On Light

Content Warning: Self-harm, Suicide

light (v.1) “to touch down,” as a bird from flight, “get down or descend,” as a person from horseback, from Old English lihtan “to alight; to alleviate, make less heavy,” from Proto-Germanic *linkhtijan, literally “to make light,” from *lingkhtaz “not heavy” (see light (adj.1)).

I am writing this essay because Khadijah Queen called me beautiful. In the throat of a pandemic, behind yet another zoom panel screen, Senegalese twists sagging from my scalp definitely in need of a touch up, of love, of somebody’s mama’s hands—poet, essayist, model (see her collection of prose poems, I’m So Fine, see video shoot excerpt for proof), Khadijah Queen calls me beautiful. In this essay, I am beautiful, as dubbed by Khadijah Queen, who on the other side of a zoom call responds to my, Wow, you are so beautiful, I cannot, with some version of, Aww thank you, you are so beautiful too. I am sitting in the sunroom of my brand-new apartment and thinking of this. I am sitting in the sunroom of my brand-new apartment and thinking of this, a sunroom in which there are seven windows all asking light against me. I am sitting in the sunroom of my brand-new apartment and thinking of this, a sunroom in which there are seven windows all asking the light against me and I exist; I am sitting and there is sun and it is warm against my skin as if it belongs to me, the skin, the sun. And I have a new apartment. I get that these things might seem small—windows, rooms for sun, me, me in a sunroom with seven windows, an apartment that is mine, but I assure you these beauties are all but minor. Because in a different zoom call, outside of the one to which I was just referring, a friend comments on the way in which he sees the sun sea-ing against my skin and I can’t remember if he also said beautiful and what does it matter? Because I know that that is what he meant.

I do not consider myself vain or self-obsessed in the slightest; I imagine that this fact is one that you may not believe given that I have called myself beautiful for at least a page of this essay. But I mean it. I touched down here, at beauty, just a few wrong lovers ago, just a few imaginations of a world slim of my body ago, just a few murdered Black girls ago. Because when I was twelve or so, my mother would take me to work with her and her co-worker Ms. Sherry was one early iteration of those Black women who believed that we were royalty and beautiful and strong and powerful and god-like. Because Ms. Sherry noticed that I never looked people in their eyes, that I didn’t smile, that I scurried like a slow roach in the kitchen of a home with the lights just turned on, past mirrors or any other things that would reflect myself back at me. Because while my mother noticed, called it low self-esteem, my mother had her own lows to ascend. Because it was summer and I was out of school, and Ms. Sherry asked my mother to bring me to the job every day, where she had purchased a full-length mirror that she hung on the back of her office door, where she’d come to my mother’s cubicle and find me, nearly dragging my round body to her office and in front of the mirror. In this mirror, Ms. Sherry would run off love yourself drills like military cadences. Smile, grin, hug yourself, say I am beautiful, say I am important, stand up straight, look at that beautiful girl looking back at you, look, look.  For as much as I pretended not to want to go every morning when my mother would shout through the house that she was leaving in fifteen minutes, I had already picked out my nicest outfit and was ready for Ms. Sherry, her cadences, her mirror each day a less heavy smile than the day before.

light (n.) “brightness, radiant energy, that which makes things visible,” Old English leht (Anglian).

In December of 2019, I decided to die. I don’t intend to minimize this decision but I want to say that I have made it many times in my twenty-five years of life, each time for something different. The times as an adult were wildly different than those of my mid-teenage self: begging visibility, threatening an end, unraveling my selves, jagged scissors to my wrist skin, unmarked pill bottles making dents in my fists, longing stops against bridge rails on walks. At twenty-five, in December of 2019, I decided to die a whisper. Which on a bright side that I am just finding today, would have been just for me and for no one else. My death would have been just for me for no one else, for no other attention than my own.  I would have ended on my own behalf and that is a fucked-up gorgeousness. I would have died in December 2019, in my home in which I lived alone, in Southwest Virginia, the letters all read some version of, This world was just too hard for me and tried. I was tired. I love you so much. Please live your life.

