Three Poems by Cortney Charleston

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


 “White, as Told by Black”

White: when asked for the umpteenth time why
my hairs curl into bolls, I will tell the half-curious
it is because of the cotton in my blood, waiting
to see if they recognize the fist they just spoke.

More likely, they will demonstrate an illiteracy of
scarred backstories, smile at me, the menace of their
clean, bright teeth begging complete calm of me akin
to that of my granny handing me her diploma from
Louisville Negro High School, for me, a separate
but equal discomfort: black. Again, its opposite:

a pack of bloodhounds, shotguns, shovels and
sheriff’s badge in star formation. Decades later,
I’m digging up all the bodies with a thesaurus.

I spent my early years with very little contact or
context: my schoolteachers the only examples of
the antonym of me. From Pre-K to Kindergarten,
First Grade to Second, they, and sometimes God,
the only such folk I found outside of ghost stories.

Stories from my grandparents, whistling like cold
wind in the night, that pulled my consciousness
from the river of my blood like a mangled body
screaming Tallahatchie into the ear of eternity.

I am an open casket. Read me right between
the eyes. This right here is wisdom most children
can’t comprehend straight away: the very idea
of friction. How chalk writes on a blackboard.

At my new suburban school, during art classes,
I drew myself with only one crayon as if I didn’t
wear any clothes, the choice inescapable and
Basquiat already ten years gone from overdose.

In Phys. Ed, I jogged, never sprinted. Dribbled
with both hands on the ball on purpose. When
line dancing, I didn’t color outside of them and
draw more attention to myself. The black kid is
entertainer by default, just a spec in a white-hot
spotlight, and Dave Chappelle hadn’t yet walked
away from millions for an imaginary crack pipe.

It took until high school for people to out me
as acutely intelligent, like a scalpel; to learn
I could explain how a word has its black side
without spitting watermelon seeds in the face.

Before I knew it, they were referring to me
only by my slave name, washing me white,
trying to put a whip in my hand to use against
the other blacks I’m not like, all the while
Obama planning his presidential campaign.

Some time later, I discovered my granddaddy
kept a secret gun in his shoe closet for over
sixty years, an old habit from Mississippi,
and to me, it made complete sense: white.

 

“Artfully Dodging the Subliminal and Obvious”

What they said was: you'll get in for sure.
What they meant was: affirmative action is a bitch.

And what I said was: maybe, we'll see.
But what I meant was: affirmative action is a bitch.

Then what I said was: my test scores are in
the 99th percentile, I'm at the top of our class,
so I guess I have as good a shot as any.

But what I meant was: my smarts trump my street
every time, homie.
And what street meant was black,
even though our streets were the same streets.
What homie meant was nothing.

Then the acceptance letter came. And they said:
congrats! But they meant: lucky thing you're black.

And what I thought, but didn't say was: lucky thing
there was never a whip in my folks' hands. My grandpa
could pass for an ass-whoopin’ in Mississippi.

But what I said is: thank you. I'm excited.
Let's see if the Ivy League is paradise or poison.

And when I got there, my tour guide said: welcome!
And I said: glad to be here. I’m truly blessed.

Then they showed me around, told me: we got
fantastic dorms for freshman to choose from.

But when they got to the one named after
W.E.B. DuBois, they said: historically African-American.

What that meant was: most of you
incoming students don’t want to live here.

And I thought to myself: looks like the projects
of privilege; if heaven had a ghetto.
I said to myself:
I think I'll try to get into one of the high-rise dorms.

But then I was visiting that dorm every day,
since I had friends there. And I thought: must be
that suburban conditioning, of being from there
and not from there,
but then I realized only black
folk go back to the gutter they crawl out of.

Because one of my roommates was white, but
trailer park, and I know rich kids on these grounds
toss out words like white trash for his off-brand
and you don’t go back to that if you can escape it,

but white trash implies exception to the rule.
Because what poor really means is black or brown,
though they don't say that in any of my classes.

What they say instead: correlation.
What they mean: causation, as designed.

And what I think about but don't speak is how
me and my homies couldn't get into a party
because the token had already been played.

And what token means is black but not,
like erasure of culture, like he listens to alt-rock
and only dates white girls, like he won't get
mad if I say nigga when a rap song is on
speaker because he knows I’m not racist,

so they think. But I say: bump this party. The music
sounds wack, and lord knows them girls can't dance.

And what I do instead is go to Crown Fried
over on 40th & Market Street. Grab me
some dark pieces. Mac & Cheese. A biscuit.

Campus police are barely over there
this time of night,
I thought.

The ghetto expands at this hour, which means,
you have to be black just to want to step over there,
black meaning what makes West Philadelphia
a questionable place to attend college, or live in,
or come from with pride and a humbled lip.

 

“Where Brooklyn At?”

Was Williamsburg a conspiracy? Are white folks the real illuminati?
—José Guadalupe Olivarez

 

I felt safe immediately:     got off the L Train,
didn’t even smell urine panhandling through
the tunnels like in so many other     arteries
of this insomniac city. I thought this was Brooklyn.
                                                  I didn’t know better.
Walked up the stairs to Bedford Ave, looking
for the restaurant I told my high school friend

J. Bedford to meet me at,     feeling safe all the while
for the wrong reasons. I pulled out my mobile phone,
plugged my location into Google Maps,     the cursor
pulsing on screen like         the speakers of a boombox
             holding a window open to stave summer heat,
 a scene I lifted from a Spike Lee joint seen years ago.

                                        The map says I’m in Brooklyn,
that my chicken & waffle spot is less than a mile away
heading north.               I text the homie to see where
he is, but don’t get a response, I figure because he’s
underground, like so many rappers

                      cyphering for change in two meanings.
I count the number of folks who walk by dressed in
a code I can understand:     snap-backs, low-tops
        or retro Air Jordan’s     color-matched
to T or cap or denim.                         I estimate five
in 50 minutes of waiting, but see a whole lot

        of skateboarders with horn-rimmed glasses and
        women with cigarettes tattooed to their lips.
Bars and few bodegas. Safety.    When J. Bedford
finally arrives, I ask him why the trip was so
long if he lives in Brooklyn.        He says he cabbed,

    didn’t even take the train; it would’ve been out
of the way.     And that spoke about as loudly as the fact
there were no black folks            frying our chicken.
Only eating, paying,           then erasing themselves.


Cortney Lamar Charleston was raised in the Chicago suburbs by two South Siders, but now lives in Jersey City, NJ. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and its premier performance poetry collective, The Excelano Project. He is also a founder and editorial lead for BLACK PANTONE, an inclusive digital cataloging of black identity. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Rattle, Word Riot, Lunch Ticket, Storyscape Journal, Chicago Literati, Kinfolks Quarterly and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, among other publications.