Euphonious Exhortations

My voice is having one of its moments. These come around from time to time. This week I’ve been told not once, not twice, but five times that my voice … “has something.” This morning, I gave a family directions on the subway and both the mom and a random person who overheard me commented on how pretty and comforting my voice is. The homeless man I gave my half sandwich to in Grand Central Market yesterday said I sounded like a fairy godmother. A friend who wants to work with me on a film project hopes I’ll do some narration because I have a good voice. And the young woman who sells me my iced chai every morning told me on Monday that I talk like I’m singing.

I’ve had that last before. A woman once asked if I was a jazz singer because she said my voice sounded like I should be. A coworker once told me I should record bedtime stories because my voice is soothing. A friend’s baby sister told me I could scold her and it wouldn’t feel like scolding because I said everything “in a warm tone.”

It’s not always cute and sweet, however, the reactions to my voice. A man who was trying to date me (quite unsuccessfully, as this will illustrate) insisted I had to be faking my voice, that there was no way I could look like me and have this voice. Clearly, I have a face and figure made for radio! Another man said I should do audio porn, that my “Snow White sound” would make sexy text that much more titillating. Yup.

My voice is fine. It has probably gotten better with time. It certainly used to be glass-shatteringly high. My students used to tease me by repeating my instructions to one another in squeaky mouse voices. I don’t know that I really sounded that awful, but my voice is high. My dream of a Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner deep sexiness will never come true, but my voice is fine. Like I said, better with time. I’ve come to terms with it. I think of it the way I think of my face, thoughts perfectly articulated by this limerick:

As a beauty I’m not a star,
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don’t mind it
For I am behind it.
It’s the people in front that I jar.*

I don’t think anyone is particularly horrified by the sight of my face. Certainly, the whole of me has elicited startled responses, but that’s generally about racism, and those folks can’t actually see my face. I’m not always aware of the reactions people have to my face, but reactions to my voice are much more noticeable. I can hear the change in other people’s voices when I’m on the phone, can see people turn and look when I’m out and about. And, of course, there are the folks who just tell me.

I like to say it doesn’t matter, that it’s just how I talk. I know I’m lying, however. I know how I respond to certain voices. And there would be no way to count the number of times I’ve successfully used my voice to impact a situation. It matters. And that seems so unfair. We can’t help the voices we wind up with. Yes, there are classes that teach people to sound different, but why should anyone have to take those classes when they already come equipped with perfectly serviceable voices?

I can’t change that random inequity. But I suppose I can try to use my gift for good, right? What does that mean? Well, maybe it means my friend with the film project is on the right track. That baby who told me that my scolding her didn’t feel like scolding because of my dreamy, “warm tone,” was the clue. Instead of only writing my anger, maybe it’s time to put my voice to it, time to start telling people all the ways they need to step up, just how they can straighten up and fly right, just how fiercely they can work at being anti-racist, at dismantling the structures of racism that are destroying us all.

Let me just clear my throat.

__________

* This limerick credited both to Woodrow Wilson and a poet I never heard of named Anthony Euwer. I have no idea whose poem it actually is, but I am choosing to believe it is Euwer’s poem and that Wilson was known to recite it (I’ve seen two different stories of people saying Wilson recited it for them).


Sending a warm thank you to my friend Lisa at satsumabug.com. Her decision to start making space for short-but-with-a-whole-arc musings was a good push for me. My essays of late have been getting longer and longer and longer … so long that I cannot find my way to the end and so have nothing to post on this blog. So I’m going to try writing shorter pieces, no more than 1,000 words, and see if I can’t get through some of the topics on my pages-long list of essay ideas! If this works, I may catch up with my #52essays challenge by year’s end!

GriotGrind Next Wave logo

Done. Undone. Redone.

I was in a reading last week. I haven’t read in a while, but I always love reading for Big Words, Etc. The lineup of readers is always interesting, Stacey and Jess are such warm and lovely hosts, and the folks who come out are always so supportive of every reader.

Wednesday’s theme was “redo” and I struggled with it for a while, didn’t find my idea until the day before the reading, and didn’t finish pulling this piece together until about 10 minutes before the reading. Some of this will sound familiar, and that’s because the story within the story is one I’ve told many, many times. Working on this piece for Big Words is the first time I’ve thought about that moment in this way. The magic of the redo, right? If “redo” can also mean “rethink,” or “re-remember.” My piece didn’t have a title when I read it last week. It does now.

Done. Undone. Redone.

Redo is the dream, right? The fantasy of erasing failure, acknowledging a screw-up and fixing it. I need them all the time. One redo wish pokes at me, a moment when the universe offered me magic and possibility and I squandered it. And that squandering drives me crazy, even more today than when it happened.

* * *

I was in Paris for my junior year abroad, and working on a project on the Civil Rights Movement.  I was days and days in the American Library, my table piled with books. (My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! I kept it on my table to scare people away.)

One afternoon, a guy handed me a flyer.  “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d be interested in this.”  James Baldwin was going to be speaking somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”

(And that would be because I was a pure fool. I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was. )

My mother and sister came to visit, and I was wrapped up in seeing them and set other things aside.  We were standing on a train platform one afternoon, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”

My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.”  (Still young and dumb.)

A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?”  So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him and ….

… started talking and talking and talking about myself!  Because, obviously, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about.  On and on I went. In the bar, on the metro, walking to the lecture hall.

He was unbelievably nice, asking questions, offering advice, basically putting up with my unfathomable stupidity in the gentlest, more generous way.

And then he gave his talk.  And, with every passing moment, I realized just how brilliant this “funny-looking little man” was, just how uncommonly stupid I was.  I wanted to sink through the floor.

* * *

The most obvious “redo” here is to be less stupid, to have read Baldwin before that moment so I’d know who he was and appreciate the gift I was given to meet and talk with him. I would of course have wanted a redo on our conversation, to talk about something other than myself

My deeper dream is a redo knowing what I know today, a time-travel redo that lets me talk to him from the future, get some “I am not your Negro” insight into this world I’ve grown up into. 

There was a point in our metro ride when we could have gone there, when our conversation strayed from my nonsense. I told him about my study project and my frustration after all the reading I’d been doing, the obviousness of an ongoing problem and no organized action taking it on. I asked him why he thought the Civil Rights Movement’s push for equality had stopped.

He told me I was mistaken, that there was a movement, and it was active, even if I wasn’t aware of it, that the work had gone underground and would resurface in its own time.

I always forget about that exchange. When I think of this story, I focus entirely on my ignorance and idiocy, not on this flicker of light.

I still want my redo because, my god, can you imagine all James Baldwin  would have to say in 2019?

But I have what he did say, and  wasn’t it totally about today, isn’t it the Movement for Black Lives, isn’t this the resurfacing Baldwin was so certain would come? I want my redo so I can expand that conversation, talk about what my work in this resurfacing could be. That conversation might have kept me from floundering as I struggled against despair, struggled to find my way to work for change.

Remembering what Baldwin said on that train brought Naima Penniman to mind. She wrote:

“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide, and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil. How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental justice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

Reading that was both a strong embrace and a body slam. I have spent so much time in the last five years castigating myself over the ways I do and don’t step up in this fight.

Then I saw the Toni Morrison movie. She spoke about her choices during the Civil Rights Movement, and it shook me, made me recommit to writing about racism, about misogynoir, about the vast sea of white folks needing to do the work, all the ways they could and don’t do it. Morrison’s reminder nudge, coupled now with this memory of Baldwin’s assertion about the work underground are breathing me back into being, back to what I know is true.

This redo isn’t erasing failure, isn’t about failure. It’s about remembering and starting again, about resetting my course, about picking up my tools and moving forward. Redo. Redo. Redo.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Our Lives Hold No Value

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Korryn Gaines. Say her name.

