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by Lisa Braxton
On car rides down I-95
When my feet barely crested the edge of the back seat
I asked you why we didn’t live Down South
Instead of Up North
We wouldn’t be in the car eight hours getting there
To see our kin.
The ones who talked real slow
And said “y’all” and “fixin’” and “flustrated”
And “tarred” when they wanted to get some sleep.
The ones who sat in house dresses on the front porch
Rocking on metal-framed floral-cushioned lawn couches
As they held onto fly swatters they’d forgotten to leave in the kitchen.
Turning their heads until they almost broke
At the sight of an ambulance going by.
Then talking about it all evening
Until the lightning bugs came out.
You held loose onto the steering wheel
Looked at me through the rear-view mirror
Your eyes twinkling and simply told me
“Your mother and I wanted a better life.”
When my feet almost touched the footwell you told me what a better life was—
A place where a white playmate wasn’t your best buddy after school
Then got on his school bus the next morning, threw rocks at you and called you a N______
As you waited for your bus to your own school
The one with worn books and grades merged in one classroom.
A place where you didn’t have to go to the back door of the restaurant to order a meal.
Where you didn’t have to step off the sidewalk for “Miss Ann” and “Miss Kate” coming in your
And keep your eyes lowered as they passed you.
A place I could not fathom.
Years after my feet reached the brake and gas pedals easily
I took my own car ride
Not venturing Down South
But staying Up North
In my own neighborhood
Got chased by a driver I accidentally cut off.
Got called a N_______,
Practically got run off the road.
by Martha Darr
Dear elder dark ones
space is at a premium
no vaccine for you
The Fabric of Our Cosmos
by M.A. Dennis
I’m not trying to be fly no more.
All that stuff doesn’t matter….
Chanel, Fendi and Gucci
don’t mean crap right about now.
– Trina Marshall
Facebook post, 4/8/2020, 4:48 pm, Pandemic Standard Time
The devil is a
What a lie
making you believe
you had to try
to be fly.
you be fly
you stay fly
there is no try
I put that on Baby Yoda.
she makes the clothes;
the clothes don’t make her.
Black woman, Chanel
serves at your pleasure.
You make Fendi trendy.
ain’t nuthin but a double G
thang playing backwards—
that sound like satan to me.
Monogram designers say:
The devil is in the
a Black woman’s pants
only need pockets (not names)
to be on fiyah.
Beauty Shop Rock
by Tsebiyah Mishael Derry
on the west side highway
on a thursday
suddenly I smelt
a familiar smell
of silky smooth
thick white cream
sweet on vision and
in its practice
swift with its fine-toothed partner
commanding the kinks
to straighten out
and stand down.
In the shop
the comforting clatter
of robust rolling R's and
thick T's and fat A's slide out
from the mouths above me. laughter
fills the air and
blow dryers scream their sleepy howls
beneath me the seat sticks to my
thighs and hair wisps its strands
in front of my eyes.
I hold my head against the pull
of an intimidating
the world whizzes by and the street stays the same as it changes
the evening drops
a lady mops
I look in the mirror and stare
at my unlucky
on the west side highway
I was grateful for the strength
Myrtilla "Betsy" Ross Puts God Before Country
by Ron Dowell
by Ron Dowell
by Langston Epps
My great-great grandfather does not have a wikipedia page
But the man who owned him does.
I am a child of greenery and blackness.
Asphalt and lawns, skin and the sea.
This is the warm salt of my polluted blood, that dominates the surf
And runs in the gutters like filth after a storm.
The streets are an ocean.
I was drowning, but I kept my head down until I learned to breathe water.
Gulls in the sun, blindingly white.
They harried me, but I buried myself in the sand and concrete.
Now when they look for me above the surface all they find is their reflection in the waves.
And when they think they’ve spotted me,
I vanish into a shimmer of heat off the blacktop.
by Ozzýka Farah
I wish I could go back
to Sacramento wintertime
life was easier then.
waking up an hour early
grabbing the comb to pick through
knots & kinks made flat by not enough sleep
putting unwrinkled clothes in the dryer
warming them; what I most looked forward to.
Mother dearest is ready for work in her Monday best;
loose, colourful scrubs with birds printed on them
my grandmother is alive frying dead livestock
with southern grace. We talk briefly but never
long enough, I forget to thank her for everything
anyone could ever be thankful for.
