Hair Crisis

Fluff up the frizz,
pull down the coils—
I’m torn.
The song tells me
I am not my hair,
but my reflection glares
back, demanding an
explanation—
Why do I think this
…Lion’s Mane…
is appropriate for
the corporate office;
for walking on sidewalks
behind white women
clutching expensive purses;
for PTA meetings about
strict dress codes—bans
against colors red, blue,
bandannas in back pockets,
tank tops whose namesake
promotes domestic violence,
“distracting” hairstyles.
My afro enters the room
before I do; everyone
turns, stares, mouths agape,
the atmosphere freezes;
I float in limbo while
they decide what to call
my hair—
It’s like a hat,
like a firework,
an overgrown bush,
chop it down with shears
with weed whackers,
it’s unkempt, nappy.
It is defiant toward gravity,
stiff under patting hands
molding it into a shape
more tolerable. It is
the fear of militant Negros
fist fighting the Klansmen
buried in their backyards.
It is the severed limbs
of my enslaved ancestors
rising from my scalp,
reaching up, out, catching
freedom in the wind, in
low hanging branches, in
lost Bobby pins that
cannot tame my
ROAR!

—Nortina


wp-1460120669780.jpgIt’s been a while since I’ve written a poem other than a haiku. Since April is NaPoWriMo, I thought I’d work off the rust, draw some inspiration from BlaPoWriMo  (and the almost hair identity crisis I had standing in front of the mirror this morning before work), and write this poem.

#BlaPoWriMo: Boycott the Dark Girl (poem)

Boycott the dark girl!

Don’t tell them about race; Middle America
doesn’t want to face your afros and wide nose,
your full lips and round hips.

Boycott the dark girl!

Rip open your blouse, measure the humpback
on which a nation’s edifices are housed,
count the scars from raw cowhide
whipped in formation of a chokecherry plantation.

Boycott the dark girl!

Mend your heartstrings across the violin bridge,
play an empowering song with the bow of your fist.
Splash shades of brown through the stadium field—
a prism of acceptance, their politics must yield.

Boycott the dark girl!

A call for peace, an end to violence
is an attack, they say.
You were beaten, raped,
your genitals dissected and put on display.

Dance on the boycott, dark girl;

Hatred can’t make them turn you away.
Your purple skin is imperial; reclaim your domain
as you slay on the stage in Black Panther berets.

—Nortina

#BlaPoWriMo: Reading Lesson (poem)

African . . .

American . . .

Elsewhere . . .

We drive by American Furniture Warehouse and my son—
leaning over his car seat, pressing his face into the glass window—
clicks his tongue, purses his lips,
scrounges his brain for the sound to match the letter,
enunciates each syllable as he attempts to read
the words displayed across the front of the building.

I want to applaud him;
pronouncing the word A-MER-I-CAN
at three when he’s only just learned the alphabet
deserves ice cream, chocolate chip cookies,
a kiss on the forehead from mommy.
My little protégé, grandson of W.E.B. Du Bois,
a talented tenth to raise his people from the pits of darkness.

But I fear how he discovered the other two . . .

African . . .
Elsewhere . . .

as if he believes his heritage to be disposable.

And I worry.

Do I not read enough tales of Anansi, the cunning spider
before he falls asleep? Does my forgetful husband
allow him to watch mind-numbing cartoons
of cross-eyed doofuses, and drooling talking sponges
instead of the Gullah Gullah Island reruns
I record and set aside for him?
Does he still play with his action figures—
John Stewart’s Green Lantern?
Falcon soaring above the Marvel Universe?

I did it, mommy. I read the sign!

I look at him through the rearview mirror,
smile weakly at my baby boy’s reflection.
Does he know who he is? Can he see himself in
the myths and fables, the educational programming,
the animated superheroes?
I want to pull over,  sweep him up in my warm, Black embrace.
There’s nothing elsewhere about being African,
I wish I could say with an undeceiving heart.

—Nortina


Written for today’s #BlaPoWriMo prompt: write a poem for your sons. This is a revision to an older poem I wrote last year. Click here to read the original.

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 4

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued

“So I bought that gargantuan turkey for no reason!” Rebekah’s blond hair tumbled from the crown of her head as she stood in front of the bathroom mirror and plucked Bobbi pins from her high bun.

“I really wanted to cook the turkey for everyone.” Cheyenne sat on the lid of the toilet, knees drawn to chin.

“There’s always next year, sweetie.”

“I won’t be in Mrs. Watson’s class next year!”

“Well.” Rebekah shook out her hair, scratched her scalp. “I’ll just stick it in the freezer. We’ll eat it for Christmas. You’ll cook it for the family like you always do.”

“Oh, alright.” Cheyenne poked out her bottom lip and slid down from the toilet. She wrapped her arms around her mother’s thigh and stared down and her pedicured toenails, painted pastel pink.

“Being an Indian could be fun.” Rebekah traced the tip of her fingers down the back of Cheyenne’s neck then slipped her hand underneath Cheyenne’s sweater and rubbed her back between her shoulder blades. “They have powwows, and you already wear your hair in pigtail braids. And what’s cooler than a headband with a feather in it?”

“Am I part Indian?”

“That’s an odd thing to ask.” Rebekah lifted Cheyenne’s chin toward her. “Did someone tell you that?”

