Black in the Lit

Orange_NoReflection (1) Green-NoReflection (1) Dominic Lounds

As we finalize our Spring 2020 issue, we want to gather and highlight recent work published by Black authors and artists. Our archives are not fully digitized — nowhere close — so the pieces excerpted below are neither comprehensive nor representative. Still, we know you’ll find among them a poem, an essay, an interview, or a painting that will expand the ways you think and feel. 

We share this work to remind ourselves of where we’re situated. Our university stands on land violently and illegally stolen from the Quinnipiac and other Native people; our university acquired much of its early infrastructure from Black slave labor; Elihu Yale, our university and magazine’s unfortunate namesake, got rich enslaving Africans and South Asians. As a literary publication attached to this institution, we are part of this legacy.

We commit to not only publish more Black voices, but to reroute and reform the way power is created in the Lit’s pages. We consider writing as a practice to address, complicate, and interrogate history. We celebrate the recent Black work in our publication, and in so doing remind ourselves of the centuries of Black genius we silenced, suppressed, and refused to hear. 

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From the second of a.k. payne‘s two essays “[…Chase the Sun]” and “[…a braided essay]” in the Fall 2018 issue:

dad says when the cops came knocking he had sought refuge at his gram’s house on inglenook. he is nineteen and it takes two motherfuckers for him to lose his mind in the heat. he is no stranger to death; three days in waiting rooms & antiseptic has made him invincible. say it again. say it again. /motherfucker. the first two syllables lodge in temple like blunt trauma to the head. that woman who nursed the sun for fire and warmth and sliced the world in eighths with quick tongue. the second two syllables send him reeling. right arm raised like angel’s wing. a crack and a burst of blood. it takes two motherfuckers for this boy to lose his mind or gain it. he leaves the wounded to tend to their own wounded just as quickly as he arrived, sun dancing on oakland asphalt as if to say you are already forgiven.

From Coryna Ogunseitan‘s essay “Camera Obscura” in the Spring 2017 issue:

Silvia, Josie, and I discover Chatroulette one day after church. Josie has a stick-and-poke daisy tattooed around her nipple, the pistil. She removes her bra unprompted, shows off the blotchy pink bumps the needle raised on tender skin. The men in the chat room all ask the same question and she says yes it did hurt. Silvia and Josie are talking to tulsa_raymond, who compares the shapes and sizes of their breasts. (Josie’s are rounder, but Silvia’s are larger and therefore ultimately superior, is the language he uses.) I don’t wear bras yet; I stick to the shadows where the camera can’t reach. When tulsa_raymond has done a thorough evaluation, he leans back in his chair, rests his hands on his hairy belly, and surveys the room, satisfied. Spotted. “Who’s that blackie in the corner?” Silvia and Josie laugh and tell me to come into the webcam’s frame. Tulsa_raymond explains that there are no blackies where he is and that he’s always wanted to see one naked. Instead of moving into view, I shrink back, watching the tiny image of myself on screen as it edges away from the light—it grows blacker, more pixelated, and finally, I’m out of sight.

From Dimitri Diagne‘s poem “Grand Moulin” in the Fall 2017 issue

The storm passed without trouble
           across the coast
About the interior, I know nothing
Whatever rain fell there
has not reached our country
marshy and green,
flat as a dry lake

as the ocean tomorrow, skies clear,
will be. Now I go to the mill
for tomorrow’s bread.

The second of Dominic Lounds‘s four paintings — “Self-Portrait,” “Self-Portrait,” “Self-Portrait,” and “Tan” — in the Spring 2015 issue

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The mission statement and a photograph from Harrison Smith‘s series “Where” in the Spring 2019 issue

The Where series, alternatively titled Experimental Investigations Towards the Reconstitution of an Erased Global History, explores an unrecorded ancestry while investigating the relationship between sculpture, performance, and photography. Foods grown in, native to, or caught in Northwest and Central Africa, the Southeastern United States, Central and South America, Ireland, and Pennsylvania were redistributed in local supermarkets to reflect an imagined ancestral narrative. The project arose from considerations of the role of global commerce in my ancestor’s migrations, and an interest in the role of food as the primary means by which people come to embody land.

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From the Lit’s interview with Hilton Als in the Spring 2015 issue

LIT: Is giving back a mission that you articulate to yourself? It seems to be an important part of writing profiles—carrying a desire to give thanks.

HA: For sure. I’m the most disgustingly beholden-feeling person in the world. I was thinking about that today. One of the writers I love is Marianne Moore. She always talked about why she quoted so much in her poems; she said ‘If someone said it better, why wouldn’t you [quote them].’ And so I feel like a lot of these people just said stuff better. The quoting is a way not only of acknowledging them, but also having a talk with them.

