The Trouble with Pronouns: A Poem

by Tara Campbell

“But that’s exactly why—”

My lips and tongue freeze.
Another unarmed black man dead
and I want to be clear
but my pronouns are a mess because I’m
trying to explain
in black and white
how “we” and “they” might bridge the gap.

Why do my lips
sometimes lack the confidence

(these lips, speaking out of a light-skinned, blue-eyed face; lips of a girl who grew up in a mainstream, middle class, two-parent home in Alaska, attended a multi-ethnic school and, hell, I’ll spill it now, watched Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart, wore Hee Haw overalls and played with Donny and Marie dolls; so how am I even black enough, because I have no history with collards or church, I don’t feel like a caged bird singing, I actually have the bluest eye, and my dreams are not deferred, they are affirmatively actionable, so have I actually earned the right)

to say “we”?

But how could my tongue
insist upon meeting my teeth

(this code-switching tongue, rolling out the right sounds by choice, by setting, by interlocutor; born in Alaska because that’s the only place a black man could get a promotion in the 60’s; trying to untangle scholarships from reverse racism in my classmates’ comments (I did earn them—didn’t I?); that one drop coursing through my veins a too-uncomfortable thought for certain boyfriends’ mothers; spending too many years with rollers in my hair and relaxer in my regimen; smiling at the swaggy black coolness my nephew informs me we share; and how can I not fear for my brother, wearing darker skin than mine in a world where lawmen with guns don’t hesitate)

to say “they”?

My lips and tongue freeze
and the debate rolls on
all mixed up
in black and white.

Photo: Shutterstock

Tara Campbell [] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Her work has appeared in such publications as Barrelhouse, Punchnel's, Luna Station Quarterly, Master's Review, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Queen Mob's Teahouse.