Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Ashley M. Jones






the first time you called me nigger
                                                            you said, you can’t play with us.

the second time you called me nigger,
                                                            I was too smart. too many books for a black black brain.
the third time, nigger
                                                            was painted thickly on your picket fence,
                                                            was gray as a house on the wrong side of the tracks,
                                                            was laced in a bag of crack and woven, tenderly,
                                                            on the pages of the case files,
                                                            in the orange of the last suit I ever wore.

                                                            times four through ten,
nigger get back
                                                            at the ballot box, in the Oval Office,
                                                            in the hair gel and starchcollar of our American President.
eleven niggernuggets
                                                            shoved down my throat
                                                            and the throats of my babies—
                                                            even our arteries know this name,
                                                            know the Golden Arches and their

only good nigger is a dead nigger,
                                                            you said, when you shot me still at twelve years old.

                                                            the thirteenth time, you painted your face in
                                                            and wore it for Halloween.

the fourteenth time you called me nigger,
                                                            you said pretty for a black—
                                                            then, just black.

by the hundredth time, you didn’t have to say the word at all—
                                                            n and i and g and g and e dripping on your tongue, r clinging
                                                            like rot to your dog teeth.



how many times did you practice
calling me bulldog, ugly, furious plague,
before it tasted like truth?
in the schoolyard, did you watch the little black girls
running in the sun and note how that sun
baked them darker? did you learn to spell their names
with a poisonous tongue?
in the locker room, now infamously presidential,
did you trade stories of conquests
and lie to make yours lighter,
or is my body a prize only when it’s splayed open,
spread, with sweetness, for you?
did you let my body’s gift curdle in your crude retelling?

does it hurt each time you call us unwantable? does your mother’s face fade deeper into black?

somewhere, in a past we both know and always return to,
i watch you, beaten, in the field. watch you, clubbed to pulp by the Big Blue Badge.
there, i clean your wounds and kiss your body better,
heal you with salve and a meal cooked slow—
somewhere, i put my body between yours and harm, between a blinding white and your black—
somewhere, i even put my body on the cross—

does this sacrifice mean nothing? don’t you understand how woman i am, to bear you, feed you, clothe you, even beat you if it means you’ll grow? don’t you see the mirror you shatter when you tell me what you think I’m not?

look, my dark love, at your hands. see what they can’t grasp when you let me go?



                     and the way it moves, and the way it shakes and jiggles and plops, and
                     God made my smile and the thousand tears that fall from my eyes,
                     God made the sun and the moon and the leaf held loosely in my
                     godson’s perfect little hand, and God made the summer breeze and
                     the guitar Ron Isley crooned over, and God made the grass and the
                     bugs and the dogs and the trees, and God made all of our bodies to
                     make waste, and God made even the waste that lives in us, and God
                     made the way the world spins and the way it will shake us right off if
                     we don’t act right, and God made the rivers which make it possible
                     for us to drink, and God made the clouds which hold the rain, and
                     God made the birds which fly and the wolves that howl. God made
                     the folds of my brain and the thoughts that burrow there. God made
                     my belly, my uterus and all the little eggs which might become
                     children—God made the doubt that rests there, like bubbling gas.
                     God made the silence I wrap around myself some nights, alone. God
                     made the music we sing and the music we hate. God made the ears
                     which help us stay balanced, help us to hear what people say behind
                     our backs and in front of them. God made sweet potato pie and
                     aunties and mamas who know how to add just enough nutmeg. God
                     made my whole body. And God made my grandma and her gold
                     tooth, and God made my grandma and her curly wig, and God made
                     my grandma I didn’t know, and God made my grandpa who was a
                     ghost, and my grandpa who was a terror. God made fear and the way
                     it slices us up thin and flimsy, God made the way a hand quivers
                     before it strikes. God made pain. God made the blood which runs and
                     keeps us running. God made an everlasting red.


Photograph of Ashley M. Jones by BANG IMAGES / Jennifer Alsabrook-Turner.

Ashley M. Jones holds an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University, and she is the author of Magic City Gospel and dark / / thing. Her poetry has earned several awards, including the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, the Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry, a Literature Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, and the Lucille Clifton Legacy Award. Her poems and essays appear in or are forthcoming at CNN, The Oxford American, Origins Journal, The Quarry by Split This Rock, Obsidian, and many others. She teaches at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, she co-directs PEN Birmingham, and she is the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival. More from this author →