I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
a country caught
between Black and White.
My birth certificate says: Female Negro
Mother: Mary Anne Irby, 22, Negro
Father: Jack Austin Woodson, 25, Negro
My time of birth wasn’t listed
on the certificate, then got lost again
amid other people’s bad memory.
You can keep your South…
The way they treated us down there,
I got your mama out as quick as I could…
Told her there’s never gonna be a Woodson
that sits in the back of a bus.
I’m not ashamed…cleaning is what I know. I’m not ashamed if it feeds my children.
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
southern subservient days…
The list of what not to say
goes on and on…
You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak.
At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.
In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn’t use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out
Retelling each story.
Making up what I didn’t understand
or missed when voices dropped too low, I talk
until my sister and brother’s soft breaths tell me
Then I let the stories live
inside my head, again and again
until the real world fades back
into cricket lullabies
and my own dreams.
And I imagine her standing
in the middle of the road, her arms out
fingers pointing North and South:
I want to ask:
Will there always be a road?
Will there always be a bus?
Will we always have to choose
Sometimes, I lie about my father.
He died, I say, in a car wreck or…
He’s coming soon…
if my sister’s nearby she shakes her head. Says,
She’s making up stories again. Says,
We don’t have a father anymore.
Our grandfather’s our father now.
Sometimes, that’s the way things happen.
It’s hard to understand
the way my brain works— so different
from everybody around me.
How each new story
I’m told becomes a thing
in some other way to me…!
Keep making up stories, my uncle says.
You’re lying, my mother says.
Is that what you want us to call you?
I want to say, No, my name is Jacqueline
but I am scared of that cursive q, know
I may never be able to connect it to c and u
so I nod even though
I am lying.
Words come slow to me
on the page until
I memorize them, reading the same books over
and over, copying
lyrics to songs from records and TV commercials,
the words settling into my brain, into my memory.
Not everyone learns
to read this way— memory taking over when the rest
of the brain stops working,
but I do.
If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
I’d never have believed that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.
It’s hard not to see the moment—
my grandmother in her Sunday clothes, a hat
with a flower pinned to it
neatly on her head, her patent-leather purse,
between her gloved hands—waiting quietly
long past her turn.
I love my friend,
and still do
when we play games
we laugh. I hope she never goes away from me
because I love my friend.
We take our food out to her stoop just as the grown-ups
start dancing merengue, the women lifting their long dresses
to show off their fast-moving feet,
the men clapping and yelling,
Baila! Baila! until the living room floor disappears.
When I ask Maria where Diana is she says,
They’re coming later. This part is just for my family.
What’s wrong with you?
Have you lost your mind?
Don’t you know people get arrested
They’re just words, I whisper.
They’re not trying to hurt anybody!
I still don’t know what it is
That would make people want to get along.
Maybe no one does.
Angela Davis smiles, gap-toothed and beautiful,
raises her fist in the air
says, Power to the people, looks out from the television
directly into my eyes.
Some evenings, I kneel toward Mecca with my uncle.
is the place Leftie goes to in his mind, when
the memory of losing his arm becomes too much. Maybe Mecca is
presents and stories and poetry and arroz con pollo
and family and friends…
And all the worlds you are—
Ohio and Greenville
Woodson and Irby
Gunnar’s child and Jack’s daughter
Jehovah’s Witness and nonbeliever
listener and writer
Jackie and Jacqueline
gather into one world
where You decide
what each world
and each story
and each ending
will finally be.