Saturday, August 12, 2017

America is Mine: Claiming the Black Soil

A part of me is always at war. I accept it. There's no way to escape fact. My American life, black, woman, queer, and unbowed wakes each morning sure that while the sun shines into my eyes, I will have to assert verbally or bodily, my right to walk this land freely, without encumbrance, without imposition, and without permission.

This is new, accepting the war's physicality. Since second grade, when I worked myself into a headache in Mrs. Wilson's Pine Bluff Arkansas classroom, wondering how I had already formed the opinion that the wealthy and nameless white girl's spit was more pure than Katrina Ramsey's broke-ass black spit, I understood the psychological attack against my identity (no lie).  I sat analyzing that cognitive dissonance at seven.  I sat and thought back to first grade and to the red-haired farm worker girl with freckles who smelled of wind and lettuce.  She'd arrived late in the school year and spoke no English.  She stayed a few weeks, then left.  We never learned her name and she never learned ours, yet I had in the depths of my understanding, at six, in the mist-soaked valleys of Oxnard California, ranked her below the long-haired white girl with the perfumed Avon broaches, the girl the boys, black, white and brown chased around the black top during boys chase girls.  I accepted a vanquishing, at seven.  I hadn't known how it happened.  I knew only that it was there, somewhere inside me and that Mama had us coloring the white kids in the library books black (not brown) didn't matter one bit.  This psychic onslaught against my blackness would forever require resistance.  Fine. Forward. Battle on.

Mama and Tatum, two vanquished revolutionaries, who'd bought into the promise of civil rights integrationism, walked away, their bodies in tact, from the guns and bank bombings and police shoot outs and communist affiliations.  They ushered us into the suburbs and a hope for us in this land. They had left their dusty homeland in Arkansas and bought a piece of an American future in California.  

They worked double-time to infuse us with a sense of psychic wholeness.  At five, we I sat at the kitchen table, staring at a map, "This is Ethiopia. Their king, Menelik, fought the Italians out of his country.  This is who we are." They taught us that who America said we were, we were not.  America saw us as former slaves, clowning and begging and sexing and buck-dancing our way in and through the sooty margins of its mainstream/white society.  Yet, we knew ourselves not as marginal people, but round and whole and complicated and pretty and lacking and prideful and gentle and generous and low-down. That we knew.  The psychic battle, we accepted and fought on--though I know my brothers acquiesced at a point, decided it best to be an American nigger than to be alone.  I chose to be alone, save my junior year of high school (God forgive me).  I bounced back, refusing to bow to the American nigger consciousness.  I resisted the psychosis, or so I thought.  I had determined to be free of the thing that I, at seven, had thought most threatening.

And forty-two years later, a new thing has emerged: America belongs to me too. This land -- its rocks and water and air and trees -- is mine. For forty-eight years, I have planted my feet in places more solidly than in others.  I have brushed against the leaves of trees more heartily in Arkansas and Georgia than in Yosemite and Monterey.  I have adopted a segregated notion of my physical belonging that has, in essence, denied me the full gift of my birthright.  I belong everywhere.

I write the natural world into all my works because it my heritage.  Writing of the African diaspora reflects the cosmological notion that the trees and soil and water and air and stars have as much to say as any character in any story.  When my parents, children of a southern agrarian culture, migrated to California, they brought with them an adoration for the natural world.  They gave it to us:  we camped in Yosemite every summer.  We wound our green sleeper van around the curves and crashing waves at Big Sur. We fished. We hiked. We swam. We planted. We noticed.

Wherever we ventured, Mama remarked on how the whitefolx stared at us, as if we didn't belong.  "Why they everywhere?"  she asked.  "Can't we go somewhere where they not?"  Mama, defensively racist, wanted to feel the same freedom at Yosemite that she felt on Black Lake, behind her family home in Arkansas.  She spoke a resistance to their presumptive glares.  Their eyes shot at us messages, messages that made her uncomfortable.  Their eyes said the land belonged to them and not us.  The lie.

