Where The Waterfall Starts

This is where the waterfall starts.

She paces the room weary and voice fading, whispering curses at me, at her mother, at her existence. She is exhausted from screaming, but this is worse than moments before as she shouted her list of reasons I’d burn in hellfire. She stops pacing and she melts into the floor, puddled beneath the wall where we used to hang her report cards. She’s right. She isn’t our little baby anymore.

 

When I first laid eyes on her she was made of porcelain. Skin whiter than I’d ever imagined a person could be, but flush with color like painted dolls. She struggled to open her eyes and she hated sunlight. She was jaundice. We’d spend hours sitting in the sun light, trying to turn our baby the right color. And she lay there still, so still, sometimes fear would grip me and I’d wake her. I was always careful not to shake her.

 

Her mother and I had been promised a baby boy. We had planned for him and fought over which distant uncles names sounded the most in fashion for our son. We settled on David, a strong name, a biblical name that felt powerful. We wanted our son to be born under God’s favor, even though we struggled most times to believe. We painted the walls green, because it was too cliché to paint them blue. Either way it would have been wrong.

 

When she was 6 we had our very first fight, her too stubborn to admit she didn’t understand what the 3 plus six equaled and me too excited at a chance to play with her young feelings to realize I should just explain things sometimes. A life lesson. She sat back on her little toes, and she told me she hated me. Words a father never wants to hear from his child. She huffed off into her room and she slammed the door behind her.

 

Two months ago, when she walked in the front door, she collapsed. We rushed her to the hospital, my wife holding her in the backseat of our station wagon, and me driving like stop signs and red lights didn’t exist. Her mother and I held hands as we waited impatiently in the sterilized room they gave us to sit in. Apparently they do this when your wife becomes hysterical. When they called us into the room, she cringed at the name David. Like it made her sick.

 

She has spent so long trying to explain her heart to us. And we have been betraying her, unable to hear the cries echoing through our house. We have been trying so hard to convince her that we know her better than she knows herself. It’s a delusion we have been perpetuating.

 

There is a woman laying on the ground beneath the marks where David’s name is written in pencil besides the different heights she has been over all these years. She’s right. She’s not our baby boy anymore.

 

This is where the waterfall starts.

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Blood Lines

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[My father is]

Malcolm Little, Detroit Red

Brother X, and

El Hajj Malik el Shabazz.

Only he isn’t. He is Halvor James

Son of Hugh and Asta James.

He sings songs that Malcolm does not know

But would approve of.

[Curtains]

I told my father I was going to marry Malcolm X and

He didn’t smile.

They killed him, remember,

Right in front of his pretty brown daughters.

This makes my father want to cry.

He shakes with anger, thinking of the bloody holes they blew into his fine
suit

Before his most important people.

[Solid]

My Malcolm will die a violent death as well. And I

Will live my life in fear that today will be the day it all ends.

And he will not tell me otherwise.

He will not promise to live forever.

But he will hold onto me as if I can ground him to the earth

And hold him back from heaven

One more day.

[Embers]

My father will hate him. He has tried so hard not to be

Malcolm

So his daughters will not grow up to inject

And smoke themselves

Into nothingness

To forget the memory of his death.

All this effort will be in vain.

I have inherited my father’s fire. This burning spirit that

Flies into fits of rage, setting even the air around us

Into flame.

[Ana Asif]

Once, my father knocked a man out cold

Then shook him awake to hit him again.

We deserve to take out our anger, we deserve

To finish our fights on our terms.

[Arkansas]

I hated the world when I was 8.

It was my father’s birthday. We were on the highway to Arkansas

But this man cut us off on the highway. And when

My father honked the horn, he yelled a word that even

Set my eight year old blood

Boiling

[Cake]

My father’s anger is quiet and transformative

It builds on top of slowly boiling blood

His eyes can’t unfocus. It silences everyone around,

Even us few in the van,

Still cubs, waiting for the all clear signal

[Candles]

This man who dared to hurt him on his birthday

Pulled off the highway, challenging.

Every one of us in that car wanted that man to die. But when

My father’s long legs stepped out of the car,

That undead man sped away.

But not before, he called my father

A “nigger” again.

[Let the Chickens come home]

I followed him at the party, trying to hold his rough hands.

I had all the words he didn’t. I looked up at him,

He scarcely looked back down at me. All the love I had

For him could not quiet his anger. It burned

Me.

[Burn Baby]

Any of us, all of us,

Would have killed that man. I wanted to rewind time

Find lioness claws and jaws to rip

Apart this empty feeling he had infected us with so easily. We were

Not disciples of MLK. We were Huey’s cats, Selassie’s soldiers

Garvey’s guard.

[Looting]

I hated the whole world when I was 8. I still

Dream of Lioness paws with which I could rip off the heads of

Everyone who hurt our family

And wear their blood.

Perhaps they are right about us.

Maybe we are more animal than man.

[Blood Lines]

My father speaks breath into ancestors,

Asta, who I knew only for so long,

His mother, and his very most favorite person

Whose eyes I inherited from him, from her, from blood.

Consuela, before her, whose hands I have, that he does not,

Who worked for her family, her descendants

If I needed, Consuela would rise out of the muddy ground

To save the great greats she never met

[Lioness]

Asta who fought everyone who tried to stop her or slow her down,

My father uses her to explain what I can be,

That I can be Malcolm too,

The guardian of the children, protector ,

And Deadly

Too

[Bob Marley]

I am the descendant of Three Queens. We set

The sugar cane crops aflame.

I cry for the death of Nat Turner and am infuriated

At his portrayal as a heretic.

We are revolutionaries too.

[Betty]

Even as I seek a man who can command a room of strangers

As my partner, my father hates the idea.

He wants me to have MLK, Cornel West, John Hope Franklin

I love them, I tell him gently

But I am bound to Malcolm. I am

The claws and jaws that feed him,

I hold his fears for him.

[Rebirth]

I am carrying within me a fire that has been passed down

And never extinguished

A fire that leveled cane crops,

That burns away enemies,

That darkens flesh to brown

I am Malcolm

I am Halvor

I am Asta and Consuela

And I carry their fire in my eyes,

My hands,

My heart.

Women Tell Me

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Women tell me I am biting but men always tell me they don’t bite.

I bite.

I shouldn’t have to explain this: I have teeth. Biting is a requirement to eat.

I eat souls. Scavenge pieces broken and swallow them whole.

How many licks to the center of an orgasm?

I have yet to meet a man who knows.

 

Women tell me I am biting. Men say that’s okay.

I want to be a woman who takes her time.  Who chews things into pieces.

I master tastebuds. I master faceplants. I only black girl dance.

How many questions to the center of the truth?

I have yet to ask enough.

 

Women tell me I am biting. Men are worse.

They smile when they say words like “lady”

I don’t wanna be a lady, I wanna be a woman marked with color

I wanna be a woman made of stone.

I don’t mind being called hard.

I bite.

 

Women tell me I am biting. Men avoid me like the plague.

Am I supposed to remember the names of men I only laughed with once?

Am I supposed to follow all of them on twitter and instagram?

Why should I have to respond to LinkedIn messages about the taste of my cum?

How many job offers do you hide in your profile?

Don’t ask me about mines.

 

Women tell me I am biting.

I hope that I am.

Dissimilarity

 

He thinks that somehow it’s his fault. He tells me he thinks that, had it not been for him, she and I would have been good friends. Of course, I tell him that I agree; everything bad that has happened to me since I met him was his fault. I am only half-serious.

She hates me. The first time I saw her, at the very beginning of my freshman year was just before I met Tre. I thought she resembled me: built similarly, heavy on the bottom, light up top. We were both about the same honey color, and had the same dark eyes. Both of us were sitting alone. Presumably neither of us knew anyone else on the bright yellow school bus headed towards the first football game of the season. She was pretty and I wanted to talk to her, but I didn’t.  I didn’t know what to say. I was sure she wouldn’t be interested in me, since she gave off that vibe, same as I did. I was afraid of her.

