A version of the following was delivered by Patricia Smith as the Blaney Lecture, The Scrawny Little Black Girl with the Hasty Pigtails Sounds Out ‘Anemone,’ on March 23, 2023.
If you haven’t seen or heard anything about my new book, Unshuttered, I’ll need to tell you just enough. It’s a volume of dramatic monologues, or persona poems, accompanied by nineteenth-century photos of Black Americans.
For more than twenty years, I’ve been gathering images from the 1840s through the 1890s. The gathering began as unrelenting curiosity—you know how poets are about the stories in faces—and I loved the sweet cacophony of all their silences babbling at once.
After I realized how seldom I came upon them, I began to concentrate on images of Black folks. Few nineteenth-century Blacks were well-to-do enough to arrange to sit for their own portraits—some only faced the camera because some white man who fancied himself master had decided to catalogue his property—his carriage drivers and field hands, his house servants and wet nurses, his dishwashers and cooks, his human souvenirs.
But what could the pictures ever be besides two-dimensional curiosities?
As a faculty member for Cave Canem, the extraordinary retreat for African-American writers, I used the images as writing prompts. I gave each writer a picture and said, “Tell me what these people tell you.” And they did. My God, they did. Their success is where the seed for Unshuttered took hold.
It’s difficult to describe how I felt about the pictures I collected, how I continued to forge a link with them that I didn’t particularly understand. It’s difficult to describe all the hours I spent searching faces, looking into eyes, marveling at the freckled cream, the blue-blackness, examining those noses and straight-set mouths. It’s difficult to explain why I gave the people in the pictures names, spoke aloud to them, felt that I knew them, sometimes felt that I heard them.
I know the subjects of the images were not, in any case, known by what I called them. I know that they lived their own lives, buckled under their own burdens, laughed with their own heads thrown back, managed to move through their days, blissfully unaware of a restless poet, thousands of tomorrows away, who needed, with her whole self, to know them.
Of course this question has been asked before, and no one has found an answer that fits, so I’ll ask again:
Where does it begin, the idea that our voice is the human voice, that all life is every life, that there are no boundaries when it comes to exploring who we are?
This story starts, or doesn’t start, with a brown, hard-sided valise held tough with brass rivets, the same indestructible suitcase now in the back of so many closets, the one that hopeful travelers crammed with all their treasures and lugged during their sojourns from South to North—from Muscle Shoals to Detroit, from Greenwood to Philly, from Natchez to New York—or, in my mother’s case, from Aliceville, Alabama, to the west side of Chicago.
The suitcase had always been somewhat of a mystery, a sweet sweet promise. Inside, my mother declared, were all our photos—I imagined that included my baby pictures, and curled corner Polaroid snaps of my father, flashing his grin and mad-styling in a sharkskin suit; all my class pictures, where I was always gangly and weird in the back row; maybe pictures of my mother as a young girl, her eyes tomboy wild, her front teeth not yet ruined by a snapped on gold.
But most important, I wanted to see those pictures of people with faces that looked vaguely or just like mine, lost-ago relatives my mother refused to talk about. You see, she was ashamed of coming from down South, “that old nasty place,” which she considered dirt-poor and backwards, that place where folks couldn’t help their ignorant double negatives, that place where tired crops struggling through red dirt, that place of little lopsided houses, the fat, cheapest cuts of meat and white folk owning all the sidewalks.
When I asked her about the Alabama where she was born and grew up, in an effort to piece together some of my own backdrop, maybe draw out a little joy, she ridiculed my curiosity. Girl, what you need to know about that ol’ down south stuff for? You ain’t from there, and don’t tell nobody I am either. That’s why I born you in this city, so you can get somewhere and be somebody. We Chicago folks. You got a Chicago mama and a Chicago daddy and an address right here on the West Side. You ain’t got to know but one thing about Alabama and that is that I left it. This was just one of the ways she effectively held my history captive. By hiding her own.