“Mrs. Watson said I look like it, and my name is Indian.”

“Cheyenne can be a girl’s name too,” Rebekah said in a high-pitched voice, as if trying to convince herself. “I thought it was cute.” Rebekah leaned over Cheyenne and tore a sheet of toilet tissue from the roll behind her. She dampened it under the running faucet, brought it to her lips. “That woman’s got some nerve,” she said to her reflection in the mirror as she forcibly wiped red lipstick from her lips. “She’s been trying to figure out what you are ever since you started at that school.”

“But what am I?” Cheyenne asked.

Rebekah sighed, balled the wet, pink tissue in her fist and tossed it into the trashcan. “I don’t know, sweetheart. Your father once told me he had a little Cherokee in him, but they all say that.”

“They all who?”

Rebekah squatted to be at eye level with Cheyenne. She grabbed Cheyenne by the shoulders, pulled her closer so that their noses almost touched. “You’re my daughter. That’s all that matters,” she said. “Now come on, let’s buy your costume. You’ll be the cutest little Indian princess on stage.”

 

They searched unsuccessfully for a Pocahontas costume. Halloween had passed. The ghost and ghouls replaced by turkey balloons, harvest colored placemats, two for one foil pie dishes, and from the back corner of the stores, artificial snow, reindeer lawn decorations, diamond-shaped evergreens, and glass ornaments crept onto the shelves.

Rebekah didn’t want Cheyenne to look like every other dressed-up Indian girl. “We’ll make one instead. Yours should be unique anyway.” They pieced the outfit together from store to store. At the Shoe Department, Rebekah bought kids’ moccasin slippers. Then from across the street at Michael’s Arts and Crafts, she bought needle and thread—super glue if sewing proved to be too difficult—brown, yellow, and orange beads to decorate the moccasins with, and crane feathers for the headband.

At JC Penny, they browsed the racks for brown fringe skirts. “Do they have anything that isn’t short?” Rebekah complained. On the clearance rack, she found a sepia suede skirt that came down just past Cheyenne’s shins. It was two sizes too big. In the fitting room, Cheyenne held her arms out to the side while Rebekah stood behind her and pinched the fabric together at the waistline. If she bought it, she would have to pin it down and hope the skirt would stay up above Cheyenne’s slim hips. “We’ll make it work,” she said. In the women’s department, she picked up a brown leather belt and a leather fringe vest. “Funny how they call all this stuff cowgirl clothes,” Rebekah scoffed as the sales clerk scanned the price tags at the register. “Like the Westerners didn’t steal it from somebody.” Cheyenne drummed her fingers on the counter, anxious to see how all the pieces would look together on her.

They spread old newspaper across Cheyenne’s bedroom floor. Cheyenne lay on her stomach while Rebekah cut the vest in half then snipped the fringe into thinner, shorter strips. Cheyenne, under her mother’s warnings not to glue her fingers together, squeezed droplets of superglue onto the backs of the fringe pieces, flipped them over, and pressed them onto the suede skirt at the waistline so that it fashioned a belt, and just above the hem so that the fringe tickled her legs when she walked. Once she had completely circled the bottom and top edges of the skirt with fringe, she laid it to the side to dry, and then they started on the sewing.

Cheyenne strung the beads onto the laces of the moccasins while Rebekah threaded the needle. Then Rebekah sewed the laces together so that the beads wouldn’t fall off. Next, Rebekah beaded the thread and weaved it into the sides of the moccasins. The beads hung off the slippers like crescents and jangled when she shook them. “It’ll be like you’re a little grass dancer!” Rebekah exclaimed as she sat the moccasins next to the skirt.

Lastly, Rebekah wrapped the leather belt around Cheyenne’s head to measure the circumference needed for the headband then cut off the unnecessary ends. To tie it together, she wrapped the belt into a halo, stuck the needle through the two belt holes on the end and looped the thread around several times until she could not tear it apart. Then Cheyenne poked the stems of the feathers through the holes and pulled them partway down so the fuzz would fill the space and hold the feathers in place.

“Shall we try it on?” Rebekah picked up the headband and carefully slid it down Cheyenne’s head to the top of her ears as if crowning a princess. She tugged at the feathers so they stood erect at the back of Cheyenne’s head. “How does that feel?”

Cheyenne hurriedly nodded her head until she was dizzy.

“We did a banging good job! You’re gonna look awesome in that play.” Rebekah swept Cheyenne up into a tight bear hug and planted a wet kiss on her forehead between the top of her headband and her hairline.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 3


So I’ve been promising a conclusion to Chapter 3 for the past several weeks now. Promises are made to be broken, but again, I’m promising that it will come next Friday. See you there! 🙂

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 3

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued

Rebekah’s stories of Cheyenne’s father became more spirited as the year progressed. The air cooled in September, and the leaves transitioned from green to bright yellows, rustic reds, and crisp browns in October as Rebekah’s face lit up and a wave of nostalgia swept over her.

By the holidays, the slightest provocation could incite a fond memory. A classic recipe folded down, sticking to the last page of an old scrapbook reminded her of the time she nearly burned the house down baking his grandmother’s infamous coconut cookies in the oven at 500 degrees. When she and Cheyenne raked the leaves in the yard, Cheyenne often dove into a pile, lay in wait for Rebekah to return with a black garbage bag. As she began to stuff the leaves into the bag, Cheyenne popped up like a Jack-in-the-Box, startling Rebekah so that she placed her hand over her heart, exhaled uneasy laugher as memories of his hand reaching from underneath the bed to snatch her foot, his face behind a Jason mask greeting her as she exited the bathroom resurfaced to the front of her mind.

