And two by two they marched through the low river, pairs of every clean and unclean black soul crawled out from
the hood’s winter-worn pavement. Audrey from over on East Main who everybody knows can’t dance to save her
life, but who would still grab for the first untethered hand when someone’s momma played a little Otis while the
meat laid on a Sunday fire. Jason and them niggas from the north courts who ran the hoops all weekend to hustle
loose change off of the white boys from the side of town where no one gotta worry about drowning. The
southside stickup kids, Kevin and Ray Ray. Dwayne, who once held a gun to his own father’s tensed jaw with his
mother curled on the kitchen tile. Brittany who had her name written inside of every heart drawn by every boy on
the block. They all marched, this collection of silent bodies marked for death, cloaked in
black, lined up at the mouth of the house that Miss Rhonda built out of the dirt with her bare hands, back when
the coffee shop across the street was the club you could walk to on a Friday night and spend your paycheck on
some cheap liquor and clean funk and the sweat clinging to your neck to go with it. Built the whole house outta
solid brick so that wouldn’t no storm trouble the foundation. Twenty floors high, one for each dead child reaching
their hands down from heaven and pulling that bent roof closer to the sky. One for every child who
ran into the jaws of another hungry war that arrived on their doorstep and did not crawl out alive to march
through the flooding streets that birthed them and walk into Miss Rhonda’s house with the rest of their people
while the water grew to their ankles. And all of the cars on Main Street were topless and swerved backwards
through the river. And black boys who hadn’t seen the sun for days still wore sunglasses and held their hands out
of the windows and threw what little money they had to the sky cuz ain’t nobody gonna be poor in the next life.
ain’t nobody gonna be hungry in the next life. everybody gonna be alright once them clouds roll back.
and on the seventeenth day of the second month, the water reached the lips of Miss Rhonda’s highest window. the
children pressed their faces to the glass to watch what the water carried by. the gold rims hugged by thick tires. the
high-top sneakers from ’88. a radio playing an old blues song about sleeping in the ruins of a burned-down house
in a city no one from the hood had ever heard of. a school of chicken bones sucked clean of the meat. small bags
with white powder. one thousand Kangol hats filled to the brim with diamonds. a single gold rope chain, kissed
and the waters prevailed in the hood for forty days.
and the waters prevailed so mightily in the hood that the coffee shop they tore down the juke joint to build was
and the waters prevailed so mightily in the hood that the supermarket the white folk kicked somebody’s family out
of their house to build was covered.
and the waters prevailed so mightily in the hood that the ice cream shop that told the black church to stop praising
so damn loud on Sunday mornings was covered.
and the waters prevailed so mightily in the hood that Miss Rhonda’s house and the black bodies pressed to its
walls were all that was left rocking on the water’s blue face riding east on the wind to new land.
to a new hood that felt like the old hood.
and at the end of forty days, Miss Rhonda opened the windows in the house she built from the bricks left over
and at the end of forty days everyone stepped out into the wet earth and the magnolia flowers pulled open slow
like the eyes of a newborn to drink in the foreign light.
and from the mud rose a new church.
and from the mud rose one hundred new houses with backyards forty acres long.
and from the mud rose a song with a Diana Ross sample that your mama knew but ain’t never heard like this. and
from the mud rose a new way to summon the warmth of a long and hot summer that gave every family a
new and living child to pour themselves into the new hood where nothing ever burned.
where no house was ever torn to dust, and there was never a hearse for anyone who hadn’t given the earth one
hundred honest years and one last sunset peeling itself across their brown skin.
and every dance was a dance for only us.
and no one had their tongue stripped of its language.
and from these children of the flood, the new hood was born. and everyone had a season that bore their name:
Keisha when the rain came, Jamal when the leaves turned to orange daggers, Christopher when the cold and thick
darkness laid itself across the block, Christopher when everyone stayed inside with a radio.
except Miss Rhonda, who rocked on her porch. Humming slow for the next 350 years.
but in the stories we tell our children, there will only be bullets. Blood making a lover of Los Angeles again. One
dead hero, and a flash of light two decades long.
A casket carried slow through a Brooklyn that is not like the one our fathers remember.
Boys on its rooftops holding dollar bills in one hand and bodega candles in another pressing them to a sky where
heavy black clouds hang above a field of brownstones
threatening and threatening, but never freeing themselves of grief.
In the stories we tell our children, there will be Lil’ Kim in a long black fur
her body cloaked in what we take from the dead a funeral inside of a funeral
ten platinum records hanging in a room that a mother never walks into a row of open flowers, walking almost on
slow-moving wreck, eager for light.
Perhaps when you die, they will wear your face on sweatshirts at the college parties black people aren’t invited to.
Perhaps they will give your crown to a white woman. Perhaps they will love your songs, but not the people you
wrote them for. Play them in restaurants no one you love can afford to eat in. And you will not be alive to take
back your name. Bury me with anything of mine people love enough to want to make their own. I wish for
nothing to speak for me except the cicadas when summer comes. The soft breeze that begs for forgiveness on the
face of anyone I left behind. I am sorry. I have again said death and named another thing that I cannot save
anyone from. Death, the house with endless rooms that we are all marching into, the reckless shepherd. I am sorry
that we are here again wondering who will line up to watch our bodies carried through a city where we had our
first kiss. I look at the soft earth when it rains and think again of how good it is to feel wanted. To know that
there is always a place willing to hold you.
Perhaps when you die, an old black woman will touch her cracked hands to a small boy's face and pull his eyes
away from your burial. Perhaps she will lean close and say Do not be afraid. I was once pulled from one wound and thrown
into another. I was once small. I can still feel the hands pulling me towards the dark horizon. I can still hear the river when I sleep.