Nomenclatures of Invisibility

My ancestors are made with water—
blue on the sides, and green down the spine;

when we travel, we lose brothers at sea
and do not stop to grieve.

Our mothers burn with a fire
that does not let them be;

they whisper our names
nomenclatures of invisibility
honey-dewed faces, eyes sewn shut,
how to tell them
the sorrow that splits us in half
the longing for a land not our own
the constant moving and shifting of things,
within, without—

which words describe
the clenching in our stomachs
the fear lodged deeply into our bones
churning us from within,

and the loss that follows us everywhere:
behind mountains, past oceans, into
the heads of trees, how to swallow
a tongue that speaks with too many accents—

when white faces sprout
we are told to set ourselves ablaze
and this smell of smoke we know—
water or fire, or both,

because we have drowned many at a time
and left our bodies burning, or swollen, or bleeding
and purple—this kind of language we know,
naming new things into our invisibility
and this, we too, call home.

Beginnings

This is not how it begins
but how you understand it.
 
I walk many kilometers and
find myself to be the same—
 
the same moon hovering over
the same, bleached sky,
 
and when the officer calls me
it is a name I do not recognize,
a self I do not recognize.
 
We are asked to kneel, or
stand still, depending on which land
we embroider our feet with—
 
this one is copious with black blood
or so I am told.
 
Someone calls me by the skin
I did not know I had
and to this I think—language,
 
there must be a language
that contains us all
that contains all of this.
 
How to disassemble
the sorrow of beginnings,
 
how to let go, and not,
how to crouch beneath other bodies
how to stop breathing, how not to.
 
Our fathers are not elders here;
they are long-bearded men
shoving taxi cabs and sprawled
in small valet parking lots—
 
at their sight, my body dims its light
(a desiccated grape)
and murmur, Igziabher Yistilign—
our pride, raw-purple again.
 
We begin like this: all of us
walking in solitude
walking a desert earth and
unforgiving bodies. We cross lines
we dare not speak of; we learn and
unlearn things quickly, or intentionally slow
(because, that, we can control)
and give ourselves new names
because these selves must be new
to forget the old blue.
 
But, sometimes, we also begin like this:
on a cold, cold night
memorizing escape routes
kissing the foreheads of small children
hiding accat in our pockets,
a rosary for safekeeping.
 
Or, married off to men thirty years our elders
big house, big job, big, striking hands.
 
Or, thinking of the mouths to feed.
 
At times
we begin in silence;
 
water making its way into our bodies—
rain, or tears, or black and red seas
until we are ripe with longing.

We, Made of Bone

These days, I refuse to let you see me
the way I see myself.

I wake up in the morning not knowing
whether I will make it through the day;

reminding myself of the small, small things
I’ve forgotten to marvel in;

these trees, blood-free and bone-dry
have come to rescue me more than once,

but my saving often requires hiding
yet they stand so tall, so slim and gluttonous

refusing to contain me; even baobab trees
will split open at my command, and

carve out fleshless wombs to welcome me.
I must fall out of love of the world

without me in it, but my loves have
long gone, and left me in a foreign land

where once I was made of bone,
now water, now nothing.

Blood and Bones

In California, someone is found hanging
from a tree, and no one knows why;

in my anger, I forget to explain
to our white neighbor, why it matters
that he’s black,

if only she knew
the luxury of not having to worry
whether her life mattered or not–

*

The first time I learned
about the color of my skin
I spent months
crossing a border
where my kind was not welcomed;

the first time I was othered
I was still in the womb
breaking in my naming–

*

In California, a man is found hanging
from a tree, and no one knows why;

someone said,
            it must have been a suicide,

what country is this
where suicide becomes the hopeful thing–

I want to talk about this,
I say to my husband,

do you know what this means?