Given that I am here writing this, I did not die that December. Because a Black woman professor approached me at random after a graduate school poetry class on the day before I planned to commit suicide. Because the class had ended and I was taking too long to pack up and everyone around me had wrapped their scarves, zipped their bubble coats, clasped their book bag snaps. Because my professor, ready to brave the mountainous winter in her fur-lined coat and leather gloves, found me placing my items into my bag like wet cement pouring out. Because in an almost whisper, she told me, You don’t actually need an MFA. This did not feel like a general statement; it was as if “you” was my name and I was the only one who could have it. This leather gloved, floor-length coated woman (angel? god? prophet?), promised that if trying to get the degree was killing me, I’d make it in writing without it. As she spoke, her fingers looped like a quill pen writing prophecy. You have a duty to see and name little Black girls out here searching for you and your writing, waiting to hear their stories told—nothing is worth forfeiting the call to do that work.

I’ll remind you that I decided on a quiet death. And I know the cliche of it all is already getting clear to you, so I won’t say that she saved my life, but I will say that she buoyed it—lodged a lifebelt beneath my sinking, swam me to a shore—where Black girls were cheering and my mother was dancing and not weeping over my avoidable casket. My leather-gloved god knew something about my existence or my almost in-existence and shined a light on it. I am grateful—not so much to still be alive but to have been made visible when I had hoped to hide.

light (adj.1) “not heavy, having little actual weight,” from Old English leoht (West Saxon), leht (Anglian), “not heavy, light in weight; lightly constructed; easy to do, trifling; quick, agile,” also of food, sleep, etc., from Proto-Germanic *lingkhtaz.     Meaning “frivolous” is from early 13c.; that of “unchaste” from late 14c., both from the notion of “lacking moral gravity” (compare levity).

I am so tired of writing this, I am sure that my ex-girlfriend is also tired of me writing it. My ex-girlfriend who has expressed her belief that my continual obsession with it paints a picture of her to the world as some vicious and predatory beast, that I victim myself in a way that is un- true, fair, realistic, acceptable. My ex-girlfriend who has a thing about justice—an inability to heal until she feels someone has gotten their due for wronging her to a caliber at which she’d like it. Here I am again, attempting to write something of this, do her justice. Here is also where I manifest that I won’t keep writing this forever. On February 3rd, 2019, in a new Harlem, where the buildings have leaked and leaned for decades of Black babies and are now white with renovation, I got my coat-neck wrangled in-between both of my lover’s fists and tossed to the ground after ignoring her attempts at light and friendly conversation. I ignored her because I knew it would get to her, spark some rabid upset in her gut. Then, she was on top of me drunk with rage, both hands on my shoulders, yanking the top half of my body up and slamming it back down into the concrete, looping, I am so sick of you, I am so tired. It was daylight and people filed out of the Baptist church adjacent to my spine on the concrete and nobody stopped her. I screamed her name because I could tell that she was in a trance and not really there on top of me repeatedly driving the back of my head into the asphalt.

Before I was light enough to fling, to slam down—we had been on the outs. We moved in together under the guise that we’d be roommates, date other people, be friends. We still fucked, still mimicked one body around the other before bed some nights. So when she found out that I had been canoodling with an ex-boyfriend who was a trash person, I’ll give her that, who she was sure deserved me less than she did, things went to shit. The short story is that we had an argument about the boy, I moved out in a rush with a duffel bag brimming with as many things as I could grab on the way. For the next few months, I grabbed my things little by little on visits and overnights that should not have happened. I’d pack a ball of shirts here, a few pairs of panties slipped into my purse, a book of poems, a towel, a washcloth.

February 3rd, was me saying that I was done, was me naming the relationship heavy, was me naming us both battered sets of bones near-breaking beneath it. It was me saying we had to want better for ourselves. I wanted better for her as much as I wanted it for myself and she deserved it. Of the many times I’ve written about my ex, I’ve never called her beautiful, never worthy of love, never soft, never nurturing, never light, and she was all of those things. God, was she all of those things. Was the first woman to take me on a date—got there early, pulled out my chair when I arrived late, blushed a loud red when she told me I was more beautiful than my pictures. Was the one who peeled my body from the side of a lower Manhattan curb the night my grandfather died, held what was left of me until there was more again. Was the only lover with the ability to predict my needs before I knew what they were. The lover who found me a little cafe in Harlem, whose ceilings were filled with tree leaves and tiny fairy lights, whose owners allowed me to host poetry readings in it free of charge. Was a lover who’d wake up and decide that we’d be leaving for a road trip within the hour of her waking because she could feel how much I needed to get away, because she knew when anxiety was eating at me like crumb-full ants. Was who I came out to my family with—and she took their stares and unkempt disdain for my new “lifestyle,” took their blame, their heteronormative violence, with such grace and understanding. Was a sunned and apricot nectar-thick body full of firsts—a genesis. In so many ways, I began again in the passenger seat of her Nissan Rogue. I began wrapped into her body on a twin-sized trundle bed in her mother’s basement, the two of us whispering like children avoiding the night. I began in Tulum, Mexico, getting golden, drinking piña coladas—her across the pool watching and grinning at me like a gutted pineapple.

