walks in with no posse but her own and flips
the dial to tententen so she can think a little an’
groove to a quake she made herself. She
tips the glass just so to see that self swirl.
Lisa Simpson, the moody one, parades around a
glass house all fogged up from hot sex and milds,
swinging fast and swinging low and swinging just
swinging with kissy lips and tiny bird ankles.
Ghetto bitch Lisa Simpson don’t grow nothing can’t
be bought or made more fabulous. Sister Lisa
braap braap braap her beauty shop nails across
the cheap linoleum. A homing beacon for the gods.
Lisa Simpson, my cotton creole sister, strums this
waxed guitar with glitter in her teeth and mama
pearls slung across that collarbone, imported off
some coast somewhere far and very very black.
Our very own, this girl, wafts the world with graced
conjure. Lisa Simpson, honey darling, go go go.
—Lauren Jackson, “Lisa Simpson, the yellow sister”
Salt & Vinegar Lay’s nestle in between your crisscrossed thighs, and you don’t really mind the grease you’re getting on the remote. Of course, you tell yourself as you turn on the television. It all makes sense now — why you’ve always felt such an intense connection to her every episode. And how could you have missed it this whole time, only until a poem showed you the truth of her Blackness? A familiar chorus swells along with scraggly letters that spell: The Simpsons. You’re ready to see things in an all-new light. A necessary light.
Season one, episode six. “Moaning Lisa.” A yellow boy jots down on a chalkboard: “I WILL NOT INSTIGATE REVOLUTION. I WILL NOT INSTIGATE REVOLUTION” until his hand begins to ache. Is this it already? Your first clue — the yellow brother to your cotton creole sister? Fred Hampton’s words ring through your head. A mantra: “I am… A revolutionary.” You repeat along with the crowd before him. “I am…” once again, “A revolutionary.” Lisa enters the screen a revolutionary. With her high yellow skin and eight Bantu knots that crown her head into a star, she rips a sweet lick on her saxophone — against the will of the conductor who reprimands her. She leaves the band with her eyes still shut and her soul still intact; she chooses her dignity over her desire to be “in” with the crowd, no posse but her own. Before she arrives at home to join her famous yellow family on their famous brown couch, Lisa bikes back with books stacked atop her basket — the authors of which you imagine: W.E.B Du Bois, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Frank Wilderson III.
The episode post-title sequence begins with another Lisa — one who holds herself with more restraint, staring solemnly into her own eyes through a mirror. You are on the other side, you admit for a split second. In this episode, Lisa is sad. The moody one, they like to call her, just because she notices the sinister underpinnings of our world. A natural Afro-pessimist, you note to yourself. How can one not feel sad as a Black person “when there’s so much suffering in the world?” To your surprise, Lisa finishes your thought on the screen before you. You are both delighted and saddened to find that yet another Black girl has been forced to grow up so fast. But “your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde once penned, and you both know this. So of course, you voice your pain in hopes of conjuring up armor. “I’m too sad.” Lisa says this to her white primary school teacher, who is lecturing her after Lisa refuses to play dodgeball. You say this to yourself when you have to put the Wilderson down.
Frank Wilderson III proclaimed that “‘Mad at the world’ is Black folks at their best.” It is no wonder why Lisa’s pain seems unpinpointable in this episode. It is a pain that is not directed at anyone in specific — not her father or brother, for being ignorant to the sexism that stifles the Black women in their lives; not her white peers, for denying the racism that pervades her every being each day at school; not even herself, for being the girl that makes the biggest racial mountains out of nonexistent molehills. It is a pain that takes aim at the world, and the world is a fog that only the veiled and double conscious can see. A fog that Lisa rallies against with her protests, and in solidarity your fists launch toward the sky like rockets — but neither of you feel that satisfying punch that cracks through your knuckles and whispers: change is possible.
As Lisa cries in her bedroom nearly half way through the episode, a sweet serenade finds its way to her. It comes from a man on a saxophone, at a nearby overpass playing the Blues: an age-old African American tradition that has pulled your ancestors through the almost unspeakable, but perhaps-not-unsingable pain tied to a history of slavery, social death, and ongoing wars between minds, bodies, and nations. Lisa follows this beckoning and meets her first and closest mentor: Bleeding Gums Murphy — a man whose brown skin and head of curls were (like Lisa’s pearls) from some coast somewhere far and very, very Black. Bleeding Gums Murphy imbues into Lisa the Blues tradition, showing her how she can channel her sadness into song — like Ma Rainey, or Nina Simone, or even Solange or Kendrick Lamar. In this doing you remember a vital community, and hope Lisa’s slowly doing the same. Gums and Lisa swing and sing along between each other’s saxophone licks — swinging fast and swinging low and swinging concerns about their loneliness, their poverty, and their strained relationships. For just a short, shimmering minute, the two get to play their saxes toward a sky now painted Black, and a moon persuaded Blue. That night my cotton creole sister admitted: “I’m the saddest kid in grade number two.”
The Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde wrote, “Racism and sexism are grown-up words. Black children in america cannot avoid these distortions in their living and, too often, do not have the words for naming them.” Lisa is just a child, and has not yet learned how to capture the words that fully spell out her existence. Watching Marge — with a familiar row of pearls around her neck, and her proud, Blue afro standing tall and unwavering — drive Lisa to band practice, you know that Lisa is her mother’s child; this (re-)reckoning with sadness is just as much Marge’s as it is Lisa’s. Marge, still scarred from the growing pains of her own Black childhood, tells her frowning baby to smile. She teaches her to push her bad feelings down her throat and past her knees until she’s almost walking on them. “And then you’ll fit in… and happiness will follow,” Marge says with a forced grin, which Lisa then mimics. On the other side of the mirror, you frown.
Lisa walks atop her feelings and toward a group of classmates who demean her. As she clenches her teeth, you clench your fists in painful memories of your own battle through 2nd grade. You wear Lisa’s upturned eyebrows alone during recess, underneath the slide so you don’t get even darker. You hear the vacancy of her words in your tiny voice, apologizing in the principal’s office for being “too rowdy” and “a nuisance to the class.” These are the moments that mold us; you wonder, how does she take shape? When Marge witnesses Lisa crumble as she cuts pieces of her off in exchange for white-acceptance, Marge remembers what you imagine she’d learned in her Black feminist readings: “It is not the destiny of Black america to repeat white america’s mistakes. But we will, if we mistake the trappings of success in a sick society for the signs of a meaningful life.” Throwing caution to the wind, she swoops her child back into her car and into the safety of her care. Change is possible.
Marge apologizes, and exhibits the same vulnerability that you’ve seen your mother give you on your early rides home from school. Through her scratchy voice and a newfound sorrow, she tells Lisa: “I take it all back. You wanna be sad honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you. And when you’re finished being sad, we’ll still be there.” Marge teaches Lisa the same heartbreaking truth that your mother gave you, and her mother gave her: that in order to survive, we must be vulnerable with each other. We must admit our wrongdoings and tell each other when the trails we’ve traveled lead to nowhere Black and livable. That in order to live Black, we must find ways to love and resist at the same time. You are molded soaking up the sun while giggling down the slide, and grooving in the classroom to quakes you made yourself. In the principal’s office, you whisper “I am…” to the crowd, and take shape a revolutionary.
James Baldwin once wrote, “The wretched of the earth do not decide to become extinct, they resolve, on the contrary, to multiply: life is their only weapon against life, life is all that they have.” We, the wretched of the earth to all others but ourselves, must embrace life — even while fighting against all of life’s forces. Lisa, now having realized this, chooses to stay smiling. She knows that her resistance to the world is not mutually exclusive with the joy she so desires. Black joy is possible, you almost say out loud like a spell. “We cannot settle… for parodies of self-love,” you remember Lorde saying. As the episode comes to its close, you smile to yourself knowing the Lisa you saw in the title sequence is the Lisa you see now — one who bikes through her town and sings through her sax and interrupts the world with the graced conjure given to her by her ancestors. You find yourself put away, perhaps this time part of a community once the layers start to fray. Yes, this is what lies at the heart of living proudly Black: community.
In a poem of hers, Lorde finishes by conjuring up herself in a chorus of Black women: “We cannot live without our lives,” they chant all together, “We cannot live without our lives.” This embrace of life is why this episode leads Lisa to her mother while on her journey toward herself. It is why the episode ends with Lisa bringing her family back to their roots, to a Blues concert of Bleeding Gums Murphy’s. It’s why the room they play in fills with cries of both love and resistance, Blues swirling into heads with tight curls and faces with Black skin. Maybe that’s why Lauren Jackson sees Lisa for who she is, and writes her into existence so you can dream her up too. And maybe it’s why you sit on the other side of the mirror, alone beside a now empty bag of chips, never desperately imagining that Lisa Simpson is your kin. You know you’ve got family — in the mantras you chant, in the words on the chalkboard, in the glitter in your teeth, and in the pops of your knuckles; in your Baldwins and Lordes, your Joneses and Jacksons, and in your mothers, pops, aunts, and uncles. Lisa Simpson, your yellow sister, chants for you to join them: “Come, honey darling, go go go!”