The word for me is wings, you dig? I have been
looking for mine since I was twelve,
trying to fly solo, riding dolo on the backs of words
ripped from the tip of an ink pen. My hands
are stained with the pain that I gained
from stealing morphemes out of ink, but I have
no regrets – given the chance, I would do it again.
I have fashioned my insane, feathered limbs of flight
from every syllable, definition, phrase, and rhyme
that I have been stealing to keep dealing in the trade
of meaning. I have been dreaming up
moving films inside this computer mind
since the cameras have been on, and I cannot
help but tell you tales, fairy or otherwise. I cannot
help but take a totem from the wild
and become a half-impaired Raven lunatic, child
of the mentally mis-wired and the disaffected
who cannot read the unwritten so easily.
My feathers are black. Black like the sari night
that never bleeds anything but little lights
through the pinpricks of diamonds in the fabric. Black
like the ink that wears these words on its skin. Black
like half my roots. But I am not a crow, for I don’t
wick up cheap, useless drink into my gut. And
I don’t jump – I fly. I might wheel about, but that
requires whirling dervish skill to birth enough insanity
to chase away the vanity created by oppression,
unwritten rules, and minds that fail to bloom.
I know of yet another man with wings, another one
with a computer mind and a glass shatter heart. He stood
toe to toe with Jim Crow, flew against him in battle
on flame-drenched wings. He did it bare-fisted,
with knuckles like poems that smeared
Jim Crow feathers all over their lips and
cleaved asunder its written (and unwritten) rules
with incisors, molars, and canines carefully sharpened
for the task. He did it under the soft cornflower lights
of a New York City theater. He did it
behind soft-skinned microphones and with
songs once sung by those with scarred shoulders and
manacled wrists. He did it, even after
lightning delivered by machine and by prescription
convulsed his body. And he did it until his voice
became so ragged that he could no longer take flight.
Mr. Robeson, I hope that you will not
hold my choice of totem animal against me. The Raven
may be a thief by some accounts,
but He (or She) sometimes stole the needful to
then gift it to humankind – like the sun, which shines
on folk of all colors. I also chose Her because
I believe in flight – and the light by which I write
makes the inkiness of my feathers visible in black letters,
by which I form words and take wing. Like another
fictional brother – a starship captain named Sisko –
I believe in writing the story, even with my beak
upon walls if paper is denied me. Even if
flight is denied me, I will not choke on silence –
or my own feathers.
© 2013 Nicole Nicholson. All Rights Reserved.
This poem was written for We Write Poems Prompt #144: In Your Own Words. After examining my own poems, I noticed several words. phrases, and themes jumped out at me, but I ended up choosing “wings” as my word. Being as one of my poetic personae is the “Half-Impaired Raven”, I thought this would be most appropriate.
Also, this poem relates to Paul Robeson, an African-American actor and singer who is probably best known for his leading role in Shakespeare’s play Othello. Robeson was a very talent individual who was also outspoken about political and social causes, including civil rights. He also was very vocal about his support of the USSR, which caused him to become blacklisted during the McCarthy era and to lose his passport. His films and albums were removed from public distribution in the 1950’s and he was no longer asked to perform in public. And to add insult to injury, his own alma mater Rutgers University removed a bust of him from its campus library. It was as if the man had virtually been erased from the mind of the public. Robeson fell into ill health in the 1960’s — by the time he would have been welcome again in the public eye, his voice had begun to fail.
Author Norm Ledgin proposes that Robeson was autistic — specifically, that he had Asperger Syndrome — in his book, Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and Hope Through Famous Role Models. I have encountered very few African-American autistics in my journeys, and I don’t think it’s for a lack of our existence. If Robeson was indeed an Aspie, he would have seen the world through different lenses — as I do, but with his own unique perspective and vision. All of this inspired me to begin writing a series on my Woman With Asperger’s blog, “The Souls of Black Autistic Folk” (the title is an homage to W.E.B. DuBois’ book, The Souls of Black Folk). I had intended to write the entire thing during the month of February, but I find that the sheer amount of material alone will necessitate me to continue this series until its logical conclusion.
A history note: you’ll notice in the poem I refer to a crow drinking cheap whiskey, jumping, and perhaps wheeling about. This is a reference to the etymology of the term “Jim Crow”, which comes from a song from the 1800’s entitled “Jump Jim Crow” which became popular at minstrel shows in the 1800’s and 1900’s and was always performed in blackface. This being one of the ugliest parts of our cultural history, the song itself hearkens back to an also ugly practice of putting out whiskey-drenched corn to lure crows, which would eat it and then be unable to fly. While jumping and whirling about, the farmer would then club the crows to death.
Also, you’ll note that I made a reference to a “starship captain named Sisko”. For those of you who aren’t Star Trek fans, I’d be happy to explain. Captain Benjamin Sisko was the commander of the Deep Space 9 space station in the Star Trek universe. The station itself was located near the entrance to am artificially created wormhole which allowed travel to another quadrant of our galaxy and near the planet of Bajor, which was formerly occupied by another race known as the Cardassians. The Bajorans revere the aliens living in the wormhole as deities and refer to them as “The Prophets”; they an ability to allow others to see visions through objects known as “Orbs”. In the episode “Far Beyond the Stars”, Captain Sisko had an extended vision where he and the rest of his crew from DS9 were science fiction authors working for a sci-fi magazine in New York City during the 1950’s. In this vision, Sisko — now named Benny Russell — wrote the story of the space station for the magazine only to have the publisher refuse to run the entire issue in which it appeared because, in his estimation, no one would believe that “a Negro could be the commanding office of a space station”. In a subsequent vision in a later episode, Sisko as Russell writes his story on the walls of the asylum to which he has been committed, as he has been denied writing implements and paper.
It is a bit of an irony that I chose the word “wings” for another reason — Robeson’s theatrical debut after he graduated from law school was the Eugene O’Neil play All God’s Chillun Got Wings. The same title is also that of a African-American spiritual. And in the end, I do believe we all have wings and are capable of flight — if not physical, then mental, emotional, and spiritual.