I have come to associate bacon grease
sizzling in the skillet to our unconscious sacred
morning rituals. Sleepwalk scramblings in the dark,
the light being too painful for strained eyes & dilated pupils,
hellogoodbyes, lopsided afros, & loose-fitting garments.
Clothing was baggy then; we carry baggage now –
it is even heavier.
To someone who has never lived anywhere else,
California can be so damned cold in the morning
the golden rays break dawn down in layers
filtering out bruised purples & beat up blues
the sun is just a striptease,
it only makes getting out of bed harder.
I used to walk the morning skye or hop the fence when the neighbour
was not looking.
Walking to school to unlearn
trying to find traction through the fields of frost-bitten
grass on the way to school
the sand track of the adjacent middle school
tracks sand in-
between the nooks & crannies of my outsoles
on this particular morning, it is still dark & eerie; my nose spills,
I use my sleeve to wipe, I tuck my red ear inside my beanie.
Kids meet early at the top of the park, huddle in a circle
for a blunt before first period – they will be back before lunch
Tyree (the other one) would steal vodka from his father's
cupboard & take homemade jerky from the trays of the dehydrator
I ate meat then, so we would eat & drink like Vikings
during class unbeknownst to the teacher who spoke of
Steinbeck, spoke of Fitzgerald, spoke of Salinger.
In early spring comes the blossoming
of the callery pear that produces the scent of spermatozoa
it is supposed to symbolise fertility & new life, apparently.
Ironically, Sacramento is where dreams go to die
where they are never born in the first place.
Sevon tells me poets turn life into art - he admires that;
I admire him because he has been through hell in his head
poets put their hell on a page, critics define it as fine art – canonise it
I put his hell aside, I cannot let myself think of it.
It is not that I miss this place at all
I miss who I once was
at that time, in that place
in a space where no amount of cow's milk
will make you grow big & strong
Sacramento suffocates when you become
too big for the fishbowl or too tall for the ceiling
I died in this town. My ghost is still there, miserable & cold
though it is not cold unless you are from Sacramento.
by Raihana Haynes-Venerable
“I was drugged at the football house” the white girl
whispered in my communal living space, smell of weed
emanating from the hotboxed bathroom on the side of the kitchen
there are no tears but pain seeps through her pores
in beads of sweat that leak into the couch cushions—
previously stained by unanswered questions, hormones, blackouts.
I remember how he pushed my head down,
palmed my skull like a football
the taste of his cum and my stomach acid
held between my cheeks,
in the bathroom there are no tears
“I was drugged at the football house” she says again
and I wonder if this couch trapped similar secrets.
She was the first to approach me — over ten more
came forward later, we had a meeting
in a classroom where I sit on the floor as women
replay their own personal horror stories
for a room full of people too ashamed to look
in eachothers eyes,
midway through two football players walk in
say, “we want to help” say, “we think its wrong”
say, “what can we do” — I am hesitant to
speak because I am only anger.
The players are Black, I know them well enough
they are freshmen not much power — yet
change is slow, a professor in the room explains
“this has persisted for twenty five years”
the men want us to find solutions to problems
they are more equipped to solve
the women are still mourning what has been stripped
from them, from the women sitting next to them,
from the women outside the room.
I speak with one of the players alone in the
classroom after everyone else has left,
a strong voice indeed, kind mild mannered
Southern Christian man, I am only a few years
his senior but there is no authority here
“druggin’ girls? that’s some white boy shit” he says with a stern seriousness,
he is confident in his conviction
that somehow Black men are immune to misogyny.
When do we stop looking at the few rotten apples
and begin to examine the roots of the whole God damn orchard?
A week later the football team and Project S.A.F.E
chalk the quad with platitudes, a phallic hopscotch sketch,
“solidarity” - “trust” - “survivors” scattered on concrete
so visible, so vocal, a ploy to be witnessed
when I see him, I can feel my stomach churn, seeking an escape,
liquid comes up my esophagus and I taste him in my mouth again.
