Exorcising Whiteness: Khalisa Rae’s Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat

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I was new to the seventh grade when Ms. Rossi routinely refused to acknowledge me. Though my hand stabbed the air in response to questions she posed, Ms. Rossi never called my name. “What d’ya think, Hillary?” or “Rebecca, you give it a go!” Each time Ms. Rossi’s eyes roamed over my hovering wicker-brown arm and landed on a white girl’s freckled face, her lesson, reserved for the few Black girls in her “gifted” class, was reaffirmed—keep your hand down and mouth shut.

In Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat, published by Red Hen Press last month, Khalisa Rae has written a haunting and holy gospel. At once a book of genesis and revelation, Rae’s full-length debut collection unveils white supremacy’s forging by fire of Black girls into circus, freak show, tightrope walker, stage performer, crazy. Rae does this through the lens of a Black woman who journeys from the Midwest to find a home in the American South, chronicling the inescapability of misogynoir’s violence. In “Ghosts in a Black Girl Throat,” the collection’s opening poem and origin story, Rae begins her proverbial sermon with the why of whiteness’s attack—

… And that’s what they will come
for first—the throat.

They know that be your superpower,
your furnace of rebellion. So they silence
you before the coal burns…

The leash will always be taut, gripping
around a word you never said…

After weeks of Ms. Rossi’s silencing, my hands learned to stick to the space beneath my narrow desk. There they gripped my tight thighs. Pressed into my abdomen, kneaded out the ache. When they dared to climb higher than the shadows, they found my mouth. I bit my nails and, when there was no nail left, chewed the surrounding skin into bloody shreds. At home, where I was finally free to answer questions posed by handouts or textbooks Mama and I covered with brown paper, my right hand climbed past my throat, my mouth, my face, found the center of my scalp. There, my fingers roamed the thick nest of coils to pluck a singular coarse black fiber—one still attached to an eggshell-hued follicle was preferred. The pain was sharp and lingered. Yet, my hand would reach again and again. I was a month into the seventh grade when I began to pull my hair out, not in chunks, but strand by strand. In the doing, I inhibited the torture Ms. Rossi enacted on me daily, physicalized the pain that haunted my belly when she silenced my tongue.

Through stanzas stacked with swag, sensory details, and potent imagery, Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat centers but expands beyond the South, confronting the erasure of Black girls and women living in an America occupied by whiteness, its supremacy, and its fragility. In a voice heavy with condemnation and verses slick with hood vernacular and wit, Rae unveils and shades America’s specter—the one spooking Black girls of all ages into silence while claiming its bootstrap dream is accessible to all. America’s silencing haunts Black girls at work, at school, at the grocery store—we watch what we say because our words, expertise, agency will be “too much magic in one room.” America’s goons cloak this silencing into accusations it labels “professionalism,” “class,” “tact.” This is how they train us from girlhood to be both specter and spectacle, to manifest ourselves in whiteness’ image, to tuck our tongues and only be seen. Even then, what we show must be curated to their liking. Laws have criminalized our natural hair, media has made a mockery of our neck-rolling rage, po-lice continue to propagandize our bodies into menace when defending our state sanctioned murders. Black girls must mute ourselves into white femininity to make a mere attempt at survival. In “Assembly Required for Assimilation,” Rae summons this chilling reality:

Take a black girl
give her a shot of collagen,
bee-stung lips
                                                                                                      Sit pretty.

pouting like preteen pop songs.

Sew rows of extensions to her honey hair,
sticky and European. So sweet, those locks
beg to be licked and touched.
                                                                                                      Nip and tuck.

Rae reveals how we are taken and transformed from living beings into inanimate things. Our lips both fodder for whiteness’ entertainment and inspiration for its beauty goals, much like our braids and butts, require collagen shots to look bee-stung—anything but Black. Rae’s use of alliteration brings an eery musicality to the horror show she paints. The thing forced to “sit pretty” while “pouting like preteen pop songs” so extensions can be sewn into “her honey hair” is a Black girl. Through imagery and haunting melody, Rae shows us what America forcibly molds Black girls into—props to be licked and touched. I was assembled into assimilation at twelve years old.

In the eighth grade, my best friend, Rochelle was a fly, weave-rocking Jamaican girl. One weekend, I went to her house to stay overnight. We had plans to go to a basement party. From Rochelle’s bed, I watched as she affixed a fake ponytail around her substantially shorter natural one. When she was done, a fist’s worth of bobby pins later, I walked around her body, zoomed in on her head, eyeballed the fraud. The ponytail looked like her real hair, even upon my close inspection. Jealous, I grabbed a handled bristle brush, gelled my hair into a top-center bun, wrapped a tiny rubber band around its slim girth. “Yo, Rochelle, you got enough hair to lace me?” I asked. Rochelle sucked on her gold teeth and rolled her eyes, “Why you ain’t say nuthin when we was at the store? Lemme see what I got.”

Rae presents America as seen through Black girls’ eyes, experienced by our bodies. The poltergeists of this place persist, claiming and controlling our throats, tongues. Consuming us whole, rendering us apparitions of the power we once were. In “Tea Party at the Cemetery,” she laments,

We built a haunting in the silent spaces,
buried a living thing in my childhood baby dolls…

We buried a breathing thing here—

a coffin for each memory we didn’t dare
dig up. Spirits lurking

around every pageant queen trophy
and all the trinkets we used to convince her she
was a girl, innocent girl…

Murder of Black girlhood and, quite often, Black girls, is the consequence of whiteness’s attack. This killing starts in the womb of our mothers, mandating we prep and primp for white supremacy’s gaze from before our first words to be safe. But that is the lie—safety. The words we swallow and silences we keep because of this invisibly inked contract with America’s ghosts ultimately slice away at our psyches, shank us slow.

