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.