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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

drea brown

what matters if not breath

at times it seems black life matters in death, and we die hard. this ain’t no lie.

sometimes we see it coming, sometimes we go to sleep and never wake.

then someone makes t-shirts, offers flowers, a mural a song, candles

someone says this matters, and the one before and the ones before, remember

them too. some of us cannot forget, and live mourning what we fear the body

will become. a chant or march, a verdict of hope/lessness, a spectacle on repeat.


such a familiar pattern, tears and teargas, pushback, solemn apologies on repeat.

all around are effigies of ghosts. memorials and mamas who can’t take another lie

so, they plant gardens where blood softens the earth, open caskets so the body

is a testament of love and grievance. and everyone is invited to the wake

of the neighbors’ child. rest in power sister, brother, cousin in loving memory

of a dear father auntie uncle gone too soon, hashtags and hymns, candles


lit at vigils, bonfires in our chests. for every life snuffed out light another candle

the flames become constellations, there are too many stars to count and repeat.

and all this, all this matters. all this loss. all this black. this hurt, these memories

knot in the neck, make the spirit sore, leave an arid mouth, tongue too bitter to lie.

so, you pray the night grows calm, that tomorrow is not too hot, that no one wakes

to mistake minding your business for insolence. and you wake, knowing your body


a marvel, a totem of resilience and ancestors’ sacrifice. you believe the body

deserves every breath, and this is right. such a prayer is possible. light a candle

because this all matters. all this life. all this black. all this glory. and you wake

rock, hum and breathe then repeat, rock and hum and breathe then repeat.

and it is fire. it is water. earth and wind, black and everywhere, in everything, no lie.

and this soothes. so, you remember


we survive because we refuse to forget. we die because we refuse. these memories

of paradox and persistence, of breath snatched and pressed beneath a knee. bodies

overboard and underground, thrown into the street, marching down the street, lying

in the street for hours and hours. we remember because it is our right. light a candle

for everything lost and found in the dark, then rock and hum and breathe and repeat.

someone says black joy matters, so we dare ourselves to dream ourselves and wake


up laughing, in love with the fullness of us. i have always wanted to wake

up laughing and unafraid of the nightmare of these days. perhaps to remember

is to imagine how we survive regardless of history’s cruel shuffle and repeat.

someone says freedom is not fiction. i believe this. someone says our bodies

are sacred and i want to be alive and irreducible. each morning i light a candle

for right now, for unfettered futures. a candle for the dead and restless to lie


still, for spirts that guide, for the waking to be easy. a candle to honor our bodies’

flight and fight, every name, before and after today. light a candle, to remember

we are not the horror on repeat. all this black. all that matters is our breath. no lie.

the difficult miracle of black magic in america or
one more reason to listen to nina simone[1]

they will call you wicked. think you incapable

improbable. a dream deferred or accepted by

affirmative action. they will say you are unbelievable.

a ripe thing for picking off. on. poking at. locking up.

looking through. over. kept under watch. in margins.

choke holds. none of this is true.


when you’re young gifted and black

your soul’s intact


magic is mistaken. yours is magnificent

incomprehensible, blues and bone and blood

memory is magic, meaning you must remember

this is not an illusion. magic meaning divine

lightning in the crossroads of your palm.

magic meaning resilience, meaning every day

something has tried to kill you— magic meaning

you are a miracle. fix your lips to say


when you’re young gifted and black

your soul’s intact


they will call and claim you are many things

some of this is true. you are wondrous after all

brilliant. your feet a rumble of drums over earth

magic meaning you are a mirror to reckon with

a light to step into. one day you will burst and see.

magic meaning today, you are here. you are here.


when you’re young gifted and black

your soul’s intact


[1] The title of this poem is a riff on June Jordan’s essay-title “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America Or, Something Like a Sonnet For Phillis Wheatley.” The refrain is from Nina Simone’s To Be Young Gifted and Black. The last two lines in the second stanza reference Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” and my poem “mercy visits the schooner phillis.”

american sonnet: a primer for phillis

not africa. abomination. almighty. blessed not bantu. boston, (because i am here, but i am not)

careless, careful (to defend) the deity (with dogged memory). error not ewe, everlast as in

eternal, eye not i. family, not fulani or fettered (floggings for forgetfulness). guardian godly

house, not housa. imagine judgment, kindness, laurels (lashings or lost meals). master mary

mistress (mine, mind) may i? no. not, know (know your place). negro, night-skin, ornery, owned

(opined oddity) open-eyed piety. purpose. (purchase is such peculiar punishment).


precarious prodigy quill, (quiet your question), quiver in reverence. restrained servants,

(ripped backside to breast), refused sacrament and salvation, (washed in saltwater salve). there is

triumph in the trinity (there is no saving you). be useful. (used and used to), verse and virtue (the

vanity of whites) and wilder. (the whip and welt) of x, (a felled cross, a mark in place of a name).

a letter, not a word (not exceptional, no exit) only y not why, and ye (though i walk through the

valley of) yes, (yes sir and yes ma’am) to zion.


drea brown is a poet/scholar and assistant professor in the department of English and Cultural Studies at Bryant University. drea is the author of dear girl: a reckoning, published by Gold Line Press, a Hedgebrook, Cave Canem and VONA alum, whose writing has appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies, such as Southern Indiana Review, Zocalo Public Square and Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander.

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