I’ve been thinking a lot about history being taken away, about the now everyday act of disappearing the past. I’m sure we all have, in the midst of this fevered movement to unteach Black history and move all our yesterdays farther way from us, and our most troubling yesterdays far from everyone else, to bombard us with falsehoods until someone, and then another and another one, begins to believe they could be true. Somebody or something can make you look behind yourself and see nothing, see no road at all you walked to get to where you are. Sometimes it’s a government counting over you, averting its eyes, denying your face. Or it could be a history book, telling you that Rosa Parks was just a mildly inconvenienced lady on a bus, how much fun it was for Black folk to play with fire hoses and German shepherds and how the unfortunate mistake of lynched men nevertheless made trees intriguing.
But sometimes lies are tangled with love.
I think that when I was little and my mother reached over during an episode of I Love Lucy or Bonanza or My Three Sons and wordlessly pinched my nostrils shut and held on until the credits rolled it was because of my wide damned nose and because she loved me. I think that every summer, when I’d come in from playing, all glossy and blue black, she scrubbed the back of my neck with Lysol because Dammit, chile, didn’t I tell you to stay outta that sun, and because she loved me. I think that when she shook Tide laundry detergent into my bathwater, ignoring the screams as the slow burn took hold between my legs, that she prayed it would turn me lighter and that was because she loved me. I think that when she turned the fire up under that iron comb, then dragged it through my disobeying tufts of hair until I heard and smelled the charring, that she wanted that silk for me, and she loved me. I think that when she slammed the door shut with the whole state of Alabama on the other side, she wanted all that lesser, all the inconvenient reminders of “that nasty old place” to be gone—the bad grammar, the bare feet, the slow twang, food that needed to be plucked of hair, just all that damned stupid. She wanted her daughter to be something else. She was raising a Chicago girl.
And I fought her the best I could, wrestling to find and hold on to everything she didn’t want me to see or have. I hoped the contents of the elusive suitcase would help. She had finally agreed to open it. Inside, I prayed there were kinfolk with wide noses and full lip, wired stubborn hair and unflappable Alabama attitudes. I assumed a lot of who I really was was in there.
I snapped open the stiff latches and opened the valise, unleashing a stink I can only describe as flat and distant. Here are some of the things inside:
—My mother flaunting silky and satiny church finery in coral and rose and ocean blue and lavender and jade, each outfit accompanied each time by some impossibly angular ski slope of a Baptist hat.
—My mother, squinting into the sun, alone on vacations I didn’t remember her taking.
—Oddly enough, my father’s autopsy report, with detailed descriptions of everywhere a bullet broke into his body.
—My mother on vacations with her church family, vacations I didn’t remember her taking.
—My mother in an explosion of raspberry satin, gliding down the runway in a church fashion show.
—My mother glaring at someone who is not her, someone smaller, gliding down the runway in a church fashion show.
—My young mother, just before religion took hold of her, trapped in a black dress and perched on a barstool that barely handled her hips.
—A yellowing church program for Women’s Day, with my mother grinning smugly from the lead story.
—An ancient church program, separating along its folds, with two strangers’ names underlined.
—A funeral program. Here my mother interjected: I remember that. They sho’ put that woman away good. Everybody was there. And Lord, she was dressed!
—The one professional studio shot that exists of my grandmother.
—The one professional studio shot that exists of my mother. Four copies.
—Handfuls of under-developed Polaroids of people that my mother hemmed and hawed about and finally admitted (or pretended) she didn’t remember. I don’t know, Pat, he MIGHT be related to you…
And dozens of other images in various stages of fade—photos of houses and cars and storefronts and churches and chitin assembly lines and Greyhound buses and soul food restaurants and baptisms and winking gold teeth and all those elaborate hats and crucifixes behind the pulpit and my mother and my mother and my mother and my mother and my mother.
In one photo, though, there was a black patented leather Mary Jane blurred on its way out of the frame. I had to assume that the shoe, and the little foot inside it, was mine. I could even hear a voice—-Chile, move on over there, outta the way of grown folks, so we can take this picture.
And that was it. We emptied one suitcase, then emptied another, until nothing was left but their fake silk linings, shredded and still stinking of flat and far away. It was the smell of 1960, which, as we all know, was not the best year for Negroes.
