Negroes Lick Saltine Shirley
temple to the goodship.
Mr. n Mrs. Freedman, their son Fetchit
step n study piano. Girls flirt with Bo Jangles. Even
my grandma, the “tantalizing 9” ladies
lean on mantles in fox furs with doe eyes
pan gold for the camera, yesterday seen in a sepia
haze, doesn’t show dirt swept, mopped away.
We were book rich, had lore for days. There was
nothing we knew African, didn’t find art in the quilts
or jazz in the sink. For another century
neighbors were good enuf for Sunday school,
bad enough for our mamas’ tongues.
Talk about some mmm mmmm mmm. Even when
we snuck back downstairs children couldn’t hear
past that. We never know who married, didn’t,
where the lone auntie got her girl raised up
to be a teacher. Why the adults laugh so hard,
that brown stuff they drink.
Manners hit the floor with feet mornings, stayed
all day humming under your Mother’s breath, lookin
out eyes in the back of her head, waiting
’til your Father got home or damnation took us all. When Grandma
comes to town manners turn tight as an old white glove
clutched in your hand to look like a pair, hard as the dime
hid in your shoe so no one knows you stole it.
The mirror doesn’t show
you cross-eyed but you get smacked looking sideways.
Dessert on Sunday and holidays, the rest of the time a pickle,
sour, pungent, after bitter greens, a different bean
every day. Sometimes a bone. After dinner, dishes,
bed before sundown.
Not so much negroes as Bryants, Jacobs, Glovers,
Thompsons and Hazels, fast talking calypso singing West Indians.
No feathers or tv shows, island.
Some slow talking, no sin doing, church with no music
playing Texans. Run out and offa the ranch. Had their own horse,
cotton mill, a store. Grew everything.
Coulda been rich (and dead on the Black wall street).
Something ashy about us repels. Lotion is the answer,
Hand washing in between. There is nothing
can’t be cured by good manners, clean hands and moisturizer.
Ain’t no trouble can’t be combed out of your head every morning
braided into worthwhile, presentable our saving grace.
Pity people who talk with food in their mouths,
don’t wash after peeing, wear no socks in their shoes,
ashy elbows and knees on display. They will bring
down the race.
Sharon Elise, a professor and department chair of sociology at California State University, San Marcos, conducts research and teaches on critical race and gender issues. She brings her sociological insight to poetry and poetics to sociology.