He smiles, his braids shake as he skips around the quad,
he slaps a teammate on the ass, grabs a piece of chalk and writes
“we are here for you.”
by Nailah Mathews
my grandmother lived in a lagoon of silt
between the nine middle west winds, somewhere
around zephyr four-point-five-nine.
this was a woman who ate stone plums for pleasure
who made mosaics from bones and vomit, who had
enough hands to shove all her husbands down the stairs
my mother was born east of magic,
spoke only in verbs until she became a woman
and when that moon came, the sky opened up.
she received one nut for each wish the world made
she baked pies with them, made the
houseblockneighborhood smell like
hope for the future.
i was born south of no-man’s land,
no more than handful and a half of miles from isiscyra
my mother touched a screw on the railroad tracks
forty-five days before she got fat in the belly and
it still did not protect her from me.
her granddaughter is a keloid scar on my retina.
she walks in phalanx formation.
she has electric cheekbones, she is vulpine at the dinner table.
she is the miracle of girlhood savagery.
5th Avenue Kings Fruit & Vegetables, Brooklyn
by Jamal Michel
*Series Editors' Poetry Pick
Is where I was conceived as an idea, maybe at first
by the ripened tomatoes or in the spaces left between
newly stocked yogurt cups—
one such cup picked up by a young stud
from Port-au-Prince who thought to take it to the Indian girl
at check out, until he checked out
and never asked for her number the first time
but thought better the next, only thing was
he needed at least four more cups of yogurt
to make it a full conversation.
Did they pick my name at the register?
Or did my being float about their innocuous phone calls?
Or perhaps in the unkempt lawn of their first home in Sylmar, CA?
Or it certainly must have happened upon them all at once, at Olive View
hospital, a brown boy swaddled in a blanket caught in their branches.
Seeing Oscar Grant at the Movie Theater
by Jamal Michel
Your son, like mine, was unarmed at the time he was killed by a law enforcement officer.
No words can ever assuage the pain we feel as parents when our precious children are
taken away from us in such a violent, senseless manner.
—Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother
His daughter was old enough to walk by his side
and not atop his shoulders, but he wrapped his arm
around her like he did her mother
It was their date night
She pointed to the poster next to them,
the one with jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie
and he proceeded to fashion his own trombone
from thin air, her face reddened, and he
ever the star
ever the show
did a number, while no one watched
She raised her phone to capture him still
and he smiled wide, like in all his photos,
his laugh lines worn down further with each grin
And he paid for the soda
And she paid for a candy bar
His phone rang before they made it to their theater
and I heard, just as he passed me, him in a low and assured voice
whisper to the receiving end of the single
most important call in the world, say
I’ll tell you all about it
When First I Heard My Mother Scream
by Jamal Michel
“They used to take pregnant women and dig a hole in the ground and jut their stomachs in it and whip them. They tried to do my grandma that way.”
—Arkansan Marie Hervey, who lived on the Hess plantation in Tennessee.
If Autumn a howling, sucking wind
then it was around that time
There, a scent calling the flies
to Southern fruit
Fertile soil, caked to my mother’s belly,
a divot made in my image
Hands from the field, the stuff of crust
at the bottom of their pots
Blood curdling from my mother’s
gullet, stuck to my basal skin, my blood
She named me Death,
called out to me by name, I know it
How the earth rocked, how it cradled
My father sediment, held me close
and covered my ears
My mother sank her teeth into him,
swallowed root and root and blood
The sun, a crescent a boiling
and cells make my eyes hurt
Turn my eyes slits, make holes
this divot, wholly her own
By Durell Thompson
My son has earthquakes in his
Heels. When he moves about the
apartment, he stomps so hard that the
Neighbor downstairs takes cover.
My Son with earthquakes in his
Toes, is 20 pounds--he
Is, according to the pediatrician
“Short and underweight”.
My son with earthquakes in
His feet love to eat crackers--
when he tells us that he wants a
cracker. The word
Cracker… creams and splits from
His mouth like warning sirens.
Immediately after the floor shakes:
he runs to the cabinet
And Bangs on the door
Until we comply:
I want to rename
his plate tectonics jr--
his mom disapproves.
My son has earthquakes
In his soles--
Makes him a prime
Target for scrutiny--
For example, the neighbor
Beat on the floor anytime
My son ran to the cabinet.
