I guess you could say I was warned. Women in my neighborhood in between gossip sessions (which would most times be about my own mama) would yell to me from their porches, as I passed by, to “Stop switchin.’” They said that only whores switched their hips and that girls in short skirts in summertime needed to watch out lest they get plucked up by some ole manish boy – nevermind that we lived in Mississippi and short skirts and shorts were about all we could wear in the summer.
Frankly, all of it confused me. Even though I had undergone big changes in my body the previous year (I started my cycle, grew breasts, and discovered a butt that was bigger than most other 15 year olds), this hip switching didn’t apply to me. I had no real hips to speak of. And no one hardly gave me a second look.
Often times I was enclosed in my own shell of invisibility wondering how I could register some response from anyone who truly cared – not the superficial aspects of recognition – a genuine presence was what I most desired – individuality even. I often played in the shadows of my sisters Cora and Ivy who were clearly more visible than me. They were equally beautiful and personable. Although none of us had the same father, my mama’s choice in men was obviously better for them than her choice for me. My daddy, she often told me, was the biggest mistake she ever made and that I was better off not knowing him. So I didn’t know him and still don’t. It was hard not to let that knowledge get to me, but it became easier to let it go the day Willie Magee started coming around.
Willie was one of the neighborhood boys. He would stop by our house sometimes just to talk, sit a while for no good reason and the consensus among my sisters and I was that the pleasure was all ours. About 6’1”, he was one of the tallest boys at school. He had a muscular build from playing football, caramel skin, and perfectly aligned white teeth. Everybody liked him. He didn’t make good conversation but the way he smiled at you made you feel at home, to want him to listen to you talk, to stay a while. When he would come inside and ask for a cool glass of spring water or sweet tea, my sisters would almost fight each other to get it for him. I, however, would just sit there feigning indifference knowing full well I was waiting to watch him drink.
When he visited our house, Willie would mostly focus his attention on me, finding ways to comment on how nice I looked or how quiet I was. This perplexed my sisters and me for that matter because I was clearly the least attractive of the three of us. Folks would even tell us as much. So when Willie asked me if I wanted to go to Sonny’s “for a burger or something” the coming Friday, I accepted, wondering when I was going to wake up from the dream. Everybody went there on Friday nights and it was definitely where the boys brought their “girls.” I knew my sisters would be jealous. Willie was 17, almost a man and here he was asking me out.
“What are you gonna wear?” My sister Cora asked me as she plopped herself down on my bed. She was the oldest (older than me by 2 years) and tended to stick her nose where it didn’t belong.
“I don’t know. I was thinking of that red shirt and black skirt Mama just made for me.”
“Good choice” she replied. “but you need jewelry.”
“Now why would I need jewelry? I hardly wear any.”
“Yeah, well, . . . you still need to look pretty. I got some face powder you can use. I’ll show you how to put it on.”
“You know I don’t do makeup either and even if I did, I can’t wear yours noway redbone!”
“Oh! Don’t even start that” Cora snapped back at me.
“Start what?” I said.
“Oh you know.”
“Okay. I’ll just shut up then.”
“Now that ain’t fair”
“What? What ain’t fair?”
Leaving the question hanging, she told me I could borrow her shoes if I wanted. I told her I might.
When the time came for Willie to pick me up, I had a hard time containing my excitement. He looked nice as usual and I even let Cora talk me into some face powder which, as I predicted, was too light for me. I looked like a ghost or dead. But no one said anything negative. Everybody seemed happy for me. Mama looked relieved even.
Willie and I talked on the mile long walk to Sonny’s but something felt different than when he was around our house. Whatever it was made my palms sweat and my steps hesitant. When we got there, all eyes were on us, or me rather. And the eyes were even more pronounced because although I saw lips moving, I couldn’t hear what was being said. The jukebox was blasting “Let it Whip” by Dazz Band and I could barely concentrate as Willie directed me to the booth where some of his friends were already sitting. They had paper bags full of beer and cigarettes which Willie happily joined in helping them consume. He ordered a soda and fries for me and I looked on as he drank beer after beer laughing with his friends who eyed me with a knowingness that I could not understand. I couldn’t figure out if what they knew made me more intriguing to them or more grotesque.