Seeing my dawning despair, and immediately misunderstanding it, my mother marched over to a bureau, pulled open a bottom drawer and lifted out my framed high school graduation picture. I don’t think she realized the significance of that bottom door. Yep, there I was. “You can have this,” she said. I did not look at her. I did not move.
“I guess your daddy had the rest of them,” she muttered.
Here’s the problem with that. My father was murdered in a robbery when I was twenty-one. I’m an only child, a daddy’s girl, and I grieved whole Bibles. My mother made no move to save his belongings, and the city finally cleared out his apartment and everything in it. Everything. His snazzy Stetson hats, bottles of spiced cologne, his sugar-splattered work shoes. Everything.
You’re probably reaching a terrible conclusion right about now, gradually, as I did.
My mother did not possess a single picture of me taken before my senior year of high school. In fact, that picture was the only one she had.
The others? I thought she had them. She thought my father had them. Then the city of Chicago had them. So no one had them. No school or class pictures. No snapshots of me blowing out birthday candles. No pictures of creaming my head off at Riverview amusement park or jumping double dutch or dancing with rubber bands at Chinese jumprope. No baby pictures or Christmas photos beside that gaudy silver tree. No picture of me in our Sears dinette chair, yelping, neck bent, getting my hair burned for Sunday service. No pictures of me in a poofy Easter dress, clutching a basket of plastic eggs. No pictures with boys, girls, dogs, uncles or cousins. No images. No visual proof that I was alive when I was alive as I am alive. I remember posing. I remember those big boxy cameras and the actual bulb you had to snap on to take a flash picture. I remember scrunching my eyes at the flash.
Well, there is one other picture that survived. It’s the image of a four-year-old me on the cover of Life According to Motown, my first book. I am wearing the pink dress my father loved. The dress had a rose on front held on with a tiny gold safety pin. One of my hands rests on the top of our family’s prized possession, a monstrous TV and phonograph combo. That thing was the whole living room. We lived on the third floor of a tenement building at 3315 West Washington on the west side of Chicago, the part of town everyone warned you to stay away from. In the picture, you can’t see the roaches creeping into the folds of the Murphy bed or the mouse crooning blue note beneath the stove.
It was my father’s favorite picture.
My father’s nickname for me was Meathead.
Meathead has no backdrop.
Meathead doesn’t have many yesterdays.
Meathead is missing a history.
You are probably reaching another gradual realization. That this lecture isn’t really about poetry.
Oh, but it was.
Oh, but it is.
Oh, but it will be.
Meathead, where you at? You done with dinner? Come on in here, then!
I talk about my father a lot. A lot. You may have heard me spurt love many, many times, and I make nary an apology. Otis Douglas Smith is the first line of every poem, the first line of every story. In every room where I read, I focus on a seemingly empty chair, and that’s where he is.
You ate your creamed corn, didn’t you? Your mama cooked that. She works hard. Don’t make your mama mad, now.
He is—was, I mean—a frustrated bluesman. He never locked into a key that agreed with him, but he sang nevertheless—loud, reckless, always the wrong lyrics, leaving spittle speckled with Lucky Strike on the mic. Those of you who are daughters loving your daddies might begin to understand. How about this? He taught me how to drink. Took me to a real bar, smoky and sticky, plopped me up on a barstool—I think it’s illegal to tell you how old I was—and began feeding me plump shots of JB. In between shots, he’d pummel me with utterly annoying questions: Who did I just introduce you to? What song just played on the jukebox? When you walk out this door, which way do you turn to get home? What’s your address? What’s our phone number? What’s the name of the place where I work? I didn’t pass the test until I could answer all the questions correctly even after downing an ungodly amount of rotgut.
Is that child abuse?
Nobody will ever be able to take advantage of you, baby girl, he told me, once I was no longer “under the weather.” They’ll think they’re getting you drunk, so they can do what they wanna do, and you just let them think that. But you gon’ always have your head right. You gon’ always know how you’re gettin’ home, and the way you need to go to get there.
And you know, he was right. Try me.
