmother Sally of the White Hemingses
Infamous Sally
Silent Sally
Sally, Kept at Monticello Until Jefferson’s Death
Sally, Whose Children Were Freed Without Her

I Find the Earring that Broke Loose from My Ear the Night a White Woman Told Me the World Would Save Her

I remember:

that earring made me feel so free, so full of beauty—the kind that you might notice. Beauty that could make my shoulders glow. I remember her face, alight with a devious curiosity in the porchlight of the house party—that party in that city which slathered a film over its racism with clean streets and yard signs proclaiming inclusion. That city in that American state which legally excluded Black residents in 1844, which entered the union, big, proud, and white. Does it matter that this woman was not evil, did not send bombs to kill children in a far-off country, did not buy or sell a single slave? Picking up the earring, unwearable until I find another hook on which to hang it from my ear, I remember, again, the words and their cool sting. I’m a white woman, people protect us. Does it matter what I said to invite these words? Does it matter that I did not invite these words? Does it matter that she thought this was a joke, a sign that she was on the “right side,” a way to pass a moment under the porchlight? I’ve been thinking about intention lately, how I'm always asked to consider how good a person is, what they meant versus what they said. I think about the man who called me colored at a hotel in 2019. I think about the n-word out of a white person’s mouth. About erasure. I wonder about the road to hell, which, they say, is paved in these same intentions—good. George Zimmerman intended to protect his sidewalk from Trayvon’s body, invasively alive. George Washington intended to protect America from Britain’s oppression—nevermind those oppressed Black bodies. Yes, I am weaving a rope between George Zimmerman and George Washington. Yes, I am saying it. My country tis of thee, sweet land of white supremacy. When she said it, my face could barely twist into anything but fatigue. I am tired over and over again of being told I am not human enough to matter. The white poet rages against me on Facebook. Maybe he imagines my blood against his ivory tower. Maybe he imagines the many bricks my foremothers and fathers built—LucillePhyllisGwendolynPaulLawrenceLangstonSoniaMayaNikki—tumbling at the flick of his well-educated thumb.  Is even my degree a different color, relegated to the back of a bus, a book? The business of poetry so thick with privilege, so smothered in the rust of its old gates—how can you breathe among all that rot? On the news, the man they call president tells us to go back from where we came. I think of all the lost ones thrown over boats, the ones locked away in cages, the ones here, sitting as American as the day is long and still called wrong. The earring says I once was lost when I find it, tells me it can be repaired. It is an earring of the struggle. It wants that ear it once called home, it wants to touch my brown skin and reflect it in its orbiting gold. I look for my pliers, my jewelry kit. The work is always the thing that makes us whole again.

Summer Vacation in the Subjunctive

If I were a woman. If I were a wanted woman. If I were a woman with soft fingers. If I were on a beach with a man—if he was a man, if a man can be a man before he acts like a man. If I were on a beach with a man and he held my hand. If I liked my hand being held, even if it was held at the wrong angle. If my wrist was wringing in pain but I kept it there. If my heart were held wrong, like my hand. If I kept it there. If I was kept. If I was kept in pain. If I were pain. If I were a woman—if I were a woman before I was a woman. If I were a woman who knew her body like a woman knows her body. If a woman knew. If I knew. If I were on a beach with that man—if, this time, that man dissolved into sand. If the sand became hot under my feet but my feet were gold. If a woman were made of sun. If I were made of sun. If I burned the world around me until it shone beautiful and brown. If this burning was called healing. If the healing made light.

Related Poems

Amos, 1963

Amos is a Shepherd of suffering sheep;
A pastor preaching in the depths of Alabama
Preaching social justice to the Southland
Preaching to the poor a new gospel of love
With the words of a god and the dreams of a man
Amos is our loving Shepherd of the sheep
Crying out to the stricken land
“You have sold the righteous for silver
And the poor for a pair of shoes.
My God is a mighty avenger
And He shall come with His rod in His hand.”
Preaching to the persecuted and the disinherited millions
Preaching love and justice to the solid southern land
Amos is a Prophet with a vision of brotherly love
With a vision and a dream of the red hills of Georgia
“When Justice shall roll down like water
And righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Amos is our Shepherd standing in the Shadow of our God
Tending his flocks all over the hills of Albany
And the seething streets of Selma and of bitter Birmingham.

John Henry

If you believe what you hear, he was everywhere
from Virginia to Alabama just beyond every holler.

Which is to say he was everywhere and everywhere
he was, he was unwanted. In one story, they say it

happened because if a white man said it happened,
then it happened. In another, he was a prisoner which

is more plausible because only a man who lives in darkness
can be felled by the light. But if it happened that often,

there had to be more than one, or maybe it was everyone
or all of us and maybe he stood down there at the cold face

shoulders stooped and begged a mountain move
which we all have done some time or another. Maybe he

prayed for strength to move it as we do some time or
another. But this we can say is true: the world sent

a man down into the earth one day—the same world
who fixed his shackles, closed each door, the world

which said no, and no, and no like so many stones.
The world sent a man into the earth one day to leave

him. That man emerged from the earth with one word
that the earth had been holding, and in that moment

he broke the earth, stumbled out into the chilly air
before he fell, he brought this one word to us. Liar.


I sit beside two women, kitty-corner
to the stage, as Elvin's sticks blur
the club into a blue fantasia.
I thought my body had forgotten the Deep
South, how I'd cross the street
if a woman like these two walked
towards me, as if a cat traversed
my path beneath the evening star.
Which one is wearing jasmine?
If my grandmothers saw me now
they'd say, Boy, the devil never sleeps.
My mind is lost among November
cotton flowers, a soft rain on my face
as Richard Davis plucks the fat notes
of chance on his upright
leaning into the future.
The blonde, the brunette—
which one is scented with jasmine?
I can hear Duke in the right hand
& Basie in the left
as the young piano player
nudges us into the past.
The trumpet's almost kissed
by enough pain. Give him a few more years,
a few more ghosts to embrace—Clifford's
shadow on the edge of the stage.
The sign says, No Talking.
Elvin's guardian angel lingers
at the top of the stairs,
counting each drop of sweat
paid in tribute. The blonde
has her eyes closed, & the brunette
is looking at me. Our bodies
sway to each riff, the jasmine
rising from a valley somewhere
in Egypt, a white moon
opening countless false mouths
of laughter. The midnight
gatherers are boys & girls
with the headlights of trucks
aimed at their backs, because
their small hands refuse to wound
the knowing scent hidden in each bloom.