alternate names for black boys
by Danez Smith
1. smoke above the burning bush
2. archnemesis of summer night
3. first son of soil
4. coal awaiting spark & wind
5. guilty until proven dead
6. oil heavy starlight
7. monster until proven ghost
9. phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath
As the world watched the tumultuous events in Ferguson, Mo., over the last week, a new hashtag was born: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. The meme was photographic: what images would the media use if I died? But the question, at its heart, was one of naming.
Kid or criminal? Victim or threat? Brother, son, friend — or thug? One of us, or other?
Danez Smith grapples with the power of naming, and the powerlessness of being named, in this poem. Poetry Magazine tweeted it out earlier today, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
progress is learning to live with ghosts
San Francisco’s housing crisis has been plastered all over the news this year. You’ll remember the stories about skyrocketing housing costs displacing longtime locals (and poor students) from their homes, Mission dwellers lambasting Google bus drivers and protesting the presence of all those arrogant young techies, those arrogant young techies insensitive to the plight of longtime locals who are just barely scraping by and don’t have the luxury of striving for the same kind of progress.
I’ve heard the argument from a lot of people that the problem with housing in San Francisco is that people are too unwilling, too afraid to build up. There is so much history here that no one wants to demolish. Look at all these beautiful, unique, ornate Victorians. They’ve been here for years and years, and their quirky charm is a part of what makes San Francisco so great, so progressive. And this greatness and progressiveness are what make people want to come here in hoards to drive up the cost of living in these ornate Victorians.
What a catch-22, this desire to keep thriving as a beautiful, progressive city without losing its beautiful, progressive history.
When it comes down to it, it’s a balancing act. A complete lack of nostalgia risks the cold dystopian world predicted by sci-fi novels. In The Giver or in Brave New World, for instance, an erasure of memories and emotion makes the society really efficient, but readers generally agree that it seems like a rather empty existence. An excess of nostalgia, on the other hand, risks holding people back and ultimately leads to elimination in a perpetually evolving world. Think of natural selection. Organisms (or businesses or societies) must adapt to altered environmental pressures, and those that fail will eventually die. But even adaptation builds on what came before.
We need progress and history both, and we just need to figure how much of each is necessary. “Just”—as if it’s that easy.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in several contexts. For one, I’ve been caught up in a grand effort to transform Synapse, the UCSF newspaper, into a more respectable and useful platform for student communication that students and administrators alike will want to read and keep around. It is a historical record in itself, but it must adapt as the ways in which people record history and communicate information change. That’s something all newspapers deal with. As a business model, it must be enough of the same to keep existing readers and be enough of something new to hook everyone else.
On a more personal level, I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic this week, and I can’t quite shake it. I am reading Torch by Cheryl Strayed, and there are moments in this book when she so accurately describes the grief I felt three years ago that it’s as if I’m back there in that time and in that place. Last week, I dreamt I was in high school, and we were together in the old house where another family now lives. The paper-white walls, the tall ceiling in the entry that led all the way up to the roof, the ugly low-hanging chandelier that never quite fit—of all the places I’ve lived, that’s the one I see when I close my eyes and think the word “home.” That’s the place I missed when it was pouring freezing rain in the Nashville winter at 1am, and I felt so alone I could have screamed into the trees.
Out and about, I’ve been seeing things that remind me of my mother. I was in the grocery store, wandering through the aisles trying to remember what it was that I’d meant to go in there to buy, and I saw a row of chicharrones, fried pork skins. I remembered how my mom used to shop a lot in the Mexican grocery stores in Vegas. She’d buy bags and bags of chicharrones when they were on sale and put them in giant pots of soup, and after a few moments, they softened into a deliciously glutinous, chewy texture.
In another aisle, they had those cans of Pillsbury biscuit dough that you just roll open and separate and stick in the oven with a pat of butter. At least, that’s how I imagine you’re supposed to use them to make dinner rolls. But we rolled them out into a small flat circle, patted flour on each side, filled them with ground pork and vegetables, and pinched them into the beginnings of steamed buns. (Lucky reader, you’re getting all these great recipes for free.) It is finally almost not painful to think about making these things again. (Challenge: how many qualifiers can I use in one sentence?)
It slows you down, these memories. You’re rushing through the grocery store, trying to get what you need and get out, and then you see these simple little things—inconspicuous ghosts—that catch you off guard and have you walking around in a daze. How must more efficient we would be without these ghosts. But also, how lost, how empty.
The longer you are in the world, the more ghosts you will have—memories of what you did badly, memories of what was once good and is no longer, things you want to hold onto but can’t if you are to push on. This is true for people, for businesses, for cities. But progress isn’t about getting rid of the ghosts. Progress is learning to accept that everything you love and everything you are will eventually die; you will accumulate ghosts and be someone else’s ghost. And that’s okay. They hold you back a little, but they also remind you of why you push on.
the ebb and flow of memory
After all this time, my dream self is still so easily fooled into thinking she is still alive.
My dream self knows something is wrong at the first sign of weakness, and now, I am older and more knowledgeable, have more access to resources that could save her. The first time she faints, I know what I should do. How much more devastating is the reality, then, when I awaken and realize I am years too late.
For days after, everything is tinted. When grocery shopping, I see the cans of biscuits we used to use to make steamed buns, and I think maybe I’ll buy a bit of ground meat and green onions and make them again. I put the biscuits in my basket only to put them back on the shelf immediately. After all this time, I still can’t bear to remember the small bits of happiness that are now lost irrevocably.
oh hey, we got reviewed!
I just found this ridiculously nice review.
I wish "getting creeped on" could be listed as a marketable skill
- [Incident 2 of 2 since Saturday]
- Lyft driver, in a heavy accent: Where are you from?
- Me, resisting the urge to roll my eyes: I grew up in Las Vegas, but most of my family is from China, to answer your real question. Where are YOU from?
- Lyft driver: Algeria. You are very beautiful. You have a beautiful face, not like a Chinese woman. You look Vietnamese.
- Me: ...Uh huh. What's the difference? [Internal monologue: Um, really, you think this is a compliment? Also, good thing I'm going to a public place from another public place.]
- [Lyft driver continues to repeat insulting "compliment"]
- Lyft driver, as we approach the destination: Are you going home now?
- Me: Uhhh, yeah. Getting dinner with my roommate. [This was a total lie, but people are less likely to kill you when they think people will notice right away, right? Right?!?]
- Lyft driver: Can I pay you?
- Me: Um, what?
- Lyft driver, barely comprehensible: Can I pay you? Can I buy you a pizza? [I could have totally misheard that, but I decided "Can I take you out?" was a better interpretation than "Can I pay for your services because you're totally giving off 'Vietnamese prostitute' vibes with that non-Chinese-looking face and blazer of yours"]