Is it time? Those dishes all done? Make sure that kitchen’s clean, Meathead. Your mama works hard to get dinner on the table.
Every evening, my father told me stories. He was perfect first poetry. He was still everything that he left down south.
When he lived with us, the stories came right after our dinner of collards, salt pork and cornbread, or our dinner of pinto beans and ham and cornbread, or our dinner of cheap steak smothered numb by my mama—oh, and cornbread…and creamed corn, which I hated, because it never did not look like snot.
OK, sit down here at my feet. I got a good one for you today, baby girl.
No storybooks, no legal pads, no notes. Just my gravel-throated Arkansas daddy teaching me that there were other ways to speak the world besides what I was learning—or, because we’re talking about the Chicago Public School system, not learning—in school. Every day he was my blank slate, which, before bedtime, spurted raucous colors, several winding and colliding nail biter plots and voices that were not his own.
Let me tell you who didn’t show up to work today, then let you and me guess why.
One of my favorite sources of story fodder, and his, was the candy factory where both he and my mother worked. The long-and-getting-longer story was our own private soap opera, a meandering action-packed narrative featuring very real people with very real secrets. Daddy was a big fan of character, and he was very good at knowing what no one wanted to see. The story, which we called “The Falling Leaf,” had everything—cutting corners on the job, gossip blazing through the usually dreary factory line, big big money in the pockets of little folk—add to that various oily indiscretions of every kind, including the kind I relished the telling of, but in no way understood. I know it was a damn good story, though, because—after harrumphing loudly to indicate her disapproval—my mother started scraping her chair closer to the door to eavesdrop. Daddy knew how to draw a crowd.
Jimmie Lee lived his best days in an Arkansas shack. From the kitchen window he could see the cross poked in the dirt out back. At night his wife Emma talked to him from underneath it. She wouldn’t shut up.
I will never forget the escapades of Jimmie Lee, undoubtedly a character my father was supposed to leave behind when he set out for the sophisticated stories of the big city. But there was a reason I called daddy “the griot of the back porch.” He was just enough history, just enough down-south, just enough twang and bluster, to mesmerize me. We didn’t have a back porch, at least not the kind I imagined, but I could definitely see him rocking there, watching the world unreel and swelling with story. Because of hapless but happy Jimmie Lee, I had someone to laugh and grieve with, a Delta relative to check in on.
I can’t be entirely sure that my father didn’t know about the hollow that Jimmie Lee filled. He’d heard my mother shut down my questions about her upbringing (and therefore, my upbringing), and his stories wallowed in what he remembered. Although he tried to counter her reluctance, my mother was squat, fierce, very much an immovable object. But my dad and I—our stories were ours. At his feet every evening after dinner, I walked into a world that knew me. I learned to laugh with my head thrown back, mouth wide open, nose spread wide. I learned to exclaim and cackle and shed loud tears like a bonafide down-south girl.
When you hear a story in my poems, you hear Otis Douglas Smith. You hear my father.
I was ten years old when my father decided that my mother was too much. She was shrill and jealous and vengeful and suddenly loudly religious. The Lord told her many things personally, most of them meant to quash the life from my father and stop me from being so much of his daughter. The Lord said no card playing, the Lord said no jukeboxing, the Lord said be home before the streetlights come on, the Lord said no taking that child anywhere near that tavern. The Lord told her to stop wearing pants and makeup, to devote what was left of her life to service. Meanwhile, daddy’s stories—now often delivered in a conspiratorial whisper—leaned delightfully toward what little hell I knew. The love triangles at the candy factory were heating up. Jimmie Lee kept getting into decidedly unholy trouble.
So my mother and father parted ways, because they got along like grease and a red-hot skillet.
I make it sound simple, because if I don’t the truth will hit me and knock me, even now, off my feet. I cried as if he had died. I cried because he left me alone with my mother and the Lord, both strangers to me. But daddy came every day after work, and stayed while my mother snorted and cursed under her breath and pointedly did not feed him and hurriedly moved to any room where my father and I were not. My father told me my story—I was never not gonna get that story—and waited until I fell asleep before he left.
