Question and Answer
Knoxville, 1977. The question is an accusation,
split from the tight smile of a boy
just a grade or two ahead of me. He asks:
Are you a nigger lover?
He does not wonder because my parents
are activists (how could he know?),
or because my older sister domestically
thumps cantaloupe at Kroger's in public
company of a black man. I have no older
sister to push ahead. The case is much simpler.
This boy, who seems just shy of man-
hood (awkward cigarette between his lips,
the milky shadow of a mustache),
knows my white face is the only white face,
the only face framed by straight hair and bangs,
in a regular after-school carpool. And when
he dares me with who I love, I am standing
on a sidewalk in front of Chilhowie Elementary,
unsure what to say, and terrified my ride
will arrive before I've escaped the answer.
It isn't the word nigger that raked in my chest,
but lover. Lover, I realized must be touching
another's naked body; “lover” was reserved for grownups,
a taboo in the curious world of my childhood.
But on spring afternoons whetted with the greeny
scent of cut grass, and after the day's class,
I sometimes visited my neighbor Mary.
shutting ourselves in the gentle dim of her room,
we undressed and lay together close. Quietly
played at love, each coaxing the other's smooth
flesh into wakefulness with mouth and tongue,
like babies who learn first the world by taste.
Her flat nipples shone like ebony nickels,
a bodied currency, freshly minted desire, salt.
We traded childhood for something we did not
know how to speak or value, and thrilled and shamed
in our half-found, half-concealed provinces,
fearing only parents discovering– the punishment
we knew would attend such adventures.
So when that boy's voice broke over me,
Are you a nigger lover? I heard not a slur,
but an affronted adult, the glaring eyes
widening at a privacy suddenly gone public,
and the word lover hovering there, naming what I was.