As the night wore on, I told Willie I needed to go. “I don’t want folks to worry about me.” I said. Truth is, I had no real reason to be home. I knew Mama would be at her usual Friday night spot (most likely with a boyfriend of hers) and we basically came and went as we pleased. But I was bored and disappointed. So I lied.
“Give me one more second pretty girl. We gone get you home soon enough.” He said off balanced and slowly.
“Okay” I said. “You know I can walk myself home.”
“Aw naw. I got you.” He proceeded to give me a wet kiss on the cheek, leaving the liquid stain of beer on my face.
I started to feel tight and nervous.
When Willie was finally ready to go, we left alone. His friends did not follow thankfully.
As we walked, he put his arm around me resting it right at my neck almost like a chokehold. I was ready to be rid of him and I was also mad because I was propping him up as we walked and his weight was making me stumble. I could smell him – his bodily odor – the final blow to the kind of intimacy I had fantasized about. Somewhere along the path to my house he stopped and turned me toward him.
“You know, you a pretty girl to me.” He said in measured syllables.
I blushed. “Thank you.” Somehow I believed him even though I knew he was drunk and out of his mind.
“And. I been wanting to know you more.”
“Okay” I said, in more of a questioning way than answering him.
“And you know . . . see what’s what.” He starts to unbutton my shirt as he says this, and I step back slowly so I don’t appear scared.
“Willie, I don’t know what you mean by wanting to know me, but I can tell you now, I’m a virgin. Please just let me go home.”
In a voice that didn’t sound like his, he yelled “Bitch, go home? So this is it? This is all I get?”
Before I know it, I’m on the ground and my face is on fire. My shirt is being torn and I’m pinned down. He then pries my legs open, covers my mouth with his hand and forces himself inside me. Beyond that, I can only remember screaming and crying until I was alone. Him gone. Me sitting there in pain – covered in darkness. I stood up blind. And I ran.
By the time I got home, Cora and Ivy were asleep and Mama was still gone. I went right into the room I shared with Ivy and sat, holding my breath because I could still smell him. My body bruised, and the tears - the tears were all I had left – that and ripples of pain. He took me in a clearing that was burned open. Laying in that burnt dead grass, outlined by edges of green was more than I can bear to remember.
The next morning, Cora and Ivy came running to me to find out how the night was, but I brushed them off saying it was none of their business. Mama also wanted to know. When I made it to the kitchen table, she looked at me with anticipation as she stirred a pot of grits for breakfast. But when I said “It was alright” she knew it wasn’t. She studied me long and hard sensing something there. I wanted to burst into tears and let her hold me, but all the other times something bad happened to me, that was never an option and it wasn’t one now. I could tell. The air was heavy in our house after that, but I still wasn’t talking. I couldn’t bear to tell it. So, I kept it in until it wore off (which, for them, took about a month and a half) until Cora and Ivy gave up asking me questions, until my mama, instead of talking to me, put herself into her sewing.
Our annual church Homecoming was approaching and we would all look forward to the fun of that day. There would be singing, games, and good food. Each year always topped the one before it. This year, I had no feelings, but I knew I would go. I was still me. Mama sewed dresses for me and my sisters- same colors but different styles like she always did every year. This year the color was light green, my favorite. When it was time to wear the dresses we all tried ours on early that Sunday morning. No need to fit them days before because Mama knew our measurements to the T and even when we grew, she could just look at us and adjust her patterns. My sisters put on their dresses and checked themselves out in the mirror while I struggled just to get mine over my shoulders. It was too tight and Mama didn’t have time to let it out. My pride was too much for me to change into an old dress while my sisters wore new ones. And I had no color in my closet that blended with their dresses. So I went into my room and searched for my white button-down sweater. I found it in the trunk where I stored my winter clothes and put it on over the dress. Quietly, my mama and sisters eyed me. I smiled and told them “I’m fine wearing it like this.” They didn’t try to persuade me either way. We just all got dressed and I walked to church with them as if the sun wasn’t beating down directly on my face.
