Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow and an assistant professor of creative writing at Colby College. She’s the author of You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened and co-author of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, the second book in the Fighting for Justice series for young readers. Forthcoming in March 2021 from Augury Books, her poetic memoir Who’s Your Daddy. Arisa serves on the board of directors for Foglifter and Nomadic Press.
IF I ONLY THOUGHT TO SHAME MY OLDER BROTHER
for being a black man. Like: Oh, you want to get shot in your chest 42 times? Be a baby’s daddy? Like, I’M A MAN hanging around your neck, like I’M A MAN hanging? You want to do that? Be a beasterized sexualized hugeman? Like, bars between you and me and roped soap? You want to be disposable, bro? Like, be the first to go?
He made my desire Other. The act grotesque, as he translated the disgust he saw on his friend’s face. But what I clearly witnessed was my brother’s disapproval, his forehead lined with admonition— warning me about the dangers of asserting unconventional sexual desire.
He’s driving this car and this conversation and I’m a captured audience. The disgust: pleasuring woman, woman pleasuring woman on period, woman on period, a bloody pussy.
Is this what you want to do as a lesbian?
I do not say,
Is this what you will do as a heterosexual man?
How can you not love the pussy in all she shapes and forms. For the water she can produce, for the life she sheds in cycles, for she does not need to play war to know the letting for she is the gateway and first port to life.
I was once again activated into flesh and tagged wrong.
Cars have had a terrifying effect on me. For one, I was hit by one. My brother, only a 12-year old, thought it best I cross the two-way street to go to the apartment building where my mom lived. This was not the first time. Cross the street, run to the building, buzz Mother D and she’ll come down and bring us the cab’s fare.
Now my brother is the driver. Twenty-three years and misbelieving he’s supposed to be a father figure or male role model and so he’s lost himself in religion.
Then there were the vans. The blue vans. The blue van with tinted windows that were said to circle around schools. Eyewitness News said it. Daily News said it. There were sketches of men’s faces that were lifeless, nonthreatening. They were drawings, not bone and flesh, not calloused hands made of man-strength that could snatch you from the sidewalks you walked everyday, take you from the family who stay getting on your last nerve.
I walked holding my younger brother’s hand and flinched in fear when he let go and went running to a friend—the air cold where his kept mine warm.
This brother, driving the car, I’ve always felt side-by-side with. Like a parallel construction, like Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Avenue. My first girlfriend would often say to me, You’re brother tried to kill you. After I show her the burn on my arm. After I’m exhausted and in pain from the tooth that got knocked out when I was younger—this brother pushed me to the ground. There are 17 surgeries I have had in my twenties to have a normal smile. The girlfriend is so sincere about this observation, so sincere.
We are driving. And there is something dead between us. Something dead like the men in the white vans that snatch grown women who are going in and out of the corner store on MacArthur Avenue in Oakland. A Facebook friend, concerned for all her ladies, tells us to be careful. They will take us and drug us and traffick our bodies for sex.
Do I turn to my brother and ask, Do you want to be like that as a heterosexual man? This legacy of stealing and selling women bodies in exchange for your own good?
And when we go missing who is there for us? The best thing to steal is a black girl, says bell hooks, because hers is an expendable body: He can invade and violate a black female body with no fear of retribution and retaliation.* Too many men, regardless of color, is all about my pussy. Brothers included.
Brothers like to say, They don’t care about us? “They” being those white people in power. But do you, brother? Do you care about us?
All those black girls gone missing in Washington D.C. Young, adolescent, high schoolers. Their MISSING photos are cute selfies. Some have changed to does. How many cars transported them? Who are the dicks involved? Pimps and politicians, men in power, in money are stealing and drugging them, putting his rangoon into some walnut’s ass. They scream all night in the basement of a pizza slice. Their backs hysterically arched, they will snap off into stronger compartmentalized versions of themselves. One self will not know about the other self, and they will not greet.
Like, hello, brother, is that what you want to do as a hetero man?
When that R. Kelly video came out in 2002, with sexual predator R. Kelly pissing on a young girl, you heard the brothers’ voices spill from barbershops and wherever: She don’t look like a 14-year old. If the Daily News published a still from the video, the child’s body pornographically visible, while her face’s redacted. You take away the “r” and you easily become a bother, and Kelly means war.
It is justified. She doesn’t look 14 and what does a 14-year-old black girl look like, brother? And when she doesn’t fit your description, you imagine other things for her? Is that what you want to do as a hetero man, bro, use a black girl’s body as a urinal and say, She didn’t look human. Her back went porcelain and my dick took a leak. It’s the kind of wound that keeps me alert to every potential doorway through which I might enter as a friend, sister, or woman, but leave as an Other, like a bitch or a ho.** How easily brother is “rob the other.”
Have you taken a compassionate long look at our faces? It reminds me of the time we were in Disney World and there was a guess- your-age booth. Mother D pushed me ahead, said, “Guess.” I was 5’9 and 12-years-old. And for most of my life, because they are looking at my height, they’ve put five to eight years on me. But this guy, this guy, looked in my face, took note of my short time lived in this body. He said my exact age and I realized then no one has looked at me wholly. Always fragmented in another’s gaze and Mother D was hoping too he would default to not seeing me.
