“Rather than contribute to the spectacle of Black death, I offer the following narrative prose poems — observations from childhood — that document the commonness of devaluing Black lives and the ways that Black children move through that weather.”
— Ashaki M. Jackson
In Childhood, I Am Black
My father teaches me to use words before using hands.
At bedtime we talk about the completeness of Black history lessons at my elementary school. He and Mommy take turns repairing what I know before kissing me goodnight and heading back downstairs.
My dogs decide that they’ve carried on enough and quiet the yard. I feed them before school and when I return, navigating the yard clumsily with buckets of water and kitchen scraps. I gave them difficult names like mine to which they respond in full-bodied celebration. My friends practice the dogs’ names like my father urges my teachers to practice my name.
Teachers act differently around my parents. They quiet down when my parents glide through the school hallways for an unannounced visit to see the teacher who said that Black children can be problematic.
“Soft a,” my mother says to the teacher who apologizes for something. My parents lean into the sorry again and again.
Others Recognize That We Are Black
Our phone is warm with missing after we move to this city.
We check in, comfort each other and laugh into the evening. We assure everyone that this city has a history of sharp corners and, maybe, we have avoided most.
On this evening, I answer the phone. I tell my father that it sounds like one of his students—the voice is masculine, not very young, and white. I hand over the phone and settle into a school night sitcom. My father says hello, listens and hangs up. The following evening, we do this again.
I am told to stop answering the phone.
Within a week I have a police detail at my high school. I learn that my mother has detail too. Our Blackness is now public and shadowed. We let the phone grow cold. The answering machine picks up all calls, especially those that come after we sleep, when the only stirring comes from neighborhood wildlife and the officer outside our home.
In Childhood, I Slowly Learn the Art of It
A school director asks me to join him in a meeting during my class time. He slides his endless arm around my shoulder and says he will summon me from third period. He knows that I am helpful.
My family is new and Good Black. My 7th grade peers ask me if there are more of us where I’m from, back in Houston. I tell them, yes—that I have a large family.
The director’s office is small—too small for me, him and the Black woman who I’ve never met. Her skin is a night sky and her lips are like home. We three sit quietly. She eyes me and I am also uncertain. She waits for the director to respond to some silent question.
“Has anyone ever spat on you?” the director asks me, confidence squaring his chin.
She eyes me again.
“Your daughter was spat on, but not this student. Your racism lawsuit fails.”
And so have I.
In Childhood, I Begin to Call-Out Questionable Behaviors
By 13, I settle into Black-skinned comfort. I do not know all ways of oppression, but I’m sure as soil that I will learn.
My father toils in the front yard of our new home with similar comfort, ridding invasive weeds from our front yard. An officer parks, approaches my father with hand on holster, and asks what he is doing.
Dr. Jackson is tending to his yard is not what the officer needs in that moment.
My father, in a pair of work boots and dirt-smudged khakis, leads the officer into our living room and calls my name. I hurry through the wing and pause upon seeing a new, different white person whose face I’ll have to learn.
“Hi,” I say. “Is this also one of your students from campus, Daddy?” My father looks at me long and silently.
The officer’s eyes are blue and sparkle with disappointment as my father guides him out of our living room and back across our property line.
What have you learned here?
* * *
A recommended reading list from Ashaki M. Jackson for anyone interested in learning the mechanics of institutional/systemic, casual or implicit racism.
Between the World and Me
The Fire Next Time
The New Jim Crow
Dr. Michelle Alexander
Soul On Ice
The Case for Reparations
The Souls of Black Folk
W. E. B. DuBois
Ain’t I A Woman
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed a Movement
Eds. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Garry Peller, Kendall Thomas, Neil Gotanda
* * *
Ashaki M. Jackson is the author of two chapter-length collections — Surveillance (Writ Large Press) and Language Lesson (MIEL). Selections of her work are available in CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art and Action, Pluck! Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture and Prairie Schooner. She earned her MFA (poetry) from Antioch University Los Angeles and her doctorate (social psychology) from Claremont Graduate University. She lives in Los Angeles.
Image copyright Toyin Ojih Odutola.