It’s not because my mother always spoke with the soft pull and stretch of vowel in her speech, or that my father frequently turned nouns into verbs.
Funeralizin—was one I distinctly remember when he spoke with restraint, muted kind of sorrow, attending revolving door of wakes, and memorials of his buddies, those with whom he walked around our East Palo Alto neighborhood, post-retirement, to keep active. Sometimes driving to the natural reservoir, wetlands and dunes that faintly resembled the red clay swamps of East Monroe Louisiana, where he grew up as a little boy, where he would dive into the water from the tallest trees and the white people would drop dimes and quarters for him on the grass banks to see him do it again and again. Perhaps, a disturbed conscience, those that had any, to see a vital black boy diving from the trees and re-emerge alive instead of ghosts in the branches that still ricocheted with cries, maybe why my father took a job painting the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where he moved to escape Jim Crow. He hoped his kids would never hear the word nigger as casual reference or spewed in hatred, or worse, but it happened anyway in our private school where a white southern boy spat the word at his classmate, my younger brother, our quiet one, our glasses wearing scholar, who overcame stuttering on his own, or where the white Christian teacher at our parochial school, the 60’s- something unmarried, and unlovely, said to my sister as an endearment, “you little black monkey”. When I told my mother and saw her reaction, the house shook. Evidently not endearment, as my mother went right back to the school, in her work smock, though the frozen chicken was nearly thawed, green beans snapped, rice waiting in the colander, dinner would be late. Her voice leaped to the octave of gulls that screeched and swarmed the San Francisco Bay, so enraged, she turned red, all those soft syllables sharpened, when my mother shouted, “I’m going to lay her ass out.”
And, I wondered for real, if the teacher would still be alive the next day. Because that’s what they did in funerals, you know, they lay you out, they lay the dead out, and maybe then she would be lovely. I heard she cried when my mother was finished. And never referenced either word to my sister again. She did not come back the following year, choosing to retire instead. That was the rare occasion, I trusted my mother’s anger and had my first lesson on the Southern girl, beat-down, taking off earrings and kicking off the high heels, though my mother wore flats, and at only 5 feet 1, she slammed out of the house as if she were a giant, blood red high heels thrown over the moon’s horn.
But I said nothing to her about the Young Women’s Christian Association, the YWCA, where my sister and I attended after-school, and another after-school mate, a girl who told me she wasn’t Negro, she was Persian and added “niggers don’t shine in the dark, my father said so” and she said this as if a truism. It was the same after-school where the white teenage counselors, were athletic blonde girls with ruddy or preppy boyfriends, with weekend boutique-store paychecks. During Halloween, they plucked out the yellow candy-corn, nonchalantly called them “niggertoes”, to my sister and me, laughed and shrugged at the same time, laughed at the look on my face.
The Jewish counselors did not participate in the laughter, and then, I fell in love with the Jewish counselors because they gave my sister unlimited piggy back rides and kissed her light on the mouth, as if she was their younger sister instead of mine, and they did not say the word, that word had been so unfamiliar.
I pretended there was no shock, no sharp pain, no dissociation from the body, as the older white girls laughed at “niggertoes,” as I remembered the casual declaration of “niggers shining in the dark,” after all who could shine in the dark, for the Persian girls were not much lighter than I, it was dusk, we were all in shadow, waiting to be picked up. I wanted to be sad, they could shine and I couldn’t but knew that was a lie and their father an asshole and a bigot, and so were the girls, cowards, they’d never say niggertoes to a black adult, though I didn’t have the language to articulate in liberal California. Moving 2,000 miles away from Louisiana, Jim Crow, not left behind, but stow-a-way, where my dad, worked on Golden Gate Bridge, never promoted to supervisor, but the white men he trained became his manager, where he dangled from the highest point of the bridge, when the wind blustered from the East Bay, and another worker’s protective straps, snapped, the man plummeted to restless seas, bones poked outward like a pentagram. Decades before, my father walked as a boy under Cypress trees, and Spanish moss, branches resemble bones, and the caterwaul of gospel voices, trudging red soil of Louisiana, the rust color of the California bridge, the highest point, to wetlands on the outskirts of the Negro section East Palo Alto, dividing redlined Palo Alto. We are the Great-Offs, offspring of the Great Migration—not migrating to Chicago, or Harlem, but the West Coast. Our parents homesteaded, five years before Watts Riots, the Watts Riots erupting three days after my birthday. Unaware the Klan marched in Northern Calif cities, past Davis where both agricultural school and farms torched burning alfalfa that slightly resembled the sugary burnt smell of reefer . . .