She sat Cheyenne between her legs on the front step, plucked the crunchy, broken-off tips of leaves from Cheyenne’s tangled hair and reminisced on the pranks she and Edmund played on each other in college, from water balloons, to plastic rattlesnakes, to dead stinkbugs in her shoes.

“You’re just like him. Walking around here like a ghost. Waiting to jump out of the corner and scare me.”

Cheyenne leaned back, pressed her head into her mother’s chest, extended her tongue to touch the tip of her nose. “Did he do this a lot?”

“You’re such a silly bean,” Rebekah said, kissing her forehead.

 

Thanksgiving was quickly approaching and Rebekah had a refrigerator full of food she wasn’t allowed to touch. Gayle was the cook of the family. Her turkeys were always moist, the stuffing never mush, the skin crispy—it snapped like potato chips when she sliced it.

Cheyenne never asked why they always ate Thanksgiving dinner with Gayle and Grandpa Richard; why she never met the fretting aunts who pinched Rebekah’s butt that one Christmas and fed her until she could no longer fit her clothes; why her only memories of her father came from stories Rebekah told her when she was on the verge of sleep. She couldn’t miss what she never had, what she never experienced, and cooking with Grandma Gayle was so much more enjoyable than worrying about why the other half of her family was absent. She would massage the turkey in melted butter, licking her fingers when Gayle wasn’t looking. She’d pry open the turkey’s legs, whistle inside the cavity and wait for an echo while Gayle mixed roasted vegetables into the stuffing. Together, they would fill the cavity with large spoonfuls until the stuffing spilled out into the roasting pan. Then Gayle let Cheyenne, a recent expert a shoelace tying, knot kitchen twine around the legs.

This year, on top of cooking with Gayle, Cheyenne and the rest of her kindergarten class would put on a Thanksgiving production for the entire student body of Pembroke Elementary and their families. A Feast for All, Mrs. Watson had named it; a play that would trump all Thanksgiving plays because they would have real food on stage, would pass out plates to the audience during the final curtain call. The students waited in line to receive their assignments from their teacher— who would be characters and who would be responsible for preparing the meal. Cheyenne was confident that she would be tasked with cooking the turkey. She had three years of practice with Gayle. She’d even told Rebekah to buy an extra bird, one big enough to feed the whole school. They’d browsed the poultry bins at three different grocery stores before they found one at twenty pounds.

“This thing is bigger than you when you were a baby,” Rebekah said, breathing heavy. “Maybe Grandma should baste you and stick you in the oven.”

The bag boy helped them carry it to the car. He and Rebekah held either end of the paper grocery bag while Cheyenne stood between them, hugging the bag as if it were one of her toys. The coolness of the refrigerated turkey inside seeped through the bag and chilled her chest. When they returned home, they stuffed the bird in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator where all the cold air sank and concentrated.

Cheyenne perked up when she heard Mrs. Watson call her name and write it on the blackboard. Mrs. Watson turned around, looked up at the ceiling, deep in thought, and tapped her bottom lip with the chalk, leaving a line of white dust. “You can be the Indian chief’s daughter.”

“But I wanted to do the turkey.” Cheyenne drooped her shoulders and hunched her back.

“That will be Rebecca’s job.” Mrs. Watson pointed the chalk to her left at Rebecca, who looked at Cheyenne over her shoulder and smirked, only the left side of her lips parting to show her white teeth.

“My dad has his own restaurant. It’ll be a piece of cake.”

“But I’ve been helping my grandma cook Thanksgiving turkey since I was two.”

“I think you’ll make a great Indian princess. You’ll be little Pocahontas. You’ve seen the movie, right?” Mrs. Watson said.

Cheyenne turned her back to hide her tears.

“Aren’t you part Indian anyway?”

Cheyenne shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I only thought because of your name. And you look—” Mrs. Watson spun around and wrote ‘little Pocahontas’ on the blackboard next to Cheyenne’s name. “Never mind. You’ll be the Indian princess. Join the rest of the tribe.” She pointed her stick of chalk behind her toward the back left corner of the room, where four other students huddled and whispered. Cheyenne dragged her feet in their direction.

“Welcome, my princess,” Ricky Reynolds said, his voice deep, coming from the back of his throat, bouncing like a steady heartbeat. “I am Chief Candlestick.” He and the other three Indians, Natasha, Susie, and Luis Gomez snickered behind their teeth, then opened their arms and pulled her into the circle.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 4

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 2

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued

By five, most children knew of the stork that dropped their tiny infant bodies wrapped in cotton blankets off at their parents’ doorsteps, but Rebekah told a different story. She tucked Cheyenne in bed, plugged in her Little Mermaid night light, and as Cheyenne’s droopy eyelids fluttered, fighting off sleep, Rebekah told her tales of beans in ovens at Christmastime, of great aunts swarming around her, squeezing her arms, slapping her thighs, fretting about seeing her bones, why she didn’t eat real food, how she could push out a baby with those narrow hips. They fed her deep fried turkey, honey glazed ham, sweet potato casserole, macaroni with a burnt layer of cheese on top, rice with giblet gravy, collards cooked in neck bones. A dinner that fed the soul.

