The Penalties for Blackness: A Poem

by Shani Akilah Robin

Brown bodies stand
Like dominoes on top of granddaddy's favorite card-playing table on Sunday morning,
This day made for Jesus but instead filled with the voices of old cranky listless men
Drunk with liquor and the awareness of the passage of time.
Black bodies
Against borders that make us alien to people who wear our skin,
Coming from places that we can’t return to anymore, connected.
We can’t even understand our own tongue
We speak in tongues when communicating with each other,
Inverted translations that prevent us from understanding ourselves,
And white picket fences have never been painted brown on purpose…
Mama says, hand on hip, magician turned Obea womyn that she be,
“White folks say once more of us move in, the value of the neighborhood goes down.”
I wonder if this happens when I go to school too?
Brown bodies move through white space like walking a tight rope without looking down
I look into almond shaped eyes,
See the smile full and sweat,
Wide, weary, and tired,
I make sure to greet the few folks in the morning that look like me
I wonder if they know that I know that I’m just like them,
Even if they are my neighbors maid
And we have been made to not recognize our own
Reflection through sharred glass makes folks with wide noses and kinky hair shift to illusion.
Brown bodies
Stand tall,
Against the back drop of reality.
Babies born too soon thanks to thirsty fathers, uncles, brothers, men who can’t keep roaming hands still.
Papa says, “The Flesh is Weak”
I think daughters aren’t supposed to carry their father’s baby
Black babies born and die before they can even get grown.
Grown folks say it has always been this way
Penalties for blackness.
White folks think racism is dead,
When brown bodies still fade into the blackness of life,
Black bullets through bleeding brown skin,
Boys begging for clemency before the break of dawn,
Before the prison guard injects needle into arms sending spirits to join ancestors who stood on Auction blocks too long.
And the block is hot here,
Festering in homes that carry asbestos in walls because the mortgage company didn’t want to show them the house on the other side of town,
And life expectancy goes down because racism kills,
And Black bodies still reach
Arms outstretched
We move towards the sky
In dance,
Each hip swaying and gyrating back in forth in prayer,
In rage.
We hope
In defiance.
We resist,
In love with the idea of a change coming.
We live
We live
We live
To fall,
So that we may stand up again.

Photo: A Katz / Shutterstock

Shani Akilah Robin is a Black community organizer, poet, teacher, and scholar who organizes around issues of anti-violence, reproductive justice, and working to eliminate state-sanctioned police violence.