Over the last seven years I have visited Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Monterey, Point Lobos and hiked trails through the redwoods and along the California coast.  Something has changed.  My last trip to Tahoe I watched the Latino folx walking the sidewalks along King's Beach and thought what a trick of history that these beautiful brown people have been made to feel like visitors on this land that once belonged to them.  They do not own the cabins along the water's edge.  The cabins belong to the people who believe the history of this land began once they killed enough people to claim it as theirs. I will forever resist that untruth.

My friends and I rent a cabin from a wealthy white woman when we visit and we stretch our necks to connect eyes with other black and brown folx wading in the lake's gentle waves.  Each year, more of us appear.  My last two trips to Yosemite, I noticed the population shift:  busloads of East Indian tourists disembark beside the mademoiselles and frauleins.  Latino families cookout beside Merced Creek.  Black families snap photos of El Capitan.  I now feel more at home under the same trees I had stood under in 1980.  The stares matter little now because we are more and we are over here and over there.  We have begun, I have begun to walk here, in this America as if it belongs to me because I know it does.  

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Toure Killed the Snake

Chapter 31

I was five when we tried to stutter away from Oxnard after Mama locked Tatum out for drinking beer and shooting pool at Elmo’s all night.  I didn’t feel too sure of anything rattling down I-20 in that raggedy beige Volvo; but, we made it all the way to the Arizona desert before deciding to turn back.  Toure had caught a fever the morning after we slept under a billion stars.  Mama said she expected I’d get sick next.

Between the fever and the dark night and squint of an open road closing ahead of us, Mama decided to turn back to Tatum and Oxnard.  Sleeping with Mama and Toure in the desert alone felt like a partial achievement.  Neither had we made it back home, nor had we made a good decision about what to do; but something about that car night in the desert sealed me and Mama and Toure tight.

I had never slept in a car before—but we had pulled to the side of the road and Mama told us real life stories and then some about spaceships and goblins.  I stared up at the sky watching for a light from an alien Mama said she’d read about some place.  “They say they’re in the desert,” she said.  Our leave had started with an end in sight.  I didn’t care if I had to fight a ship of cone-heads to get back to Arkansas.  That’s where I wanted to go.  Me and Toure couldn’t ever pretend we didn’t love to go home.  At that age neither of us gave a shit about California.  We stood as allies.  And when Mama turned us around after our night in the desert to take Toure back to a doctor, in Oxnard, I hunched in the back seat of that clanky Volvo and cried and cried making sure Mama couldn’t hear my sobs.
Mama rushed Toure to Dr. Jones.  She and Tatum would split pretty good again in 1975.  We left for Arkansas for real this time.  Me, Mama, Toure and new baby Kiye flew into Little Rock with Granddaddy’s trunk packed with just enough for us to start a new life in the backwoods, on Jean Street.

Henry Webb picked us up at Little Rock’s tiny airport with the hermit crab tower.   LAX was a spider; Dallas, three to four football fields and Little Rock favored a crustacean in an oddly squared shell.

“Which-there one of these children-there, gone ride up front here?”  Mama grew up with Henry Webb always in the background.  He was Granddaddy’s friend from the old days and he had a peculiar speech impediment.  Toure opened his eyes up at Granddaddy’s old hunting friend.

“Come on here-there Tater.  You ride my shotgun.”  I leaned into Mama’s underarm in the backseat.  Kiye snugged into her other arm.  She wrestled side to side with the whole weight of his milked-up sleeping body.  I wriggled myself into her fluffy stomach.  She adjusted her elbow, then drew us closer.
* * *

I had dropped Kiye at the Greyhound station and headed to Mama’s after breakfast with Amalia and Menen.

Finally!  I had Mama in the room.  “Tell her, Toure!  Didn’t you kill that snake that day?” Fifteen years it took me to remember to ask her while we were all in the same room. I knew I was right!  I had to correct Mama; Toure cleared it up.

“I killed the snake, Ma.”  He said it easy as air.
I jumped like the little girl who had seen the whole scene.  “Told you, Mama!  I told you!”  I didn’t misremember shit.

