excerpt from "Psalms of a Fictional Black Girl during Jim Crow I'm Afraid to Portray"


I forgot what blessed meant

because the preacher said it so much.

Like “amen” & “hosannah” its meaning stripped away.

At times I thought blessed meant happy.

Other times it meant lucky. Favored.

In a certain way, I guess it means being in the right place at the right time.

And not in the immediate sense.

Not like, “oh thank God I wasn’t on Douglass Street when they shot those kids,”

Or like when we take grandmama to play the numbers

“Blessed” is like luck in slow motion.

The long drawn out process of goodness flowing to you. Through you.

And you don’t get credit for that. It just happens.

I don’t know why some get it and others don’t.


I never felt a part of any nation.

When the nation is “doing well”, I don’t feel a difference.

Sometimes the politicians come to town and talk about freedom.

But then they leave.

At school, teacher talks about history and Emma raises her hand and asks,

“Why is history only about kings and nations and wars?”

The teacher becomes strict, and says something vague

about not repeating the same mistakes.

But Emma is right.

The history of music doesn’t have to be learned.

The history of dance is in our bones.

We feel the history of America

when we watch our mothers when they talk to white women.

Or when we keep track of whose daddy is in church and whose daddy is in prison.


I once tore a photo of Lena Horne out of a magazine

somebody dropped on the floor of the back of the bus.

I hung it above my bed and I talk to her at night.

“If you can do it, I can do it.” I say.

I don’t want to be famous.

I just want to look as happy as she looks in the photo.


Lena, why do you not respond when I call to you?

Please console my deepest fears. Give me hope.

Will I be forced to serve as my mother serves?

Forced to grin and bear as my father?

At night, I read mystery books until I fall asleep.

Laying silently in the dark fills me dread.

I am safe. Why do I not feel safe?


The preacher says that God hates the wicked.

But the wicked seem to rule the world.

This confuses me and makes me doubt the preacher.

If God loved me and my family,

wouldn’t he make me a princess and my mother a queen?

Emma talks about something called karma.

“What goes around comes around,” she says.

This also seems too simple.

Some people get away with evil while mother fights tears when

She watches young lovers holding hands.


Momma tells me if I need to cry

I should always go to another room.

“Crying is good for your soul,” she says.

“But it’s not good for other people to see.”

I imagine at night, everybody in their own room crying to a God who won’t listen.

Thinking they are the only one.


I’ve started pretending, in shifty situations,

That I am Lena Horne.

When cops follow me and my baby brother when we walk from the grocery

I turn around with a big smile and say,

“Can I help you boys?”

Thank you Lena. You are my shield.

I wouldn’t know how to act if not for you.

A night out at a juke joint, S. Carolina, 1956. Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image

A night out at a juke joint, S. Carolina, 1956.
Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image


I think what I like about movie stars is that

They don’t seem to be in any danger.

They have no enemies. No avengers.

Movie stars seem to be more blessed than anybody.

The most blessed people of all!

We all want to watch them.

We all want to be them.

Does Lena Horne go to bed at night knowing she’s a star?

Do movie stars cry alone in their beds at night?


“God to me,” says Emma, “is the space our parents go to survive.”

We are throwing rocks into the river.

“So do you believe in it?” I ask.

“Well, yeah,” she says.

A moment goes by. I notice a cardinal chirping on a nearby branch.

“I mean, if they didn’t have that space….neither of us would exist.”

“But maybe they make that space up. Maybe it’s imaginary.”

“That’s my point.”


Why, Lena, won’t you come to South Carolina?

Are you laughing over your shoulder at a fancy club, holding a pretty drink?

Maybe in New York or LA?

A girl two towns over was raped by some Klan men.

Momma explained what the burning crosses meant years ago.

Momma listens to “The Man I Love” on the radio in our kitchen

and drinks from a bottle of cognac the Brown’s gave her last Christmas

She used to say she was saving it for when her old boyfriend, Henry,

came back from the war.

“I dunno what his black ass is doin’ in Paris, anyway,” she said

the day she finally opened it alone.

Please come, Lena. Bring your prettiest gown and your best microphone.

All the girls who miss their fathers will come to hear you, and sing along.

You, Lena, if you came to South Carolina

would know exactly how to save us.


At night, I take refuge in writing stories.

I pretend I am my characters.

I am a Chinese geisha, trying to unwrap her feet.

I am a blue-bird in an endless sea of red cardinals.

I am a crewman on Odysseus's ship. But being deaf, I don’t fall under the Siren’s spell.

I am a white boy who lives near the Capitol building. His parents are mean to him.

“How do you know anything about what it’s like to be ________?” Emma asks.

I shrug and say, “I like to imagine.”  

Sometimes, I imagine that I’m a fictional character

being written by somebody

who doesn’t really actually know

much about what it’s like to be somebody like me

But that’s why he’s writing. To try.


