In those bygone years, when I walked about wide-eyed, regarding all as wondrous, I wrote, more than anything else, of you. I called you splendid, found ways to compare you, torso and limb, to the mighty oak. I wrote you roots so deep I almost convinced you you couldn’t be toppled and asserted your skin, at once coarse and susceptible, was a bark onto which God carved totems, making you–every one–a work of hallowed narrative.
I promised you love and a loyalty built less of perfumed kerchiefs, slipped into the satchels of soldiers off to war, and more of our commingled blood washing into the scent-cloaking river at slave-catchers’ approach.
I existed to ease your way through a hostile world, intended to use my body as a balm for bruises left by billy clubs, to use these words, however inadequate, to build you a safe house, a makeshift palace where, like the abdicated king that you were, you could feel you had something over which to reign.
This is the way the literary foremothers taught me, the women like Mari Evans who boasted, “I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea
and I/with these hands/cupped the lifebreath/from my issue in the canebrake,” like Mama Sonia, who claimed, ”you you black man/stretching scraping/the mold from your body./here is my hand./i am not afraid/of the night,” like Mama Nikki, who would would sooner seduce you than stomach your endless rhetoric, even as you labeled her intimacy “counterrevolutionary.”
I was taught to revere you; to hold you through heroin tremors, to kiss the resignation off your lips; to wait at the curb with car idling, while you were processed and–-finally–-released. I was either to ignore the haunted jaundice filming your eyes or to heal it.
And if I encountered you at your best, swaggering ‘cross the university green, chest puffed with a pretense of invincibility, I was to wait out all the other women you pretended (poorly) not to see. I was to sit podium-side at your addresses, to swoon with a kind of ecstasy as you rhapsodized with the men’s chorale, and if need be, to pen your thesis while you chased the pigskin to homecoming glory.
This was not a sustainable model. To preserve it, I would have to ignore the erosion of youth and to count the wisdom of experience as dung. I would have to pretend that you are all worthy of such unqualified devotion, that none of you are capable of identifying it for the delusion it is and exploiting it. I would need to believe that every black man’s spirit was too depleted by systemic oppression to draw on its own stores of strength; I would have to remain willing to loan you all of mine, understanding it was not a debt that could ever be fully repaid.
When this model of love imploded, I mourned. Old archetypes fall hardest. But I have been known to rise from rubble. And this time, that vaporous love I once bestowed will be reified. It is only then that I will summon you.