Summer 2012

Commissioned for New Haven Loves the Arts, a Valentine's Day 2015 tribute to the arts and humanities in New Haven, CT

It’s the summer before junior year
Nineteen year-old me enters the living room
Says, “Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you:
I want to major in English”
My parents sigh in unison as if something has shattered
Their faces dropping as if they were following the descent of a vase
A ceramic container of their hopes and dreams
Carefully watered and weeded for twenty hopeful years
On the brink of blooming
Now broken into beautiful, devastating pieces
What I should have said was
“Mom, Dad, I want to turn dreams into fact via page
Write words that sound like rhythms and songs that sound like stories
Capture the rough sweet grit of an early morning in an unfamiliar city
Or meditate in verses on the warm buzz of a late night with best friends
See, I want to study soft science
Because the world is vast, and chemistry and engineering
They are brimming with that vastness
I want to study the details
Illuminate the gray areas
Make extensive metaphors trying to encapsulate the complexity of the humanities
And I’m sorry that you were holding your breath
Waiting for me to walk a pre-planted path from college to career but
I’d rather live in the world of Audre Lorde and Wordsworth and Mondrian and Chimamanda
A world I can create as I go along”


Let's Commence

Before I begin, I’d like to give a shoutout to
Your residential college
Varsity sport
Off­-campus housemates
Debate team
Musical ensemble
Greek entourage
Radio show co­-hosts
Online editor
English 120 section
Cultural center crew
Pre­-orientation program
Lab partner
Dining hall acquaintance
Shoutout to the last four years
Shoutout to the “Experience” section of your resume
And to your real experiences
The late night revelry, Wenzels and booze
The all­-nighters, like carrying a cross to 6AM
Whispers over poorly made ethnic dishes in the dining hall
About how much you hate poorly made ethnic dishes
(Shoutout to chicken tenders, though)
Shoutout to classes that made you grip your hair and wonder
How you’ll ever learn everything about
This historical period or developing nation or literary slash political movement
‘Cause that’s all you wanna do from now until The End
Shoutout to your opinion editorials—and to the comments section
Shoutout to the night you changed clothes three times before deciding your outfit said
Shoutout to every Woad’s of senior year
Shoutout to the swugs—are we still using that word? 
Or have we finally emerged from burnout—phoenixlike—as women?
Shoutout to your friends from home—and Harvard
Shoutout to your extended family seated at the back
Shoutout to your freshman advisor (Whatever happened to that guy?)
Shoutout to all your glorious consensual relationships
Shoutout to your de-­tagged Facebook photos
Shoutout to your grades
Whether they adorn your resume like gold leaf or hang burden from your neck
Because today, you are graduating from Yale
Anybody who’s got something to say about that can take a second look at
The “A” in your diploma
Shoutout to your rearview memories
Failures, in retrospect, may appear closer than they are
So gas pedal forward
Shoutout to your future
Shoutout to the uncertainty fermenting in the pit of your stomach
Remember that what you do next year is what you do next year
Do not close-­read; this isn’t English seminar
This is just two words
This is just 365 days
You have already lived so much more than that
Remember—it doesn’t have to be easy
It doesn’t have to be “successful”
The only rule from now on is that you keep passion pumping through you like adrenaline
So shoutout to your certainty
Shoutout to your life dreams metamorphosing into fact
Shoutout to getting here, to this plastic white folding chair
Shoutout to your thesis, to your last recital, to your final critique
Shoutout to the ones who did this before us
Who put on these robes, and took them off, and survived
Shoutout to the ones who aren’t here
The ones we lost, to leaves of absence, to permanent leaves of absence
Shoutout to fall leaves
To the colors this Elm City wears at the beginning of each year
To the phenomenon of dying trees marking new beginnings
Shoutout to our last fall semester
Shoutout to the spring
Shoutout to the Yale Alumni Association
Shoutout to reunions, for lunch in the City, for the Game, for old times’ sake
Shoutout to a society of friends with no expiration date
Shoutout to this view
To this vision of youth and energy
To the laurels firmly crowning your heads
Shoutout to you, the class of 2014


