by Tyehimba Jess
thank you. Taken from an African
Name Book, bought from a Black
book store. Translated from Tiv
people, dog-eared and pen-marked,
it climbed out from the body
of the book like a glistening dare:
We stand as a nation. I claimed
testament to the world I wanted
to create in a foreign language
from a nation I’d never visited,
whose kin shipped across the Atlantic
in my blood before it was my blood,
and awaited me in Chicago, peering out
from the book’s black ink, staring me down,
rolling consonants between tooth
and tonsil, swallowing my father’s
name, trying to spit out all my American
history like rotted meat. I sheltered
my runagate name beneath my mouth’s roof,
I turned my back on my slaver’s whip
of Goodwin, my sainted psalm of Stephen,
I chopped off my father’s and
grandfather’s e and I salvaged
the Jess. I am all that is left,
strung between two tongues,
between Bible and buried pasts.
I’ve carried the name like a brand
I sear into the air, bearing me
from town to town, woman to woman,
love to love, job to job,
poem to poem, bar to bar,
failure to failure, luck to luck.
I’ve been arrested with it, acquitted with it,
praised with it and dogged by it.
I’ve tailor made this name
I’ve scrawled across my being,
I’ve wallowed in its syllables
till it chewed me into this
gristle of a wish you hereby witness.
And let me tell you it tastes good,
this poem I’ve made of my me,
even when I’m beaten and low
I know the sound of freeing my tongue
to write my own black history.
Poem copyright 2019 by Tyehimba Jess. All rights reserved.
See more poems from Tyehimba Jess debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle:
“Tatum Summer” and “Nap Rates Available.”
Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt