Sensational Relatives

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 3, "Passing Glances." Find more from that issue here.

Memphis, Tennessee

For my brother, Peter


Last time I left

Bill’s Twilight Lounge

with a young black poet

whose words hit home

like the shiny gun

that got him on probation

and my sixteen year old brother

who passed for eighteen

and was fascinated by sensationalism, 


we were driving up

to the Lorraine motel

to catch the tail end

of King’s commemoration

when the police

shone a flashlight

in our faces.

The poet had left.

My brother, I taught

not to talk back

the way I’m talking now

because there’s a time and place

for blah blah blah — 

the police said I had thirty days

to get my registration changed

to Tennessee.

I thought about mobility.


My brother thought it was a joke,

something he’d seen on TV —

Beale Street’s most celebrated gambler’s

reply to the police

when told he had 24 hours

to leave town,

“That’s OK —

here’s eighteen of them back.”

He got in his car,

bags already packed,

and drove straight up Highway 51

into Chicago.


We left for New York the next day.

Tennessee was ablaze 

with red-bud trees.

Calves roamed the Virginia fields.

My brother pointed out

farmhouse hex signs,

and my cat watched

New Jersey birds

through the windshield.


We knew we were getting home

When we picked up WLIB

“where the Third World comes together,”

and could finally joke

about the Ku Klux Klan

back on prime-time radio

in Memphis.


And then all I remember

is throwing my arms around my mother

and wearing fancy clothes again

and wanting to get married 

and pouring white sugar into tea

and promising my grandmother

I’d never change.


The look in my grandmother’s eyes,

dying, but sure

she was keeping on through me,

was the same look I saw

the very next day

on emerging from the subway

into the bright lights of Times Square,

when three white cops

threw a black man

down to the cement,

crowds forming fast

as spittle in their mouths.

One of them

pushed a gun into his back

and he looked at me

and surrendered.


My own sister

must have looked that way

at knifepoint

demanding forgiveness

while some dude

demanded back

ten dollars

for a blow job

in an alleyway on 42nd Street.


I woke up early this morning

trembling the way she trembled

on the cold Hudson River pier.

I got up and drove towards the Mississippi

flooded with the same tears.


I reached Fayette County,

third poorest county in our country, 

and stopped a kid bicycling along the fields.

I asked if he’d heard of John McFerren.

Or the Fayette County Civic & Welfare League?

He looked at this white lady

in a car with California plates

and said Ma’am, he didn’t know.

He said Ma’am a hundred times. 

I said John McFerren was a hero

I’d read about in a book.

I looked at his face

and hurried home.


Now I’m back

diary and diaphragm in place,

“I Am a Man” sign 

hanging on a door,

left over from the sixties. 

I’m dealing with the same shit, 

like watching Greta Garbo on TV

and thinking I have TB.


It’s possible God 

kicked his foot into my lungs

the way the white man

beat up John McFerren

for registering to vote

in Fayette County.


But nowhere in Fayette County

did I see the pain. 

Only spring

crying out in beauty,

roots pushing through hard soil

people talking through the sunset

about catfish struggling on a line.

Catfish didn’t register

to swim this brook.