Is there still any question
that our lives hold no value to the police?
At moments like this,
I think of Korryn Gaines, I think of her son.

Our lives hold no value to the police.
Gaines son, five years old,
I think of Korryn Gaines, I think of her son.
Police knew he was at his mother’s side.

Gaines’ little boy, only five years old,
saw police kill his mother, saw them try to kill him.
Police knew he was at his mother’s side.
His presence didn’t impact their decision to go in shooting.

He saw police kill his mother, try to kill him.
What his mother told him about the police proved true.
His presence didn’t impact officers’ decision to go in shooting.
Our lives hold no value to the police.

What Korryn Gaines said about the police proved true.
They took her ability to broadcast, then killed her in secret.
Our lives hold no value to the police,
they were determined to gun Gaines down.

Police took Gaines’ on-air voice, then killed her in secret.
There to serve a traffic warrant, they decided the sentence was death.
They were determined to gun Gaines down,
and made sure their actions weren’t caught on tape.

There to serve a traffic warrant, they decided the sentence was death.
A young mother, gunned down in front of her baby.
They made sure their actions weren’t caught on tape.
Nothing else mattered.

A young mother, gunned down in front of her baby
because she had the nerve to fear and distrust the police.
Nothing else mattered
except taking her out, punishing her audacity.

She had the nerve — the intelligence — to fear and distrust the police,
and they proved her right,
taking her out, killing her as punishment for her audacity,
for a traffic violation.

They proved Gaines right
and proved it to her son by shooting him, too.
For a traffic violation.
They couldn’t have cared any less for that woman or that baby.

They showed Gaines’ son that his mama had been right —
they wanted to shoot her, wanted to shoot him, and they did.
They couldn’t have cared less for the welfare of that woman or that baby.
Gaines and her son’s lives had no value.

They wanted to shoot Korryn Gaines and her son, and they did.
That baby has learned his lesson.
His life had no value to the police.
He’ll know it for the rest of his life.

That little boy learned a horrific lesson,
his mother murdered before his eyes.
He’ll know it for the rest of his life.
The wounds will scab over, but will they heal?

I think of Korryn Gaines’ son. Will he heal?


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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Her Last Breath

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Shereese Francis. Say her name.

Imagine the terror of running through your house
chased by four police officers,
when you’ve done nothing wrong,
when what you need is mental health care.

Chased by four police officers,
Shereese Francis must have been terrified.
She needed mental health care
but instead received brutality.

Shereese Francis must have been terrified.
Does “Protect and serve” only go for white folks?
Shereese Francis received brutality.
Her life squeezed out as she lay face down on a bed.

Is “Protect and Serve” only for white folks?
It certainly wasn’t on offer for Shereese Francis
as her last breath was squeezed from her body.
One more beautiful life taken.

There was no protection or service for Shereese Francis,
only the loss of her last breaths under the weight of four cops.
One more beautiful life taken.
Keep that count grinding down to zero.

The loss of her last breath under the weight of four cops.
Imagine Shereese’s desperation and fear
as the count kept grinding down to zero.
One more beautiful life taken.

One more beautiful life taken.


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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One More and One More and One More

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Tyisha Miller. Say her name.

The stories cops tell to explain their choices
are never quite right, never quite believable.
They are offerings,
giving cover to everyone who wants to forgive them.

Cops’ stories are never quite right or believable.
And their victims are dead, cannot dispute.
The stories are cover, reasons to forgive.
And one more and one more and one more woman dead.

Police victims are dead, so cannot dispute any claims.
No matter how far-fetched, there is only one story.
One more and one more and one more Black woman dead.
One more Black woman blamed for her own murder.

There is only ever one story —
a history told and written and adjudicated by the killers,
and one more Black woman blamed for her own murder,
one more and one more and one more Black woman dead.

Our histories are told and written and adjudicated by our killers.
Tyisha Miller had her own story to tell.
One more and one more and one more Black woman dead.
Nineteen and silenced, her story erased.

