I was never the clean plate, I was the swirl
of flour-white biscuit in dark corn syrup.
At church I was a wide-mouthed Baptist hymn
whenever my father made eye contact.
Eight teabags bathing in a glass jar on the back steps,
sun high and fevered, I was a hot summer.
Who cares what the package says,
I was two cups of sugar instead of one.
I was Man-Man or Baby or Dee
or cousin Peanut from down the street.
A name in the South is a yardstick, becoming
the measure of both giver and receiver.
My friend Ten Pointer got his name by scoring
ten points in a basketball game, simple.
Don’t ask me about Uncle Alpo or Crack or the senior
in college who only let us call him Mynigga.
Dad reminds me during an argument the only
thing he can give me is his name as reflection
and his religion as legacy and what is he
if I walk away from either. I wasn’t the clean plate.
I was the swirl who only called myself black, not
white. Black. Which
felt like the only way to keep part of him
with me, to acknowledge what I’d been given.
HOMECOMING, RICH SQUARE, NC
Northern black folk
drive through my hometown &
stop along the road
to pick cotton – a drifted piece,
something the machine skipped
over. Feel the need to connect,
honor ancestors by picking straight
from the claw of the plant’s mouth,
seed and all,
how thorny it feels, how it calls
out blood like the Big Dipper sang
a whole bloodline toward a lesser wound.
How can anyone do this
all day? I worked that field
as a kid. Only once. Burlap skin
as thirsty hands during an annual
event/reminder for families
in need of extra income.
Come, the Cotton Gin called.
Mighty fine job, sang Jackson St
from its own crescent mouth.
How callused these hands
and strong this back, I dreamed;
tan this skin, eager this frame.
A man. A man. A bag
of white gold taller than my dusty afro
earned $8.58, a check that arrived
two weeks later. Hell no, I never went back.
My mother-in-law had never seen
a cotton field up close, this visit
she threw open the door
before I even got to a good stop,
went elbow deep and
picked one tuft clean and good, nervous
the landowner might see her working
his soil and pick up a shotgun,
noticed the blood on her fingers,
rubbed them pink,
and was quiet
the rest of the way home.