Being Me is a Gas

Drawing of a white dove with a flower in its mouth on the tilted head of a young Black woman with her eyes closed

Richard Powell

Cover for Southern Exposure's Southern Black Utterances Today cover featuring a woodcut print of a Black man's face gazing upward, by Atlanta artist Lucious Hightower

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 3 No. 1, "Southern Black Utterances Today." Find more from that issue here.

after mama died

daddy sent me and my brother to north Carolina

to live with people he never even met

just cause he wanted to hurt my aunts, i think

but he hurt me and my brother too.


our aunts loved us more

cause they got on a train

and came all the way to north Carolina

from Pennsylvania

and took us back.


aunt marcie is our mama now

can't remember much about my real one

remember being taken to her room

to say goodbye

remember the good feel of her

remember girl cousin bobby jumping up

and down and screaming in her grief

remember crying and everyone thinking

my mother's death had upset me.

wasn't that

the measles had just got holt to me.


aunt Clarissa was giving me and my brother a bath

together and, as usual, we was acting up


so she spanked us.


me ... i hollared for my grandma

and she came running faster than a speeding bullet

up all 20 of those stairs, through the bathroom door

grabbed my aunt in the collar

pushed her up against the wall

and warned her

don't you be whupping my grandchildren.


aunt Clarissa still whups us when we're bad

but now she makes sure the door is locked first.


we have an after hour place in our house; downstairs

we sell liquor, moonshine, beer and rooms,

sometimes i tiptoe down the back stairs and

watch the grown folks get drunk.


aunt marcie and aunt Clarissa are always in control

they break up the fights and make anybody leave

who gets rowdy or cusses in front of us children.


miss emma was sitting on the couch, drunk as usual,

and she peed on herself.


sister (she's not blood kin, that's just her name)

is drunk too and she's messing with her boyfriend, bemo.


he's been drinking some but not too much and is pleading

with her to leave him alone.


but she's hard-headed and as usual, drunk or sober

she don't listen.


so bemo knocked her down all 20 of those steps and

then ran down and kicked her in the stomach.


i'm learning lots of things even though i'm only

seven years old. i've learned that when i grow

up i'm not going to drink

or mess with people just to be messing

or have a boy friend that knocks me down

and kicks me, f o r a n y r e a s o n.


aunt Clarissa slapped me today

cause i sassed her

but she apologized later

cause she said she had no

right to do that when she was drinking


she warned me

i'll slap you again

if you sass me again.


i accepted her apology

and her warning.


my brother and i fight all the time,

cause aunt marcie made me clean up his room,

cause he wears my white socks black,

cause he tries to kiss me and hug me


cause he gets on my nerves.


aunt marcie used to try and find out who

started the fight but it happens so

often, now she just whips both of us

with no questions asked.


my brother tries to run, talks back,

grabs the switch, pleads, i ain't gon'

do it no more aunt marcie, i ain't

gon' do it no more.


sometimes he refuses to cry, and when

you refuse to cry, grown-ups think that's

as bad as mumbling under your breath,

sucking your teeth, or talking back,

or all of them things, so when that happens

aunt marcie just keeps on with the switch til

he does cry.


his beatings take a long time.


me ... i cry quick.


i'm really lucky to have almost all my aunts

cause i've learned so much from them


when i get grown i want to have big pretty

bowlegs like aunt Clarissa

side burns that come down the cheeks like aunt julia's

a tiny moustache like aunt mary

and a pretty face like aunt clidie's

cause her face gets prettier every year


and i want to have good common sense like

all of them.


grandma has this big ugly corn on her little toe

and sometimes she can't hardly walk.


other times she wears men's shoes with

the toe cut out.


today she decided she was gonna fix that ole toe

she pulled a horsehair from the sofa cushion

tied it around that toe and every day she tightened

it just a little bit til' that ole toe came off


and her foot didn't even bleed.


now she keeps that ole toe in a jar of formaldahyde

but i don't like to look at it.

i don't like no parts of my grandma in a bottle.