Reading is a way of communing with people in a deep way without having to be social. I don’t think I ever moved past that feeling of wanting people who weren’t there. And I don’t mean in a psychedelic, James Merrill kind of way. I mean that it was always important for me to acknowledge people who would otherwise be forgotten. I guess this goes back to my mother, the people I grew up with. I was always obsessive about remembering them, writing down dates. I feel that way about a lot of the people in the book, even though some of them are famous and some not. I have this kind of weird longing for them to be recognized. It’s not a romanticism. Or maybe it is romantic. I think it goes back to twinship—this consciousness of a you that is separate from you. I really believe that I’m not myself when I am writing. I’m not speaking to the outside world so much as I’m speaking to the people I’m detailing in the story, whatever story I’m telling. I feel that I’m talking more to them than I am to the world.

From Ivy Sanders-Schneider‘s poem “Happy in love, life, and every thing” in the Spring 2015 issue

Like in the fable,
the magpie swallows stone after stone
watching its swelling belly in the kitchen window—
now, when it drinks, it won’t need so much water.

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There’s a picture of me as a toddler about to gulp a handful of                                          soil.
My mother remembers I ate a spider off the floor.

Twenty-five years before, the year the U.S. banned lead
        pigment,
her dentist advised don’t eat paint
because children are eating the walls of their homes
and she knew it was because plaster crumbles on the tongue just
        so—

From the Lit’s interview with Jericho Brown in the Spring 2016 issue

LIT: Do you think about cultivating a public image? Do you think about not cultivating one?

JB: I don’t say the n-word in front of white people if that’s what you’re asking me!

Okay, I’ll be more serious for you here. I do worry that no matter how good my poems are, it’s hard for people to take them or me seriously because I have never bought into the idea that I should pretend I’m not having a good time. And I know what my good time looks like bothers people. I also know that’s they’re problem.

I’m very black and Southern and loud and country and sometimes even ratchet. And I will queen all the way out if the right song comes on in the grocery store while I’m buying lettuce. I love these things about myself. And those who love me love these things about me.

But some people read my poems and desperately need me to be the man in the poems… I’m not sure if that means they should change their expectations of a poem’s speaker (who is always unlike a human being in that he is a fixed being) or if it means they’re not so good at reading poems.

And I guess me typing this much shows that I don’t care which they’re problem is or what they think of me. Bad readers or bad expectation, they have these ideas because they read the poems all the way to their last lines, which means I’ve done the work I was supposed to do. Now they have work to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dropping my nudes on Twitter. But that is about the fact that I wouldn’t, not about the fact that I think it would change my public persona…a public persona which, by the way Jake, we both know doesn’t exist.

I would like for people to think I’m a good man. And I would like for them to think I’m a good poet. But more than that, I’d really just like for these things to be true.

Let’s ask some more questions here I want it to be clear that I’ve already thought about:

How many MacArthur Genius Fellows in poetry have enjoyed going back and forth with their friends publicly on Twitter?

How many Pulitzer Prize winners in poetry openly say anything radically left about race or gender in public talks or on panels?

How many National Book Award winners in poetry would ever plan to include in their acceptance speeches a word about how our community is made more safe when the women in our community know they won’t be sexually harassed?

How many poems are published by The Yale Review that… I’ll stop. I think you get my point.

I know what I’m doing. And I know what my work can do without me imprisoning my person.

From Kamau Walker‘s poem “THE GHOST OF MAC MILLER SPEAKS AND I DIDN’T KNOW I LOVED HIM UNTIL THE GRIEF SET IN” in the Fall 2019 issue

I know / all that I am / to you / is a bleeding door / to a flooded house / I no longer possess / language / to erect a glistening city / from this mud / I sculpted / a watch / so take a second / look at the skyline / you inherited / what I borrowed / time / don’t give a fuck about clocks / until they stop

From Kevin Ogunniyi‘s story “An Epitaph for the Damned” in the Spring 2015 issue

The thinker was called Antonio, or, as the Benevolent Judge had called him when they had met by chance at a function—some function, Devil take its name, and the name that the Benevolent Judge had called him, for Antonio had a prevision that names did not mean what they signified, though he could not explain why. He had been told that all languages were identical, that inflections and dialects were like rays of light oscillating in vain attempts to escape the event horizon, but he felt with an unspeakable conviction that thinking in Spanish helped him to curb his grief. I have not mentioned the time at which the story takes place, or the place, as a good storyteller would, but I do not know where this city is or when the story takes place. Moreover, this ambiguity of setting allows the intelligent reader to ascribe any degree of freedom or teleology to the actions of the characters. I allow my readers to fashion their own interpretations, to make what they will of time and space, and if those interpretations yield bad outcomes, the strong, white hand within the Universe will set things to rights.

