The Act of Counting

To be black in America is to at times commune with the unnaturally dead.
— Cornell W. Brooks

Should I count my blessings:
that I don’t have bullets
buried in my back,

or that among the worst things
I’ve seen while
wearing this brown skin

are a drooling, satin-doll fetish
for my “high-yellow” skin

or the occasional “nigger”
hurled in my direction?

Mike Brown can’t count
anything anymore, not even
bullets in his body –

unless you consider crisp stars
like scattered salt in a black sky sea,
or glassy Empyrean gates,
or imagined angel wings.

I could count ropes,
rapes, bullets, chains,
accusations, catcalls;

white boys unwilling
to introduce me
to their parents;

the assumptions about
how I got my job or education.

I’ve ran out of fingers
and I’m tired of numbering sins
no one asks us to forgive;

I only say
that no one should count
on us to forget.

Written 8/14/14
© 2014 Nicole Nicholson. All rights reserved.
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This poem was written to address many things I feel, and to the recent Red Wolf Wordle. I used these words: crisp, glassy, wings, white, salt.

The epigraph comes from a speech given by NAACP president Cornell W. Brooks at a church in St. Louis, as documented by Maurice Tracy in this Huffington Post article. It sent chills through me, and almost reminded me a little of Jamaal May’s poem, “Open Mouth Requiem” (it is the last poem on the page in the link). I cannot help but think about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, not just as a multiracial woman who’s part of the African diaspora in America, but as a human being. And both aspects of me are horrified, angered, and saddened. But these events also made me think of how I have personally experienced racism in my life…and how I feel a community’s worth of pain.

Our dysfunctional history as a nation is part of the reason for why events like Ferguson even happen. Although we are taught in school about the Founding Fathers’ fight for liberty, we must understand that not everyone was granted that liberty from the beginning. It is that heritage and history that still live with us today. Consider: when the United States first became a nation over two centuries ago, much of its population did not have the right to vote (namely women, African-Americans, and American Indigenous). Consider: the Bill of Rights, in the minds of many, was not taken to apply to these same groups of people…hence amendments to the Constitution and civil rights laws were even needed.

We need to face up to the truth, folks. America was not intended as “land of the free, home of the brave” by most of our founding fathers for anyone except white (and to some extent, Protestant) male landowners. People who did not fit into these categories have had to fight for their rights. Even people we now consider to be “white” have been discriminated against. Ever heard of those “no Irish need apply” signs? Ever wonder why entertainment luminaries of Jewish, Italian, or Hispanic origin such as Jerry Lewis, the late Lauren Bacall, Dean Martin, and Martin Sheen resorted to using stage names in their professions? And let’s not even get started on categories of people that are irrespective of race: disability, religion, or sexual orientation, for example.

Yes, this is America…our racist America. BUT THAT CAN CHANGE. THIS CAN TRULY BE A COUNTRY WITH “LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR *ALL*”. But it is up to us to take action and change things.

I understand that I will make some of my readership uncomfortable with my poem, and these remarks. Please understand that I am not attacking you, personally or otherwise. I am attacking a broken system which needs to be either repaired, or demolished to bring about something new.

-Nicole

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Scapegoat

And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel…putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away…into the wilderness.
— Leviticus 16:21

Hidden sins are an anvil
on the head: your jaw aches,
your brain bowed low
until it is an evil grin.

I learned this when I was 13,
wearing goat skins for the sins
of my tribe:

jeers and pointed fingers
bowed my back
under the heavy stink
of gray fur.

My throat choked
with the dust of their secrets,
I did not ask them to wear skins
in return for:

red trillium bruises blooming
on my covered skin,
my twelve year-old self wondering
if I was still pure
after my cousin shoved
his errant fingers between my legs,

and three weeks in an asylum
where I didn’t belong.

At 38, I now name
the sins my family
could not bear:

vacant-mouthed beer cans
with stinking breath,
and two sons conceived
by a trollop from Madison Township*
and a married man twice her age.

But even now, when
I hear weirdo or freak
hurled in my direction,
the stench of goat lives again
in my nostrils.

Original version written 4/26/10
Revised 8/1/14
© 2014 Nicole Nicholson. All Rights Reserved.

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Okie dokie, folks…this is the second poem I’ve published here since I began my MFA studies at Ashland University. I’ll be posting more about my experiences later, and hopefully an article for Red Wolf Poems about it. I wrote this last week, but decided it would be a perfect (if not dysfunctional) offering for Red Wolf Poems’ Prompt #218: Time Travel. I decided to (try to) take a little of the advice that David St. John gave in one of the craft lectures at the residency in later July, and play around with time a bit in this poem.

I’ve written 17 new poems since the beginning of my studies, and nearly all of them focus on my life before age 18. The best advice that I could have ever gotten from my fellow poets and instructors in the workshops during my first MFA residency was this: “Write about what is real in your life”. I’d avoided doing this overly too much, afraid to touch all that anger and hurt in its intensity, but now that I have, I’m glad I did. Don’t worry: Aanteekwa isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the mythic in my poetry. But reader be warned: you will see a LOT more confessional poetry here in the future.

I am not sure, however, if this should be classified as a revision (because it is radically different from the original which I wrote in 2010) or a new poem entirely. But, let me know what you guys think about the change of direction and voice.

(*Note: the Madison Township referenced in the poem is in Butler County, Ohio.)

-Nicole

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Brick (New Version)

Nothing is yellow here. I am surrounded
by brownstone giants poking square holes
in a gray cloud ceiling. I haven’t seen
a cyclone in years, only twin smoke pillars of grief
pouring from dying concrete towers.

Grief always calls you home.
It sleeps in your ribcage with your red time bomb,
blocks an intersection inside your throat.
But Louboutin heels aren’t ruby slippers,
and no spinning wind steals you away
from horizons bruised by airplane-burnt brick.

