We Watched Roots in 8th Grade
Here’s the rundown. You spend 5,000 days as a specter in the suburbs, listening to Ashanti and Maxwell, coloring yourself in and scribbling yourself into the very sketchbook, which erases you. This is how race in America works. Somewhere, on the bus, on the walk home from school, in math class, in your advanced reading class, in the library, on the debate team, in the locker room, in the bathroom, in line at the water fountain, on the stage at the end of year the ceremonies—somewhere, at some point, on some day, you are the only black person in the room. And, more often than not, you’re learning from someone white. Or you’re not. Euclid is not the only thinker a person should know. So let’s say you’re not the only black body dangling in monochrome space. Someone has still scraped your tongue. Taught you a language where the word good refers to the good school, which refers to being white. You know that the school you go to is the best school in town and the predominance of whiteness is true in a numerical sense. Thus the school you do not attend is either a bad school or a bootstrapped school or a lucky school or another rationale for the here-now of life. You start watching Friends. You misunderstand Hurricane Katrina because you live in a place where you can misunderstand. You delete Luther Vandross from your mp3 player because there is not enough space. Which way does the double arrow point? Why is what is good, good? Who is alive and who is a good? At some point the black boy dropped in the 21st century bangs his head against history’s swollen door; history being the silence of every classroom, every classroom being the locale in which he cannot be understood. He is a set of questions. They are buttressed by his textbooks, enhanced by his television set, compounded by newspapers, enhanced by other manifested destinies. These questions unearth him; they constitute the night. Police officers covered up killing a disabled black man in New Orleans the year he is in 8th grade but this is not what he is meant to know. These are his hours, these are the unraveling of his days. The people he sees in the world who are poor or sick look like him. The people we are to be afraid of look like him. Or look like a faith or like an entire continent or look like a “not from here.” Not of the settled state. All of this is to say this is how the groundless work. How the swingset after a certain hour isn’t a safe set of swings. How we fashion a lexicon of dreams. Of choice. Of false promises that he will inevitably learn. Racism texturing his living. History: never the point, Human: never how the black boy in the 21st-century can be encountered. There are no chalkboards in him. Just droplets. Just vinyls, just unlivable tunes. Milliseconds. Or thousands of days. In truth, he learns alone. Abandoned, untethered, and alone. Outside of the schoolhouse, a tree falls. Sonically, he is alive. For there are other ways, always echoes, sounds underneath sounds. He learns by looking at the portrait of Jesus—who is black, always black—which his parents place in the hallway in every house they ever live. How necessary it is that this is a thing they do. How quietly the past speaks. How important it is how we learn. How we listen. How urgent it is to believe that we are worth being saved.
Soil, Sediment, & the Song
when? when does blood trickle
backwards, sudden furling of flora
that has already bloomed? how
does life re-enter the body? myth
of a creation, but the casket is real.
i regret ever thinking that blk boys
in the ground need beget a thing.
give life back to the blk boy, bite
into the empire and give our lives
and our living back. the tree from
which he is hung is what produces
the casket in the grave. stop using
this world to kill us. it need not
flow this way. god, will you shake
us? will you admit the thunder is
yours? please ruin us, us perimeters,
us allowances, us who spend energies
on anything but. please ruin us?
please ruin us, so all of us can finally
Drawing Flowers on Burning Linens
Sketching on my skin again. Postcards to my severed hands. Splitting hairs. Scanning the skin. Army men. Marching the terrain, crawling, crawling, crawling. Walked all over. Grab the mirror and tell it: show me exactly what I want to see. He loves me, he loves, he loves me. And soon enough the devil’s claws weaken and wilt. Soon enough bed sheets are not a place to hide your limbs. I told myself I was deserving of love today. I told myself that destruction would not destroy. I took a look at our dry crumbling earth and prayed to the rubble. The world once whispered my body a lie. It said: you, body, you are not true. And then flowers bloomed. They lined the way. Out of my bedroom, past the sun room, towards the dark wooing moon.
JOSHUA AIKEN is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer whose work has been featured or is forthcoming in publications such as Nepantla, juked, Winter Tangerine, glitterMOB, Assaracus, and TENDERLOIN. He won the 2016 Martin Starkie Prize for his poem “Disappearing Act(s)” and is a proud alumni of WU-SLam, the spoken word poetry community at Washington University in St. Louis.