Rebekah unbuttoned her jeans, put on a Christmas sweater she found folded underneath the tree when her own sweater pulled too tightly across her satisfied stomach. Santa’s face on her chest, but instead of the rosy cheeks she knew as a child, his was a roasted chestnut brown.

The family stood around the piano as the matriarch’s long, thin fingers fluttered over the keys and sang “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child,” the only song she knew how to play. They stomped their feet, clapped their hands to the up-tempo music, sang from deep within their guts, their dinner sitting at the pit of their stomachs creating a bass that projected their voices, filling the room, seeping through the walls, pouring out into the quiet neighborhood. When the song ended, they started again. A reprise growing louder, more animated. The women began to dance, raising their arms, exalting the Father for the birth of His Son. Jumping up and down, shaking their heads, tears streaming down their cheeks, they shouted, “Glory! Glory! Glory!”

During the third reprise, Edmond snuck Rebekah down to the basement where she was greeted by clouds of her breath in the darkness. As they climbed down, they could see the yard decorations through the high rectangular window to the left of the staircase. Rudolf’s hooves blinked, the multicolored net lights grazed the bottom of the bushes, the luminary bags lit up the walkway.

The basement floor was cleared of clutter. He had pushed all the unused furniture—broken end tables, old box springs, worn out couches—against the walls, making space in the center of the floor for an air mattress. He guided her to the bed, and they lay together on the cold floor, cocooned in the ragged quilt, legs entwined. She fell asleep rapt in the flashing Christmas lights reflected on the windowpane, wrapped in his arms.

“You were due in September,” Rebekah told Cheyenne. “You came a month and a half late, the week before Halloween. My little pumpkin pie. You browned a little longer in the oven.” She kissed Cheyenne’s forehead when her breathing became steady, when her stomach rumbled with dreams of a weeklong feast devoured in one night and of a Santa sitting on the extinguished yule log in the fireplace, attempting to wipe the soot from his face with his beard, succeeding only in deepening it into his skin and the fibers of his hair.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 3


This week’s installment of Chapter 3 is only short because the scene I have planned for next week is going to be pretty long and I didn’t want to break it into parts. So stay tuned for the very long conclusion to Chapter 3! You don’t want to miss it!

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 1

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched

Cheyenne’s mother, Rebekah, had long, blond hair, smooth as silk. Whenever she stepped outside, it turned white as her eyebrows, absorbing the sun’s rays, a natural bleach. When wet, it was yellow and clumped together like sunflower petals. She would comb her fingers through the strands, lifting her roots at the crown, raking her hair over her shoulders, the ends dropping from her French manicured nails, brushing across her elbows and settling at the small of her back. It dried into wind-swept beach waves. She often styled her hair in a French braid down her spine, weaving the sections together until she reached the base of her neck. Then Cheyenne would crawl behind her, rise on her knees and twist her stubby fingers back and forth, in and out down the braid until she couldn’t go any further and swung the end of the tail over her mother’s shoulder, and Rebekah loosely tied it with a rubber band.

Cheyenne was her mother’s twin, just a few shades tanner. Her green eyes matched Rebekah’s, their noses a pair of acute triangles, lips full only when puckered, pink as the distant horizon at sunset. “We are gorgeous women,” Rebekah would say as she tousled her hair in the bathroom mirror, bent down toward Cheyenne, who could barely reach the sink, and pinched her cheek, creating a natural blush. “Save the makeup for the people who need it.”

Cheyenne’s hair was as long as her mother’s, though not as elegant. It was a brownish blond with copper undertones, thick, especially at the crown and the nape of the neck. After she broke four teeth in her comb and snapped that handle on her favorite brush, Rebekah opted to style Cheyenne’s hair only when wet. It shrank into tiny curls when she lathered it with shampoo, suds filling the bottom of the sink. She rinsed it out and scooped a heaping of conditioner into her palm, spread it over Cheyenne’s hair like butter on pancakes, wrapped a plastic grocery bag around her head and had her sit on the edge of the kitchen sink in front of the window—where the sun bared directly through at exactly eleven o’ clock—and played Cat’s Cradle with her for half an hour. “Your hair is beautiful, sweetheart,” she said in her cool voice, breath like mint, “but I gotta soften out those curls. Make them easy to work with.”

When she rinsed out the conditioner, she split the hair down the middle, tied one half in a side ponytail and out of the way so she could blow dry the other half. She stuffed Cheyenne’s ears with cotton balls to muffle the harsh sound of the blow dryer’s motor, and using the pick attachment, combed out the curls. The first half was always easiest, the curls still wet and loose. The pick glided down the length of it as if her hair had been freshly pressed. Dried, Cheyenne’s combed out, wavy tresses extended just past her shoulder blades, and Rebekah French braided it, like her own hair, into a pigtail.

The second half was partially dry when she started on it—the ends were still damp, but the roots had begun to frizz. Flyaway strands had curled around each other into knots, and she plucked them out, yanking Cheyenne’s head back, Cheyenne screaming for her mother to be gentle. Rebekah pressed her hand down on Cheyenne’s crown to stabilize her head and ripped the blow dryer through her hair, clumped shed hairs floating to the floor, Cheyenne lightly whimpering as the pick scraped across her scalp like claws.

