We spent her sixteenth, my seventeenth summer perched on a porch, talking out our love
for her man. I had little language. She was luculent. We worked back through wrong things, arriving
before him. Her mouth opened, black as a movie reel—I do not want to project. She storyboards:
her babysitter, ages seven to ten. He tells her not to tell. Years—her body becoming another body—pass.
She tells. There is a trial, but—
She finishes her cigarette. She is not asking questions. I cradle what she offers: a still shot
of suffering’s root, how survival begins with the seed’s rupture, soft flesh pressing through dirt—
these are not her words. I was raped, she says. And she sits, finishing
Our conversation moves on.
After Without Sanctuary, a collection of lynching postcards
Neither the number of photos, eighty-one, nor the races inscribed beside—all Black except
a few Italians—but the grain itself grates on my eyes. I came looking for lolling tongues, an
thing cut and weighed for my righteous mouth. Instead, their faces barely break from sepia
half their names absent from the weathered photos. Even the archived light of the one burnt
has lessened. I could walk away, white man that I am. I wouldn’t have to walk far. Embers
and cool in the hearth. I could sweep out the ashes, the teeth and chips of bone. Speak
to our neighbors one more day.
I learned from my mother which words were unspeakable, a lesson my older brother
promptly untaught. Dick. Shit. Fuck. I don’t remember where I first heard the banned word
for blackness, at what age it found its way into my mouth. Perhaps I asked at six, when dad explained
Dr. King and the end of segregation. Maybe not until, as a hirsute sixteen-year-old, I explored the world
with my mouth. Alcohol. Opium. Pussy. Amazing how rarely we white boys heard the word no
after our parents wore its power thin—that syllable paired with a fist or a badge became as precious
as a bag of pills. We baited each other like bears into the liquored dawn. I slurred because I knew
it was not right.