D’Angelo’s “Untitled” is on BET, your forehead pressed against the screen trying to look down, praying there’s a few more inches of TV. you don’t know what drives you to press your skin to the screen filled with his skin but you let yourself be driven, be hungry, be whatever this is when no one is around. you don’t know what a faggot is but you know a faggot would probably be doing this. you don’t know what a faggot is but you know you might be one. You don’t know what you are but you know you shouldn’t be. but you know that when D’Angelo sings how he sings looking how he looks, inside you something breaks open & then that odd flood of yes, a storm you can’t call a storm but the wind sounds like your name.
your auntie & ‘nem done finished the wine & put on that Ohio Players or whatever album makes them feel blackest. they dancin’ nasty & you watching from the steps when you should be sleep. your uncle is usually a man of much shoulders & silence but tonight he is a brown slur in the light, his body liquid & drunk with good sound. you feel like you shouldn’t be looking at how shameless he moves his hips, how he holds your auntie like a cliff or something that just might save him. your mama is not your mama tonight – she is 19 again, unsure what burns in her middle. your not-mama is caught in a rapture so ungospel you wonder if this is what they mean by sin, & if it is, how, like really how, could this be the way to hell? you’ve never seen her this free, this on fire this — “BOY!” she screams at you but not so you’ll go back to bed. she calls you to her, you grab her hands, she shows you where you come from.
your grandma sent you out to the big freezer to get some pork chops & while she said they were on top, you can’t find them to save your behind. you see neck bones, pig feet, whole chickens, chicken wings, chicken thighs, chicken nuggets, chitterlings, pizzas, freeze pops, some meat you don’t know the name of, but not the chops. grandma is gonna have to find it herself. your grandma doesn’t have much but she has this. who cares about kingdom if the children don’t thin? this was her great northern prayer to make the girls round & winter tough, watch the boys grown broad & alive. glory be the woman with enough meat to let the world starve but not her family, glory the pork chops she sends you to get but you can’t find, glory the woman who knows where she placed what is dead & what feeds, who rules the skillet with both hands while both she & the dinner bleed.
last summer you weren’t bowlegged & your mama noticed you got thick once you shed winter’s wool & she damned the young new fat wrapped around her narrow boy & the secret was out: you had secrets & those secrets had hands & mouths & bulges pressed against your jeans in someone else’s mama’s basement & your jeans are too little & this city was too beige & small for your wild, stay oiled legs to walk & run your mouth to someone’s son talking grown & acting like y’all got no home training & oooo he spread you flat & open & arched, your back the black edge of everything, the sun dipping down, look how quick the stars came to spill their barely light everywhere & somewhere on the other side of the horizon inside you a sun falls right out the sky, burns & burns until it pulls back out & you get darker every week in August walking around so black & sassy & unkillable & filled with shine boys look at you & go blind — most with rage, some with hunger.
you went to the mall & got errrrythang airbrushed cause homecoming next week. you been practicing the heel-toe for a month now & you need the fit to be as on point. you buy a tall-tee cause you must. you cop some forces cause what else? you didn’t buy new jeans but you’ll ask your grandma to iron a hard crease how she used to do your church clothes & you expect to be some kind of holy. you bring the tee & the forces & the yet-pressed jeans to the airbrush booth, you want your name in red, your school year down the leg, the shoes with a design almost bloody & all those little stars that they do for free. so many stars. you gonna be so fly. a sky decked out in ruby.
when white folks talk about being black they never talk about how your grandma’s brow softens when you raise the spoonful of hot peas to your mouth on New Year’s or how your mother called you into her room in the morning to rub lotion on your face when she’d pumped too much. they don’t talk about being called into the kitchen to do your dance or sing that little song you sing or just stand there so your mama could be proud in front of company. they won’t talk about the rage & terror in her voice when she catches you fighting in the park or with liquor on your breathe or anywhere you ain’t supposed to be, but are, or the joy she feels when she looks at you, grateful she still has a boy to look at, that no one has tested her joy & succeeded.
Danez Smith is the author of [insert] boy, winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, and Black Movie, winner of the 2014 Button Poetry Chapbook Prize. He is a 2014 Ruth Lilly-Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, a Cave Canem and VONA alum, and recipient of a McKnight Foundation Fellowship. Smith’s writing has been published in Poetry Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Ploughshares and elsewhere. A founding member of two collectives, Dark Noise and Sad Boy Supper Club, Smith is currently the micro-editor for The Offing.
A version of this essay was originally published in Blueshift Journal.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]