People across gender and races see black girls as more adultlike than their white peers. Left to navigate situations by themselves, because they are “grown,” and their bodies look “ready,” we are easily manipulated by men.** I heard brothers say, What she doing in that situation anyway. When will you be the hero and not a sandwich?
Why aren’t any questions directed to R. Kelly—why are we buying
his records, brother, playing his songs, brother, letting him produce, bro,
why are all those child molestation and sexual violence cases settled out of court and the black girls and women are gagged.
What’s he doing in that situation, bruh? They all can’t be hos reminding R. Kelly of his Jeep. All that knocking he’s doing is the same-old colonial enterprise, upgraded for present-day. Knocking ‘cause he wants to get inside. But why was he set out in the first place?
Brother, let’s not drive these seen-it routes, the yellow lines are hepatitic.
*bell hooks, “Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. Print. pp.64
**Tressie Mcmillian Cottom, “How We Make Black Girls Grow Up Too Fast.” New York Times. 29 July 2017.
INTERROGATION OF A WEDDED MIND
Weekends are hard. To be present with parts of my life
I find unruly, disorganized, irritating turns me depressive and it’s all the more apparent the flipside.
To go elsewhere—where? Running is ancestral. Like, Look out at sea and see you can’t return.
my spine faces is the pot I piss in.
The feeling has been said before.
Felt before. Dingy damp and defenseless, before.
I don’t know how to turn this phrase into cleaver,
to question why each breast parts shamefully away, teardrop and pendulous.
Answers come most from my frontal lobe.
Although I admire my almond-shaped tinkering,
the butterfly in tender flex and rest,
to admit the word I most want to say is a united stakes.
A paltry putter there in her heart makes her want primal as a pyramid of basic needs. I’m eating,
shelter, and shitting. I’m vegetable.
I see no other destination hopeful.
There’s no desire to. To arrive at an insanity new—this old-ass is perfectly mapped. All the hurt pockets, discotheques, facades, and borders indulged.
There is the block where I last saw my twenties.
I’ve tried and she came running. In the late night. Stripped off her shirt, bra--topless. Two
in the morning. Her devotion frightening. Her love a terrified crazy. I tried to beat it out of her. I really did. But we are returns.
There’s an old belief running things. Invisible,
small, not worthy of anyone’s love. I’m habituated. Inhabited by this boss bossing me.
I’m on punishment. Broke a woman’s heart, capitulated to my welts and starvations, my victims and appetite loss. Gone my wrists and fingers to arthritis and I can’t pleasure myself.
I'm bound to marriage to get closer to government, stately offices, their domed roofs, committing a capitol strike across my face.
I have no standard for love.
I’m lazy. I’m exhausted.
There are some days that aren’t bad. I don’t busy myself with Jesus.
My character is assassinated and I’m not in the business of resurrections. I’m numb to her
_________, to her ________, to her____________— through her I see
This is the most unsuccessful thing I’ve done and something about that makes me feel human. In the prime numbers of my life I’m a swarm of verbs, and I’m trying. Trying to achieve
skinlessness, to transcend my deodorant, to disappear the need to thirst, to feel crushing
despair in the pillar of my chest when I ask for help. To curse her strings attached.
She stands confident and tells me she’s going to leave, shouts she will divorce me, and I don’t blink. There’s no rapid-eye her in my graffitti submarine.
She wants me to read her mind. To do for her without her saying. To genuflect because she’s my senior by eight years and I should be, should, be doing this. I’m stunned. She’s a stunner. Her pigeoned opinions, trenchant whys, her fog brain, that rosy shit she drops. She’s made a ladder out of her body. Asking, Why aren’t you climbing me? Bitch, please. I’m watching you tend everyone’s garden while your buttercups die, then accuse me of not taking care of you. My elder love, so wise, you’re breathless in the event of a decompression because you won’t mask first.
I, Avoidant, am confronting my fears.
I have a list of failures and all the failures of me.
I turn my back. I retreat real hard. I woe faithfully.
It’s the noble thing to do—the 90s had me believing I came from African Queens and Kings until
I went to Ghana and learned that people who looked like me also made wars, had booty, and
sold us out. I never got a village, just the ghost town.
My beauty alive and humming.
she moves through the gradient not at my speed.
I can hold a grudge
in the slowest motion.
She sees me as slothful, I see my own sadism.
I like the other side.
I have a tolerance
for this kind of people America made.
Mountains weiser and valleys rhizomatic—ain’t I not the right black to magic
abuse and rape into offsprings
brackish and fisted—
I like the gifts she brings to soften
her blows. She gives apology like no one has before. I have the return of her innocence. Her
she shows. Her fur goes down
and she is people again.
She takes accountability, bean by counting bean, I give my respect
to love keeps correct the delusions to which we fall prey.
Final stanza riffs off a line from James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process”: “The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge....”