Last night, I dreamed of cement
becoming brick. Yellow brick.
I followed it right out of Manhattan,
past every sky-studded cement fable.
Gray gave way to green; car, to colored horse;
my high heels, crusted in red gemstones.
I curled up inside that dream, but it broke
apart: I resurfaced, floating in my bed ocean,
stinging dream dripping from my eyes.

The Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man
left me long ago, aboard a midnight train
to…what? Heaven, Hell, oblivion, Bardo? I don’t know.
I just know that I may never see it.
Hell, I’m older than you, older
than the worn printed paper in your hands, older
than the young woman that pretended to be me
across celluloid frame faces.
I’ve wanted to go back to Oz for years.
But the cyclone never comes.

Revised 7/22/14
© 2014 Nicole Nicholson. All rights reserved.

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This is a revision of “Brick”, a poem I had originally written four years ago for a We Write Poem prompt.

This revision was the result of suggestions made to me yesterday in the first of ten summer residency morning poetry workshops, which I’ll be attending over the next two weeks at Ashland University as part of my MFA studies.

I had worked with our workshop leader before as part of their weekend poetry workshops, which my fiancé and I attended last November. Our workshop leader had called me a “poet of excess” after seeing my work last fall. Of course, one’s strength (as we discussed as a group in both the November workshops and in these summer residency workshops) can become one’s weakness — in my case, it’s packing my poems with image and detail, putting in everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. So the focus here, and the majority of suggestions I received from the others, were to cut back in terms of images and soft, passive language in the poem.

So, here’s the new version. Compare, contrast, and let me know what y’all think.

-Nicole

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#BoycottAutismSpeaks: Why I Protest Autism Speaks

This is my latest #boycottautismspeaks virtual protest. For those who don’t know, I have chosen, along with other autistic people and those who love them, to stop buying from businesses who financially support Autism $peaks.

But wait a minute, Nicole, you might be saying. You’re autistic. What gives?

To put it simply, Autism Speaks is an organization that pretends to act in the best interest of autistic people and their families, but does not. A few fast facts about Autism Speaks should illuminate the issue further (quoted largely from the Boycott Autism Speaks website):

  • Autism Speaks’ senior leadership fails to include a single autistic person. The organization has repeatedly refused to include autistic people in its leadership since its inception. It would be difficult to imagine the NAACP without African-American leadership, or the NOW without female leadership…so how can an organization which claims to benefit autistic people exist without autistic leadership, and insist that it can speak for autistic people? Additionally, the first, last, and only advisory board member on the autism spectrum, John Elder Robison, resigned in protest over their inflammatory rhetoric that compares autistic people to kidnapping victims, amongst other things. (You can read his post about his resignation here). Which leads me to the next point…
  • Autism Speaks’ fundraising efforts — and use of those funds — are problematic. First of all, the organization’s fundraising efforts consistently use pity-based appeals and messages that are dangerous, prejudicial, and inflammatory. Autism Speaks continues to persistently portray the lives of autistic people as tragedies, and us as tragic burdens — this latest video of theirs is one such example. Secondly, very little of their funds are used to actually help autistic people — only 4% of funds donated to Autism Speaks are reinvested in services and supports for autistic people and their families, only 1% of Autism Speaks’ research budget goes towards research on service quality, and less than one-quarter of 1% goes towards research on the needs of autistic adults. Additionally, Autism Speaks fundraising diverts funds that are badly needed by local autistic charities towards themselves, which strips away these charities’ abilities to serve their local communities. And speaking of communities…
  • Autism Speaks hijacks the public discussion on autism and presents themselves as the “Harold Hill”-type solution. This is especially problematic when it presents itself as “serving” or “helping” to social groups recently beginning to address autism, such as the African-American community. An example of this is their alliance with the National Black Church Initiative announced last year and its Global Autism Public Health initiative, which has involved outreach to public health organizations in India and Bangladesh. However innocuous their efforts may seem, they become most problematic when laced with their pity- and fear-based messages about autism and autistic people. I, as an African-American autistic woman, resent being presented as a “tragic burden” to anyone, but in particular to members of my own community.
  • Autism Speaks has a history of supporting dangerous fringe movements that threaten the lives and safety of both the autism community and the general public. If you’ve been watching the news, you’ve probably heard by now about claims that vaccines cause autism, which  have no basis (check out the CDC’s statement on this here). However, as the Boycott Autism Speaks site put it, “the anti-vaccine sentiments of Autism Speaks’ founders are well-documented in mainstream media”. The organization announced it support what it terms “environmental research” according to this New York Times article — such research most certainly includes vaccines. Additionally, it has supported the Judge Rotenberg Center, a facility which has been documented to use electric shock against its students.

(Much thanks to Boycott Autism Speaks for the information I referenced above. You can read more here.)

Being autistic is part of my life, part of my existence, and part of my art. I’m an artist, and I will use my voice to speak up for what is right. I hope this post has served to illuminate why I speak up. For myself, my fiancé, my friends, and anyone else who is autistic.

If you’re interested in joining the virtual protest, there are more details on the Boycott Autism Speaks Facebook page.

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Do You See the Stars?

The room dissolved, bloomed
night as blue-black blood and
rain dashes sprinting to Earth and
slapping shadow-stained pavement.

Continue reading

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Now on Instagram!

Howdy folks! I am now on Instagram. Check out my first Instagram poem below — hopefully the first of many experiments in micropoetry.

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Written on the Wall

Let’s start with what you do know,
Aanteekwa said to the machine.
Give me a basic definition of thumos.

Almost immediately the machine
replied: The ancient Greeks understood
it to mean passion, spiritedness, or urge,
and connected it with breath and blood.
Continue reading

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