A Prose Essay by Kari Allen
I am an artist and my life has been nothing short of poetry.
Named after Carrie Mae, I arrived here on the 23rd of October. I arrived in a city a long way from the farmhouse in Alligator Mississippi that Carrie Mae grew up in. I arrived in a big city; a different kind of city, a long way from the share cropping plantation that Carrie Mae’s parents bled on. To no one’s surprise, I arrived as a bastard. Nevertheless, I arrived with a smile and a chunky brown face pigmented by light. My mother says I was a happy baby because I smiled for no reason.
I arrived in a delivery room with white walls, at the Little Company of Mary Hospital on the South Side of Chicago. I looked up and smiled for no reason; then the nurse smiled at my mother; then my mother smiled at me and for a single moment there were people in a room with white walls, together, all smiling just because I smiled for no reason.
Named after Carrie Mae, I arrived here on the 23rd of October. Then approximately twenty years later, I arrived again. Ironically, the day before I arrived at twenty-one was the day that I opted to stay home from school. I knew that the day before I arrived at twenty-one, being one last day spent on the fringes of uncharted territory where I waded on the outskirts of adolescents with both angst and relief, was the day before I arrived in a place where hardly no one ever smiles for no reason.
Named after Carrie Mae, I arrived here on the 23rd of October. Approximately twenty years later, on the 22nd of October, one day before I arrived again, Carrie Mae headed home. Ironically, Carrie Mae headed home just as I arrived here and life hasn’t been the same since.
I don’t smile the way I did in all my childhood photos. I can’t relate this misfortune to any single event in my life because I remember my life in perfect fragments.
I remember things like granny murmuring something about shock therapy and bad nerves around the time I was like twelve or thirteen. Days after that my mother scorned me for either picking at my skin or making that weird noise that I made obsessively for about a year. “See!” she’d fuss. “Now your granny’s talking about electrocution!”
I hadn’t read any Sylvia Plath yet so I never understood what she was going on about but it annoyed me enough to understand that I wasn’t like the other children on my block. Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety, and basically anything that I ever heard be described as a white person’s disease wasn’t something I learned the name of until I flunked every course except English Composition I and II, during my freshmen year of college. So, at that absurdly overrated period of new adult life that we’re taught is the start of some four-year long Disney movie that ends with a sunset, I understood that I was a black person with what is still known by many as “a white person’s disease.”
On move-out day, I sat in the empty lobby on the first floor of my vacant dorm hall. Waiting for my uncle to pick me up, I stared at the murky solid-indigo wallpaper peeling in front of me like a television screen and it was like staring at my life thus far. I realized who I was, who I am, understood it, and yelled “Fuck!”
Before my uncle arrived and unknowingly saved me from my own mind, I had enough time to drive myself further up the ugly wall in front of me. It reminded me of the people I grew close with and how much we changed one another without trying to. The navy wallpaper with no pattern seemed to be deteriorating into a dirty shade of vagueness that crumbled away in flakes like the new skins we arrived at campus in did.
We all shed a layer the night one of us was raped. I stood in the lobby along with the other girls and listened to them talk about how much she deserved it because of the way she dressed and how much she drunk. I didn’t know it then but they were all wrong. We all shed a layer the day we stood on the sidewalk and watched paramedics leave the main dorm hall carrying a body bag. I stood in the crowd of my classmates and listened to them talk about the swimmer that overdosed the night before. I shed an extra layer when I remembered the night I met him outside a party that an anxiety attack forced me to run away from in fits, and he stopped me on a sidewalk just to tell me that my lips were beautiful. I shed skin and tears that day.
I shed skin that year when I heard one of the other girls call our school nigger infested. I shed more skin when I heard one of them say that she couldn’t share a bathroom with one of the other girls because she wasn’t that comfortable around black people.
When my uncle arrived to take me home, I rode away from that hick town with way less of myself than I arrived with.
Around the time, I was eight or nine, I saw a black woman on MTV plucking guitar strings and singing the words “I Just Want You Around.” I instantly recognized the tone of her voice and remembered hearing it in the records that my mama played in the living room. Her songs were different than the ones on the radio that I recorded on cassette tapes. Her songs sounded like poetry. My mama told me that her name was Lauryn. After sifting through my mama’s CD collection, I finally came across the name Lauryn Hill. From that moment on whenever teachers asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I responded Lauryn Hill.
My teachers laughed and called me cute. My classmates asked me who Lauryn Hill was. Always answering the same, I’d respond that she’s a black girl with a guitar and they’d tell me that guitars are for white people. The only real guitar that most of us had ever even seen belonged to the second-grade teacher named Mr. Becker who sung Dixie Chick songs to his class during carpet hour.
Black households are complicated as fuck sometimes. It only takes a single word or action to suck the light out of a black child. Life can be just like a Toni Morrison novel at times. Toni Morrison writes stories about black adults who never realize that they’re bitter. Sometimes a child is wise beyond their years and able to understand that they’re bitter because the world makes them that way and if not challenged, bitterness will make a home out of their bodies as well.
