i wrote this poem last year in my english class, for an assignment about describing the culture of a specific area at the time of an important historical event. i chose chicago, 1919, during the race riots. it’s very different from the poetry that i usually write; those are typically about my own experiences, while this one is based on research & the life of eugene williams. even though it was a little bit out of my comfort zone, i enjoyed working on this because i think experimenting with different kinds of prose helps me grow as a writer.
so with the backstory out of the way, here’s the poem!
my mama said she feels like her head is being held underwater.
she’d just lost her job preparing italian beef sandwiches in a diner downtown.
the day she was fired, my mama slumped over the kitchen table
with a cloth dripping cold water pressed against her flushed cheek,
which sported a shameful red handprint.
a white customer had spotted her dark, plastic-gloved hands in the kitchen,
slicing rolls, tucking in meat, folding sandwiches shut.
she told me that the white woman who had pitched a fit
had been sipping a milkshake through plum-painted lips.
that pursed pout spoke venomous words into the ear of mama’s boss,
who told mama that white folks felt the hair stand up on the back of their necks
whenever people like us were in their spaces.
he kicked her out of the shop with a slap to the face,
telling her to search for a job in the black part of chicago.
wise men believe that nothing is black and white.
there is only gray, an area where both sides can be right.
the gray tells us that mama deserved to keep her job because she’s a hard worker,
but it also says that the white woman’s discomfort was valid.
in my mind, the world is divided into black and white.
white cops, white stockyards, white neighborhoods.
black prisoners, black schools, black slums.
my mama shooed me out of the house one day in july.
she was looking for a new job sewing glitzy flapper dresses in a sweltering factory.
my friend eugene and i spent the afternoon together,
cooling off in the cerulean water of lake michigan.
we buried our callused feet in the warm sand of the beach.
eugene and i joined some sweet girls from the ghetto, splashing in the water on the make.
summer was perfect that day, in the heat with our new dolls, not a care in the world.
i figured my mama had gotten the job and everything would be back to normal.
when the sun was hanging low in the sky, eugene and i
kissed our girls on the cheek and set off to our black neighborhood.
we took a shortcut through the beach on 29th street, wading through the surf.
the people lounging on the sand were made paler
by the zinc oxide streaked on their bare, outstretched limbs.
eugene and i trudged along the shore, our feet covered by gentle waves.
he hummed the song i’m forever blowing bubbles to himself.
a white man yelled at us in a throaty voice that rattled through my skull like thunder.
dark dots showered down from the sky — gnats? polluted rain?
they struck my naked chest, shaking arms, horrified face.
dull pain rose up in my skin wherever they hit.
stones sailed from the heavens and pelted eugene and i as we began to run.
howling white boys raced along beside us, pebbles flying from their hands.
“get out,” they hollered, “this is our beach!”
i saw the shadow before it happened: dark and eager, searching for its target;
a lion chasing its prey across the savanna.
the rock, as big as my fist, smashed into the back of eugene’s head.
he stumbled, his feet slipping in the shifting sand.
then he pitched over and landed facedown in the surf with a thud that stopped my heart.
the splash from his fall sprayed the back of my legs as i fled.
over my shoulder, i urged eugene to pick himself up and get the hell out of there.
eugene stayed in the water, still as a statue, letting the waves lap up over him.
the hunting white boys halted their pursuit to gather around his quiet body,
crowing and and circling like buzzards.
“he’ll drown,” i screamed at them, scratchily,
as though i was speaking through a mouthful of sand.
they hurled stones and slurs whenever i tried to get close.
eventually, my wailing drew the attention of a scowling white cop.
the hunters scattered; the man whose voice shook the earth approached.
calmly, as though the world was not collapsing in on itself,
he explained how two “suspicious-looking boys” had violated the segregation of the beaches.
“the bigger, more criminal one,” he told the officer, while gesturing at eugene’s limp form,
“fainted in the water for unknown reasons.”
i crouched in the lake beside my best friend, praying for him to lift his head.
salty tears rolled off my chin and puddled in the dip of his back.
anger seethed under my skin, burning and all-consuming.
if there is only gray, the policeman would have arrested the white boys
for murdering eugene as he strolled innocently along a beach.
if there is only gray, someone would have listened when i accused the thunderous man
of shouting at us and setting the crime into motion.
those girls from the ghetto, who kissed eugene and me in the lake,
had watched us go, their expressions dizzy and light, then shocked and drained.
they saw the commotion and the rocks in the air.
if there is only gray, folks would have believed those honey-voiced girls
when they took our side and called the white killers sick.
when i got home, mama was at the scuffed kitchen table again.
she must’ve gotten the job: a new striped dress hung on the nail in the wall.
worn and faded, it was the uniform workers wore in the clothing factory.
with her tired mouth, she asked how my day had been, and how was eugene?
“mama,” i told her, “eugene feels like his head is being held underwater, too.”