Often, Cheyenne’s grandmother, Gayle, would visit while Rebekah was attacking the stubborn second half of Cheyenne’s head. Gayle wasn’t as pretty has her daughter, her hair, a dirtier blond than Rebekah’s, always tied in a low ponytail underneath a visor hat, her face and shoulders rusted red under the sun after playing tennis all morning at the country club.

She brought saltine crackers and peanut butter, sat at the kitchen table where Rebekah styled Cheyenne’s hair, and scooped dollops of peanut butter onto the crackers, pressed them together to make sandwiches. As Rebekah’s yanks became more forceful— Cheyenne’s hair quickly drying into a tight, frizzy puff before Rebekah could smooth it out with the blow dryer—Gayle placed a cracker sandwich into Cheyenne’s mouth, the thick peanut butter gluing her tongue to the roof so that she couldn’t open it wide to yell. She made faces, smacking her lips, to distract Cheyenne from the pain in her head.

While Cheyenne giggled and laughed, tracing the lines around Gayle’s tight, thin lips, Gayle leaned over the plate of saltine crackers and peanut butter on the table, sucking her front teeth and flicking crumbs from her fingers, staring at Rebekah struggle to tame the child’s hair.

“Why don’t you just perm it? Save yourself the trouble,” she said, the tight skin on her forehead pulling into shallow wrinkles as she frowned.

“I can’t, Mom. It’s part of her heritage.”

“A nappy head? I would think there are better things you’d want to cherish.”

“You would, wouldn’t you? You never liked Edmond to begin with,” Rebekah said, tugging Cheyenne’s head back as the pick attachment snagged a knot.

“Ouch, Mommy!”

“I’m sorry, honey. Almost done.” She lifted the last section of hair at Cheyenne’s temples and gently racked the dryer through, using her other hand to cover the tender edges.

“Be careful that you don’t call your mother a name you’ll regret,” Gayle said, wagging her finger.

Rebekah switched the dryer off and slammed it on the kitchen table. “After a while, one arm will be buffer than the other!” she said winding her arm and rolling her shoulders. She took the cotton balls from Cheyenne’s ears and kissed both earlobes. “All done, sweetie. Now I’ll just braid it like we always to Mommy’s.”

Cheyenne nodded, sucking the peanut butter from her tongue, crumbs surrounding her mouth.

“Way to change the subject.” Gayle said and pinched the wiggly Cheyenne who was ready to plant her feet firmly in the grass and stretch her body up towards the sky after sitting nearly two hours on her bottom.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 2

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 2 | Part 3

Susie: Black Inside and Out concluded

“Get your hands off of her like that, boy.” She took his shirt by the collar and yanked him back. He stumbled into his sister, stepping on her toe. She stood still, staring up at Gabbi, and pinched her face in, as if her eyes and mouth were being drawn toward the center at her nose. Then she dropped her jaw. A high-pitched scream escaped her mouth and she cried a tearless wail. The boy sprinted toward the park benches, leaving his sister behind.

Gabbi waved them both off with the flick of her wrist. She crouched in front of me, holding me by the shoulders. She checked my arms, the scrapes on my knees from being dragged out of the sandbox and across the park, the scratches on my face from the tree bark. She wiped the tears from my cheek with her thumb, pressed her fingers against my bruised nose. “Does that hurt, sweetheart?” I nodded and wrapped my arms around her neck, relieved that she had saved me from my ordeal, upset that I was left alone to face it in the first place.

She scooped me into her arms, wrapping my legs around her waist. “Where the hell is your mother, huh?” she whispered, kissing my earlobe.

“She left. She left. She left,” I sobbed, rubbing my sore nose into the crook of her neck.

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

A woman with a baby strapped to her chest tapped Gabbi’s shoulder. She had the same lackluster orange hair as my tormentors, with flyaway strands defining gravity. Her hair stopped at her shoulders, the ends curled like the hook of a coat hanger. She held the boy’s hand at one side while the sister hid behind the other leg, poking her head around her thigh to look up at Gabbi.

“Is everything alright?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me why you’re not watching your kids run around terrorizing my baby.” She patted my cheek as I rested my head on her shoulder.

“Maybe she didn’t realize they were just playing?” She cradled the two children against her legs as if protecting them from Gabbi, as if she were the aggressor and not them. “He told me he was just playing cops. You see, he wants to be a police officer just like his dad.”

“Does his dad teach him that all little black girls are criminals? Look at my baby’s face!” She turned my chin, traced her fingers down the scratches on my cheeks, pointed to the peeled skin on the tip of my nose.

“You know how boys are. They play a little rough.” She shrugged her shoulders, tapped the top of his head. He pulled at the hem of her shirt, jutting his lower lip.

“That’s why you teach them early to keep their hands to themselves, and to recognize when the other kids are no longer having fun so they won’t grow up to be rapists and murderers.”

“How dare you question my parenting when you left your child here by herself in the first place!”

Gabbi ignored her accusation and pointed her finger directly in the boy’s face, nearly touching his nose. “What that boy needs is a good whopping.”

The woman pushed both of her children behind her and squared her shoulders. Gabbi was much taller than she. Her leather boots added almost three inches. Despite being shorter, the woman poked out her chest, rose as if being inflated, leveling her eyes with Gabbi. She curled her lips as she spoke. I could feel her hot breath on my ear. It felt like pins prickling my skin, digging into my eardrums. “How hypocritical of you,” she said. “You question me as a mother because my children were just playing and your daughter got hurt, then you turn around and suggest beating them!”

“It’s called discipline.”

“It’s called child abuse! I should call child services on you.”

I began to sink out of Gabbi’s grasp. I kicked my legs, frantic that I was slipping back into the possession of the police officer in training. I could feel his eyes piercing a hole through his mother’s body as he followed my descent, and as I drew closer to the ground, the tension created by our proximity felt as if all the air around me had been sucked away, and I was sealed inside a vacuum tight container.

Gabbi dipped down to pull me back up, sitting me snuggly on top of her forearm. For a moment, I was saved, but I wanted to escape from that park, be back at our apartment where kids chased one another with sticks, caterpillars clinging to the ends of them, threw hay in their hair, played ding dong ditch on the elderly neighbors, and raced back and forth across the street before the next car came.

I would sit on the front stoop outside of our apartment drawing stick figures with chalk. I would watch men in clothes that swallowed them stand outside the corner store, smoking cigars, sprinkling the ashes on the curb. They would sprint in the opposite direction when they saw flashing blue lights approach, heard the wailing sirens. They would hold their pants up to their waists, ankles smaller than my wrists, feet slipping out of untied shoes as they ran. I couldn’t understand why they ran if they did nothing wrong. Gabbi smoked too. She pretended that she didn’t, but I would see her sneak out back with the pack Marlboros stuffed in her sleeve, the cylinder shape of the lighter visible in her back pocket. I would peek through the blinds of the window and see the clouds of smoke billow from her mouth, dissipate in the air. When she returned, she would place two Altoid mints on her tongue and squirt her neck and arms with lavender scented perfume before scooping me into her arms. I’d asked her why she didn’t run like the others when the police drove through the complex. Her response didn’t resonate with me until now.

“If you look a certain way, no matter what you do, you’re always seen as the back guy. Cops don’t trust you, and you don’t trust the cops.”

“How you ‘posed to look?”

“Not like them.”

I watched the family over Gabbi’s shoulder as she carried me back to her van. The brother and sister crouched to the ground, plucking blades of grass while the mother bounced the baby against her chest, staring ahead of her, her eyes drooping, her mouth twisted downward, as if she were bored. I studied their features to find a difference. Their clothes were different. I stood out from the other children in the park with my denim overalls, but I suspected the difference Gabbi was referring to was more than just a preference of cotton over denim. I looked at their hair, all stringy and flat while my dark brown hair was styled into four large twists—one in the back, two on the sides, and one in the front—held together by pink and green barrettes. But the men in my neighborhood wore their hair in various styles—cornrows, long dreadlocks, close shaves—and the cops who chased them were equally as diverse in their hairstyle choices, ranging from bald to having hair as long as women.

Gabbi buckled me into my car seat, mumbling how she would kill Mom when she found her. She pulled the door closed, and I pressed my face against the window, my breath fogging the glass. What did I have in common with the smokers who ran from the police and what did the police have in common with the little boy who tried to arrest me? As we slowly pulled off, I saw him suddenly slap his arm, probably swatting at a bug. I looked down at my own arm, the same color as Gabbi’s, my parents, the running men in my neighborhood. A dark brown, the color of the markers I used to color in the self-portraits I drew on the inside flaps of coloring books, and loose receipt paper Gabbi emptied from her purse onto the kitchen table. Gabbi always told me to draw on white paper. I could see the colors better. Maybe that’s why the striking red imprint left on his arm was so clear, even from the moving van. The surrounding skin was the same color as the blank pages I drew on.

Does his dad teach him that all little black girls are criminals? I remembered Gabbi asking the woman. But I wasn’t black. Not like the night sky. Not like the television screen when it was turned off. Not like the ski masks bank robbers wore over their faces in the cartoons, and when they took the masks off, the bank robbers looked like the little boy and the police officers, not like me.

I crossed my legs my car seat as Gabbi cruised down the street searching for my father’s car, listening for his rattling speakers. The worst Mom could’ve done was leave me in the park, but she wasn’t a bad person. She’d asked someone to watch me until she returned. And she said that Daddy missed her. A bad person wouldn’t care enough about her to miss her, to want to spend time with her. And Gabbi saved me from a bully. Bad people were the bullies not the heroes.

The only bad people I knew chased innocent men down their own streets for no reason. They turned a blind eye while children they were assigned to watch over were being harassed. They forced their unsuspecting peers to play their rough games and laughed at them when they cried. They spewed threats from their mouths when asked to correct their foul behavior. And none of them looked like me.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 1


Last week I had the worst case of writer’s block imaginable! Late as it is, here is the conclusion to chapter two, and chapter three will still be posted this Friday now that I’ve purged myself of all the distractions.

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 2 | Part 2

Susie: Black Inside and Out continued…

I wanted to get a glimpse of my dad, finally see his eyes. I would run home, compare them to my own in Gabbi’s vanity mirror. Both dark brown, pupils slightly dilated, gray trimming around the irises. But the windows were tinted, and Mom only cracked the passenger door open to slide in, as if to conceal his identity. Or was it me she was trying to hide? She didn’t look back to wave goodbye, didn’t drag me to the car so that we could finally meet, or point a finger toward the girl sitting alone in the sand box, surrounded by screaming children and their watchful parents. “There’s your little girl. She loves your present,” I imagined her saying.