I know better. She isn’t like me at all, not really. The list of men she slept with numbered in the 30s after the fiasco between us three. Ella: pretty, honey-cream-skinned, big booty slut. She was plenty book-smart; she had decent grades, although not quite as good as mine. She was involved in all the groups I wasn’t: Black Students Association, RCMBA, Honor Society, and some pre-med society for scholars. She started modeling slash acting her senior year. She was still gorgeous with her clothes off. Maybe that was her selling point.

“African Studies,” I told her, months later, when she asked my major while we sat coincidentally at the same bus stop on campus. I could see my breath in front of my face.

“That’s easy; no wonder you’re on the Dean’s list. You should try being pre-med.” I sucked my teeth. I thought hundreds of “fuck you”’s at her, hoping she’d become telepathic.  I found joy in the fact that she had never finished coursework to be pre-med. As it turned out, she became a communications major the next week.

The same scene was repeated another time, when we were drinking at a mutual friend’s house. I had taken exactly 10 shots. She had arrived late, with some guy in tow and already drunk. She sat down opposite me around the hookah pipe. The house was old, and the table we sat at rocked when one of us leaned on it too hard. I had been talking with the owner of the house, Allen, who had kept up with me shot for shot.

“I had to beg last semester for my philosophy professor to give me an A, so I wouldn’t lose my scholarship.” He inhaled through the blue pipe that slithered down from the high, round metal instrument.

“I actually had all As except computer programming and he just asked me what grade I needed. I just told him if I didn’t get an A I’d lose my scholarship.” I smiled as Allen passed the hose to Ella and she inhaled and exhaled quickly. Only a novice hookah smoker would exhale so fast.

“Y’all must have it easy. I work my ass off for Cs. I had to pay someone to take my last test in Biology.” Smoke blew out her mouth again as she said these words, aimed carefully at me.

“I don’t have it easy. I just work hard. And I really care about my classes.” She inhaled smoke again. When was she going to pass the hookah, I wondered.

“Are you saying I don’t work hard?” She exhaled sharply again.

“Paying someone to take a test seems like taking an easy way out to me.” I looked away from her, but I could hear her inhale the smoke again, then a sharp exhale.

“Oh, you always do the right thing then? In your classes, in your major that doesn’t matter for anything?” She laughed and choked on the smoke. She coughed hard.

Drunk, Allen had talked me out of slamming my fist up into her jaw after I had risen from the table. That’s how she is, though, insecure. She loved Tre too. She wanted him to herself so bad, but he let her go. Then, before I knew him, the last thing he wanted was a girlfriend. And then I took him as my own, and she lashed out.

 

 

I hadn’t connected the two of them until a house party Tre threw. I was drunk, for the first time in my whole life. We were brand new, had just started dating, officially. We were fragile, but full of lust. We had our drunken hands all over each other without regard to who was watching. Mine were sliding up the back of his shirt, and his tried to find their way into my panties. I didn’t think anyone was watching but maybe I just didn’t care.

His cell phone vibrated and his eyes rolled as they surveyed the screen. He returned his focus to me, letting his soft lips trace the length of my neck. Then he was called away, some friend needed him, and he kissed promises to return up and down my neck.

I danced alone, on a sweaty wall in the living room turned dance floor, eyes closed in ecstasy. I knew the words to every song. It felt like I was waiting forever for him to return.  Some mass of a woman put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. I tried to free my shoulder, opening my eyes to take a long stare at her. She had a furrowed brow and she was talking but I only caught a couple words over the sound of the music so I nodded and freed my shoulder. I turned to walk away and caught little-light-skinned-from-the-football-shuttle planting her lips on what was mine.

I had never been treated this way before. I walked past them, still buried in each other’s throats. I dragged my hands along the walls in the hallway itching to push my balled up fists through them. I sat on the porch, facing the dilapidated ruins of homes that used to house families. I didn’t scream or cry, but I could feel the hot fury sending steam into the air around my head. My hands pulled and tugged at each other, unable to be still.

He found me there and sat at my side.

“Why are you out here? I was looking for you.”

“When?”

“Just now.” He smiled at me.

“I was here. Wondering why you were kissing some girl, right in front of me.” I had long since looked away. I didn’t want to look into his big brown eyes as he tried to explain it away, make it my overactive imagination.

“We used to talk.”

“And now?” His hand reached for mine. I didn’t resist but I didn’t wrap my fingers back around his.

“Nothing. She-,” he took a deep breath, “she kissed me, and I didn’t stop her. I’m stupid.”

“So I should be?” I sighed.

“I don’t want her, so you know. I get if you’re mad.”

“Yeah.” I was mad.

“I am sorry. I can tell her I didn’t mean it.”

“I don’t care about what she knows. I don’t know anything. And I was forgotten pretty quickly just now.”

“What do I do?” I looked into his eyes, and I lost. It wasn’t long before we were back at it, my lips struggling to erase the stain she’d left on his, smearing it with my lips, staining them too.

When we stopped to get air, and remembered the logistics of the situation, we decided to head up to Tre’s room. He went up first as I went searching for my purse downstairs.

“Who the fuck are you? Tre is Ella’s. You need to find your own man, little girl.” The words came from the dark skinned, round woman who had grabbed my shoulder earlier. I turned around and moved away from her cautiously. I assumed Ella was the name of the girl with overactive lips. This girl, the one who didn’t look like me, was Ella’s best friend and would later pull her own pranks on me.

“Nice meeting you too,” I whispered to myself sarcastically as I walked up the stairs to meet Tre. He was perched on the edge of the back window of his bedroom.

“I met a new friend just now.” I told him smiling as I put my hand on his shoulder. Sometimes he seemed to disappear in front of me and I felt I had to reach out and hold him in place.

“That quick?” He smiled back.

“Yeah. She told me to get my own man.” He sucked in all the air in the room and exhaled it expediently.

“Yeah, you should do that.” He wrapped his arms around my lower back and drew me to him. I was satisfied with that.

That night, even as I climbed on top of him, his phone rang and rang, desperately.   Each time I heard it, I took a mental note. By the morning she had racked up a debt of my hatred. I told myself that as long as he didn’t answer, she didn’t mean anything. She didn’t, at least, mean more than me. My mind was filled with half-rage and fear.

That morning, I woke up before him. It had been the first time we had sex. I typed in the password to his phone that he had taught me himself, hoping to show me that he was an honest man. I looked at the 6 missed calls and 18 text messages from “Ella Lorel”. The first one simply said, “Who was that girl?” and he had responded to it, “she’s my girl.” He hadn’t said anything else to her.

Sometimes she would look at me, glance over, and I’d see some sick joy in her smile. She went out of her way to be where I was, or I thought she did. Maybe it was Tre she always wanted to see, since she always showed up in immaculate dress with one hand reaching, always for him. She would always be drunk and she would tell him how she hated me, how she knew he still wanted to be with her, the sexual acts she’d perform for him, that she knew he missed. She needed him but she needed to beat me too.

She had other methods. Once, she, or perhaps her friend, Candice, trapped me in a bathroom at a club. It had been Halloween and I was dressed as a schoolteacher. I had been dancing with Tre all night when I realized my glasses were coming loose on the joints. I went off to the bathroom. It was a tiny, shitty little bathroom, with throw-up in the sink. After I walked in the doorway, the door shut behind me a little too hard.  I shook it off, and set to re-adjusting my glasses. When I had given up, accepting the glasses were done for, I headed to the door and found that it simply would not open. After I foolishly banged on it for what felt like forever, and nothing happened, I realized the logical move was to text Tre to save me. He didn’t say anything about what happened. He just let me out. But I knew she had been leaning on that door.

I always behaved: I smiled, nodded, accepting her sober apologies. She was always sorry sober. She was a bitch drunk. She’d stumble all over, always looking for Tre first, then anyone with a working dick after he pushed her away. She’d look at him as she sucked the face of a random guy she’d go home with. I didn’t get it; she was perfect. Well, she was when she wasn’t after my man, or any other, with liquor pouring into her so quickly you’d think she was swallowing water.

Tre was too gentle with her, almost apologetic. When I came to him, complaining of my name being put on gossip sites, rumors swirling that I had slept with every one of his roommates, he shrugged it off, told me not to be sensitive. I knew she had done it, and whispers of others confirmed it but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t get involved in anything between us. But always, when I wanted to cry from the stress, he would grab my arm and pull me to him so hard we’d come crashing down together, wrapped up in each other like vines.

Once she told me she loved me. She was giddy with liquor and she sat down next to me. She didn’t seem to recognize me at all. She smiled a half-formed smile at me.

“I love you.” She reached her arm around me. It burned my shoulder.

“Are you sure?” I shook off her arm.

“Girl,” she’d slurred, “we have to stick together. Light skinned girls have to stick together! I love you!”

When she smiled at me, or waved, or told me she loved me, it pissed me off more than anything else she ever did. It made some piece of my bruised ego pulse. Her argument that we needed to stick together was insulting. As if she believed that our skin tone made us allies even as she treated me like an enemy. We had nothing in common outside of these traits. We had no reason to bond. I had no respect for her perfection, not anymore.

 

 

Tre has stuck by my side. He graduated at the end of my sophomore year. He ended up in grad school in Louisiana. Still, we talked nonstop through emails, texts, Facebook and Twitter. He came back to visit often. He’d always come with gifts, and smile at me like I was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

When I went to New Orleans for his graduation just a few months before my own, I stayed in a hotel room next to his mother. We all had dinner at a restaurant the night before his graduation. He got down on one knee and asked me in a shaky voice to marry him. Preferably soon, his mother added after I said yes. From there, my life was set.

The two of us moved to a tiny house in Philadelphia, and started saving for a wedding. It was when the planning stages were in full motion that Ricky, Tre’s best friend growing up and best man, came to stay with us.

“Yo, B, isn’t that the girl you were showing me the other day?” Ricky pointed at Ella, on the television screen, skinnier than ever and acting in a new drama set to premiere in April. Tre looked over at me before nodding.

“She is bad. You used to hit that, right?”

“She’s on t.v. now,” I said it out loud to believe it myself. I left the room. There wasn’t far to go. I could still hear them as I leaned against the wall just out of sight of the living room.

“Why would you ask about that? I haven’t even talked about her since we stopped talking.”

“I just think, she’s badder than this girl. You fucked up. You could’ve been married to this girl. She’s probably paid now.”

“I would never have ended up married to Ella. But I’m happy for her.” This was enough. Time would show that this was only the first time that I would overhear a joke about who my husband should have married.

For years after we were married, I would get mail without a return address. It had my name on it, but always my maiden name. I keep them in a box under my bed. They are nothing more than progress reports. The implied threat being that she will become a woman that all men, including mine, want. I know that if I had shown them to Tre he would have laughed and said that we should move but I was afraid she contacted him as well and how I’d feel when I saw it written on his face.

Now, we have moved naturally, to a bigger house, in another state, a new city. Both of our phone numbers have new area codes. I doubt she’d contact us anyways. She is married too, to another famous face. Their faces grace magazine covers amidst titles like “Headed for Divorce,” a sure sign that their marriage is strong and unchanging.

Nights, I cling to my husband, and remember the battle I was in for him. I think to his apology: if only he hadn’t been there, we could have been friends. Because we had so much in common, I suppose he meant. For years I have refused to see it, that we have anything in common, other than our appearance: our skin color and our body shapes. But when I lay there with him, and he rolls over away from me, my heart feels like it could stop, and I can’t force myself to sleep.

 

Tired

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One of my easiest to recall moments in my life was when we first moved to Tulsa. Then, Tulsa was just one single block, 3rd street from Kenosha to Hartford Street. That’s where Daddy lived and we did too. This memory takes place at night. My dad was going to take our chocolate lab, appropriately named Chocolate, out for a walk. I was determined to go with them, and when he agreed I could come, my little brother decided he had to go as well.

 

We only made it about two blocks out of our Tulsa when a police car hopped a curb in front of us, lights and siren blaring in our faces.

 

“What are you doing down here?” A face hidden behind a flashlight glare directed at my father’s face, then my brother’s, then mine demanded to know.

 

“Walking my dog.”

 

“What are you doing here?” It asked again. What else could we be doing, chocolate lab in tow?

 

“I live here, and I’m walking my dog. Is that a crime now?”

 

“Nobody lives over here.” The voice answered. Which was kind of true, except that we did, just on the other border of our Tulsa.

 

“I just told you that I do. How you gonna tell me where I live?”

 

“Sir, I need to see your id.” My dad begin to walk away.

 

“Sir, you need to give me your id.” the voice was louder.

 

My dad stopped and turned, “why?”

 

“Because I asked for it.”

 

“I’m not giving you anything.”

 

“Do you want to be arrested?” The voice asked.

 

“Just tell him your name, Daddy.” I pleaded, “I’ll just tell him.”

 

“Don’t tell him anything. He doesn’t have a right to it.”

 

“Sir, you match the description of a man who hopped a train in Edmond, so you need to identify yourself.”

 

“I haven’t been in Edmond. I live here, and I’m with my kids walking their dog.”

 

This was enough of an exchange for the voice to call back up. So another car rolled up behind us, lights flashing. We were surrounded. This one got out, and came over, flashlight in hand.

 

From then on, it was threat after threat from the two.

 

“You will spend the night in jail. And your kids will be alone, ” and “What kind of example are you showing to your kids?” My father did not waver.  

 

Finally, they decided they were done threatening him, and told him outright he was under arrest. He handed me Chocolate’s leash.

 

“Go home and tell your grandma I’m being arrested.” He told me. My brother was holding my hand.

 

“Can I come Daddy? ” My little brother pleaded, “I wanna turn the lights on.”

 

“No, just go get your grandma.” My dad said. So me, 5 and my brother, 3, headed back to our Tulsa to tell our visiting Grandma James that our dad was being arrested. As we left, an officer told my father how horrible he was, sending his two kids off by themselves at night.

 

“We live right there, “he told them again, “You think they don’t know how to get home? Why wouldn’t they say so if they didn’t?” Words that fell on deaf ears, since nobody lived downtown. Except us.

 

My grandma was visiting to from St. Croix and she scared me sometimes, so I was scared to tell her, but I did. She got her shoes on with authority, ready to go to the courthouse and kick up a fuss.

 

But as she began to head outside, a police car pulled in front of the building we lived in and they slowly let my father out. There were no apologies, despite that there was a reason they never took him to be processed. They had no right to ask for his id in the first place, let alone lock him up for refusing to show it.

 

 

 

In first grade, I transferred to a new elementary school in the neighborhood of our new house and left behind my old friends. My teacher was an older woman with a short haircut and those old woman curls that they all seem to like. Probably their hair doesn’t even grow anymore when they get that old and close to death.

 

That year, my father launched a campaign for her dismissal.

 

“That teacher has to go!” he would yell in the principal’s office every day, whether she was there to listen or not.

 

Meanwhile, I didn’t understand why I didn’t like school anymore. I didn’t know why I would suddenly start crying in class and have to be sent to the counselor almost every day. I definitely wasn’t aware of why I spent all of recess hiding in plain sight, crying, waiting for someone to ask me why.

 

At my old kindergarten, 2/3 of the class didn’t speak English as their first language, and a couple not at all. Still, we understood each other. Our teachers were calm and never spoke to me in that condescending tone. My best friend Marilyn had the same birthday as me and we spent recess running around wildly, daring the wind to outrun us.

 

This new class was all about reading. One by one we sat in a circle and read sentences in sequence. When my turn came, I would start to read the words, letters I had made my friends over a year before then, and I would start to feel it. Dread.

 

My father had come to the school and watched her teach my class. He had sat in the back and wordlessly observed until he felt he might lose it. Then the three of us sat down to speak. She felt sure she had won this battle, you could see in her eyes.

 

“So how would you say my daughter is doing in your class?” My dad asked.

 

“She’s doing good, ” my teacher answered, “still working on reading.”

 

“You mean in class?”

 

“Yes, we’re working in class to get her reading.”

 

“No, ma’am. My daughter can read.”

 

“No she can’t. We’re working on it, but she can’t.”

 

“My daughter can read.” I could see my father starting to get angry.

 

“Sometimes, kids memorize stories at home and parents think they’re reading when really they aren’t.”

 

“Put any book in my daughter’s hand.”

 

So she went searching, worried now that she might have missed this minor detail. She set the teacher’s guide in my hands. Confused, I looked at my Dad and my teacher alternately.

 

“Just read it, Malika.” My dad urged, his temper having faded. So I did, carefully at first, waiting for my teacher to stop me and read the sentence instead of me. But she didn’t, with my dad there she could not take my sentences from me and I read and read, smiling until my dad said I could stop. I didn’t stumble over a single word.

 

 

I was still in elementary school when I first encountered Black History Month. They told us about peanuts and nonviolent protest and Crispus Attucks the first black man to die for America’s independence. But nobody mentioned Malcolm X and Nat Turner when we talked about black history.

 

The first time a teacher mentioned Nat Turner to me, I was in 6th grade. He was a leader of a failed rebellion against slavery. He murdered every white person he came across, even babies, and he even had the nerve to say that God sent him on that mission. A Christian God!

 

Malcolm X? The black supremacist? The man who wanted revenge instead of peace? Who told black men and women to arm themselves?

 

“Malika, write your paper on George Washington Carver.” I was told over and over for Black History Month by teachers who were not black.

 

I wanted to write about my heroes. I wanted to write about what I loved.

 

My father tells me stories of where he’s from. St Croix, a place so different from Oklahoma. He told me about the Three Queens. The women who ended slavery in St. Croix by setting the cane fields on fire. He told me how the masters ran scared, as quick as could be to their ships. That was our revolution, that’s how we became free.

 

 

When I was 15, I learned that there was something poetic about being one of 3 black people on a Civil Rights Journey, even one put on by the Unitarians. So, there I was, sandwiched between two black girls both of whom were 18 and 3 white girls only a year younger than me, 14. But outside of us, everyone was old and white and female.

 

We watched a movie series about the Civil Rights Era which followed the antics of the nonviolent movement. Somehow this has become the norm, the sweeping away of the reality to make room for the chosen heroes and erase the perspectives we now find disagreeable. Finally, one video speaks briefly about Malcolm X and I am enthralled until the big eyed curly haired white girl sitting next to me volunteers that she thinks, “Malcolm X was just as bad as the white people.” It is thirty minutes into arguing with her that I realize she is now the person I hate most in this world. Then I am silent. Years later, she will annoyingly ask me why I don’t talk to her anymore and I will roll my eyes.

 

We watched video of Bull Connor setting fire hoses on the people marching in Birmingham, and the group who held onto each other and sang before stepping out into the square that memorialized that day. People screamed for their lives in that space.

 

“You guys here to check out the memorial?” A clearly drunk and homeless man asked the group. We told him we were.

 

“I was there,” he told us, “when they turned on the hoses.” Then he proceeded to guide us through the park, well manicured lawns between statues of dogs biting men screaming. He told us what it had been like, and he cried. He stood before a statue and he bawled like a child. I fought tears myself.

 

The older white women hung behind, unwilling to stand too close to this man whom their fathers had made. But when we started to go our separate ways, they tried to give him money for the tour. Wiping away his tears, he refused it. He sat down at a bench and picked up his bottle and drank.

 

 

I didn’t have my first drink until I went away to college. My first drink landed me in the bed of the man who would be my first love. The second drink landed me passed out near my own vomit in the street on campus. Campus police arrived and sat around with me waiting until an ambulance, I didn’t need, came to retrieve me. The next day, my white floormate would tell me I threw donuts at the policewoman who came and called her a bitch.

 

“I don’t like cops,” I told her laughing.

 

“She was a black cop though.” the roomate had reminded me.

 

I told my dad that story and even though he is still mad about the bill that night incurred ($2500) he thought it was exactly like his daughter to call a policewoman a bitch.

 

When I was still little, I watched my city acknowledge that it had birthed the deadliest race riot our country had ever seen. It had happened in 1921, and it had seen the burning down of the rich black neighborhood of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street. I lived only a short walk from where it had begun and where it had ended. My parents took me along as they recorded survivor testimony of the riot.

 

I remember that they had all been very old but they told me they had been my age when it happened. The most jarring story I remember was of a baby. There was a baby in a shoebox and the teller of this story had never been sure if the baby was alive or not but it hadn’t mattered because firebombs fell from the sky and they never saw that baby or that shoe box again.

 

There was a building right near the prosperous Greenwood area affectionately referred to as the “Be No” building, as in “Be no Jew, Be no Nigger..” and so on. It was owned by the Klan. And despite the efforts of the family of Tate Brady to claim he was unaffiliated with the Klan, his wife and he owned the land that building was built on.

 

Just this evening, our city council decided that Brady Street, a street that runs through an area that used to be part of Greenwood and is named for Tate Brady, former city councilman and verified destroyer of Greenwood, would stay “Brady Street.” Their vote was to change who the street was named for. Now we are to pretend that Brady Street, Brady District and Brady Heights are all named after Matthew Brady, a civil war photographer who had nothing to do with our city.

 

 

Trayvon Martin died and I have never found words to write about it. So I listened to everyone else’ s words. To the people who could think about his death without turning him into someone else. Trayvon has never been Emmitt Till. I was invited to help plan a vigil after the verdict in the case, and I attended. The vigil’s entire goal was promoting racial healing, and people of different races showed up and were present.

 

Thursday, there was a march on city council, a march to call for action to protect black children from laws like Stand Your Ground. My mother texted me asking if I wanted to go with her.

 

“I’m too tired.” I told her.

Safe Place

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I was walking my mother’s dog when she found me.

I was spread thickly across my world. Enough of me everywhere.
I was about to be too thin.

She had too blue eyes filled with sadness and longing.

I thought I had nothing to give her- only to learn I was wrong as she laid herself in my lap,
Appreciative for a safe place to rest.

I want to be her safe place.

Her bones were sticking out of her skin-protruding. Her pads were bare, almost raw.

I figured- at the very least, I could feed her.

I called my brother, scooped her into the back of my father’s truck and held onto her tight.

I want to be her safe place.

She didn’t make a single sound, hours having passed until I brought her to the pound and

As if she knew her fate- she wailed.

I went home crying only to awake the next day-

I need to be her safe place.

I spent my last dollar on her, swearing I’d find someone to adopt her, after the pound said they were gonna put her down.

Nobody will adopt a pitbull who just had pups that skinny. So I did.

It took weeks before the eyes of strangers on the streets where I walked her stopped accusing me

Before she had a living form again.

She was patient.

And now that I am resigned to my fate, to be forever her place to rest within a storm-

Or when people yell too loud, or they play the drums, or when the villains die in the movies we watch.

She knows that I am her safe place, that I am her home.