light (v.2) “to shed light; to set on fire,” late Old English lihtan (Anglian), liehtan (West Saxon), originally transitive, “to ignite, set on fire,” also in a spiritual sense, “to illuminate, fill with brightness.”

Through my phone screen, to a song I don’t remember the name of, my one-year-old cousin, Bailee, throws one arm up and attempts to build her little fingers into a snap. Her body projected in the facetime call invites a car full of my loves to behold the music bouncing off her small and bobbing body to the beat. I am reminded of myself just moments before, arm thrown up, middle and thumb fingers arranged in a snap, and the beach-bound caravan of us all rolling our necks and hollering City Girl lyrics. Bailee dances from the inside of my phone screen and I am reminded of a sweaty house party—everything in it Black and fly and stuntin’ on each other even if it is just in somebody’s mama’s living room or in a PWI dorm lounge. I am reminded of the edge control rushing down my temples, my outstretched fishing rod backside and tongue beckoning a boy with half-lifted pants to sway behind my twerk, the, Fuck it up bitch, in the throats of my friends. In Bailee’s faux snap, I am reminded of her big sister, Bralyn, when she too was a toddler and waddled in her pullup to anywhere, she could be seen when Nelly’s, “Hot in Here,” came on, where her small mouth could say, Girl, I think my butt getting big, alongside the woman on the track. I am reminded that Bralyn is twenty years old now, and so much like me at twenty years old. I am reminded of when Bralyn called me up gushing that when her college professor asked who was the person that showed her what it meant to be Black in America, she gave them my name. Like me, Bralyn too wants to burn the country down, rebuild one with Black folks in mind, loves a good outfit, loves a good party, loves a good Black heat and music. In Bailee’s bounce, I am reminded of my mother’s two-step, her pirouette, the sawing motion of her shoulders and waistline on her birthday when Will Traxx yells out, Somebody shine a light ‘em, and the crowd responds, in an, Ayeeeee. I am reminded of my mother with light shining all around her, from phones and the fire of birthday candles. I am reminded of the birthing room where my great aunt grunted through her last push, and Bailee came out onto the bed pad wiggling like the DJ living in my aunt’s placenta played the last song of the night. I am reminded of her holographic umbilical cord glowing like a fire, like moonlight. 

light (light) “from light.”

There are innumerable ways of light—to light, the light, light, light as, I light, I’m lit, I alight, I am light, I have light, light as fire, light as I am alive, light as shining down on me, light as Ms. Sherry, as my mother, as my ex-girlfriend, as Khadijah Queen, as Bailee, as my leather-gloved god, as me, as the City Girls, as light.

How Grief Works

how voraciously I will hunt in every minutiae of life a hint of my dearly departed

In Search of Touch

First dates are meant to be flirtatious and giggly. In another time, we would be meeting inside a dark downtown bar. Music playing. The stench of sour liquor pinching my nose. He’d ask what I like and order me something smooth. After half a drink, the conversation would begin to flow. I’d ask him a crucial question, “What’s your favorite kind of fry?” He’d say tater tots. “What? That’s not even a fry!” I’d say shoestring dipped in blue cheese because ranch is so over. Later, because he’d be too shy to make a move, I’d ask him to kiss me. This seems to be my move in any time. And we’d make out sitting side by side on barstools all limbs and tongues.

Surface Tension

My mother has what you might call a tradition. Each summer, when the Connecticut heat slides towards 90 and the humidity makes it feel like you're breathing through cotton balls, my mother goes outside to her car, rolls up all the windows, closes the door, and sits in it for as long as she can manage. She alerts no one. Seven to eight minutes later, she throws open the front door, gasping, eyes squinting from the sweat that could no longer be held back by her eyelashes. She smiles as sweat pools inside her shoes and eventually spills out of them, leaving two watery footprints on the floor when she walks to her bathroom for a shower. I wonder for a second what Yemaya would have to say about the oceans at her feet.