I slammed the fire truck into the sand, using it as a shovel to dig a hole. When the truck wasn’t enough, I used my fingers, sand collecting beneath my nails. I scooped handfuls out, tossed them in all directions, spilling some in the grass. I would bury my truck at the bottom of the sandbox, and with it, all thoughts of my dad.

I was scratching at the wood base when I felt a finger poke the side of my neck.

“You’re under arrest for speeding!”

He looked like a giant standing on the ledge of the sandbox. He pointed a pale finger in my face, the other hand on his hip. His hair was a light brownish-orange and the same length as the bangs that covered his eyebrows and brushed his eyelashes as he blinked. Behind him, a little girl jumped hysterically, laughing and pointing. Her teal dress looked as if she’d been rolling in dirt all day. Mud streaked down her stomach, grass clung to the hem. Her hair was the same color as his. Flat and lifeless, it wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl as she jumped, moving only when she whipped her head to the side.

I slid to the other side of the sandbox and began a new hole. I didn’t like how the boy stared at me, how he stood over me, pointed his finger at the empty space between my eyes as if I were an object her was claiming possession over, and how his sister danced behind him, cheering him on. I turned my back to them. They’d soon walk away once they realized I wasn’t interested in playing.

Around the playground, a little boy kicked his legs back and forth, swinging higher and higher while his mother stood behind and pushed each time he returned. Two older kids raced each other down the monkey bars, each grabbing the other’s hand at the center to slow the other down and make him fall. A little girl wearing a Sesame Street t-shirt sat on a low-hanging branch in a tree, cupped her hands over her eyes and counted to ten while the other children scurried to find hiding places, tripping over one another and raised roots. Any one of them could’ve been arrested for running, speeding.

Instead, his cold hand tapped my shoulder.

“Did you hear me? I said you’re arrested.”

“You’re going to jail! You’re going to jail!” His sister twisted her hips from side to side, sticking her tongue out as she sang.

“No I’m not,” I said.

“Your truck was speeding. You have to go to jail,” he said.

“Lock up! Lock up!”

“Leave me alone.” I curved my shoulder to shield my face, hunched over my fire truck pushed the sand up to the ladder that was slightly curved down. The boy’s shadow loomed over me, fists pressed against hips, posing as if he were a superhero arrived to rid the playground of crime. I looked up at the bench across from me where the woman Mom had asked to watch me still sat. She ducked behind Better Homes and Gardens, pretending to read a recipe for pork medallions. She crossed her bare right leg over the left; it bounced again and again, kicking the air as if a doctor were constantly hitting her knee with the reflex hammer. Behind her left calf, underneath the bench, lay one of the boys playing hide and seek. His eyes darted back and forth from me to the girl bending over the seesaw, looking behind trees in search of the other players. I wanted to switch places with him, be protected behind the woman’s thick legs, unknowingly sheltering one child while she ignored the one she was assigned to watch over. I looked toward the street, hoping to see Gabbi’s van pull to the curb, feel the vibration of my dad’s music prickle my skin. Would he return to become the hero, an embodiment of the fire truck he gave me, more than the absentee father his photograph portrayed who never revealed his eyes and left his only daughter to face her persecutors alone?

I pulled my fire truck from its grave, shaking off sand. Some flew into my eyes, and I pinched them shut, trying to squeeze the sand out of them.

His skin felt like ice against my wrist. I heard the crack of plastic as my fire truck fell from my hand, hit the side of the wood sandbox, and the crooked side mirror finally popped off. With one hand clamped onto my wrist, he curled his slender fingers around my upper arm and yanked me to my feet.

“Come on. You’re going to jail,” he said.

“Move it!” his sister chimed.

“No! Stop!” I tried to break away, tug him down back into the sand with me and wrestle myself out of his grasp, pry his fingers from my arm turning blue under his tight grip, but he was much bigger and stronger than me. He dragged me over the ledge out of the sandbox, scratching my nose against the splinters. I curled my body and turned to the side, planted me feet into the ground, and with all my strength, I pulled back as though we were playing tug of war and my arm was the rope. As I was gaining momentum, pulling him down to the ground with me, his sister knocked her knee in the center of my back. My shoulders curved back with the force and I fell forward.

My face by his feet, the boy let go of my arm, giving me the false security that he had grown tired of harassing me. I lay catching my breath, the blades of grass bending backward as I exhaled. I raised my head, and traced the dark outline of his body in the grass in front of me. It shrank down as his arms curled under my armpits and he picked me up again, his legs straddling my body. I screamed for Gabbi as he waddled me over to a tree on the outskirts of the playground, behind the benches that served as a perimeter. My cries fell on deaf ears. It was as if we were the only three there.

He slammed me into the tree, mushing my face against the bark. My nose bent downward as the bridge collided with the tree trunk; I couldn’t breathe. Against the weight of his palm pressing into my crown, I shifted my head to the side, skidding my cheeks, piercing skin. I took two gulps of air.

“Assume the position!” he said, and while he held me down, his sister’s hands patted from my ankles up my leg, to my hips and waist, and down the other leg. “Check for weapons.”