But I was never really asleep. As soon as it was quiet, after my father had gone and my mother was done calling all the church ladies to complain about his no-accountness, I’d pull a new magic out from beneath the covers—a transistor radio, seafoam green with silver knobs and an tiny antenna. I’d stuff a plug into my ear and listen, with the volume turned down as low as possible, until I drifted off—or didn’t.
You will never understand what music gave me—gives me. I don’t even fully understand, even now. Chicago’s Black music station fell quiet at the end of the evening, but WLS kept blasting across the country, and there the stories didn’t stop. I’m definitely going to age myself now, but I’m going to say it: Back in my day, songs didn’t lock onto a loop, drilling it into your head until you gave up and danced. Songs were little dramas. I knew how hard The Temptations begged for a woman to come home, I knew how they crooned five-part heartbreak, I knew the mountaintop of Smokey’s falsetto. But I also knew Neil Diamond, New Colony Six, The Association, The Beatles, The Byrds, and all about Scott MacKenzie and San Francisco. Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair...
Right now, if you turn on an oldies station, I’ll bet you good good money that I can sing, from beginning to fade out, at least ninety percent of the songs.
The songs weren’t just sound; they were snippets of the everyday, unreeling. They had beginnings and ends and sensory-driven middles, and sounded like shattered hearts, and wrong choices and mindless love. And the lines rhymed!
You only filled me with despair
By showing love that wasn’t there
Just like the desert shows a thirsty man
A green oasis where there’s only sand
You lured me into something I should have dodged
The love I saw in you was just a mirage
This still isn’t about poetry? Oh yes, it is.
Now I’m going to go all the way back to fourth grade. I was in yet another school whose students weren’t supposed to achieve anything, and my teacher was Mrs. Stein, and all I can remember about her is a brunette flip and white tights and a voice that was just a little wavy at the edges probably because she was surrounded by Black kids in a part of town everybody warned you to stay away from.
One day she wrote a strange word on the board. A-N-E-M-O-N-E.
Can anyone pronounce this?, she asked.
Picture me. Always in the front row, my hand thrust in the air. Lopsided pigtails, the part crooked because my distracted mother often parted my hair with her forefinger instead of a comb. Scrawny as all get-out.
I remember that day. Must be a trick question, I thought. No way that’s ANN-KNEE-MOAN. No way. White teachers got tricks.
A-NEM-MOAN? Nope. Not sneaky enough. I thought about how, when my daddy needed a word that didn’t exist, he’d crash two words together to make a new one, or how he pointed out how crazy English could be, with its insistence on knight and night and love and move not rhyming, and write and right and rite. My hand shot up.
A-NEM-MO-KNEE, I said. Mrs. Stein heaped me with a little too much praise. I heard hissing behind me. Damn. I was gonna have to fight again to get home, because I thought I was so smart. But that word. I loved the way it moved in my mouth, waiting for air. I loved it in the air. And this was even before I knew what it meant.
Here’s how I wrote about it, much, much later:
“Ms. Stein scribbled a word on the blackboard, said Who can
pronounce this?, and the word was anemone and from
that moment you first felt the clutter of possible
in your mouth, from the time you stumbled through the rhythm
and she slow-smiled, you suddenly knew you had the right
to be explosive, to sling syllables through back doors,
to make up your own damned words just when you needed them.
All that day, sweet anemone tangled in your teeth,
spurted sugar tongue, led you to the dictionary
where you were assured that it existed, to the cave
of the bathroom where you warbled it in bounce echo,
and, finally convinced you owned that teeny gospel,
you wrote it again and again and again and a—”
Again and again and again. Now this is about poetry. One word, sounded slowly and with dawning wonder by a scrawny Black girl with hasty pigtails. One word, any word, hurtling its way toward story. One story, then another and another, from the gravel throat of an Arkansas man. That little girl in search of a history, wrapping her life around story, stories wrapping their lives around her. Men and women and children, mute on paper and glass, reach out for the girl, holding what she believes she has lost. They pull the world wide open, and she walks inside.