Bitterness has many faces and various ways of existing. It pushes itself through the lips of teachers, parents, and even pastors, when it sees light or determination in a child’s face. It’s when a child decides that they’re going to be Lauryn Hill, Bill Nye the Science Guy, or even Alan Turing that it thrusts itself forward to make sure their decision never prospers. When James Baldwin wrote about Sonny, he warned us about what happens when bitterness tells a kid to stop pressing piano keys. Bitterness laughs at any child who dares to believe that they’ll be an astronaut or president of the United States. My God, don’t even get me started on what bitterness says to women because I don’t know how I’ll ever stop writing. Tragically, most of the time bitterness wins.
Bitterness met its match when it turned to me in the kitchen one summer afternoon and told me that I wasn’t that great of a singer anyway. Bitterness spoke away any possibility of growth but it could never stop me from making my own light.
Before my mama started buying me those cheap First Act instruments that Target and Toys R Us sold, I made my own. Before I started getting violins, harmonicas, flutes, and even accordions for Christmas, I was stretching rubber bands across shoe boxes and taping paper towel roles at the top of them to make pretend fretboards. I taped sock balls to the end of paper towel rolls to make microphones and even taped them to the ends of broken broom sticks to make microphone stands. Mounting them in something solid was always tricky but somehow, I always managed to make them stand up without falling. On Christmas’s at my uncle’s house, I played my family real songs that I wrote with fake instruments. My mother used to say, “Hey, sing that Ghetto Girl song that you wrote!”
Who’s that girl,
With the long [blond] hair,
Shaking that thang like she don’t care,
It’s ghetto girl,
Hey, Hey, Hey.
Emphasis on [blond] because I was way too young to understand why black Barbie’s were so hard to find in the toy aisle. I was over a decade away from understanding why I never liked myself and finding solace in knowing that it was never my fault. The world around me did indeed scorn me bad but I spent so much time in the universe inside of me that I was ignorant to most of it.
Some legendary person said that some people are like animals because some of us carry shelter wherever we go. The universe inside of me is more mesmerizing than any sunset. On my back, on the floor, in pitch black darkness, with music all around me, I see color. Blood flows through me like pastel rivers and just as I begin to float, I let myself sink into the universe inside of me until I disappear.
My 5th grade class recited Langston Hughes for our Black History Month assembly. Our teacher lined us up across the front of the stage for our first rehearsal. One by one everyone before me spoke their lines only to be cut off midsentence by our frantic teacher who we watched transform into a stage mom right before our eyes. I vividly remember the deep breath she took before she signaled me to come forward. Fuming with slight exhaustion, she folded her arms across her chest and said “Say it like you meant it.” She made me feel like Rocky Balboa. With both hands on my hips, I popped out one knee and transferred my weight to one leg. My neck swirled and my foot stomped at the start of my most enunciated syllables.
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark,
Where there ain’t been no light (8-13).
I can’t name a single person from my 4th grade classroom. I can’t even name the teacher but if you ask me to recite Langston Hughes, I’ll do it with almost no effort. I didn’t know what I was saying then but like hell do I know it now.
I remember life in perfect fragments.
I remember things like that short kid in my 5th grade class calling me air balloon lips instead of Kari. I remember crying after I got my 8th grade gradation portrait back because my mother wanted to keep it and I couldn’t stand the site of my own face. I remember crying on my first day of high school because some girl looked me dead square in the face and told me that I was ugly. I remember crying in the mall the day I put on my new eyeglasses and saw dark spots covering my skin like birthmarks for the first time in over a year.
I look in the mirror now and see the same black marks on my skin. They’ve disappeared and reappeared without warning more times than I can remember now. Even when I cry, I smile at the same time because the scars are like war paint to me now that the face underneath is no longer my enemy. The skin underneath is nothing like the skin I shed throughout my freshmen year of college. This skin is new.
It’s been years since I’ve wrote like poetry or spoken like poetry. Sometimes I even dress like poetry. I do it because I am an artist and sometimes I just want everyone who looks at me to know that I am an artist and yes, my life has been nothing short of poetry.
I want everyone who looked at me when I was a child to look at me again; look at me right now. Look at the veins swell under my new skin to reach across my body like venomous limbs of an ivory. Look at the desperation and stillness in my eyes and see how easily they coexist. Look at my big juicy lips that are almost always sore from being picked at. Study the dark marks and scars on my cheeks that tell my story the way rings tell the ages of trees.
Look at me again. Look at me right now. Look at me still here; still existing. I’m still gasping for air and just trying to stay afloat. But look; Look at how the water stops just beneath my chin and see that my head is still above its surface.
Look at me and know that I was then and still am an artist and yes, my life has been nothing short of poetry.