After Coretta Scott King

Dear Martin,
I’m still singing about you
When they arrested me for protesting apartheid, the handcuffs felt comfortable
Like wedding rings
Like coming home to you and your visions, too big to be shackled by policemen’s accessories
I became a prisoner, the way I became a pastor and a protestor with you
The kids got arrested with me, Martin
They’re old enough now
Back then, I locked them up at home for the sake of their safety
In a house that was never really safe
When angry words came crashing through our windows, I swallowed the threats to myself and the baby, swallowed them like vinegar, slicing the throat and the resolve with that silver pain
Being with you meant saying yes to the possibility of death at any moment
I said “I do” every morning
Said “I do” when the children asked me if I thought black people were pretty
Raised little Yolanda to find Negroid skin and hair beautiful
But I brought out the flatiron for the interviews
Powdered my face and put on red lipstick for the interviews
Spoke clipped and breathy like those white women to show that the South that made me black also made me a lady
Helping people remember that was the whole point
On April 4th, 1968, I told the children the next time they saw you, you would be lying down, you would not be speaking
When little Dexter asked when you were coming home, I lied
All those “I do”s and I still wasn’t ready for this day
I told the reporters that someone like you comes around once in a lifetime
And look what they did to you after thirty-nine years
I mothered a Movement for you
That day, I widowed it
Wore all black and went back to marching
I led your followers
Built a memorial around your childhood home, an altar to your visions
I refused to be sad on your birthday; I made the whole country celebrate it instead
I added injustices to my to do list
Saw history repeating itself in South Africa and said, Oh no
Not while his dreams are still ringing in my ears
I told our people to march when I saw them try to do to queer people what they did to us
When they said, I shouldn’t be putting your name on such things
I told them they heard you wrong when you explained what injustice was
I am always trying to do you justice
I sign my name beside yours, where it should be
Coretta Scott King
A girl who wanted to be a singer and married a revolution

Something Dope

Dear acquaintance:
We be friendly as fuck lately
We be friendly as fuck in these streets
& it makes me want to melt the wax of your permanent smile
We are a plagiarized routine
Expertly timed choreography
Hihowareyou & okay written into the draft of us
We are busy
T-ticking, t-ticking, t-ticking, like the alarm clocks that set us
Like explode, like aftermath, like mushroom cloud above wasted body, like burnout
We are a million different outputs, t-tabulate them
Enter institution as self, exit as white sheet, black text outlining accomplishments
Brand new job titles stamped at the top
In parentheses: our success, written in dollar signs
We’re okay
Who thought it’d be a good idea to invent one word that means “everything is fine”?
An easy out
We’re okay like my mental health is a thing that can be rewritten, like a press release
Like cameras are going off & I am miming unconcerned like clockwork
Like my mind isn’t a stuttering dazzle of Bass background noise
Plus study playlist
Plus last night’s disagreement
Plus rooommate’s boyfriend
Plus the creak of this chair
I’ve been tired as fuck lately
I’ve been stressed as fuck
& even my diary doesn’t know it
All I speak is pleasantry
All I do is stay awake
& think about the insides of citrus fruit
About the insides of citrus fruit against a juicer
I know that feeling
Gutted, pulped, cored
Like vomit exploding against floor tiles
Like the moment before the stage
Like the kind of look received on street corners that makes you feel like a thing that can be peeled
It’s the feeling I get when I think about the future
I think about the future every day
I think about the future every second
I think about the future & I don’t even know that word
I wish it still meant spaceships
& computers
Wish we could rewind until before the internet
& there weren’t so much of everything
& I could just not know
Could just
I wish next summer could remain TBD
Destination unknown
That New York boroughs & southeast Asian islands could remain undiscovered
That African languages could continue dying, no Yalie to save them
I build castles in the air in the meantime
I am the last one building castles
Looking at the tendrils of cloud between my fingers & asking,
Is there life after this?
Or will I just become an island?
An unsung island
People will ooh & ahh, but no one else will choose the path I took
They’ll say, “Oh, her? She was a creative type”
I’m the type that sees those parentheses as a picture frame
That sees skylines & wilderness between them
That sees parents between them, disappointed parents
That sees goals between them
Like soccer
Why the fuck not?
How about a game, at midnight, like there’s no future to think about
At least not in the usual sense
Not “post-Yale” like “post-operation,” as if we’re losing something
But the future like, we’re winning everything
The future like, the world is our egg yolk
Like this place has cracked the world open & offered it to us on a plate
We can start companies or revolutions or relationships
We can do whatever the fuck we want
When people ask what we’re doing next year, let’s not just name a job
Let’s say, “Something dope”