Sista 2 Sista
I do this for the little girl in the mirror who doesn’t believe she’ll ever be enough.
For the one who’s tired of crying so pretends she’s too tough.
For the one in the bath trying to scrub the black off.
To the one trying to fight her uncle off.
For the girl who only thinks she’s pretty with long hair. I cut mine off
and locked it up to prove you can never lock me up into your box.
My beauty is unorthodox.
And for my grandmother who told me I’d be ugly if I did it.
I did it anyway.
And I did it for the days
she thought she wasn’t pretty because of pickaninny braids.
I do this for the Sudanese girls in my class
who think beauty is in a mask.
I tell them there’s beauty in loving yourself
and that’s the only thing that last.
I do this for the real life Pecolas with that black skin.
I do it for the girl who feels she’s not worthy of a friend.
I do it for myself because I remember when
I was just a skinny girl with messed up teeth.
I do it for those thieves
who tried to steal the gifted girl inside,
who tried to steal my pride.
I do this for fathers like mine
who made sure I knew I was beautiful and taught me to fight back.
I do it because of the way he pat me on my back
and told me I was beautiful because I was black.
I do this for women like Harriet Tubman who won’t let anything get in their way.
For my other grandmother that stayed
in an abusive relationship for her children.
I do this for the million
little African girls who got raped today by UN soldiers.
little African girls who got raped today by UN soldiers.
I do this for Pecola’s mother
who didn’t understand the power she had.
And for dads
who don’t understand how important they are to their daughter’s self-esteem.
I do this for Hakeem
who told me light-skinned girls look better.
I do it for Rosetta
who believed him.
I do this to redeem
that girl on the corner that thinks $20 is all she’s worth.
And for women who gave birth
to crack babies to escape a reality to painful to face.
I do it just in case
there’s someone who needs to know it’ll be okay.
Cause nights when I cried I needed someone to say,
you are beautiful and you can change the world.
Little black girl
This is my lullaby to you.
Because I know what you’re going through,
growing up in a world not made for you.
But know that you are beautiful and powerful.
This is for my daughter who will need this poem
by the age of six because someone will tell her that her hair is too nappy.
This is for the man who will appreciate and cherish everything black about me.
For Lauryn Hill who helped free me by freeing herself.
For women I know left by them selves
because he decided she wasn’t good enough,
or skinny enough,
or pretty enough,
or light enough
or white enough
or just not enough.
This is for a system and world that is racist and sexist
This is for my mother who used to wear a clothes pin on her nose
to make it pointy like whites.
This is for lost women’s rights.
This is for fist fights with her confidence
and excuses that don’t make sense.
This is for my mother who wrote poems to help heal her
and showed me I could do the same.
This is for black girl pain.
This is for Talib who said he’ll be my promise keeper
because that’s what we women need men that can keep promises.
For all the kisses that came too late or not at all.
This is for those that didn’t fall
victim to those lies.
My beautiful black butterflies,
I love you and I stand for us all.
To remind you that you gotta stand tall.
I do this for women who give their all
and refuse to give up.
For those who stand up
and who have inspired me to stand strong.
I do this for you
And I swear I will do this for as long
as I live.
My words I give as
a sacrifice for lives and liberate minds.
My fears are on these lines.
Let no one define
the beauty in you but you.
Tell the world you are remarkable
Because you are,
you are a shining star.
They can’t stop you, you stretch way too far.
So reach you arms out as far as you can
And love yourself and hard as you can
Cause this ain’t about no man
And this ain’t about the man
This is strictly for you!
Sister to Sister
I need you
I love you
I am you and you am I
And we must never forget to hold our heads up high
Cause we are beautiful
No matter what they say
Words can’t bring us down
Don’t let them bring you down
Don’t let them bring us down