Mama still didn’t believe me.  She started blinking real fast and searched the ceiling of her Oakland duplex for her mixed up memory.  She had come in from the kitchen and sat caddy-corner from me and Toure on the couch.  Amalia and Menen played gin rummy on the floor in front of the television.  Amalia chuckled while Menen roiled and kicked the floor; they spread their cards out in fans against the slick dark wood floors.  Amalia yelled, “Gin!”

Mama still didn’t believe me.  She shook her head.  “Uh uhnnn, Ta.  I… I killed the snake.  How come I’m not remembering that right?  I’m getting old. … Tell me how it went.”  All this time Mama knew she had killed the snake.

I told it just like I remembered:

“You came to pick us up at Grandma’s.  We knew we had it coming the minute we jumped off the bus.”

Before we disembarked and the bus bumped down the rode past Miss Hoover’s, down to the projects, Toure and I swore a whoopin pledge.  No turning coat today; we both go down.

Right or left.  Me and Toure kept dedicated to our pact. That round-belly white man humped opened the door lever to the long yellow bus--right in front of Grandma’s silver mailbox.  Mama had told us we better turn left.  She told us to walk across that snake- ridden field, past Louden’s to the left and past the abandoned Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist on the right, past Miss Williams’ porch, down Jean Street, over the last ditch and into that empty house beside our big rectangle yard with brown crunchy grass.  Mama had rented the two-bedroom house from Granddaddy’s old gambling partner, Mr. Cleavis.  Two bedrooms was more than enough for us; we slept in a big big bed in the back most days because we was so spooked on that black dark street most nights.  Me, Mama, Toure and baby Kiye all slept in the same bed until that one night I broke away and slept alone in the front room in my brand new red silky Chinese pajamas Tatum had sent me along with a fan and a straw doll named Lola.

We thought Mama had left Tatum for good this time.  He sent us money every month and even left his fellowship at Yale to come spend Christmas with us and take us to Grandmother Tatum’s farm down in Camden.  

That snake-killing day me and Toure had colluded with each other before the bus stopped to drop off Arthur and his little sisters.  Grandma’s stop was next.

Toure whispered like Mama might hear us from her student-teaching over at UAPB.  “We not going to Jean Street.”

That was easy, “Ok.”  I said.  We both knew we would get a beat down.  But Mama didn’t never do much of nothing to us, but holler.  Scream to make us do right.  Just like Granddaddy used to would do when anything was out of place.

We stepped off the bus and turned right.  The tease of the curving cement walkway to the front door called us.  From inside, Kiye, peered out the glass slats, banging his baby bottle.  We jumped over the ditch and floated down Grandma’s walkway.

Mama’s remembering bits now.  “I had told y’all to stop tramping over there bothering Miss Ann.  Her and Daddy had all them folks at home and Mama was already keeping Kiye.  Boney and Rap and Dutch and Keet and here come Tariq on Saturdays.  That was too much.”

The threat of Mama’s strident tongue edged us into doing what she said most days; but some days we just couldn’t.  That snake-killing day, we had decided to take a fussing or an ass whooping.  Mama, like everybody in the Thorns house, handled cussing words better than most.  Her licks didn’t amount to much but ass-naked humiliation—but her verbals … “What I tell you little gal?” OOOhhhh … might as well stab me.  It was a breakdown when Mama went off.  We preferred her punkish licks to a tongue slaying any day.  We had made a decision.

“There go Grandma’s babies.  Tater and Ta-lee.  Y’all come on in here with Ma’am ma.”  Grandma was in her privacy, her legs folded under her bottom on her corner of the couch, re-reading her Honest Detective magazine.   Kiye tumbled his jingling big-headed toy clown across her off-white linoleum he had scuffed and banged with his heavy white corrective shoes all day.

