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Clifford Thompson is the author of What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues (2019), which was selected by TIME Magazine as one of the “Most Anticipated Books” of the season. Thompson received a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction in 2013 for Love for Sale and Other Essays, published by Autumn House Press, which also brought out his memoir, Twin of Blackness (2015). His work appears in publications including The Best American Essays 2018, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, The Times Literary Supplement, The Threepenny Review, Commonweal, Cineaste, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the author of a novel, Signifying Nothing. His graphic novel, Big Man and the Little Men, is forthcoming in 2022.

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It took me a while, in this fog of middle age,

To remember her first name.

I knew her last because

I remember her brother, my classmate,

Saying “He was Martin Luther King. I’m Martin Luther Scott.”

What I never forgot

Is the evening Martin’s younger sister called me on the phone,

Asking that we talk again the evening following,

When I would answer her question, and

— she said this —

We would be “rough and tough.”

I suppose, in a way, I was rough and tough:

My answer was no,

For reasons I could not produce now at gunpoint.

Today I have a question for Robin

Which is how in the world, at age ten,

Did you already know

What I had to learn as a grown man?


Hold a sheet by the corners and flap it

In mid-motion resembles

The red Corvette Stingray, big curves near the headlights,

At the bottom of my boyhood street

That sleek car in our poor neighborhood — how?

I never knew who drove it

Didn’t know, then, about real stingrays —

Black, a foot long, stinger in the tail

Used only for self-defense in those dangerous waters

The Stingray driver surely black (everyone there was)

And those streets often dangerous

Did he act only in self-defense?

Is he still with us? Dead of natural causes?

Or stung early, red like his car, that sheet over his face?

9/11 POEM

The jazz pianist Bill Evans

“has no casual fans,” the writer asserted

In the New Yorker piece I read

On a Manhattan bus headed downtown

That spring of 2001.

So I checked him out, and


Sure enough, in Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie,” in his “Gloria’s Step,” are

A wistfulness, a sweetness and gentleness and beauty,

An innocence that was ours then

And seemed — I swear I felt it — to forebode.


I felt it in summer in Brooklyn

Hanging out in my two young daughters’ room

On the bed next to the window

With a view of Manhattan’s Twin Towers

Standing like gray-suited brothers

Tall in the pale blue


And in the fall, after those brothers were turned to floating dust

I sat on the edge of the same bed

Seeing blackness through the window

My girls on the edge of sleep

As I wondered, not at all casually,


How to protect those young lives,

Breathing softly in flannel nightgowns

As sweet and tender as Evans’ piano notes

How to exempt them from, at best, the world’s indifference

Keep them from becoming so much dust

Preserve that innocence that daily lashed my heart

And these were not abstract thoughts

But full of details

You would not believe.


I succeeded, no, was spared —

My girls are women, able

To work and laugh, to waltz and step —

And I failed, no, succumbed,

As every parent does

Who wonders, here in winter:

What happened to my little girls?


I was three, not more than four, when I realized

I had other grandparents too, not just

The deaf white-haired lady who lived with us. So

I asked and I asked and I asked to see them,

And I got no answer, until I did —

My father, my mother and I drove to their house, which

Had so much: a bar in the cool, wood-paneled basement, established that day

As the mark of adulthood (I am still not an adult).

The house had wry uncles, had head-shaking aunts, had everything

Except my other grandparents, whose whereabouts

I had to piece together on my own.

Then back to our little house, where

My deaf white-haired grandmother sat by the second-story window

The common answer to a prayer: silence, then

A look at what you already have.


More mysterious than the thing itself

Is why I remember it.

I was nine, my brother twenty-three,

My grandmother old beyond numbering.

He visited the house, and then someone decided

He should drive us two (why us two?) to his apartment.

When we arrived, as at a foreign land with no word for “host,”

My brother went into his room for a nap

Which lasted the whole visit.

My grandmother and I were on our own,

In a kind of quiet I haven’t heard since.

Even time was different here:

On my brother’s wall was a gag clock

Whose numbers and hands ran backward, and indeed

Those afternoon hours seemed to move some way other than forward.

I found my brother’s Kid Colt Western comic book,

Read it at the table,

Its shouts and gunfire without sound, deepening the quiet.

Then there was my grandmother,

Sitting on the edge of the sofa, hands atop her pocketbook,

With the untroubled look

Of one who expects nothing.


My grandmother, white hair, slender limbs,

Breasts down at her middle, barely hearing,

Stayed close to home.

So I was unsettled the day

She told me she wanted us to go for a walk.

I was nine, embarrassed, going up our street

With all those other kids around.

No one laughed, or would later,

But across the street

The girl in my class with almond-shaped eyes

Had them trained right on me

As she sat on the green green grass leaning on one arm.

What that look suggested! I didn’t have the words then.

My grandmother must have spoken as we walked,

In the rough voice she couldn’t hear.

I don’t have those words now.

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