A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Jada wasn’t sure exactly when sex after a long day of protesting had become a thing for her and Victor. But it was their thing. Without saying a word, they seemed to agree there was no need to let all that residual energy and rage go to waste. That’s how deep their bond went. Problem was, like most 20-year-olds they knew, they both lived at home with old-school Black parents who didn’t play that coed sleepover shit when they were in high school and were just as devoted to cock-blocking when their kids came home from college. So Jada and Victor parked behind Walmart and made vigorous love next to their “We Have Nothing to Lose But Our Chains” signs.
Afterward, Victor drove Jada home. Before she got out of the car, she fluffed her Afro back into place and kissed Victor goodnight. She blasted through the front door and sprinted to her bedroom, dodging her parents who sat in the living room watching TV. Jada’s mother had a nose like a bloodhound and had complained more than once about Jada coming home after a protest smelling like she was “fresh off the streets,” whatever that meant. Jada didn’t want to have to explain why she smelled like she was fresh off Victor’s backseat.
In her bedroom, she stepped out of her sneakers, stripped out of her sweaty t-shirt, jeans, panties and bra, and left them in a pile on the floor. She stood in front of her full-length mirror, took four pictures in various poses, all her best approximations of seductive. She texted the nudes to Victor, then threw on her robe and went to shower.
Once clean, Jada tip-toed downstairs to get a glass of water. From the living room, she could hear some pundit on Fox News complaining about “race baiters” and her father calling the man a goddamn son of a bitch, as if the goddamn son of a bitch could hear him through the TV. Her father was only allowed one supervised hour of Fox News per day, doctor’s orders. “Dear…dear…” Jada heard her mother pleading.
Jada thought about going in and staging another intervention, but thought better of it. She was tired. So she headed up to bed.
The wall along the stairwell was covered in family photos her mother had organized chronologically, from sepia images of Jada’s maternal great-grandparents in front of a sharecropper’s shack, all the way up to Jada’s high school graduation photos. Her ‘fro had been less impressive then, and like her politics, burgeoning. She’d met Victor on the first day of college classes on the quad. By month’s end, they were having sex between classes and leading Movement actions together. Jada loved Victor, and she knew he loved her back, even though he never said it. His heart belonged to the Movement, and Jada was part of the Movement. So…yeah.
Back in her bedroom, Jada checked her phone. Victor had left her nudes on “read.” She hated when he did that. She tossed the phone next to her pillow and climbed into bed. She blew three kisses to the Holy Trinity of pictures on her nightstand…Megan Thee Stallion…Assata Shakur…Beyoncé. Then she turned off her lamp.
Just as she was drifting off to sleep, a woman’s voice in the dark said, “What this supposed to mean? ‘I am Not My Ancestors.’?
Jada opened her mouth to scream, but no sound would come out.
“I’m harmless,” the woman said.
Jada turned on her lamp. A tiny old Black woman sat, or hovered, or floated, or something, atop her dresser. Jada kept blinking but the woman would not disappear. Jada sat up. The woman kept pointing at her chest and talking, but Jada couldn’t understand a word over the riot taking place in her brain. Her mouth, still shaped like a scream, still wasn’t working.
“I say, what this mean?” Finally, the woman’s words broke through the pandemonium. She wore a t-shirt — Jada’s t-shirt — that read, “I Am Not My Ancestors.” “You wear it all the time,” the woman continued. This was true. That t-shirt and the ripped black jeans the old woman also wore, were Jada’s go-to protest gear. And her red and black 11s!
“Yo!” Jada said, “You’re wearing my new Jordans? What the hell?”
“Watch your mouth, girl,” the old woman hissed. “Talking common, like you ain’t got no home-training. I raised your grandmama, and she raised your mama, and I know she raised you better than that.”
“I’m sorry. Who are you?”
“I just told you! I’m your granny, girl.” The old woman stretched and flexed her legs, wiggling the Jordans in Jada’s direction.
Jada thought back to the photos she’d walked and stomped past a million times. This was the little old woman standing in front of the sharecropper’s shack. She was probably in some of the other photos, too. Jada pulled her comforter up to her chin, unsure what the protocol was here.
“You scared of me?” Granny asked. “But out there in them streets today, you had a whole lot of mouth screaming at them police through that thing-a-ma-jigga what make your voice carry above the people. I forget what they call it…”
“A bullhorn! For the sons of Bull Connor! I like the sound of that!” The old woman laughed a phlegmy dead laugh that made Jada’s stomach lurch.
“Bull Connor? Wait. Wasn’t he the governor of…that state that wouldn’t let Ruby Bridges go to school? We saw that movie in middle school.”
“Bless yo’ heart,” Granny said. “Ruby Bridges lived in New Orleans. Bull Connor gave us hell down in Alabama, where my daddy’s people from.”
“So what do this mean?” Granny asked again, tugging at the t-shirt. “I seen some of your lil friends wearing it too at the protest today.”
“It means . . . Well, no offense. But a lot of things have changed. We’re not peaceful like y’all were. We fight back. The Movement is different now. The brothers don’t wear suits anymore, and we reject respectability politics as nothing more than an offshoot of white supremacist . . . Hold up. You said you saw me at the protest today? You were there?”