Rae spotlights how the ghosts America has stuffed into our throats as girls birth us into cadaver women—women who, despite our breath and breadth, must acquiesce to whiteness’ demands to survive. Women who have become America’s walking dead. In “Mind of Missing Parts,” she implores,

The second hands inside our mind tell
more than time. Each hour whispers
our demise, each racing thought a spinning

facet off track…
all my unwinding,
parts discarded; other pawned off

never returning. I do not know us anymore.
I do not recognize our unassembling

Rochelle pulled wefts of hair from beneath the bed, the back of her underwear dresser, under the bathroom sink. She added her hair scraps to my bun. Although the bobby pin tips scraped the bald center of my scalp raw and bloodied, I became a regular at neighborhood beauty supply stores. There, I bought cheap packs of ten-, twelve- and fourteen-inch yaki hair in color 1B. I made ponytails for myself every day. Ponytails Hillary thick and Rebecca long. Ponytails that made me pretty, closer to the whiteness coveted by Ms. Rossi and other teachers of her ilk—there were plenty. Ponytails covering up the truth of my bald spot. The truth of my experience as a gifted Black girl from the hood. The truth of a Black girl school-bussed into an America that would make her hate herself more and more, day by day.

While no vaccine exists to protect us from America’s zombifying disease, Rae does suggest an antidote. In “Reclaiming our Phenomenal Bones,” Rae writes,

Where did we lose our phenomenal?
I think we left it on the back stoop,
abandoned it like a baby on steps for anyone
to pick up and call their own. I think we tucked
it under our tongues, let it dissolve and melt

Our brick and mortar skin has always been a phenomenal
destination—brownstone thighs, handcrafted cathedral
of a waist,

sweltering temple lips,
a museum of a mind,
we will find our phenomenal
when we stop looking and just

This is how we must break free, our exodus, our get out of jail card—just be, no matter the repercussions whiteness creates, and we know there will be many.

I was thirty-seven years old when I stood sandwiched between sink and toilet. I pulled the clipper’s cord from the new box’s guts and pushed the plug into an outlet underneath the bathroom mirror. The clippers whirred and trembled in one palm. In the other, I gripped a patch of coils that covered my scalp. It had been over twenty years since I stopped pulling my hair out, but only two days since I pled guilty to a class D felony. I had done it all right. Gone to a Seven Sisters school, graduated with honors, earned my law school degree. Rocked long weaves that flowed down my back, wore pink blush like the Barbies I coveted as a child, concealed my scars with makeup. Wore whiteness like a cape. But it wasn’t until the moment when I shaved my head and watched the coils drop into the sink’s bowl that I knew freedom for the first time—the freedom to choose how I presented myself, in sound and semblance. As each strand and chunk fell, I found myself before the felony, before the mounds of educational debt, before Ms. Rossi’s erasure, before America’s damning ghosts.

Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat is as much about reclamation and deliverance as it is about what was snatched from us. Rae implores us to counteract America’s erasure by reminding us that our ancestral lines bear ghosts, holy and mighty, of our own. Our ghosts were “the decider of what meanders into your cotton mouths for centuries, you smug snakes.” Our ghosts have “brick laying hands.” Our ghosts are “phenomenal and everlasting since the beginning of time, since the Nile and the cradle of civilization and Lucy.” It’s with our ancestral squad and the power we stowed despite cages of silence that us Black girls can, have and shall excise whiteness’ ghosts from our throats, mouths, bodies.

Rae’s collection is a spiritual journey replete with trauma, pain, exaltation, transcendence. Her poems span subject and form, ranging from elegy to ekphrastic, lyric to list. In Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat, I heard conversations with Black women and nonbinary poets Claudia Rankine, Vievee Francis, and Faylita Hicks. I saw myself, my Mama, my wife, my homegirls, and my cousins, too. The ways our tongues, bodies have been snatched and shaped. The years we’ve spent acquiescing to it, the lifetimes we spend fighting it off for freedom. I remember the relaxers, the weaves, the clippers, and, finally, the bald head. Through this examination of the tentacles that shackle the necks of Black women and girls, Rae gives us hope. A blueprint for how we can bobby pin pick off the handcuffs, free our larynxes and limbs from America’s ghosts, and deliver ourselves into a wild we call our own.

Nicole Shawan Junior is a counter-storyteller who was bred in the bass-heavy beat and scratch of Brooklyn, where the cool of beautiful inner-city life barely survived crack cocaine’s burn. Her work appears in Gay Mag, The Feminist Wire, Kweli Journal, SLICE Magazine, CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art & Action, ZORA, and elsewhere. Nicole has received residencies and fellowships from Hedgebrook, PERIPLUS, New York Foundation for the Arts, Lambda Literary, RADAR Productions and the San Francisco Public Library’s James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center, and more. Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, Hurston/Wright Writers Week, Tin House Summer Workshop, VONA, Carnegie Hall, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and others have supported Nicole's work. Nicole is the founder of Roots. Wounds. Words. (a literary arts revolution that serves BIPOC storytellers), editor-in-chief of Black Femme Collective, prose editor at Women’s Studies Quarterly, associate nonfiction editor at SLICE Magazine, has guest edited for The Rumpus, and curates Raising Mothers: A Literary Magazine's “Justice Involved Mothers” column, which is penned by justice-impacted BIPOC women. Learn more about Nicole at NicoleShawanJunior.com. More from this author →