Crazy When You Smile

I’d never seen them up this close before
or ever known the awkward reckoning 
of our collapsing distance. Their hatred 
of what I am blooms wreckage on their skin,
their arms and faces blare in crimson while
they wave their placards with my breath
misspelled. I never thought that I would find
myself the object of foreboding thick 
enough to make a white man bare his teeth,
all Lucky Struck and rotting, just to hiss
a tightening noose in my direction, or spot 
a mother in a boxy robe of dimming flowers, 
hair all done up high and gelled, wrapped 
‘round Velcro rollers. She sidearms rocks 
at the window by my head—I refuse to flinch. 
She calls me monkey. I smile at her beyond 
and through the spidered cracking of the glass.

It really drives them crazy when you smile 
my father said this morning, while I scrubbed
my pimpled cheeks and picked my badass ‘fro 
to sky. Don’t let on that you’re mad or scared.
I can’t say that I really understood the strategy 
of being less of myself—pretending deafness, 
unremembering my fists. I know he was thinking
of those long ago students in Greensboro, stiff 
in their counter seats at Woolworth’s while 
keening white boys leered and drenched their 
heads with flour, ketchup, sugar, mustard,
spit. Perhaps there was a lesson to be learned.
But this is Boston, ten whole years from then,
and maybe I don’t want to be a martyr because 
to me it looks like nothing much has changed. 
I’m stiff in my seat on this bus while seething 
white folks scan the ground for stones, for shards 
of glass, for ways to break the skin that vexes 
them. I know that this is not the South, and yet 
it is. I know God said they know not what 
they do—but yeah, they do. I know that I am 
not a fool, and yet I feel like one. Like the coon 
they expect to see—smiling and swallowing. 

And everyone still sitting on the bus is silent—
fascinated by the spew of phlegm and venom 
smearing the windows, the way no matter how 
they sing our names it sounds like nigger
nigger screeched so wide, so thousand times 
and so on-key. When they let me go I just might 
wear that new name home to show my father. 

Copyright © 2021 by Patricia Smith. Used with the permission of the author.