"Literacy Narrative" by Kiki Petrosino

Kiki Petrosino

The essay below is the result of an ongoing contemplation about whether, as a poet of color, I have a special obligation to write "political poems" or to engage, through my poetry, in the national debate on race. In my student days, I didn't want to write "identity" poems or be known as "the black poet with a social message." If you'd asked me at the time, I would've said something like, "I'm not a political poet, I just want to write good poems"...as if those concepts are mutually exclusive. It has taken me many years, and a lot of study, to realize that compelling language and a politically engaged sensibility can coexist in the same poem. And, more precisely: that I can write a poem that addresses race in those terms. At the same time, my blackness is personal, and I can't write about race without talking about my family and tracing our particular path through the landscape of American history. I'm still learning how to do this.

Literacy Narrative

I wish to put my blackness into some kind of order. My blackness, my builtness, my blackness, a bill. I want you to know how I feel it: cold key under the tongue. Mean fishhook of homesickness that catches my heart when I walk under southern pines. And how I recognized the watery warp of the floor in my great-grandma’s house, when I dreamed it. This is what her complaining ghost said: Write about me.

I try to write about her. I try to write about her. 

Where did my blackness begin? In Virginia. With an African woman called Rachel and her wedding to William Henry, half-English, half-Cherokee, who wouldn’t let his red hair be photographed. It began with some land, and their house, which survived as a dark ring of chimney stones I once visited. It began with the bodies of Rachel and William Henry, two silences, buried in the lozenge of earth they owned.

But that is not how my blackness began.

I wish to put it into some kind of order. Ashes, oyster shells, my mid-Atlantic bones. My grandmama at twelve, walking away from the farm in Virginia, leaving the little Negro school that only went up to sixth grade. I wanted to go to the seventh grade so badly I don’t know why. Grandmama at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, alone in D.C., attending school and answering ads for “light girls” to clean houses, to watch children. She wore her plain blue uniform dress while serving dinner to the white family whose children she also watched. Grandmama and her college diploma, her government job, her pleated skirts and gold circle pins, years and years on her own. 

I try to write about her. I try to write about her.

My blackness smiles out from my skin, a friend. Here are my narrow jaws and coiling hair. My color I’ve described in poems as “a high and disagreeable gold.” It is a friend, it is a friend. You can’t help but reach out for my blackness, like the white woman poet who once patted her palms down my hair, laughing, “I’ve been wanting to do that.” As if she’d finally allowed herself something sweet and rare. So I forgave her. Part of me likes being looked at, being recognized. It’s just as my PawPaw would say of himself, “I’m a good color,” and sit in the front row for group portraits at the War Department. We have portrait after portrait of PawPaw in his business suit, pale pocket square, brown smiling face. A good color.

So I show up, at eighteen, on the foremost riser for my university choir performances. So I get a solo. So I drink orange juice on Jefferson’s Lawn with my choir friends, and bits of the Lawn lift themselves on Charlottesville breezes and drop into my cup. I drink Charlottesville like medicine. I stalk the libraries and lecture halls no one built for me, and my blackness shows me a flickering host through the colonnades: kerchiefed women carrying laundry, servants with horses, the cooks and carriers of firewood. How will I live up to them? I wish to offer something. I wish for my blackness to be fully known here, to resolve into some kind of order. But I have no basket name, no communal experiences beyond the Latin hymns I learned in Catholic school. Back then, I still press my hair, pull it back.   

So I pass by, quickly.                      

In graduate school, I don’t know how to measure my blackness beyond the marks I make on the page. Those marks are black pixels, the smallest physical points I perceive on my screen. But I feel it, my blackness, livid and living. The word afro appears in a poem and my professor suggests I delete it. He asks: Who are you really addressing, in that moment? And: Is this a political poem? It feels, to him, like a trick. As if I’ve drawn a silver coin from behind his ear. The poem changes when marked by my blackness, I learn. My readership splits, and some leave me. I imagine my readers gathering their coats, turning up their collars against the single raindrop released by the stormcloud of my blackness in a poem.       

I don’t delete anything. I write two books of poems.

Now my blackness walks to school with me, to the edge of the university campus where I teach. We pause beneath Louisville’s seventy-foot monument to the Confederate dead and we both look up, into the glinting mustache of the bronze infantryman balanced on his granite pedestal. An unfinished civil rights monument called Freedom Park leads away from the infantryman. A wooden pergola shelters the names of activists from half-a-century ago. Sometime soon, they say, trees will be transplanted here from the battlefields at Antietam, Chickamauga, Shiloh.

I don’t believe my poetry can redeem the past. There’s no poem I can write that will give voice to voices lost to time, or reverse the ruptures made by centuries of violence. When I write, it’s my voice. This is how I sound when I’m speaking to you. I know it’s not enough, but I offer it in this moment. My poems have been praised for “scout[ing] a new path” through difficult material, for addressing heartbreak with humor. Always, I’m aware of the generations of sorrow that preceded me. I don’t have the power to erase that sorrow, but I can write about it.

As a poet of color, I work to make my art a worthy thing. Because I’m not worthy, just lucky. Born in freedom, walking across campus and into my day’s labors. I borrow any book I wish from the library, and I buy more books with the money I earn. When I sit down to write, I can choose any theme among themes. I don’t always write about my blackness; sometimes I talk about spaceships, or breakfast. I write what pleases me. Still, my blackness is there, in the very language that threads itself across the screen. It’s in my literacy and how I feel it: a gift of threads.

How does it feel to write my blackness in a poem? Like practice. Like mashing the pads of my fingers against guitar strings, making the shape for G until G hurts. And often, it feels bright and huge, a room without walls I step into. My listening room. My library. Where I can be with other poets who speak the many languages of blackness. I stack their books in my arms. I turn their pages. At school, I teach Evie Shockley’s The New Black, Thomas Sayers Ellis’s Skin Inc.: Identity Repair Poems, Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrow, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Shane McCrae’s Mule. I tell my students, I tell myself: Pay attention to what these poets are doing with the sonnet. Look how they break open received forms. Listen to the music they make, how a poem that demands social change can be beautiful at the same time. How it should be beautiful, at the same time.    

I’m no master of order, of music, of blackness. But I’m learning to hum in millions of intimate keys. In my poems, I wish to share my blackness with the world, but it’s personal, too. When I write, my great-grandma, Alverta, enters the room with her sadness and her cat-eye glasses. Her name sounds like a hairpin bent back on itself. She tells me about the big-city dreams she failed to catch. I want to say that her voice resembles mine, but it doesn’t. Alverta is Alverta. I pour her a cup of coffee, but she won’t take off her coat. So that’s the beginning. 

Write about me.                    


Kiki Petrosino is the author of two books of poetry: Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) and Fort Red Border (2009), both from Sarabande Books. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in Best American PoetryThe New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, Jubilat, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is founder and co-editor of Transom, an independent online poetry journal. Petrosino is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisville, where she directs the Creative Writing Program