"god’s brown face"

From the sureheaded playwright Lorraine Hansberry to genius Afroharpist Alice Coltrane, from lunch ladies who make monkey bread to grandmothers who fuss during commercial breaks, Black women are the supreme recipients of affection in these speakers’ lives. Sometimes the affection is broad—a seeing, a framing to preserve, it takes the form of insight. Other times it is a bit more complex—a curse word never uttered to the beloved’s face, pain lingering inside a shared experience of religion. Nikky Finney calls Lorraine Hansberry an “unforgettable insurgent, who always wanted to be in love,” and her speaker reads her while waiting “for an incapable lover to finally leave.” Jada Renée Allen honors that iconic line from Lucille Clifton, transforming it for her speaker's identity. E. Hughes’ speaker tries to understand her mother in perhaps the most expansive way—as a person and not just a parent, as a luminous young woman doing her best just before she enters an era of loss. These moments with our beloveds instruct and offer, as the scholar Kara Keeling writes, “time in which we can work to perceive something different or differently,” they bring us closest to what Hughes calls, “god’s
brown face.”

Hotbed 24

You can’t prove it. Nobody can. Still I believe she never repeated herself. I have read her words while sitting down or standing up or flat on my back. I have leaned on pillows and read them over and over again and every time they sound different depending on the ache and altitude of my day and desire. I have stood under trees with her words and have sat on park benches with them too. I have read them while waiting for buses or trains or for an incapable lover to finally leave. There is something in her words for me every time. When I turned fifteen and the Off-Broadway traveling show To Be Young, Gifted and Black arrived in our small southern town, I listened carefully from the windowsill above the crowd. Later, in college, and even later than that, when I had even less money, I bought every spoken-word album that had ever been made with the high and low waves of her voice. I sat so close to my JBL speakers that I felt I had climbed inside the woofer with her hand in mine. And still, years later, after waiting and wanting to be first in line at the Brooklyn Museum to read her letters to The Lantern, I remember thinking that Lorraine Hansberry was always creating something new and never repeated herself. Her big booming South Side Chicago mind and Black diasporic radically determined heart only had thirty-four years of active duty. There was no time to repeat herself. But maybe I have been all wrong about this. Just this morning I think I have decided that maybe she did—maybe—repeat herself. Just once. Maybe in those pages that I read and reread at the Brooklyn Museum, where she reported that one of her favorite things was the insistent penetration of Autumn sunlight and then a little later in that other journal where she reported on that other favorite thing, the inside of a lovely woman’s mouth. Maybe Lorraine Hansberry, unforgettable insurgent, who always wanted to be in love, maybe just this one time she unknowingly, knowingly, possibly, perchance, perhaps (I know you didn’t mean to) repeated herself.

Alice Coltrane

What can I say? You brought your own apples from heaven’s communal farm, joining earth supreme, sanctified, the snapdragons thrum your name, they pucker, O she sings, plucking their honeyed posies, a causeway of peonies, guiding them to multiply. Even the coldest alps in deference, love you so much, Black goddess-- they recognize you as one of their own.

Lunch Line

They lined us by name. I was after Nick Walker, who wore new sneakers

each month, his dad managed a Footlocker. I was before Chris Warren. Chris had a nook

in the library, where he sold lemon pie for a dollar, let the older boys use him

for practice. He taught me how to hem my skirt, how to light a colored pencil to dye

my lip red. Miss Deanna made monkey bread on Fridays. She had a gold tooth,

a man’s name on her arm. She let us pick the food ourselves. The lunch lady who took the money

knew the free lunch kids. We’d walk past her, our unfinished chests just reaching

her register, she never tallied our food, or creased our collars with a look. She was a wide, white wall.

july afternoon on 94th and plymouth

elbow to sticky, ashy elbow faces bronzed and slick with sweat

from a day outdoors in trees and abandoned fishing boat alike

my brothers and i devour tepid slices of watermelon

cut by our great-grandmother left within reach so we don’t interrupt her stories

shadows drag long across porch steps we race to see who can reach white of rind first

juice running rivers to the identical deltas of our chins

our mother’s chin we all have our fathers’ eyes

during a commercial break grandma ollie fusses loud from the hallway just outside her room

we tamp down laughter whisper bitch beneath our breath

take turns looking over our shoulders bellies full of ripe, sloshing summer

we start a wrestling match on the lawn fall gasping to grass

heads together to watch the sky


with thanks to Lucile Clifton

When everything feels like death: the liquor, the sex, the ninth Ibuprofen in a row, I try to make it to the altar but Sundays be making a slaughter- house of my heart every time I touch the double doors, & not even the intercessor could pray away all this black. Preacher say some sin requires admission. Say Lake of fire, sprinkle Sissy somewhere in his sermon, & I am draped in a gown of kerosene again, an inventory of lit matches spilling from the split maw of heaven but born in Gomorrah both nonwhite & trans what did I see to be except soot? So, I walk down the aisle when the preacher spit Damnation, the stupid crucible of my heart leading me to my own perdition. And I wonder if Bettie Lue prayed for me, had me on her mind before I was even a fetus in her granddaughter’s womb, or if she too would call me a sissy. When I say Deliverance, I don’t mean this: a cleric’s callused hand on my forehead. Tongue, some serpent thrashing ’round in my mouth— I don’t mean I want to be the preacher man’s prized fag again. I mean there are only so many ways to tell a mother that her child’s body ain’t been a temple, but a sepulcher for what they cannot birth.

My Mother at Twenty-One

Imagine what she must have been— the gap still between her teeth and hopeful.

The reality of the future still foggy and at bay in the burgundy of her eyes, some cascading

emerald light at the horizon of herself. She has just become a mother, still with enough

of herself to give one daughter. Happiness close enough to touch like god’s brown face

during the act of prayer. I imagine it: The barely furnished apartment the mother and baby share

with their relatives: The mattresses and box-springs on the carpeted floor. The long gray cabinets

(in them just enough                     formula for the week).

The mirrored coffee table bordered in brass and cluttered with loose change, Blue Magic,

and a wide-toothed comb. The faux ficus in the corner— the way dust collected on its leaves looked like

cleft geodes in light. The year is 1985 and her grandmother is still alive. No one she loves yet has contracted the virus,

has died by heart attack or overdose—. My mother when she was young, her jade hair permed and pressed

into a bob, red lipstick finished around the curves of her lips—. I can imagine her when she was young

                    before—                                                             before—                                                                                                     before—