Me and Toure stood at her door, bucking our eyes into our please Grandma performance.  We knew Grandma loved us like crazy and treated us special because Mama was her special girl who she felt guilty about even though Mama had absconded us all the way to California.  Our time together was a treat for everybody, except for Mama.  We couldn’t never figure Mama’s relation to Home.  Most days Pine Bluff wasn’t nothing special to Mama.  She went back and forth.  Back and forth we went with her.  Wasn’t until way later that we learned why:  Mama tussled with a coldness in her heart for home since a cool autumn night in 1965.  I remember her strange remark about Alice Walker leaving Spelman, “When something bad happens to you in a place, you don’t want to stay in it too long.  It doesn’t feel right anymore.”  1965 had changed everything for Mama.  Funny how you know your Mama but you don’t really know your Mama.

Grandma set me and Toure up in the kitchen with three stale overpriced sugar cookies from Alexander’s and a bowl of lime sherbet to finish before Mama stepped through the door to pick up Kiye.

Grandaddy came in through the side door.  “Look who here, Odail.” I prayed, hoping Mama’d miss her ride.  She was always on time.  Please, be tardy.  Just this once.  From the outside, Mama might appear laxed about expectations.  But from the inside, I knew her as particular about many things:  food, lilies, books and time.  Took forever for Mama’s reasons to make sense to me; she had reasons though, that she didn’t never talk to us about.

“Y’all keep walking home from the bus.  Leave Miss Ann and Daddy alone. Find something to do.  It’s some Total in the cabinet.  I know y’all got some schoolwork to get done.  And please, don’t drink up all the milk.”  She expected me and Toure to walk to the backwoods and sit and be miserable alone on Jean Street while everybody else hung close at Grandma’s house.

Granddaddy worked across the street at the maintenance yard.  He had been splitting wood and building houses since way back in Stephens and by the time we came back to live in Pine Bluff from Oxnard, Granddaddy was managing the maintenance crew at AM and N.

“Maintenance.”  He answered the shop phone the summers Aunt Boney made me or Toure call over to ask for a quarter to buy a purple drank for lunch.

“Ya’ll know Mama and Daddy won’t tell y’all no.  Smiling but half mad and half envious Aunt Boney, in her before All My Children summertime house robe, pointed at Toure, then me,  “These jokers could get away with murder.  Mama would make any excuse for them.  Call Daddy and ask him for some dranks, Ta.”  She dialed the yard and shoved the phone in my hand.

“Daddy, can we come get a drank for lunch?”  A drank meant three.  A split between me, Toure, Keesha, Aunt Boney and Uncle Rap.  All I had to do was skip across the yard past Brutus, over the ditch, through the wrought iron gate, into the maintenance yard and into Granddaddy’s shop, erected in 1975.  The progressive convenience of Granddaddy’s cross-the-street work-space had meant a razing of Professor Haley’s old house that had haunted the woods between Black Lake and Jane Oliver Housing Projects.  With the razing went the window Uncle Rap, Mama’s baby brother, had last escaped through.  Mr. Haley repeatedly summoned Rap to sing his favorite “Danny Boy” over and over again; he convinced him with a quarter. Rap said he couldn’t sing one more note of “Danny Boy” for Mr. Haley, so through the window he dove, scraping his britches and slitting his shin as he tumbled into a righteous blackberry bramble.

The soda machine glimmered all summer and everyday we chose either a red drank or a purple one to eat alongside our fried pressed ham sandwiches with sandwich spread and light bread.
Grandma started us with the pressed ham at the summer’s start:  “Y’all gone in there and fix you some pressed ham sandwich.”

Me and Toure echoed Mama’s summer directive, “Grandma, we can’t eat no pork.  We don’t eat ham.”

“Awh, Ta-lee, that’s not ham.  It’s pressed ham.  Y’all can go ahead and eat that.”

“Okay, Grandma.”  We dined on pressed ham sandwiches all summer long.

That snake-killing day in 1976, Granddaddy came in and set me in his lap, a lit Pall Mall dangling from his lips. The smell of sawdust and iron emanated from his skin.  “Come here, Mama.”  He got straight to the point, “You get your lesson?”  Our conversation looped.

“Yessir.” I never knew what lesson he was talking about.  Just knew it had to do with school.

