du bois in ghana

Evie Shockley

at 93, you determined to pick up and go—
and stay gone. the job nkrumah called you to,
to create, at last, your encyclopedia africana
             (encompassing a continent chipped

like wood beneath an axe, a large enough
diaspora to girdle the globe, and a mere four
thousand years) was either well-deserved
              sinecure or well-earned trust

that your health was as indestructible as
your will. my mind wrestles with possible pictures:
the victorian sensibility, the charcoal wool
              formality of your coats and vests, the trim

of your beard as sharp as the crease of your
collar—how would these du boisian essentials
hold up to sub-saharan heat? would
              your critical faculties wilt in accra’s

urban tropics as i’ve read that westerners’
are wont to do? dr. du bois, i presume
you took the climate in stride, took to it,
              looked out your library’s louvered windows

onto a land you needed
neither to condemn nor conquer,
and let the sun tell you what you already knew:
              this was not a port to pass on.

your 95th birthday photo found you bathed
in white cloth, cane still in hand, sharing a smile
with a head of state who knew your worth—joy
              that this nation’s birth occurred in time

for you to step out of a cold, cold storm
into outstretched arms. would your pan-
african dream have survived a dictatorial
              nkrumah, an nkrumah in exile? you took

the prerogative of age and died without telling,
without knowing. a half-century later, here
in the country where you were born, i look
             into a screen and watch as, near and far, a pan-

demic of violence and abuse staggers the planet.
we seed the world with blood, grow
bleeding, harvest death and the promise
              of more. when i turn bitter, seeing no potential

for escape, i think of the outrages you saw—wars,
lynchings, genocide, mccarthy, communism’s
failure to rise above corrupting power
             any better than capitalism had, the civil rights

movement’s endless struggle—and how
you kept writing and walking, looking
for what you knew was out there. your memory,
             your tireless radiant energy, calls me

to my work, to my feet, insisting
that somewhere on the earth, freedom is
learning to walk, trying not to fall,
              and, somewhere, laboring to be born.

More by Evie Shockley

canvas and mirror

self-portrait with cats, with purple, with stacks
      of half-read books adorning my desk, with coffee,

                  with mug, with yesterday's mug. self-portrait
            with guilt, with fear, with thick-banded silver ring,

      painted toes, and no make-up on my face. self-
            portrait with twins, with giggles, with sister at

                  last, with epistrophy, with crepescule with nellie,
with my favorite things. self-portrait with hard

head, with soft light, with raised eyebrow. self-
      portrait voo-doo, self-portrait hijinks, self-portrait

                  surprise. self-portrait with patience, with political
            protest, with poetry, with papers to grade. self-

      portrait as thaumaturgic lass, self-portrait as luna
            larva, self-portrait as your mama. self-portrait

                  with self at sixteen. self-portrait with shit-kickers,
with hip-huggers, with crimson silk, with wild

mushroom risotto and a glass of malbec. self-
      portrait with partial disclosure, self-portrait with

                  half-truths, self-portrait with demi-monde. self-
            portrait with a night at the beach, with a view

      overlooking the lake, with cancelled flight. self-
            portrait with a real future, with a slight chance of

                  sours, with glasses, with cream, with fries, with
a way with words, with a propositional phrase.

the fare-well letters [excerpt]

dear ink jet,


          black fast. greasy lightning.
won't smear. won't rub off.
          defense: a visual screen: ask
an octopus (bioaquadooloop).
          footprints faster than a speed-
ing bully, tracking dirt all
          over the page. make every
word count. one. two. iamb.
          octoroon. half-breed. mutt.
mulatto. why are there so few
          hybrids on the road? because
they can't reproduce. trochee
          choking okay mocha. ebony,
by contrast, says so much.

playing with fire

something is always burning, passion,
                        pride, envy, desire, the internal organs 
        going chokingly up in smoke, as some-
                thing outside the body exerts a pull
that drags us like a match across sand-
                        paper. something is always burning, 
        london, paris, detroit, l.a., the neighbor-

                hoods no one outside seems to see until 
they're backlit by flames, when the out-
                        siders, peering through dense, acrid,
        black-&-orange-rimmed fumes, mis-
                take their dark reflections for savages 
altogether alien. how hot are the london
                        riots for west end pearls? how hot in tot-

        tenham? if one bead of cream rolls down 
        one precious neck, heads will roll in brix-
ton: the science of sociology. the mark
                        duggan principle of cause and effect: 
        under conditions of sufficient pressure—
                measured roughly in years + lead ÷ £s—
black blood is highly combustible.