I been funeralizin’
This when he spoke of the pain of watching his friends one by one, inexplicably dying before age 75, the way the universe has of plucking little black boys from the earth to lay them down there permanently—even after they’ve turned to men, and my father, not articulating but maybe knowing, he would join them before long.
It’s not just how my Louisiana mother quickly adapted to California cuisine, homemade tamale pie with black olives, gleaned from the pages of her dog-eared Betty Crocker cookbook, the classic tuna fish casserole layered with Laura Scudder’s potato chips, or lightly scrambled eggs with, wait for it—alfalfa sprouts and avocado, that still could not compete with cornpone, so that would be a while before we noticed the marked differences between that and say, turnip greens riding bumper to bumper ham hocks, red beans, soaking in overnight, fried fish nights with an enormous buffalo fish panting on the counter, waiting to be gutted, lifting the dutch oven pot lid to see a gigantic pig’s head grinning, softened bones for her famous hog’s head cheese or mason jar jam-packed, with vinegar smell of pink pig feet pressed against the glass, with plastic bucket of colorless skins, that smelled like excrement, we called chitl-linz
there was back home long before there was this home—the lines blurring
My mother made me do all the things as a good Southern girl, though planted in Calif oil. I was expected to prepare to be debutante, participate in the Jack and Jill club events, join a sorority, take up embroidery—which I absolutely detested, learn to piece together sewing from McCall’s patterns, arced over an electric sewing machine with russet-haired blue eyed Betsy McCall as mentor, (black ones had not been invented) yet, I delighted over the Easy Bake Oven, the only concession to Southern girl upbringing was to learn the way of the pots and pans around a kitchen. Cinnamon toast was all I could manage; hot banana pudding, smothered potatoes, cornmeal crusted Gar fish, the gumbo, where okra swam alongside crab claws, collards my mother grew next to the dandelion, that we picked like petunias, the chow-chow, a stones’s throw from Heinz pickle relish, I could never make those.
My mother was a Home Ec major in Baton Rouge University. And then she quit at 18 to marry my father, a sergeant, newly returned from the Korean war to move to San Francisco to get wed and raise a family. I have never understood why she did that. It wasn’t a shot gun, wasn’t like she had to. She was a virgin when they courted and knowing my mother, she was bored of that. My father worshipped her, and she was probably bored of that, too and just wanted to fuck. And it wasn’t allowed. They couldn’t spell it, let alone say it. Two youngsters who did not know each other years, before they learned to adapt to not knowing each other.
O, I wish they skipped the married part, except for my delicious siblings—I can’t ever unwish them. I don’t believe in past lives,—but if I ever return from beyond, I’ll manifest as their marriage counselor maybe or their divorce lawyer but I sure ain’t coming back as their kid.
Blame that on California part—none of that well bless your heart nonsense, though I listened to the endless stories of how unlike me —my mother never gave her mother any trouble, how she always was a good girl, the one designated to take care of her eight siblings and slaughter the chickens.
She says in her soft voice, I ironed father’s clothes and killed chickens. I washed my sisters’ hair and I killed the chickens, and baked the biscuits and killed the chickens, swept the floor and killed the chickens.
Batting eyelashes at police when pulled over for speeding; “Charge the ticket to my looks!” She’d trill. Often it worked. She was after all, beautiful. When I tried that, the cops stared back and said please step out of the vehicle. Someone will have to pick you up. You have only a learner’s permit. And a flat chest,—not a beauty, not like her.
But when my mother went back to school minoring in political science,—at 11 years old, I analyzed narratives of h. rap brown, wrote her college papers, cut my hair off to grow into an afro to look like Angela Davis. I was glad her teeth were apart like mine. So, I take it back, I’d come back as my mama’s kid, papa too, raised me right, made us march in protests, take African dance, my father an autodidact, became community activist, schooled me on feminism.
And I realized there never was such thing as southern black belle, at first survival of the abductions, ashes rising from middle passage, sacrificial suicides, then as now, we were fighting for our lives, in Chicago in Detroit, Los Angeles, Harlem then as now, Ferguson, Staten Island, South Carolina, fighting for our lives.
I could eat barbecued turkey butt, milk a cow, kick the chinquapins, hop over snakes and tolerate the outhouse, when we visited the Louisiana farm—but my soul as a little southern girl always with Dr King, our sisters in Alabama, nine church members in South Carolina, where there we are, there am I.