“Yessir.”  I got my lesson all day.  Had a headache to prove it.  Granddaddy had pulled me away from my sherbet and one remaining stale sugar cookie.   He perched me on his lap while he finished his cigarette and wiped the spread of papers along Grandma’s side table for the evening paper. Just as I started to want to rescue my sherbet, Mama walked through the unlocked front door.

“Hey, here!”  She hollered at first, not knowing Granddaddy was home already.  Then she glimpsed his tool belt hanging on the wall and flinched her shoulders.  “I mean, oops.”  Mama scanned the scene to figure out how to act.  I pretended not to hear her.  She dropped her leather bag near the door.

“Ta, leave Daddy alone.  I guess Toure here too.”  I heard the “Got-damnit” in her tone.  Grandma came through the door from the dining room.  Kiye sat on the floor rolling his big-headed clown.

“Doris, that you?”

“Miss Ann, I told them to stop coming up here bothering you.”

In her serious, deep voice, “Aw, child, them children ain’t bothering nobody.  Thems my Grands.”  Between Mama and Grandma and Granddaddy, I could never figure nothing.  Their words didn’t mean nothing.  They spoke in puzzles beneath everything.  Half the time what I figured was wrong, so I stopped figuring and sifted through to the good stuff. All I knew was how it felt in Granddaddy’s lap, in Grandma’s house.  They were mine.  I was theirs.

“Come on y’all chillen. Let’s go.  Toure, wrap Kiye up. Let’s make haste.”  Mama didn’t sound mad at all.  We had gotten away with it.

“Doris, don’t y’all want a ride?”  Grandma looked at Granddaddy’s still face that had turned to the evening paper.

“No ma’am.  By the time anybody get keys, we’ll be home.  Mama, I’ll bring you your money for Kiye on Thursday.”

“Ok, Doris, but don’t worry yourself with that, child.”  Mama paid Grandma ten dollars a week to watch Kiye while she finished her degree and student teaching at UAPB.  The money made her feel like less of a burden on Grandma.

We gathered our jackets and lunch boxes and Kiye’s diaper bag and headed across Spruce Street onto the path across the field to the backwoods.

“Let’s go the quick way, Mama.”  Toure hated waiting for anything.  He insisted we take the dirty path out of sight and away from the dry openness of the broad yellow field separating Grandma’s house from the backwoods.  I didn’t like the dirty route because it was wet, nearer a swamp and a mound of trash dumped by everybody from Mr. Vick to Fuzzy and Eddie.  It was surrounded by high bushes and smelled of rot and burning tin.  I didn’t protest but eyed Mama’s face for which way to go.

“Alright, but let’s be quick.”  She said shifting Kiye onto her hip, then wiping the spittle from his mouth.  “Come on ya’ll.  Walk fast.”

Toure led the way.  The deeper we walked onto the muddy path, out of sight of anyone on either side, the heavier my shoes.  My heart quickened as I lifted my feet through the swampy trail.  Toure hurried ahead of us and Mama pulled up the rear with Kiye dripping spit into his baby bag.  She stopped to shift him to the other side, “Dog, this boy is heavy.”  I turned back.

“I can carry the bag, Mama.”  I said.
“Nah, I got it Ta.  Just keep moving; we’ll be home in a second.”  She said that and from the front Toure suddenly gasped and hiccupped.  Both the arms of his blue jean coat flew out to hold us back.
Frozen, he whispered, “Stop, don’t move.”  Me and Mama stiffened behind him.  Kiye gurgled then widened his eyes.
“What boy?  What is it?”  Mama was half mad.
“It’s a snake Ma.”
“Don’t say that.  Shit.  Shhhhhhh.  Don’t move.”  Mama dropped the diaper bag and handed me Kiye.  “Where is it?”
“Right there, under that leaf.”  Toure held his place and slowly raised his finger, pointing out the huge black moccasin in brush in front of us.  “See?”
My heart pounded in my chest and I felt a coldness come over me.  I wanted to run, but couldn’t move.
Now is where Mama’s memory got confused.  But I know what happened:
“Move real slow, son.  You see that plank?”
“Uhn huh.”
“Get on your tippy toes and pick it up.”  Mama talked as slow and soft as she could.  Kiye wondered at her face.  The snake, long and shiny began to uncoil beneath the bush.  Toure twisted his torso, then leaned backward to grab the plank.  “Now, you gone lift it up and drop it on it.  You got one shot, son.  You hear?”