“Yes, sugar. I’m always with you.”
“Um, when you say ‘always,’ are we talking about always always, or just always at the protests? Please say just at the protests.”
Granny laughed that sickening laugh again. “Oh, I saw you and that lil boy rutting around in that automobile tonight.”
Jada covered her face with her hands.
“Don’t be shamed, baby,” Granny said. “Only thing to be shamed of is wasting your goodies on someone who don’t know his way around your body, but that’s not what I want to talk about right now.”
Jada dove beneath her comforter and pulled it over her head. “Anyway,” she said, muffled. “Things have changed a lot since back in the day.”
“White people ain’t changed in centuries,” Granny said, “Like my best friend Fannie Lou say: They thieves and murderers and cowards. She say, “The white man is the scardest person on earth.”
Jada poked her head out from under the covers. “The Fannie Lou Hamer?”
“Wudn’t but one.”
“You were friends with her?”
“Still am! Me and Fannie Lou picked cotton together down on the Marlow plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, where I was born in 1917. Your mama ain’t nevah tell you?”
Truth be told, Jada kinda tuned out when her mother and her grandmother started talking about the old days.
“Well,” Granny continued. “We worked in them fields from cain’t see to cain’t see. You was in middle school watching movies about Ruby Bridges? At that age, me and Fannie Lou was picking 200, 300 pounds of cotton a day, each. We ain’t nevah known nothing but hard work. From the fields to the streets. They damn-near killed Fannie Lou when they beat us in that jail in Winona in ‘63. And beat us in the street so many times, I can’t name ‘em all. But you ‘bout fainted at the sight of a lil’ ol’ ghost!”
Granny roared an icky, mocking laugh. “So you right,” she said, poking at the t-shirt. “You and your lil’ bullhorn ain’t me. You and your friends, y’all ain’t us.”
Jada looked chastened. Granny floated over to the bed. Jada inhaled sharply. Then, remembering the old woman’s words, she relaxed.
Granny placed her hands on Jada’s cheeks. Her touch felt first like a breeze, then a storm, as memories — sepia, grainy, and terrifying — flooded Jada’s mind’s eye. A thunderclap. And the hands that held Jada’s face now ran along bales of cotton piled to the sky. Then the hands wrote names on papers, registering people to vote. The hands pulled a just-born baby closer to chest from between still shaking thighs. The fingers snapped in time to the rhythm of a song on the radio. The hands gripped a protest sign, and then the curb, on the ground. Somewhere, a dog barked and snarled. A nightstick came down, and down again. Jada covered her own head and trembled.
Granny released Jada’s face and clasped her bony fingers. “But it’s alright, baby,” she said. “You don’t have to be us to be enough for this fight. You’re smart. You’ll find your way.”
Jada sat up and shook her head. “I’m just sad and mad that all these years later, we’re still fighting for the same basic shit…sorry…the same basic freedoms y’all were fighting for 60 years ago.”
“I thought you said things were different now.” Granny smiled.
Jada returned a weak smile. “I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know how bad things were back then. One night, I fell down this Wikipedia rabbit hole, and —”
“Wiki…” Jada grabbed her phone and slid closer to Granny. “See? Everything in the world is in this phone.”
“Well, not everything in it is true.” Jada yawned. “But it’s like having the whole world at your fingertips.”
Granny learned quick. She ghost-finger-Googled “Sunflower County” and saw the statue of Fannie Lou Hamer. Then she grabbed the phone from Jada and got back up on the dresser and surfed for hours while Jada dozed.
Granny was still at it when Jada’s alarm went off.
“Lord Jesus, they got a picture of Malcolm in his britches…”
Jada stretched. “Like I said. Not everything on the Internet is true.”
“Lotta nekkid pictures on the Internet,” Granny said. “One popped up this morning. That fella of yours.”
Jada bolted out of the bed and snatched the phone from Granny.
“Don’t marry him,” Granny said. “Just get that thought out of your head. You can do better.”
“But I love him!”
“By the time, I was your age,” Granny said, “I was married with two children. I thought I was in love too.”
“Yes and no. It doesn’t really matter. That’s what I’m trying to get into your head. Men will be there. They ain’t goin’ nowhere. Go. Live.”
“Anywhere. Everywhere. Just don’t try and make a world out of a man, especially a man who’ll still be a boy when you a full-grown woman. Ain’t no sense in you fighting two fights I done already fought. What that Assata girl say? You ain’t got nothing to lose but yo’ chains? That boy is some chains you can step over on the ground and never pick up.”
Jada nodded, to be respectful. Granny laughed her awful, knowing laugh and began to fade. Soon, Jada’s t-shirt and jeans fell to the floor, atop her beloved Jordans. Her phone buzzed. Victor, probably. Today, they had another action planned, to shut down the interstate. Jada would text him back later. She had to figure out what to wear.
Deesha Philyaw’s books include The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press, 2020)
Copyright 2020 Deesha Philyaw