📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
Art is an embedding. When we create, inspired or troubled by the world, we testify to the truth of being a part of a much longer, deeper vibrant narrative. The complexity inherent in the story of living is great, and more than one medium is needed in its telling. The story must be sung, danced, painted, and carved. The story must be spun with words.
The experiences into which Black Southern artists dipped their brushes and plucked their strings were never still, never static. Cultural practitioners and inventors both then and now know that Blackness is constantly on the move, fugitive and fuguing. "No Such Thing as A Still Life"—A Southern Collection of Black Ekphrasis features poems with origins deeply embedded in the materiality and sonic aesthetics of Black visual artists and musicians creating in the South.
Like Blackness itself, these poems were not created ex-nihilo. A rich materiality is our mother. The fabric of Blackness, its grammars, traumas, its poverty and joy and collective resonances so often deemed nothing by the white gaze, are and have never been no-thing. The poets and writers included in this series practice conjure, repurposement, and re-creation to discover the yet-embedded meanings vibrating the deep.
The Waiting Room
The morning when I woke without fear was the hospital. I wanted to know what was under my own thin drapes. Tired of being gauzy and waif,i I took my life into my own hands and held it tenderly at the dog eared corner at my favorite chapter floating on my back.
I sat alone in the house that hugged me. Creaking motherless room. Without furniture. I came from North Carolina from the clay and the sun. Bare. From the color green. From the circle within the circle within the circle. I came from Georgia. From Alabama. Looping back. From the pupil sprawl produced by colonialism.
I am solid though severed. Rejecting the blue eye in light of my own thick darkness. To think of a black woman healing herself. Is dangerous and desperate. Her herbs rising steam.
Body burden. I'm only porous because of my skin. What sharpness seeps through? Swirls up toxic in my swollen throat? Disoriented, I injure myself because I've inherited accumulation. I didn't make this world. My cells know this body is a black woman. Most of its scars are not mine.
I didn't know what my mother taught me until later. Her cup honey and hot and sit listening for the still small voice. It will be so still and so small. It will be easy to miss. Marigold pressed and living and dried. The scars are not mine. My cells remember this is a black woman. Teach me my own lavender stars.
We can learn to mother ourselves.ii The peace lily from Oteria's funeral wilted very often without water. Rarely bloomed, so housebound. I had never thought to love myself until standing rootbound between the structures and their unfeeling metal.
Cushion the unspeakable so it finds a voiceable tone cradled in the rough sable body. The nonmerits of life. Nowhere with the violets of death. We took Nina's rosebush from the old house. From the velvet woods in Alabama.
It died in North Carolina without a rose. The sun took it. Drought. I am whole but my environment affects me. Below the surface. Burning white. Radiation. Pesticide. My roots tingle. My alchemical scalp. Later a rash. Retching.
The morning I woke without fear I had the second head. The third eye. The trinity in black. The sky. The other sense, which is overlaid with static but comes through survival. Disobedient and resistant. For wanting to hold my own life in my own hands.
The rootwork. Seal it up. what did i see to be except myself?iii I protect my body against raids with sandbags and herbs. An extra layer of earth that mental hygiene cannot penetrate. Devil's ivy. I dress myself in color. With stinging nettle and sage. Untwist my hair. Grow myself in salt in the bath in the country all alone in the house that hugged me. In the powerhouse of the cell. What runs through me. Hyacinth on the sill.iv
i Merriam Webster: waif – A) a piece of property found (as washed up by the sea) but unclaimed B) stolen goods thrown away by a thief in flight.
ii "We Can Learn To Mother Ourselves: The Queer Survival of Black Feminism 1968-1996" by Alexis Pauline Gumbs.
iii Lucille Clifton "won't you celebrate with me?" iv Apollo did not allow Hades to claim Hyakinthos who was murdered out of jealousy. He made a flower from his spilled blood – hyacinth. Hyacinth bulbs are poisonous; they contain oxalic acid.