“He [Obama] was not always free to relax into his blackness, out of fear that it would frighten white America." —Michael Eric Dyson, The New York Times, June 24, 2016
Although my winter skin is sallow,
a pale olive the world calls white,
my eyes and ears and pores
absorbed many shades of blackness
in New York in the sixties
in the middle of Long Island.
When I relax into my blackness,
I’m back in the music of the streets,
homes and churches of my childhood,
back with the old folks who called me baby
like they’d given birth to me,
their pupils widened in welcome,
back where doo wop groups sang
in the halls of Hempstead High
and we spilled out of choir to join them.
Where are you now, besides alive in me,
sweet-time brothers Andriamaharu,
who taught me to speak French,
a few words of Malgache,
and how to make a dance of laughter?
Fast and deep run the dark waters
that take me everywhere, bathed
in the fine and mellow vibrations
that forever slip like syrup
from the throat where Billie Holiday
birthed her blues, a fierce beauty,
a deep ease like a pair of taps
laying down paths I never want to leave,
sounds I never want to stop hearing,
like the voice of my then best friend,
abused for “talking like a white”
who said, in her Jamaican lilt,
“I don’t know what color a voice has.”
Oh, to relax again in the hammock
of our blackness, sharing secrets,
dividing the gold of the world between us.
Orel Protopopescu, children’s author, translator and poet, has been published by major houses (Simon&Schuster, FSG, Scholastic) and her book of translations, A Thousand Peaks, Poems from China (with Siyu Liu) was honored by the New York Public Library. Orel won the Oberon poetry prize in 2010. What Remains, a chapbook (2011) followed. Thelonious Mouse, her fourth picture book, won a Crystal Kite, 2012, from SCBWI. A Word’s a Bird, her animated, bilingual (English/French) poetry book for iPad, was on SLJ’s list of ten best children’s apps, 2013. Her poetry has appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Light, Lighten Up Online, and other reviews and anthologies.