I told him, before he hung up in my face,
you can’t stop
So enjoy the ride--
How Jim interprets Basketball in a HOA lead community
by Durell Thompson
can be in a Lot (20') from the curb. Backboard must be perpendicular
And mounted on black metal. Portable basketball goals
In the street right-of-way must be painted or portable.
To be placed on any Lot, A Basketball Goal
Must be in Compliance with these restrictions.
Provision or any remedy costs and expenses will be collected by the association
By any means. Omission to comply violates the owner as a nuisance.
In such cases, the association will amended owners who fail injunction
With a declaration of collection chargeable by foreclosure or liens.
A remedy for basketball goal violation is including sums maintainable by
Applicable lawful, rates plus time and interest payable to The Association.
MAKING A TEE SHIRT QUILT FOR MY BLACK SONS
by Cynthia Robinson Young
*Series Editors' Poetry Pick
In step one you collect them one by one.
Beware; they tend to pile up rapidly.
You soon find out that one gives birth to many,
a ruler measuring your child’s growth.
Your memories are sweetly stored within them
like faded photographs with rips and frays.
Then one day you realize there are too many,
the closets and the drawers have overflowed.
The shirts, like years, have piled up way too quickly.
Your children have outgrown the ones they loved
Amassed like years your sons have quickly passed,
unaware that you’ve always been present,
not noticing the cotton of your touch.
In order to not let your sons go too soon,
you must progress onto the second step:
You gather shirts, and now with scissors sharp,
then cutting off the excess, leave its heart.
You must be careful not to cut too close,
And when the squares are cut, square upon square,
You lay them out to see what goes with what.
You want to have a faultless fit together,
though faded, shrunken, stained, some very used.
None of the shirts can be considered perfect
but they are paired now, like your sons will be.
So sew the imperfections all together.
Don’t mourn cut shirts and broken promises
But know the “good ole days” are every day.
New tee shirts will replace the ones you’ve cut.
The next step is the most important one.
A backing must be chosen to enfold
your sons with dreams of perfect parenthood,
a maternal nest of softness you create,
a womb where tags and stiff clothes don’t exist.
Now, sandwich cotton batting in-between,
a buffer against the coarseness of this life,
then sew with equal stitches time together,
your fingers pock- marked from quilt needles pushing
through layers of years of thick-headedness,
and finish with a binding that you bless.
At last the time has come! Release the quilt.
Release the days and hours that you’ve spent
and pray the seams can hold their lives together
And keep them from the harm the streets might bring,
the dangers from their Blackness, hovering.
SHE DIED BEFORE OBAMA
by Cynthia Robinson Young
-for my sister
Remember how she worked?
Left school when she was sixteen
at the factory she was always on time
General Electric wouldn’t have it any other way
punch in again
Foreman always watching
She hardly spoke back
or asked for a little respect
when foreign hands roamed
when icy blue eyes rested on her
a little too long
She never took days off
not even when we were sick
but called us during her lunch hour
and during her smoking break
to remind us to keep up the salt water rinse
and promised to make Campbell’s Chicken Noodle
when she got home at four
When she went on strike
and joined her friends in line,
in hopes of something better
for everyone in the house
depending on her
She did it with money
that insurance plan
she invested in
since we were little girls
hiding in the curtains
from the only white man we knew in a suit
who, once a month came to collect
those dollars she pocketed away
for her two daughters
Half orphaned at nine and fourteen
She made us go to college
She made us co-sign at the bank
told us to prepare
to pay it forward
then found a car
to drive us to the Ivy Towers
white landscaped more than black
white landscaped more than brown
white landscaped more than Newark
and advised us to return
made us promise to be somebody
kept saying Yes You Can
She died investing money
a few dollars here and there
pensions and retirement
riches written on paper
and tucked in the leather brown purse
that could burn up in an instant
if we didn’t grab it in a fire
She was always saving
dollars tucked inside bras
dollars hidden away from the men
because we never know how men can be
waiting for retirement
waiting for a chance to rest
from working two and three jobs
before she held
her ninth grandchild,
read to her tenth
and spoiled her eleventh
before she saw the ones
who looked the most like her
after she had buried
Her own mother
before she taught us
how to take her place
Before she taught us
how to stop weeping
how long will it take
to stop searching for her
in every brown mama face?
She died before
she taught us
How to bury the dead
when to bury the dead
to bury our mother.
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