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Queen Elizabeth

ISSUE:  Summer 2013

John, you asked me what it was like to be black,
to come from a place where being black mattered.

I thought of telling you that being black matters
everywhere. Your great-grandfather owned this land,
the dust and the Gila Monsters, cattle prods and mountain ranges.

I wondered if your family owned slaves.


In Ethiopia, they practice scarification because the skin is too dark
for tattoos. Women are whipped and it is consensual.
The body bleeds and swells; this is bravery. For a boy to become a man
he must jump over a herd of cattle. He is marriageable
only after his sisters are lashed, because this is the bond of skin—
this is letting go.


Where I come from, Jesus is dark-skinned and forgiving.
My mother has seen him. My sister does not care.

Your father was a minister, and I am curious to know,
if the Son of the desert is also the Son of the city,
and if so, why is there still so much hatred between them?

At the bar, after a poetry reading, some kid said,
I don’t want to be a black writer.

I thought of slugging him with the nearest bottle;
his skin was darker than my own.
An hour before, a friend of his read a poem
in dialect to a packed crowd. She was a homeless man
begging for God’s forgiveness.

(Lawd, I ain’t got nowhere else to go)

This girl needed my approval, asked if I was offended.
I have thought before,
I don’t want to be a black writer.


When I got into grad school my uncle said,
“You’re goin’ out there to try n’be smart,
like the white people.”

The only girl I ever dated that my mother liked
was from New York. She said to me once
she only liked white men.
We discussed it at a party and someone asked,
“Then why are you two together?”

Now I think the answer is simple, though I’m no longer
sure of the question: Anthropologists say
there are fewer UV rays in the northern hemisphere,
more below the equator.

That might explain everything.

Like how, in Kenya, women are so desperate
to be perfect that they cover their faces with
skin lighteners made from mercury,
lotions with names like “Queen Elizabeth”
and “Body Clear,” knowing that they are illegal,
lead to organ failure, and death.

When my sister calls again I will tell her,
You are beautiful.


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