When I was younger
I read a series called
The American Girl Diaries
They were books about girls with red hair and freckles
Girls with wealthy grandparents they had to dress up to visit
Girls who daydreamed about becoming artists
Their lives were recommended reading
On display, front and center, in my county library
Those books taught me to speak
I learned to narrate my life like it was a movie
A black and white film, ink and paper
I kept a script of everything the leading lady did
But when I signed my name at the end, I wrote “Alexandria”
Because girls who kept diaries didn’t have African names

From grade four to grade ten, I recorded every speck of humdrum with posterity in mind
My eldest daughter, my sister’s son
Some kid digging in his backyard for time capsules
I was writing for all of them
But one day I stopped
I wouldn’t read my own story if I had the choice
My plot had no action
The setting, no majesty
And I only ever traveled on the magic carpets of dog-eared pages
I figured magic was playing hide-and-seek with me in the stalls of school bathrooms
Or the muddy craters of backyards
Places I would never think to look–that’s why I never found it
One day, there would be barbeques, tennis practice after school, family vacations
I would finally have everything my friends thought was ordinary
See, I wasn’t praying for a plot twist, just waiting for normal
For the life I saw printed and reprinted in every story I read
See, my kitchen smelled like palm oil frying in a pot of stew on Sunday afternoons
On autumn evenings, my dad would tell us to go outside and kick a ball around
And declare that with six more kids, he’d have a whole soccer team
And the only locale we ever
summered in was the library
I’m only an “American girl” until you get to know me
In middle school, I could discuss lunchroom gossip as blissfully as the best of ’em
While at home, we built our lives from scratch
Scraping at the soil of this country to find our footing
My dad tucked his PhD into his back pocket
It was thrown back in his face too many times by people who didn’t believe in Nigerian universities
He had nowhere to hide his accent, though
No place to go when policemen wanted to peer into his car
My mom, who named my baby sister Nwakaego–
“A child is greater than money”–

Had to choose between leaving her to be raised in daycare
And keeping food in the fridge
And I

I claim my birth in a country as foreign as a world news headline
My parents speak a language that sprang from its dust
I don’t understand a sentence
But every time I speak, I remember that it could have been my mother tongue
I read the stories of American girls and learned
That I couldn’t even be myself in my own diary
I would always be stuck in imitation
Stuck taming my hair
Stuck buying jeans that never fit right
Left to assume they weren’t made for this body type
Stuck reading a hundred issues of Girlslife magazine before realizing
When the makeup section said “fair complexions”
It would never mean me
My sisters, my brother, and I barely know how to pronounce our own names
We have swallowed them after every homeroom roll call

Melted them down like used gold and remolded them to fit this country’s palate
To taste sweeter on American tongues
Now, these deformed syllable songs are all we know

These days, people call me a writer
My pen and I have forgiven each other
I am writing what I know exactly as I know it
I am learning to sing my name like gospel
Like it was my first word
Like even if I have no mother language, I know this name
Therefore I can never be an orphan
I have stopped writing “Alexandria” in my diary
Stopped holding in my darker-skinned life like underwater breath
I will sigh my story every time my hand touches a page
I am the only one who can tell it
And I will write it so loud
The world

Will have no choice but to listen