Sunday, April 12, 2015

Dancing With Strom — National Poetry Month

Dancing with Strom

           I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, there’s not enough
            troops in the army to force the southern people to break
            down segregation and accept the Negro [pronounced Nigra]
            into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes,
            and into our churches.
                                    —Strom Thurmond, South Carolina
                                    Senator and Presidential Candidate
                                         for the States’ Rights Party, 1948

            I said, “I’m gonna fight Thurmond from the mountain to
            the sea.”
                                    —Modjeska Monteith Simkins, Civil
                              Rights Matriarch, South Carolina, 1948

The youngest has been married off.


He is as tall as Abraham Lincoln. Here, on his

wedding day, he flaunts the high spinning laugh

of a newly freed slave. I stand above him, just

off the second-floor landing, watching

the celebration unfold.


Uncle-cousins, bosom buddies, convertible cars

of nosy paramours, strolling churlish penny-

pinchers pour onto the mansion estate. Below,

Strom Thurmond is dancing with my mother.


The favorite son of South Carolina has already

danced with the giddy bride and the giddy bride’s

mother. More women await: Easter dressy,

drenched in caramel, double exposed, triple cinched,

lined up, leggy, ready.


I refuse to leave the porch.


If I walk down I imagine he will extend his

hand, assume I am next in his happy darky line,

#427 on his dance card. His history

and mine, burnt cork and blackboard chalk,

concentric, pancaked, one face, two histories,

slow dragging, doing the nasty.


My father knows all this.


Daddy’s Black Chief Justice legs straddle the boilerplate

carapace of the CSS H. L. Hunley, lost Confederate

submarine, soon to be found just off the coast of

Charleston. He keeps it fully submerged by

applying the weight of every treatise he has

ever written against the death penalty of

South Carolina. Chanting “Briggs v. Elliott,”

he keeps the ironside door of the submarine shut.

No hands.


His eyes are a Black father’s beacon, search-

lights blazing for the married-off sons, and

on the unmarried, whale-eyed nose-in-book

daughter, born unmoored, quiet, yellow,

strategically placed under hospital lights to

fully bake. The one with the most to lose.


There will be no trouble. Still, he chain-

smokes. A burning stick of mint & Indian

leaf seesaws between his lips. He wants

me to remember that trouble is a fire that

runs like a staircase up then down. Even

on a beautiful day in June.


I remember the new research just out:

What the Negro gave America

Chapter 9,206:


Enslaved Africans gifted porches to North

America. Once off the boats they were told,

then made, to build themselves a place—to live.


They build the house that will keep them alive.


Rather than be the bloody human floret on

yet another southern tree, they imagine higher

ground. They build landings with floor enough

to see the trouble coming. Their arced imaginations

nail the necessary out into the floral air. On the

backs and fronts of twentypenny houses,

a watching place is made for the ones who will

come tipping with torch & hog tie through the

quiet woods, hoping to hang them as decoration

in the porcupine hair of longleaf.


The architecture of Black people is sui generis.

This is architecture dreamed by the enslaved:


Their design will be stolen.

Their wits will outlast gold.

My eyes seek historical rest from the kiss-

kiss theater below; Strom Thurmond’s

it’s-never-too-late-to-forgive-me chivaree.

I search the tops of yellow pine while my

fingers reach, catch, pinch my father’s

determined-to-rise smoke.


Long before AC African people did the

math: how to cool down the hot air of

South Carolina?


If I could descend, without being trotted

out by some roughrider driven by his

submarine dreams, this is what I’d take

my time and scribble into the three-tiered,

white créme wedding cake:


Filibuster. States’ Rights. The Grand Inquisition

of the great Thurgood Marshall. This wedding

reception would not have been possible without

the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (opposed by



The Dixiecrat senator has not worn his

sandy seersucker fedora to the vows.

The top of Strom Thurmond’s bald head

reveals a birthmark tattooed in contrapposto

pose: Segregation Forever.


All my life he has been the face of hatred;

the blue eyes of the Confederate flag,

the pasty bald of white men pulling wooly

heads up into the dark skirts of trees,

the sharp, slobbering, amber teeth of

German shepherds, still clenched inside

the tissue-thin, (still marching), band-leader

legs of Black schoolteachers, the single-

minded pupae growing between the legs of

white boys crossing the tracks, ready to

force Black girls into fifth-grade positions,

Palmetto state-sanctioned sex 101.


I didn’t want to dance with him.


My young cousin arrives at my elbow.

Her beautiful lips the color of soft-skin

mangoes. She pulls, teasing the stitches

of my satin bridesmaid gown, “You better

go on down there and dance with Strom—

while he still has something left.”


I don’t tell her it is unsouthern for her

to call him by his first name, as if they

are familiar. I don’t tell her: To bear

witness to marriage is to believe that

everything moving through the sweet

wedding air can be confidently, left—

to Love.


I stand on the landing high above the

beginnings of Love, holding a plastic

champagne flute, drinking in the warm

June air of South Carolina. I hear my

youngest brother’s top hat joy. Looking

down I find him, deep in the giddy crowd,

modern, integrated, interpretive.


For ten seconds I consider dancing with

Strom. His Confederate hands touch

every shoulder, finger, back that I love.

I listen to the sound of Black laughter

shimmying. All worry floats beyond

the gurgling submarine bubbles,

the white railing, every drop of

champagne air.


I close my eyes and Uncle Freddie

appears out of a baby’s breath of fog.

(The dead are never porch bound.)

He moves with ease where I cannot.

He walks out on the rice-thrown air,

heaving a lightning bolt instead of

a wave. Suddenly, there is a table set,

complete with 1963 dining room stars,

they twinkle twinkle up & behind him.

Thelonious, Martin, Malcolm, Nina,

Dakota, all mouths Negro wide &

open have come to sing me down.

His tattered almanac sleeps curled like

a wintering slug in his back pocket.

His dark Dogon eyes jet to the scene

below, then zoom past me until they are

lost in the waning sugilite sky. Turning

in the shadows of the wheat fields,

he whispers a truth plucked from

the foreword tucked in his back pocket:

Veritas: Black people will forgive you

quicker than you can say Orangeburg



History does not keep books on the

handiwork of slaves. But the enslaved

who built this Big House, long before

I arrived for this big wedding, knew

the power of a porch.


This native necessity of nailing down

a place, for the cooling off of air,

in order to lift the friendly, the kindly,

the so politely, the in-love-ly, jubilant,

into the arms of the grand peculiar,

for the greater good of

the public spectacular:



giving us


by Nikky Finney
 from Head Off & Split
courtesy New York Public Library

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