a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
My daughter talks as she drives. She says they never taught her any novels in high school. I know, I say. She says she never knows if a poem is good or bad. A poem is good if it moves you, I say. She says she didn’t get everything, but she liked the reading. She liked walking around Union Market with me, the aromas of bread and meat, tacos and pastries and fresh onion dumplings. Now it’s late and we’re headed home from DC.
What did he mean by “reparative writing”? Why did he say that for years he was writing “in white drag”? The author, Jess Row, read from his book White Flights, part memoir, part theory of the novel. Delighted that she came with me, I do my best to answer her questions. In his early stories Row fashioned fictional white worlds his mentors taught him to model. Now he’s into exposing what makes him uncomfortable about white privilege. He’s trying to come to terms with his family’s theft of indigenous lands in The Black Hills, and growing up in wealth. He makes his characters grapple inside race relations.
My daughter listens as I talk. I fill her in on writers’ names he dropped, like Baldwin’s. Neither I nor Jess Row—who’s twenty years younger than I am—nor my daughter, who’s even younger, in her thirties, were taught James Baldwin in school. Our teachers did not engage with race.
Accepting fairly late in life that I’ve ignored large swaths of my history, I am trying to educate my daughter. This country’s racial history includes and excludes ours. We are biracial, ethnically German, French and Filipino. Though I’ve rarely discussed that heritage with her, I know race shaped my parents’ lives and mine. My Filipino father’s focus on assimilation crushed him in many ways, and my white mother avoided talking about difference at all—even while the Lakeland, Florida police were arresting white and Black students for brawling at my newly integrated high school. Me and my siblings, doing our best to be white, were the only Asian students at our high school. Once I began to search for how to articulate my experience as a biracial woman, I realized all I wanted to read were the beautiful stories that dismantle oppression by opening doors to a language I had longed for all my life.
“I need to get home in time to get five hours of sleep for eight hours training,” my daughter says, shifting the conversation. After ten months at her first job as an RN, monitoring patients at a rehab facility, she’s accepted their offer to train as a nurse supervisor. She’s proud that her skill with language garners praise for her intake forms. I know she learned compassion caring for her sister in recovery, that having been exposed to fire, she gives off a light that others can see. She shelters her patients as she dresses wounds that will never heal, holds the hands of children of the dying. When one patient demands to know “Now how did you get into my house?” she reassures her with “No worries. They gave me the key.” “Oh, okay then,” says the woman every time.
“What is a CNA?”
“Certified Nursing Assistant,” she tells me. “They train for like, twelve weeks and are basically feeding, cleaning, dressing patients—they know when to call one of us.” The lights of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway wash over her cheeks in waves. She tells me about her friend Derek, who grew up in the city of Wilmington. They often work together on night shift. He used to make a living selling, but he got scared of that life after he became a father. He’s raising his two kids alone.
“He worked his way through CNA certification, walking every day to class,” she says. She tells me how he used to get stopped by police, once a week at least he told her, made to dump his backpack, books and all his belongings onto the littered pavement. Then the patrol car would pull away as he hurriedly repacked his stuff, exhaust hanging around him. In the dawnless hours, should the wing fall quiet, my daughter and Derek stand at the nurses’ station and talk about their lives.
“Mom, he told me ever since he was little, he’s seen people killed on the street, he’s seen brains on the sidewalk, a man shot through the chest. One night he pulled out his phone and pointed to a news photo. He said, ‘See that door right there behind the police tape? That’s where I live.’”
“Where’s he live?”
“I think Southeast. He said when he tried to take his daughter out for ice cream, she stood in the doorway and asked, ‘Ain’t we going to get shot?’ Mom it’s terrible.” The LED lights of the Harbor Tunnel illuminate my hands, clubbed in my lap.
My daughter tells me she felt mortified one night when she and Derek were checking rooms. A white patient grabbed her arm and tugged hard: “Did you see that? A Black man just went behind the curtain! What are you going to do about it?” Derek had gone in to check the woman’s roommate.
This patient with dementia, she figured, lost her customary motivation for filtering herself in public. Or had she? My daughter said she wheeled around and told her, “He’s fine. He works with me.” Derek came out. Later he said, “I get that all the time.”
She tells me Derek visits a friend in prison, a kid he’s known since they were little. He tries to keep his friend’s spirit up. “He must have done something, I don’t know,” she says. “He got convicted of a third strike during that third strike rule, right, and so life without parole. He’s in prison ‘til he dies. He’s never getting out.”
It’s stupid, I mutter. Our car emerges from the tunnel. The stars come into view.
“The last visit, Derek’s friend said to him, I’m having a hard day today, man, a real hard day. Derek asked him what. His friend told him he woke up that morning on his cot in his cell and understood that he would never touch a doorknob again.”
The cursor on the car’s navigation screen jumps the red line and plunges across black space. It’s an old dashboard system, it does not recognize new roadway. We crest an overpass, high above Baltimore’s industrial phosphorescence. I am grateful my daughter’s with me tonight.
“Never turn a doorknob in his hand. Never pull a door closed again. Mom, they were both so upset!” She wipes her face with her hand.
“No doorknob,” I whisper, my collarbones sinking.
My daughter lowers the windows. Harbor air baffles us.
“The doors swing, you know, right? Or they slide? You never touch a door—”
“Yes,” I say, “Change it.”
“How the hell change it, Mom? Change what? No room is his. No door will ever be his!”
My answers burn all at once with the truths I need to teach her, and hot with the truth she is teaching me now. It is hard to look.
What Derek’s friend told him in the visitor room. The note he passed to my daughter. A brutal little poem in one line.
JoAnn Balingit grew up in Florida and lives in Delaware. She is the author of Words for House Story (2013) and two poetry chapbooks. Her work appears at The Rumpus, The Academy of American Poets, Asian American Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and is forthcoming at The Common and Poetry Magazine. A 2019 Hedgebrook alumna, she is at work on a memoir. She teaches creative writing at conferences, schools, libraries and museums.