Nigger

I watched each poet, learned from each poet, slowly felt each poet, but became just one. I hadn’t slept so I couldn’t focus except then, when she was crying, I was crying. Raw passion was onstage, surging from the face, hers. Her body became her vessel; she smacked my brain across the face, Maya’s. Maya Williams.

“I don’t understand how these kids can do it today, call each other NIGGERS as if it’s their names! Do they have any idea what the word means? If they had to pick cotton, scrub floors on their knees...And answered only to Nigger because they had no identity, they would think differently.”

Her body jerked violently as her raging, piercing voice filled the auditorium. Her anger, frustration, vivacity surged from inside through her energy systems to her organs, bones, muscles. Her hands flew up in the air, her torso swung around and around and she became nigger—slave, white man, nigger—now, judge.

“Nigger, clean my house Nigger iron my clothes Nigger get my kids ready
it’s time to go Nigger water my plants Nigger do that dance called
hambone...Nigger lay D – O – W – N so I can have sex with you Nigger
you’re the scum on my shoe...Now hang that Nigger from that maple
tree…”

I’m white and Jewish and from Brooklyn. I have sympathy but lack empathy for nigger: the word, the era, the existence. It’s not me, but it was for that night, for the five minutes through which I became Maya Williams and every ancestor from which she rose.

She is quiet. She carries a scowl on her face always, except when she smiles. She carries a book and writes in it and rereads what she wrote, sometimes mumbles, sometimes mouths the words to herself, and that night she thrust me into Maya’s mountain of dissatisfaction with her race and showed me her “beautiful black heritage” in its purest, least meddled—with form. When my brother was born and hungry for my mother’s breast he used to
cry. His eyes closed and his mouth opened. He let out a quivering wail
and his lower jaw shook violently.

She is tiny and thin and when she said her poem, she was starving for change, breast milk. Change, vibrations reverberated from her inside to her outside to my mind. She smacked my brain across the face.

Contributor

Alisa Umanskaya

Umanskaya participated in the Program for Women in Science and Engineering at Iowa State University.

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