An excerpt from Maya Binyam‘s essay “Two Heinken On My Notebook” and an untitled piece of visual art from the Spring 2014 issue and Fall 2012 issue, respectively:

There were many people waiting the arrivals. I glanced around to see if my brother was waiting for me. Couldn’t see him. It had been fourteen years and within this time, I said, he may have changed and me too. I thought we might not recognize each other. Whatever, I must be able to distinguish my brother among the many in the terminal.

I have two luggages: one on my shoulder and the other one I am pulling it. My brother was not there. I joined the crowd. I became one of them but they looking at the people coming and me looking for someone among them. I saw them reuniting with their loved ones, hugging each other. Me, kind of lost.

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From Olivia Klevorn‘s essay “SWIMMING” in the Fall 2015 issue.

After leaving my friends at the pool I go to my mother. In front of the hotel bathroom mirror, her hands full of pink lotion that smells like coconut and suntan oil, she parts my hair into sections and braids, wetting it down until it turns a dark brown, running the tips of her fingers across the tender parts in my scalp. This is a satellite version of the beauty salon ritual. Use product to do this. Use enough product that the hair, thirsty due to its savannah-bush nature, cannot absorb it fast enough. When the product dries, when the hair has lapped it up, apply more, tamp it down, so that it cannot speak, spring or ask for attention.

“People are always telling me about the natural hair movement,” my mother says, yanking.

My white father sits on the bed outside, watching Wimbledon on the TV.

I cry, tender-headed, hating the smell, and the style, the length, the color, the unnamable texture. My mother tries to feed me pride dug out from the teeth of her hot-combed upbringing, has me google Madame CJ Walker, do a book report on her, and then teaches me how to blow-dry it straight without her help. She tells me it is interesting hair to have. “At least you won’t go bald when you’re 50.”

Then she starts losing hair at 50.

From Sarah Pearl Heard‘s story “Unsweet Tea” in the Fall 2017 issue

When she walked in the locker room, I knew she wasn’t a scholarship kid. I can’t help it but every time I see a rich ass black person I wonder what their parents do. Everything matched, the way rich people’s gear always does. She had a pink Nike sports bra; she had two bras actually, and she needed both of them, even though I was doing my best not to notice. I always felt guilty staring too long in the locker room. Her bras matched her white basketball shoes, and socks, which both had a pink Nike checkmark. Her hair was expensive, too; you could tell she’d had it done in a salon. Nobody else could wear a blond curly weave and pull it off that well. Tonya, the only other black girl on the team and my best friend, threw me a look. It was no secret the rich black kids didn’t want to be seen with the scholarship kids. Nobody did.

We were shocked when after the coach introduced us—told us Kyla’s mom just got a job teaching at ECU, and we ought to take her out with us after practice—Kyla walked right up and took the locker next to mine. Her smile caught me off guard. She was one of those girls that got prettier the longer you looked at her.

“I’m Kyla, I’m from D.C.,” she said, sticking out a hand with pink painted nails on the end of long thin fingers. I shook her hand and Tonya started talking.

From the Lit’s interview with Tracy K. Smith in the Fall 2015 issue

LIT: A number of watershed moments in Life on Mars come down to a handful of small, malleable, and difficult words like “it” and “what.” For example, the opening lines of “My God It’s Full of Stars” (“We like to think of it as parallel to what we know, / Only bigger”) or the last line of “The Universe Is a House Party” (“Of Course, it’s ours If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours”). “It & Co.” does some advocacy for these dense words, describing them as “Vast and unreadable.” Linguistically, they seem like the clearest bridge between the poems’ theological interest and sci-fi meditations. Could you talk a little bit more about this kind of language its advantages, its dangers?

TKS: Well, those vague markers weren’t intentional, but perhaps they were a natural side effect of the poems’ concern with what I like to think of as the fundamental unknowables. I think every poem is going after something of that nature, but these poems were really doggedly trying to craft a sense of the large and mysterious system we belong to. Impossibly, I wanted to console myself once and for all by deciding where my father had gone to in death, and so it felt natural that there should be something fundamentally unresolvable—something incapable of being pinned down—at the heart of many of those poems. A poem like “It & Co.” was an attempt to both acknowledge the absurdity of that wish, and to give myself over to it in yet another attempt.

Maybe I’ll say one other thing about those words. I think that in a poem where everything that can possibly be made concrete is made concrete—where real objects and events occur, and where feeling is anchored successfully to real-feeling metaphors—words like “something” can exert tremendous power. I find this in Jack Gilbert’s poems, for example. In a poem like “Trying to Have Something Left Over,” he builds a scene that feels so vivid, so concrete, and in which the visceral sense of encounter triggers an unmistakable set of feelings and reactions in the reader. And after he does that, he opens up a strange and powerful gulf of longing and regret with the line, “Each time almost / remembering something maybe important that got lost.”  I love it when a poem can suddenly plunge into a realm that can only be felt, that defies comprehension. I think the “It” at the end of Bishop’s great poem “At the Fishhouses” does this marvelously.