Moved to a town in upstate New York where the national bird is a guitar, spin so fast, trees exchange color with sky, Age of Aquarius kaleidoscope and like that, transported to upper Haight before Betsy Johnson invasion and Starbucks citadel,
But under the right kind of moon back in San Fran, I’ll dance under what is left of the Sequoia Redwoods, nude as Oaxaca, fragile as black pottery, anoint my being with virgin olive oil, poured over my head, waving a thin wand of smoldering frankincense in figure eights to bronze sign of the infinity into my aura. I will hike through Golden Gate Park, looking for the sign that says Beware of Mountain Lions who attacked a hiker, that tore through his flesh, devoured his heart, as tenderest part. My friend Linda, who saw the same sign said screw that, screw you, California, hiking anyway. I close my eyes to mute the gang of naked elderly male cyclists hooting bear cubs, big pink bellies folding over the bike seats like oversized pocket books, grizzled beards, roaming wink as if rabid members of ZZ Top, on their ten speeds blaring PEG, by Steely Dan. I can stand, poised at the top of the park, and pretend that Donald Fagan is really Muddy Waters,
It is an odd dichotomy—Louisiana /California, who gives a who-shot john, the mason dixon line hopscotched border of Stanford and the Harlem of Silicon Valley, East Palo Alto, where pistols and gunfire dissolve New Year’s eve, and back in L’sana, grandfathers, cousins, uncles took down squirrel and possum and deer, with Smith and Wesson, but I was barricaded in a closet prepared to die with 40 students and teachers in a public school during lockdown over gun possession, this so common.
Did you know I am part church, bobcat,
in Isla de Margarita—in Venezuela eating arepas by dozens on beach street corners because they remind of her mother’s hot water cornbread. Find her—scowling in an affluent New York City restaurant at brunch, embarrassing quintet of artsy friends, looking in opposite directions, downing bloody Marys, as she summons the waiter take this back, whatever this is, because some arrogant New York chef, thought he had mastered grits—smothered with rubbery vegan cheese.
In the street, she is the moment history has atrophied, this is the sudden still frame the curling rope of embryo our ancestors envisioned jumping free like the milk cow leaping over the moon like the quartet of bare feet scaling over the unadorned wedding broomstick, but screaming
Hands up don’t shoot
Hands Up Don’t Shoot
She is poetry and crawdads, homemade gumbo yaya on your tongue, the touch of your hand on her bare knee, in that banged up car, years ago, when you caressed her thicket. She is tang of Aretha Franklin, limbs of the possum upside down. She is her mother and sisters
Take this bowl of clear water and put it by your bed to ward off spirits
Hold the cup towel: now throw it in the air and catch it. to avoid company coming to visit,
Put this knife under the mattress to cut the pain of your periods
Under the pillow,—not a tooth, but place a piece of paper with the word—why
The real Sojourned, maneuvers elbows harelipped with exhaust from truth telling, Who has her ear to the hidden ancestral graves everyone marches over in New York, whose father’s limbs swung precariously over the Golden Gate Bridge that paid for a brand new 3-speed purple bike with flowers and basket, but she remembers only feeling the wind in her face as she pedals.
says nigger is jawbone of the ass, I will swing back to split you in half,
She is fierce love in the cauldron, the antelope play, dog tooth broke on a coke bottle, balling the jack in juke joints, urinating on the race-card until it disappears, she is round midnight @ high noon, steady red soil under your most visceral impulse to dance, every reason you wake in the middle of the night pounding your pillow; rock steady, baby, let’s call this song exactly what it is
This is what it means to love me, but you couldn’t do it, could you. Girl, you had that coming, father’s voice breaks from the grave. You flung them pearls.
You don’t even know how to spell my name. you said. You don’t know me. Yes you, I mean you. How can I deny the first nations, among the marsh and bushwillows, would dive naked like my father did, pull your head to my navel. Appalachia comes easily, but you won’t know, unraveled umbilical that pressed her lips to your voice in a dream when you cried Don’t leave me
fuck, fuck fuck,
And when the magnolia comes, only once a year if the frost does not kill them, plummeted dead leaves and flowers resemble bones disintegrating in early spring, but if they come, come, before crab apples descend on soft grass, when the first pink bloom of magnolia rain down on her wild thing of hair, she cries, she cries, was never reluctant,
for she has never left.