Venus & Serena Play Doubles On Center Court

I find an upscale bistro with a big screen at the bar.
The Williams Sisters will step out on to this Center Court,
for the very first time as a team. I celebrate the event
with my very first Cosmopolitan. I feel like a kid

watching TV in the Before Times: miraculously, Nat King Cole or
Pearl Bailey would appear on the Dinah Shore Show or Ed Sullivan.
Amazed, we’d run to the phone, call up the aunts and cousins.
Quick! Turn on Channel 10!... Three minutes of pride...

Smiling at no one in particular, I settle in to enjoy the match.
What is the commentator saying? He thinks it’s important
to describe their opponents to us: one is “dark,”
the other “blonde.” He just can’t bring himself to say:

Venus & Serena. Look at these two Classy Sisters:
Serious. Strategic. Black. Pounding History.

Related Poems

Watch Us Elocute

June 18, 2015

So I’m at this party, right. Low lights, champagne, Michael
Bublé & a gang of loafers I’m forever dancing around

in unduly charged conversations, your favorite
accompanist—Bill Evans behind Miles, ever present

in few strokes—when, into the room walks
this potentially well-meaning Waspy woman obviously

from Connecticut-money, boasting an extensive background
in nonprofit arts management. & without much coaxing

from me, really, none at all, she whoops, Gosh, you’re just
so well spoken! & I’m like, Duh, Son. So then we both

clink glasses, drink to whatever that was. Naturally,
not till the next morning & from under a scalding

shower do I shout: Yes, ma’am. Some of us does talk good!
to no one in particular but the drain holes. No one

but the off-white tile grout, the loofah’s yellow pores.
Because I come from a long braid of dangerous men

who learned to talk their way out of small compartments.
My own Spartan walls lined with their faces—Ellison

& Ellington. Langston, Robeson. Frederick Douglass
above the bench press in the gym, but to no avail—

Without fail, when I’m at the Cross Eyed Cricket
(That’s a real diner. It’s in Indiana.) & some pimple-

face ginger waiter lingers nervous & doth protest
too much, it’s always Sir, you ever been told you sound like

Bryant Gumbel? Which is cute. Because he’s probably
ten. But then sometimes I sit in his twin’s section, & he

once predicted I could do a really wicked impression
of Wayne Brady. I know for a fact his name is Jim.

I’ve got Jim’s eighteenth birthday blazed on my bedside
calendar. It reads: Ass whippin’. Twelve a.m.—& like

actually, that woman from the bimonthly
CV-building gala can kick rocks. Because she’s old

enough to be my mother, & educated, if only
by her own appraisal, but boy. Dear boys. Sweet

freckled What’s-His-Face & Dipshit Jim,
we can still be play friends. Your folks didn’t explain

I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade—
a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath

my skin. Little buddies, that sore’s on me.
I know what you mean. That I must seem, “safe.”

But let’s get this straight. Let’s call a spade a—
Poor choice of words. Ali, I might not

be. Though, at the very least, a heavyweight
throwback: Nat King Cole singing silky

& subliminal about the unforgettable model
minority. NBC believed N at & his eloquence

could single-handedly defeat Jim Crow.
Fact: They were wrong. Of this I know

& not because they canceled his show
in ’57 after one season, citing insufficient

sponsorship. Or because, in 1948,
the KKK flamed a cross on his LA lawn.

But because yesterday, literally yesterday,
some simple American citizen—throwback

supremacist Straight Outta Birmingham, 1963—
aimed his .45 & emptied the life from nine

black believers at an AME church in Charleston.
Among them a pastor-senator, an elderly tenor,

beloved librarian, a barber with a business degree
who adored his mom & wrote poems about

the same age as me. I’m sorry. No, friends.
None of us is safe.