Tyisha Miller had her own story to tell,
and we’ll never hear a word of it.
Nineteen and silenced, her story erased.
Her story, barely begun, now ended.

We’ll never hear Tyisha Miller’s story.
Twenty-three shots, a dozen finding their target.
Her story, barely begun, now ended.
How many times do you need to kill the same woman?

Twenty-three shots, a dozen found their target.
Instead of medical care, Tyisha Miller was dealt death.
How many times do you need to kill the same woman?
And the always question: why shoot to kill instead of wound?

Instead of medical care, Tyisha Miller was dealt death.
Tyisha, you deserved so much more, so much better.
My always question: if you must shoot, why kill and not just wound?
Tyisha, your story deserved to be told.

One more and one more and one more Black woman dead.


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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Another Beautiful Life Taken

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Kendra James. Say her name.

Another traffic-stop kill.
When did driving violations become capital crimes?
Kendra James. Twenty-one. Dead.
And of course it’s her own fault.

When did driving violations become capital crimes?
Please point out her attempt to leave the scene
so I’ll know Kendra’s murder was her own fault,
blame her for her demonization and death.

Please point out her attempt to leave the scene —
an important detail if you want to make her responsible,
blame her for her demonization and death,
absolve the officer of his choice to shoot her in the head.

Details of the case help make Kendra responsible
unarmed and innocent, but it’s still okay that she’s dead.
Absolve the cop of his choice to shoot her,
let her name disappear from memory.

Unarmed and innocent, but it’s okay that she’s dead.
What can you do if people won’t follow orders?
Let her name disappear from memory,
she’s just one more number in the count down to zero.

If people won’t follow orders,
surely death is an acceptable punishment.
Kendra James, just another number in the count down to zero.
Kendra James, another beautiful like taken.

Isn’t death an acceptable punishment?
No matter the crime, the killing is easy.
Kendra James, another beautiful like taken,
just another number, keep the drumbeat count going.

No matter the crime, the killing is easy.
Kendra James. Twenty-one. Dead.
Another number, keeping the drumbeat count going.
Zero is reachable, so easily reachable.

Kendra James. Twenty-one. Dead.
Like Eleanor, like Rekia, like so many before her.
Zero is reachable. So easily reachable.
All it takes is our dehumanization. And your apathy.

And your apathy.

I stepped away. First I stopped writing poems, then I started again but didn’t post them. I’ve really struggled with what is the value, the good of putting these painful things into the world. Some conversations with friends and the opportunity to be in the audience for In Perpetual Flight: The Migration of the Black Body helped me come back to this space, decide to post again.


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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Unworthy of a Longer Life

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Deborah Danner. Say her name.

We’ve been here before —
shots that kill rather than wound.
We are here again and again.
The first choice is always to destroy.

Shots that kill rather than wound —
Deborah Danner could be alive today.
Why is the first choice always to destroy?
Why can’t we live?

Deborah Danner could be alive today.
Mental illness isn’t a capital crime.
Why can’t we live?
Deborah Danner, like Eleanor Bumpurs, dead.

Mental illness isn’t a capital crime —
unless you’re Black?
Deborah Danner, like Eleanor Bumpurs, shot dead —
deemed unworthy of a longer life.

When you’re Black,
the slightest infraction becomes a killing crime.
You’re deemed unworthy of a longer life.
You’re shot to kill, not to wound.

The slightest infraction becomes a killing crime.
Deborah Danner was unruly. Now she’s dead.
Shot to kill, not to wound.
While white active shooters are brought in alive.

Deborah Danner was unruly. Now she’s dead.
She had a bat, the cop had a gun.
White active shooters are brought in alive again and again.
What explains the difference if not race?

Danner had a bat, the cop had a gun.
Now she’s dead. She needed care, but now she’s dead.
What explains the outcome if not race?
The first choice is always to destroy.

Why can’t we live?


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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