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Titulo

How to Play Dead


by Brittny Ray Crowell

Inspired by Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” Dedicated to Charleston and all of us.

This is how you name your child so they’ll say no only after seeing their face

Restrict your syllables like a haiku

Beware of “black” suffixes like –sha, or –tay, or, –ka

Lest your children become the sluts or thugs
they believe we are so bent on becoming

This is how you hold your tongue so they won’t think you’re angry

This is how you cloak and bind the curves of your body
so you won’t seem like the slut they think you are so bent on becoming

This is how you walk when you need to cross the street without looking dangerous
—You don’t.

Stay inside if at all possible
but even this will only protect you for so long

This is how you smile benignly to show that you are not dangerous

not too wide
bring the corners of your broad mouth in tight


do not bare your teeth (this is aggressive)
make your eyes soft and friendly, though they are dark

This is how you bow your head when they want to touch your hair

tilt you head forward, eyes to the floor
or just stand and make yourself still

pretend that you are not uncomfortable

because for you to be uncomfortable is dangerous

This is how you wear your hair when it’s time for business, lest you become a distraction

understand that your texture is one of curiosity

and curiosities and fetishes have their designated time and place

This is how you laugh when you don’t really want to laugh,
because to not laugh at a joke at your expense would be rude and dangerous

This is how you hold in a cry that is just building in the corner of your eye
and the back of your throat like a storm

This is also the same way you swallow all the words you want to say but can’t

This is how you hug a man you love when he may not come back

From the store

From work

From a walk

From a run (that of course, would be deserved. under no circumstances run, unless they ask you to)

This is how you pick your words carefully like fruit before they try to silence you

This is how you pray without getting shot

This is how you bear the entire weight of a man with his knees upon your naked back
while your face is smashed against the earth

This is how you still the quiver in your belly and spine when someone else has died once again
–You don’t.

This is how you try to remain neutral as not to seem too anxious or angry which is dangerous

This is how to be “one of the good ones”

This is how to keep the boat steady

This is how to try to play it safe

This is how to pretend to be smiling to not show that the things they said, denied, ignored, or questioned hurt you

This is how to shut up and keep your job so you won’t become the freeloading, dependent slut
they think you are so bent on becoming

This is how you make yourself small because to not do so would be dangerous

This is how to be black, but not too black, but black within reason

This is how to be that loveable, sitcom,

“I’m comfortable with you filling the position of my only black friend/teach me that new dance/phrase you all do/say” kind of black which is not too dangerous

This is how to smile when that same friend doesn’t come to your defense

This is how you prepare for the worst when you know that it may just be a matter of time

This is how you place your outrage on repeat

This is how you try to hide your anguish from your elders
to protect any spirit they have left

This is what it’s like when no place

Not the street

Not the school

Not the church

Not the country

Not your home

is safe for you

This is how you die

courteously, slowly and elegantly


without a fuss

as they would have you to do

But what if they still think I’m dangerous?

if all else fails

when they come for you

This is how you play dead


Photo: Shutterstock

Brittny Ray Crowell is a 2007 Spelman College alumna and Fulbright Scholar. She is also a writer and educator in East Texas.

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