Back to Issue Nineteen.




At a station in a no-name town,
a blue-red coleus

blooms from a cleft in the track.
Too obvious, I say, out loud

to the window, to God,
to no one, rolling my white eyes

into my thick bright head.
If I arrive,

who will greet me as brother,
as owner—who will greet me

at all, feeling from my veins
the pull of our one long pulse—

Pissing into the metal bin, my waste
streaming out onto the track,

I laugh at the mirror, an animal,
unhinging, trying

to see what they see
in whatever I am standing here—Then

the train slides into a long tunnel.
The lights flicker off

and I am back inside my mother.






for Safia E.j

Dear S—
They told me again today that I was not Black:
Allison says Even though you are Black and what I know she is saying is
I can’t believe I have to call you that.
A friend says Just be glad you can walk through the world and be free.
A friend says You tan well and I want to ask what he is defending.
In Marrakesh a man fell down today and I did not know why no one saw.
I lifted him to his feet. He smiled a two-tooth smile—plainly an Arab
To my eyes—and asked me where I was from. He welcomed me:
Obama! Obama!  We have the same color
Our mothers tell us we are not like them: les Africains sont là-bas!
Our mothers defend what oppresses them.
Often I ask, But if I am American and my mother, wherever she’s from, is Black,
Does that not make me—Always I stop, knowing both answers.
In Rabat my mother’s friend—they have not seen each other in 28 years—helps me find
An apartment. She has a friend with an apartment I should see.  Ok.  The friend arrives
In a BMW with a slave in the back. They speak in French. My mother’s friend, describing
My mother, says, C’etait vraiment une belle noire: She was really a beautiful Black. 
In the backseat, I am quiet, but inside, I am saying: She is still beautiful. She is not dead

Or was she, to you, never living?
The purist says our stain is not Blackness and I say what is it then
Our mothers defend an idea of self that is not their own.
What is it then
In the slow transition from light to dark and what do we call it
When we are from halfway there?: In our homes
We say asmar asmar—a chant of shame they cannot hear—
As the body changed with the earth and to contain it we must name it—
Asmar meaning dark,
Meaning Black,
Meaning Nigger (sand), meaning Nigger, meaning Noir,
Meaning less Arab, meaning not fit for this life, meaning less,
Meaning how could you wed such a beast,
Meaning it is myself that I hate, meaning please do not
Shame me, meaning please continue to cleanse, meaning Insha’Allah
I will not be on this earth to see your children
, meaning
But your tongue is clean the only trace is in your lip and hair
And it is subtle you fool
, meaning your sisters are not your sisters here,
Meaning I did all I could to free you why do you look back.

Charif Shanahan is the author of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017), winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. His poems have appeared in BafflerBoston ReviewCallaloo, Literary HubNew RepublicPoem-a-Day of the Academy of American Poets, Poetry InternationalPrairie Schooner, and elsewhere. A Cave Canem graduate fellow, he is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Originally from the Bronx, he lives in Oakland, California. Visit him at

Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

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