A Poem for Ella Fitzgerald

when she came on the stage, this Ella
there were rumors of hurricanes and
over the rooftops of concert stages
the moon turned red in the sky,
it was Ella, Ella.
queen Ella had come
and words spilled out
leaving a trail of witnesses smiling
amen—amen—a woman—a woman.

she began
this three agèd woman
nightingales in her throat
and squads of horns came out
to greet her.

streams of violins and pianos
splashed their welcome
and our stained glass silences
our braided spaces
unraveled
opened up
said who's that coming?
who's that knocking at the door?
whose voice lingers on
that stage gone mad with
      perdido. perdido. perdido.
      i lost my heart in toledooooooo.

whose voice is climbing
up this morning chimney
smoking with life
carrying her basket of words
                               a tisket a tasket
                               my little yellow
                               basket—i wrote a
                               letter to my mom and
                               on the way i dropped it—
                               was it red...no no no no
                               was it green...no no no no
                               was it blue...no no no no
                               just a little yellow

voice rescuing razor thin lyrics
from hopscotching dreams.

we first watched her navigating
an apollo stage amid high-stepping
yellow legs
we watched her watching us
shiny and pure woman
sugar and spice woman
her voice a nun's whisper
her voice pouring out
guitar thickened blues,
her voice a faraway horn
questioning the wind,
and she became Ella,
first lady of tongues
Ella cruising our veins
voice walking on water
crossed in prayer,
she became holy
a thousand sermons
concealed in her bones
as she raised them in a
symphonic shudder
carrying our sighs into
her bloodstream.

this voice, chasing the 
morning waves,
this Ella-tonian voice soft
like four layers of lace.
                               when i die Ella
                               tell the whole joint
                               please, please don't talk
                               about me when i'm gone...

i remember waiting one nite for her appearance
audience impatient at the lateness
of musicians,
i remember it was april
and the flowers ran yellow
the sun downpoured yellow butterflies
and the day was yellow and silent
all of spring held us
in a single drop of blood.

when she appeared on stage
she became Nut arching over us
feet and hands placed on the stage
music flowing from her breasts
she swallowed the sun
sang confessions from the evening stars
made earth divulge her secrets
gave birth to skies in her song
remade the insistent air
and we became anointed found
inside her bop
                               bop bop dowa
                               bop bop doowaaa
                               bop bop dooooowaaaa

Lady. Lady. Lady.
be good. be good
to me. 
             to you.              to us all
cuz we just some lonesome babes
in the woods
hey lady. sweetellalady
Lady. Lady. Lady. be gooooood
ELLA ELLA ELLALADY
        be good
                     gooooood
                                   goooooood...

Haircut

I get off the IRT in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture after riding an early Amtrak from Philly to get a hair cut at what used to be the Harlem "Y" barbershop. It gets me in at ten to ten. Waiting, I eat fish cakes at the Pam Pam and listen to the ladies call out orders: bacon-biscuit twice, scrambled scrambled fried, over easy, grits, country sausage on the side. Hugh is late. He shampoos me, says "I can't remember, Girlfriend, are you tender-headed?" From the chair I notice the mural behind me in the mirror. I know those overlapped sepia shadows, a Renaissance rainforest, Aaron Douglas! Hugh tells me he didn't use primer and the chlorine eats the colors every day. He clips and combs and I tell him how my favorite Douglas is called "Building More Stately Mansions," and he tells me how fly I'd look in a Salt 'n' Pepa 'do, how he trained in Japan.

Clip clip, clip clip. I imagine a whoosh each time my hair lands on the floor and the noises of small brown mammals. I remember, my father! He used to get his hair cut here, learned to swim in the caustic water, played pool and basketball. He cuts his own hair now. My grandfather worked seventy-five years in Harlem building more stately mansions. I was born two blocks away and then we moved.

None of that seems to relate to today. This is not my turf, despite the other grandfather and great-aunt who sewed hearts back into black chests after Saturday night stabbings on this exact corner, the great-uncle who made a mosaic down the street, both grandmothers. What am I always listening for in Harlem? A voice that says, "This is your place, too," as faintly as the shadows in the mural? The accents are unfamiliar; all my New York kin are dead. I never knew Fats Waller but what do I do with knowing he used to play with a ham and a bottle of gin atop his piano; never went to Olivia's House of Beauty but I know Olivia, who lives in St. Thomas, now, and who exactly am I, anyway, finding myself in these ghostly, Douglas shadows while real ghosts walk around me, talk about my stuff in the subway, yell at me not to butt the line, beg me, beg me, for my money?

What is black culture? I read the writing on the wall on the side of the "Y" as I always have: "Harlem Plays the Best Ball in the World." I look in the mirror and see my face in the mural with a new haircut. I am a New York girl; I am a New York woman; I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.