I have run out of ways
of telling him that he, too, is a black, black man
living in a white, white world

but his body knows
our bodies always know–

*

In California, a black man is found hanging
from a tree, and no one knows why;

when they hear the news, someone asks
what kind of tree,

what country is this
where life is not life if it inhabits a black body
where we have to march in the streets
and get beaten, gassed, hunted down

so someone, anyone, can see this,
this us we see, this us we are, this humanness.

*

I am filled with a quiet furor. What happens
when the body is marked before it is born,
what happens to it
when it is filled with grief
what happens
when no one sees it as such
what happens
to black bodies riddled with war
what war is this
that continues to kill, kill, kill.

*

In California, a black man is found hanging
from a tree, and someone knows why;

we want to say many things
but none seem to get through;

our mother’s grief
is too great to contain us,
too deep to keep us safe

what do you call a country
that kills its people
and calls itself free,

what freedom is this
that has us running
that holds us hostage
that invades our every being
that hunts our children
that takes our fathers
that murders, murders, murders

Stop–
            listen to this:

In California, a black man is found hanging
from a tree, do you know why?

Does it matter
what kind of tree it was, what kind of earth
housed the roots of such tree,

does it matter
whether the man was in his early twenties
with glimmering black skin
and dancing dreadlocks

would you feel better
if it was a suicide

would it be better
if you never heard about this

do you find yourself thinking,
who would do such a thing,

do you find yourself breaking
completely split open
and parts of you erupting out,

did you wonder
about his mother
about her grief
about his beloveds

did you tell yourself
something nice
to forget this hanging body

did you will it away
what else did you do
to let yourself forget
as you did with all the others
did you tell yourself
I would never–but wait, wait:
did you hear:

in California, a black man is found hanging
from a tree, and you know why;

there is nothing more to say
no further reasoning you need to do
no way out of this,

listen closely:

a black man
is found hanging
from a tree

I know you must like trees
these tall muscular giants

housing small fruits,
breathing, living things,

I know you must think
this is a horrific thing
that has happened to a black man

but how many trees
have housed black bodies
how many were complicit
in our collective dying,

how quick are we to forget
the marred history of this land
built on the blood and bones
of our ancestors

how many more
will need to die
until you see, see, see

how many more
gunned down, beaten, suffocated
until you hear
our rightful pleading

how much blood
must you have on your hands
before our children
are finally set free,
listen:

a black man
hangs from a tree

a black man
hangs
from a tree

a black man
hanging from a tree,

how dare you try and absolve yourself
from our collective lynching–

Related Poems

What I Am

Fred Sanford's on at 12
& I'm standing in the express lane (cash only)
about to buy Head & Shoulders
the white people shampoo, no one knows
what I am. My name could be Lamont.
George Clinton wears colors like Toucan Sam,
the Froot Loop pelican. Follow your nose,
he says. But I have no nose, no mouth,
so you tell me what's good, what's god,
what's funky. When I stop
by McDonalds for a cheeseburger, no one
suspects what I am. I smile at Ronald's poster,
perpetual grin behind the pissed-off, fly-girl
cashier I love. Where are my goddamn fries?
Ain't I American? I never say, Niggaz
in my poems. My ancestors didn't
emigrate. Why would anyone leave
their native land? I'm thinking about shooting
some hoop later on. I'll dunk on everyone
of those niggaz. They have no idea
what I am. I might be the next Jordan
god. They don't know if Toni Morrison
is a woman or a man. Michael Jackson
is the biggest name in showbiz. Mamma se 
Mamma sa mamma ku sa, sang the Bushmen 
in Africa. I'll buy a dimebag after the game, 
me & Jody. He says, Fuck them white people 
at work, Man. He was an All-American 
in high school. He's cool, but he don't know 
what I am, & so what. Fred Sanford's on 
in a few & I got the dandruff-free head 
& shoulders of white people & a cheeseburger 
belly & a Thriller CD & Nike high tops 
& slavery's dead & the TV's my daddy-- 
   You big Dummy!
Fred tells Lamont.