Toi Derricotte reads her poem “Blackbottom” at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
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When relatives came from out of town,
we would drive down to Blackbottom,
drive slowly down the congested main streets
— Beubian and Hastings —
trapped in the mesh of Saturday night.
Freshly escaped, black middle class,
we snickered, and were proud;
the louder the streets, the prouder.
We laughed at the bright clothes of a prostitute,
a man sitting on a curb with a bottle in his hand.
We smelled barbecue cooking in dented washtubs,
and our mouths watered.
As much as we wanted it we couldn’t take the chance.
Rhythm and blues came from the windows, the throaty voice of
a woman lost in the bass, in the drums, in the dirty down
and out, the grind.
“I love to see a funeral, then I know it ain’t mine.”
We rolled our windows down so that the waves rolled over us
We hoped to pass invisibly, knowing on Monday we would
return safely to our jobs, the post office and classroom.
We wanted our sufferings to be offered up as tender meat,
and our triumphs to be belted out in raucous song.
We had lost our voice in the suburbs, in Conant Gardens,
where each brick house delineated a fence of silence;
we had lost the right to sing in the street and damn creation.
We returned to wash our hands of them,
to smell them
whose very existence
tore us down to the human.
Toi Derricotte (born 1941 in Hamtramck, Michigan) is an American poet who taught for many years at the University of Pittsburgh. She won a 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. With Cornelius Eady, she co-founded Cave Canem Foundation, a summer workshop for African-American poets. Her books include The Undertaker’s Daughterand The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey.