"If Black English isn't a language,
then tell me what it is."
— James Baldwin (1934 - 1989)
they say it's Sunday
come to us again
Bacon and egg smells
float over from Master's House
somebody's smoking cigars
maybe two somebodies
Cigars they come here
by big riverboats
breakfast china dishes
they come too
and ice for fancy get-togethers
Cost lots of money
they traded Jubilee
my grownup cousin
and Vashti my little sister
to pay for all the cigars
and all the breakfast china
but not for all the ice
They said too much
had melted on the way
(for Octavia Butler)
I want to see fingers/ fingers flying across piano
keys/ fingers strolling over black notes & blue
notes & sharp notes & flat notes & get up in
the morning notes/ fingers/ I want to see
BB King fingers hitting Lucille's guitar strings
UM ain't that some stuff/ Nina Simone Queen
of Soul fingers backing up The King of Love/
Martin Luther King fingers & hands pounding
on America's pulpit/ yesterday & now I Have
A Dream fingers/ fingers/ my great grandfather's
CC Rider fingers taking the Bible to Black folks
using their fingers to read/ my grandfather's
chef fingers shaping fancy pastry & roasting
duck & making people lick their fingers
UM ain't that some stuff/ fingers/ my mother's
fingers/ my father's fingers/ all theses fingers
pushing me into circles of light/ my fingers/
Mirror, mirror on the wall,
who is the fairest of them all?
— Brothers Grimm, "Snow White"
Let me tell you something.
I'm a woman of African descent
and that isn't just something.
You hear me.
It is some thing.
Yes! I am a woman of African descent.
In a public library restroom
caught a sistah standing behind me
staring in the mirror at me.
"Are you mixed?" she says
at the back of my head.
I say to the mirror "What!"
as in — What's wrong with you, Sistah!
"Are you mixed?" she says
one more time
giving me the once-over
as though she'd paid admission
and was entitled.
Now I shake my hands dry.
I say to the sistah in the mirror,
"What!" as in
What manners did yo Mama
not teach you.
She blinks hard like I'm some
kind of puzzle. "Mixed," she says,
"You know, as in mixed!"
"No No No!" I say.
"I am not mixed. I am nobody's
mixed anything!" I hear my voice
rising . "I am a woman of African
descent. Just like you!"
"Passing," she says interrupting.
"Do you ever think of passing?"
"Why?" I say without thinking. "Why would
a woman of African descent want to pass?"
"Easier," she says. "Life would be easier,"
she says. "Easier for what?" I almost say.
"The Price of the ticket," I say. "That's
what James Baldwin would say."
"Who's he?" she says.
"Pass. You could do it."
I want to hug her. Yes. Maybe I
even want to give her my skin.
I move away
leaving her free to talk with that
other woman in the mirror.
Say My Name
Say my name please.
Please say my name. Look at me when you say
my name. My name. You put it in a bag and
tied it with wires at the top where the paper, the
parchment was peeling in little threads. Threads
like my mother used when she hemmed my
dress. Gauze. Gauze. Strips of gauze covered
with mericrome and witchhazel and in the
medicine cabinet with all those little bottles —
amber, blue-cobalt blue — where she put my
name before she closed the door, the mirror.
Wiped it clean.
I wrote my name in the steam on the mirror. She
wiped it clean, took my name away, this mirror
woman who polished what was left of the
light, the long could-be-singing nights with my
name. Here in the twilight of the sighs and long
meter hymns and someone breathing long and
low and heavy in the dark of my name. I hear it
low and sweet so sweet and hear, yes, the carry-
me-back-words of my name riding in a boat
with the gold leaf of its name Muerte — Muerte.
And on its sides,
this ship with its polished wooden sides, this
wooden carved maiden leading it in its name,
this wooden carving with its long green hair,
green sea waves... carry-me-back-waves/ carry
me back... Its rough lips wooden and pouting
and half open, taking in the blue-green ocean
waves and the foam, lips parted/ bared to the
blue wind as if to say my name, to sing it into
the blue-black wind.
And who was that woman! Say it. Spit it Out.
Weave if from long colored banners from soft —
as spring wool, from cotton, yes cotton. Cotton
mouth. Poison. sssssssssssss. Please. Please say
my name. Please.
Look at me.