The Black Santa

I remember sitting on his bony lap,
fake beard slumping off his face,
his breath reeking sweetly of alcohol,
a scent I didn't yet know at five.
And I didn't know that Santa
was supposed to be fat, white, merry—
not shaky and thin like this
department store Santa who listened
as I reeled off that year's list:
a child's oven I'd burn my fingers on,
a mini record player of gaudy plastic
I'd drag from room to room
by its precarious orange handle,
an Etch-a-Sketch I'd ruin by twisting
its dials too hard—my requests
as solemn as prayer, fervid, fueled
by too many hours of television,
too many commercials filled
with noisy children elated
by the latest game or toy.
I bet none of them
ever sat on the lap of a Santa
who didn't ho-ho-ho in jolly mirth,
whose sunken red eyes peered
out from under his oversized wig
and red velveteen cap, his teeth yellow,
long fingers tinged with yellow.
I did not find it strange
to call this man Santa,
to whisper my childish whispers
into his ear, to pull on his sleeve
to let him know I really deserved
all that I'd asked for. I posed
for an instant photo with him,
a woolen cap over my crooked braids,
mittens sewn to my coat sleeves.
No one could have convinced me
this Santa couldn't slide down
any chimney, though his belly
didn't fill his suit, and his hands
trembled, just a bit, as he lifted
me from his lap. No one could
have told me that a pink-cheeked
pale-skinned Santa was the only Santa
to worship, to beg for toys and candy.
I wouldn't have believed them,
wouldn't have believed anyone
who'd tell me Santa couldn't look
like me: brown eyes, face, skin.

More by Allison Joseph

Notebooks

What good are notebooks?
—Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"

 

I crave them as if craving something carnal,
blankness of pages erotic, clean with sensual
possibilities and ready to be dampened
by my insistent ink, swirls of language

made plain on thin blue lines taut
as tightrope. I collect them like other women
collect shoes or boyfriends, fingering pristine
pages while standing hushed in aisles

of bookstores and stationery shops,
stroking plush-covered ones with a single
finger, loving floral-print ones more
than actual flowers, needing another and

another until my house is overrun
with them, and they start arranging
cocktail hours and support groups—
for the ones I have not written in

grow lonely, and the ones managing
the burden of my desperate handwriting
need someone to talk to, peers to confide in
about these dog-eared secrets and semi-scribbled

imaginings, covert half-truths, outright lies.
How they congregate around my bed,
waiting for me to pick one up, start
another hazy page of scrawls and arrows,

cross-outs and restarts, confessions
that will never be confessions until
I judge them fit for judgment. Sometimes
when fate has flattened me with its one

hard fist, only the black-and-white
composition notebooks of childhood
will do, marbled covers unchanged
from when I first learned cursive—

one letter reaching for the next
in the crazy tilting of my untested hand.
Only those wide-ruled lines will do,
those patient beginnings.


Thirty Lines About the ’Fro

The fro is homage, shrubbery, and revolt—all at once.
The fro and pick have a co-dependent relationship, so
many strands, snags, such snap and sizzle between
the two. The fro wants to sleep on a silk pillowcase,
abhorring the historical atrocity of cotton.
The fro guffaws at relaxers—how could any other style
claim relaxation when the fro has a gangsta lean,
diamond-in-the-back, sun-roof top kinda attitude,
growing slowly from scalp into sky, launching pad
for brilliance and bravery, for ideas uncontained by
barbershops and their maniacal clippers, monotony
of the fade and buzzcut. The fro has much respect
for dreads, but won’t go through life that twisted,
that coiled. Still, much love lives between
the two: secret handshakes, funk-bottomed struts.
The fro doesn’t hate you because you’re beautiful.
Or ugly. Or out-of-work or working for the Man.
Because who knows who the Man is anymore?
Is the president the Man? He used to have a fro
the size of Toledo, but now it’s trimmed down
to respectability, more gray sneaking in each day,
and you’ve got to wonder if he misses his pick,
for he must have had one of those black power ones
with a fist on the end. After all, the fro is a fist,
all curled power, rebellious shake, impervious
and improper. Water does not scare the fro,
because water cannot change that which is
immutable—that soul-sonic force, that sly
stone-tastic, natural mystic, roots-and-rhythm
crown for the ages, blessed by God and gratitude.

Soul Train

Oh how I wanted to be a dancer
those Saturday mornings in the
living room, neglecting chores

to gape at the whirling people
on our television: the shapely
and self-knowing brownskinned

women who dared stare straight
at the camera, the men strong,
athletically gifted as they

leaped, landed in full splits.
No black people I knew lived
like this—dressed in sequins,

make-up, men's hair slicked
back like 40's gangsters,
women in skin-tight, merciless

spandex, daring heels higher
than I could imagine walking in,
much less dancing. And that

dancing!—full of sex, swagger,
life—a communal rite where
everyone arched, swayed, shimmered

and shimmied, hands overhead
in celebration, bodies moving
to their own influences, lithe

under music pumping from studio
speakers, beneath the neon letters
that spelled out SOUL TRAIN—

the hippest trip in America.
I'd try to dance, to keep up,
moving like the figures on

the screen, hoping the rhythm
could hit me in that same
hard way, that same mission

of shake and groove, leaving
my dust rag behind, ignoring
the furniture and the polish

to step and turn as they did,
my approximation nowhere near
as clever or seductive, faking

it as best I knew how, shaking
my 12 year old self as if something
deep depended upon the right move,

the righteous step, the insistent
groove I followed, yearning to get
it right, to move like those dancers—

blessed by funk, touched with rhythm,
confident in their motions, clothes,
their spinning and experienced bodies.