“Uhn huh.”  Toure did precisely what Mama told him.  In a second the plank, more leaden than it first appeared was above his head, his fingers gripping both sides.  He raised it a bit higher, drew in his breath, and squeezed his left eye shut.

“One, two, three.”  Mama counted with him … BAM!
The plank splat into mud under the bush.  The snake sliced into two writhing halves.  The black open-mouthed head flew toward me.  The other half double-dutched from the ground and up two feet; the tail slung into Mama’s black slacks.    

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!  Run, run runnnnnn!”  Mama leapt to grab Kiye and screamed in the same second.  We kicked mud and grey leaves and rusty cans at full speed up the rest of the shitty trail past Mt. Nebo, past Miss Williams’ empty porch, up Jean Street, over the ditch, and onto our porch.  Once we landed, Mama plopped Kiye onto the porch below a front window and turned to collapse into the white wooden swing that hung from the ceiling.  We all huffed and huffed more.  We caught our breath.  Me and Toure caught each other’s eyes and started giggling between ourselves.  Mama picked it up and one big giggle took over the porch.  Mama fingered her pocket for her keys.  Kiye focused his wide brown eyes into her face and said nothing.

Toure confirmed my memory.  “That’s what I remember, Ma.  I killed the snake.”
“How in the world could my mind make up a completely different story?”  Mama’s eyes scanned the room in search of a trickster.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Primer for Bay Negroes: Chronicle One

It's Sunday.  The fatigued 30 year old, black mother sits in the underground train station, dank and wet with midnight San Francisco air.  She leans into her bike, regrets riding it down the hill to work.  After work, the uphill dig looms in her mind, in her muscles, she recalls the ache from that last mile.

Behind her, an Asian boy, in big jeans and Raiders cap is wrapped around his girl.  She plays with his knee.

-- Why you was looking at that nigga so hard?  he says.
She, -- You trippin nigga.

The black mother's hands turn cold.  Her mind speeds into making sense here.  Who is their nigga subject? Is he black?  Is he their friend?  Is he a schoolmate?  Is he Asian?  Is this alright?  She wants the warmth of her limbs to circle back.

She crosses into where she can make it alright. Correct the chill.
To herself, -- they're from Oakland where Asians are niggas too.  Everybody wants to be a nigga in Oakland.  They are as much out of town as I am, here in San Francisco.  Their family is new to the country.  They don't know nothing about niggas feet smoldering at the foot of dogwood trees.  Their nigga is not your nigga.  Don't be hurt. They are wandering, here, and Oakland generates its niggas in the first generation.  Sense.

She holds her bike erect and stands to move.  Her lips force a smile.  She spots a bench, two white bears in lumberjacks and work boots lean into each other.

Fading military tattoos show beneath the tight creases at their elbows. They are hairy and their skin rough.  The taller one's hand steadies the back of the other.  They are drunk.

She is tired, so she sits. She nods hello and waits for her train.  Two minutes flashes over the marquee.  Fremont train, two minutes.  The train will carry her under the Bay, back to Oakland, the city a friend said was --wall-to-wall niggas.  Oakland is soft to her.  She can walk through all of Oakland those street niggas don't ever bother her or her daughters.  Those street niggas know the story of black mothers and children alone.  They watch out for her.

A breeze rises and the train's horn signals to her, you will be home soon.  She's better.

Behind her the bigger bear asks his lover, "You liked that nigger, didn't you?"

She cannot believe her fortune.  She is cold again.  These these two muscled men will have to pay for it all.  The cold fires from her mouth.

--You two bitches,  who you calling nigger?
Their slow drunken sorry-s do nothing.

She is cold again, struggling to grip her bike's handlebars onto the train.

"Fremont train to West Oakland Bart."

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