My eyes burned from the tears and the sand. My temples pounded. My vision blurred. My stomach floated on the tense air. I’d begun to give up hope when I heard a voice so close I could touch it.

“I’m gone for five minutes and all hell breaks loose!”

It was Gabbi.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 2 | Part 3

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 2 | Part 1

Susie: Black Inside and Out

They say children don’t begin to retain their memories until they are around four years old, but I hadn’t yet turned three when I became aware of my skin in the sandbox of the neighborhood park, surrounded by two and three story homes and parents who pretended to ignore me behind maple leaves and flying children on swings.

I called my grandmother by her first name, Gabbi. In public, people mistook her for my mother, my actual mother for my older sister. Gabbi’s hair was cut short and dyed a copper red. She wore jeans and leather boots, even in the summer. She liked showing off her thick thighs and wide hips. “I still got it,” she would say as she sashayed past men younger than her in the mall while I squeezed her index finger, scurrying to keep up, and my mother lollygagged behind, pretended not to be associated.

The only indication of Gabbi’s age was the lines around the edge of her mouth. “Fussing at your crazy mom,” she explained. A permanent scowl on her lips that hadn’t left since the day Mom came home with an F in English, a nineteen-year-old dropout boyfriend, and a baby on the way.

I didn’t see much of Mom growing up. She and Gabbi didn’t get along, and after she had me, she moved in with Pawpaw, only visited me on the weekends.

Our Saturdays together usually involved me being left alone on the playground while she snuck off to meet my dad and, as Gabbi often muttered while holding me, “make another baby he ain’t gon take care of.” I’d only seen his face in pictures. He always wore a hat, shielding his eyes, his shirts hung off his shoulders as if on coat hangers, and his pants could fit three people. The only distinct feature of him I could remember was his mouth. The thin line of black hair across his upper lip looked as if a child had scribbled with a crayon. He bit down on his bottom lip, sneering at the camera, jutting out his chin and the strip of hair that extended down toward his neck.

He bought me a toy fire truck for Christmas. The paint was chipped, the flashing lights and blaring siren broken, the left rearview mirror bent. Gabbi suspected he swiped it from a bin full of toys meant to be donated to homeless children, or it was a hand-me-down from a younger sibling or cousin. I didn’t mind his thoughtless gift. It was all that I had of him. Fire fighters saved people’s lives. They extinguished fires, rescued children from burning buildings. I held onto the hope that there was something heroic underneath the frightening exterior captured in his photograph.

No one ever played in the park by Gabbi’s house. A creek ran through it, alongside the basketball court, swing set, and merry-go-round. It was overgrown with weeds and shrubs, the water as shallow as a rain puddle. The steady chorus of crickets and cicadas resonated from the tall grass, and one woman swore she saw a snake once.

Instead, Gabbi dropped us off at a park near her co-worker’s house. We drove through the gentrified portion of King Drive where Gabbi complained about how the “yuppies” were taking over and raising the property value. We merged onto the highway, drove six exists west to a quieter part of town.

The park was located in the widened median of Shiloh Hills, a cul-de-sac where the playground divided the street down to the end, houses on either side. They each stood tall, having at least a second floor, a shuttered window near the roof where an attic would’ve been. The porches spread across the face of the houses, plastic lawn chairs stacked underneath the spacious windows. At our apartment, we shared a front lawn with ten other tenants. Our designated yards no more than two patches of land separated by the concrete front stoop. However, these homes had lawns where you could cartwheel without kicking your neighbor in the gut, where you weren’t trespassing after taking two or three steps. The grass was a rich, deep green whereas we still covered the dirt with hay, waiting on the rain, waiting on a fresh blade to grow amongst the cigarette butts, broken glass from beer bottles.

Gabbi didn’t trust leaving Mom alone with me, but she knew that a growing child needed to know her mother, so she promised to be back in an hour and left for Target to browse the home section.

Holding my fire truck out in front of me as if it were an airplane, I raced down to the sandbox, sunk my knees into the cushion of the sand and pushed my truck back and forth, wailing at the top of my lungs, weee-oooh, weee-oooh, in route to put out another fire.

Mom stood by the sandbox fidgeting. She crossed one foot over the other, then back again, twisted her torso as if stretching, looked down at her watch, blowing air into her cheeks as if frustrated with the time she was given. It didn’t take me long to realize she hadn’t come to spend time with me, and when the ’69 Impala pulled to the curb, the heavy bass of the music causing the sand grains around me to rise and fall, I knew who she was anxious to see.

“Stay put. I’ll be right back,” she whispered into my ear.

I swung around to face her. “You gon ta see daddy?”

She pulled the strap of her purse over her shoulder, leaned back and stretched her neck in the direction the car was parked.

“He doesn’t always get to see me when she’s around, ya know. He misses your mama.”

“But not me?”

“That’s different.” She caressed the side of my head, and with the jerk of her arm, pulled my face to her mouth. “Don’t tell Gabbi,” she said before kissing my forehead. She smeared a smile across her face as she approached an older woman sitting on the bench that faced my sandbox. She pointed back at me, pressed her palms together as if pleading that her rendezvous would only take a few minutes, and before I could blink, she had disappeared inside the car, the engine revving loudly as it sped off, disappearing from sight.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 2 | Part 2