is hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle
chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame-colored spice
for white people. Or, rather, white people now curate hot
chicken for $16 and two farm-to-table sides, or maybe
they’ve hungered fried heat and grease from black food
and milk—but didn’t want to drive to Jefferson Street or
don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s
Half Acre, north of downtown. Where freed slaves lived
on the fringe of Union camps, built their own new country.
Where its golden age brought the Silver Streak, a ballroom
bringing Basie, Ellington, and Fitzgerald. First-run movies
at the Ritz and no one had to climb to the balcony. 1968,
they built the interstate. I-40 bisected the black community
like a tourniquet of concrete. There were no highway exits.
120 businesses closed. Ambulance siren driving over
the house that called 911, diminishing howl in the distance,
black bodies going straight to the morgue. At the downtown
library, a continuous loop flashes sncc videos with black
and white kids training for spit and circular cigarette burns
as the video toggles from coaching to counters covered
in pillars of salt and pie and soda—magma of the movement.
On 1-65, there is a two-tone Confederate statue I flick off
daily on my morning commute. Walking down Second Avenue,
past neon honky-tonks playing bro-country and Cash
and herds of squealing pink bachelorette parties—someone
yelled Nigger-lover at my husband. Again. Walking down
Second Avenue, I thought I heard someone yelling at the back
of my husband. I turned around to find the voice and saw
myself as someone who didn’t give a damn. Again. I turned
around to find that it was I who lived inside the lovely word
made flesh by white mouths masticating mashed sweet potatoes
from my mother’s mother’s mother—Freelove was her name,
a slave from Warrior, North Carolina, with twelve children
with names like Pansy, Viola, Oscar, Stella, and Toy—my
grandmother. There is always a word I’m chasing inside and
outside of my body, a word inside another word, scanning
the O.E.D. for soot-covered roots: 1577, 1584, 1608 . . . Tracing my
finger along the boomerang shape of the Niger River for my blood.
1856, 1866, 1889 . . . Who said it? A hyphen—crackles and bites,
burns the body to a spray of white wisps, like when the hot comb,
with its metal teeth, cut close to petroleum jelly edging the scalp—
sizzling. Southern Babel, smoking the hive of epithets hung fat
above bustling crowds like black-and-white lynching photographs,
mute faces, red finger pointing up at my dead, some smiling,
some with hats and ties—all business, as one needlelike lady
is looking at the camera, as if looking through the camera, at me,
in the way I am looking at my lover now—halcyon and constant.
Once my mother-in-law said Watch your back, and I knew exactly
what she meant. Again. I turned around to find I am the breath
of Apollo panting at the back of Daphne’s wild hair, chasing words
like arrows inside the knotted meat between my shoulder blades—
four violent syllables stabbing my skin, enamored with pain.
I am kissing all the trees—searching the mob, mumbling to myself:
Who said it?
Who said it?
Who said it?
— Tiana Clark