The preacher talking again about Jesus favoring the poor

And the people all lift their hands in Amen.

I would roll my eyes if Momma wouldn’t smack me.

I found a copy of The Sound and the Fury at school

I hide in the woods so I can read it

Momma would say I’m too young

I find in books the missing puzzle pieces.

The things the preacher leaves out when he’s preaching.

I need to be inspired.

But I also need to be smart.

I’d like to write Mr. Faulkner a letter


How long, Lena? Will I ever meet you?

How long must I stay stuck in South Carolina?

I want to move to California. Or Harlem.

I don’t know your address,

so I simply send the letters to “Hollywood.”

Even if you never write back, I will still pretend I’m you

When I listen to, “Good for Nothin’, Joe.”


I don’t like stories where characters have dreams.

It seems too easy.

Every time they read about an angel appearing in a dream

I think that nobody I’ve known ever saw an angel

Where did all the angels go?

I used to draw angels with crayons when I was younger.

Momma would pin them to the wall in my room.

A neighbor boy saw them once while we were playing

Hide and seek and said,

“Angels aren’t black.”

I punched him in the face.


When she isn’t home, I’ll go into Momma’s bedroom

With the big mirror and take off all my clothes and stare

At myself in the mirror and think,

That I may be the most beautiful girl in all of Charleston.

I practice laughing over my shoulder like I’m at a fancy party.


One time, I walked home five minutes before Charlie

On our street was beat-up by Klan.

The night they set our old house on fire, I slept over at

Emma’s house. Something I never did.

“You got guardian angels,” Momma says,

“You are favored by the Lord.”

And though I don’t believe it the way she does,

I carry this luck around with me like a secret diamond.


Momma has her friend from the kitchen over.

They drink iced tea and whiskey and are hootin and hollerin.

I want to be one of the ladies but I know I’m just a girl.

I lean on my hands, elbow on the table and rock back and forth

Between them as they perform a dance of laughter and gossip.

They talk about women like they are nothing but crazy.

And men like they are nothing but trouble.

They talk about how the white women are acting like heroes because

now they are working in the factories because the men have all

Been sent overseas.

Rosie the Riveter cracks them up.

I love when Momma laughs so hard she cries.

I’ve never been able to do that.

I usually just watch, smiling with awkward amusement

My lips covering my teeth.


Momma found the Faulkner book and asked where I got it.

She threw it in the garbage.

She wasn’t mean about it, but I’m sad. I was almost finished with it.

I think I’m going to go to college when I’m older.

I don’t know how.

I don’t know many girls like me who have been to college but

I want to read more books and….I don’t know….

I don’t know if I want to be a movie star or a professor.

I wish I could be both.

Maybe I could be a movie star who plays a professor.


I play a game with myself whenever Momma makes me

Go with her to a party.

I call it “opposites.”

I pretend that the prettiest lady is the ugliest.

That the fattest ugliest smelliest is the most beautiful.

I pretend that the funniest person in the room is the most bashful.

That the most bashful is the most loved and venorated.

The person with the fancy car becomes the poorest.

I pretend that the person who acts the most intelligent is the dumbest.

And that the tallest is the shortest and the shortest is the tallest.

I carry all these opposites inside me

like polar magnets tugging at a metal top that won’t stop spinning.


May the school teachers feed us when we are hungry

May the police come our aid and protect us when we are assaulted

May the fathers who never came home, come back home

May the mothers’ tears contain magic that wards off more pain

May the preachers cultivate our pain the way a gardener uses damaged fruit as fertilizer

May we grow so strong and beautiful, our humanity cannot be denied.

May they look at us and shrink at our nobility.


Emma finds me reading Hemingway in the forest

“what you think you white or somethin?” she grabs the book from me

And starts reading out loud like a stiff.

“Don't you ever get the feeling that all your life is

going by and you're not taking advantage of it?

Do you realize you've lived nearly half

the time you have to live already?”

“Shit,” she says, “that’s deep.


For some time, not even music makes me smile.

I take Lena Horne off my wall.

“His Eye is on the Sparrow” doesn’t lift me.

I wonder if I’ll ever love music again.

I wonder if sometimes Ella, Josephine, and Lena

Just don’t feel like it anymore.

Books take me over.

One day I want to write a book that helps other smart quiet girls.


The Lord is momma’s reason for everything.

I shall not question.

He makes her feel hope and that’s good enough for me.

Gives us something to do on Sunday, I suppose.

Gives us friends.

For all the days of my life, I don’t think I’ll ever really know what I truly believe.

Books and music are my only comfort. And even they, sometimes, can fail me.

I tell Emma I’ll believe in Jesus when white people stop killing black people.

But at church I still sing the hymns and pretend that it’s real for me.