My mom tells a story from when she was in college in Kentucky. It had snowed overnight, heavily and unexpectedly, but students were still be expected to be in class that morning. On campus was a famously steep hill, unpleasant even in good weather. This snow-covered day in the late 1960s, my mother slipped and slogged her way to that spot - almost certainly in a skirt and non-sensible shoes - to find the members of the football team lined up in two rows all the way up the hill. Hand by hand, they helped people up the hill, passing each pedestrian up the chain like a track baton, ensuring their safe passage. It is a charming story.
We all have stories from our past, some pleasant and charming, some freighted with darkness and trauma. In the past few weeks, I have read several pieces that reckon with the stories we tell of our past, perhaps none more extraordinary than Nikki Grimes's memoir-in-verse Ordinary Hazards.
Right from the start, Grimes acknowledges the flawed nature of memory, the effort it takes to fill in the gaps without misrepresenting the truth. As a poet, Grimes intentionally limits her form, allowing the line breaks and foreshortened structure to mirror the necessarily fragmented and enjambed nature of memory. She opens with the years 1950-1955 and a quote from "Let Me Tell You How to Meet the Day" by poet Mari Evans. In this first section, Grimes describes choosing her name ("Nickname is the word / I plucked it from when I was six. / I immediately liked / the hard k of it, which sounded / firm and looked like a sturdily braced wall,") and of some of the immediate difficulties of her young life. The title of the book comes from the poem "On Our Own" in this first section, which opens
No one warned me
the world was full of
like closets with locks and keys.
The reader understands that Grimes will be telling a story full of pain, but in every section, in almost every line, she insists on a light in all the darkness.
Book Two covers the next five years of her life, a time of relative stability, and the time within which she discovers the power of words. Her readers are thankful for this revelation, and the power of her words is undeniable, as evidenced by the poem "One Year Gone:"
God deals days
like a deck of cards,
shuffling and counting out
kings, hearts, jokers
fast as lightning.
His hand is quicker
than my eye.
In Book Three, the poems broaden, alternate structures, stretch themselves out as Grimes herself must have stretched during this season of adolescence. This section also includes details of the harsh realities Grimes faced, including her mother's mental illness and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother's new husband. It is gut-wrenching to read as is her poem "Grandma Sally" about her refusal to visit her mother's grandma down South. It concludes with
I'll just have to meet her
on the other side, where racism
has been excised
and justice is
as common as dirt.
Though it faces the truth of violent racism, that last line is so full of hope, something we can all aim for. Justice as common as dirt!
Book Four, the final section, takes the reader through 1966. It opens with a passage from 2 Samuel and this note from the author:
My narrative's a puzzle.
What's next and next and next
I couldn't say.
The moments, hours, days
The only thread connecting them
is me, and even then
the thread is frayed -
the break, at most,
a hair's breadth away.
I read this book weeks ago. It has taken some time for me to find my way back to my voice in the tumult and turmoil of protests and police brutality and injustice as common as dirt. I chose threads as the touchstone word for this review because of the way so much of my reading and thinking has interwoven since then, completely forgetting this beautiful note until I gathered my thoughts to write. That thread may be frayed, but it remains a connective stitch for me and likely for others.
This past Sunday, I chose Nikki Giovanni as the focus of my weekly poetry series. She is an icon and a hero of mine, and besides sharing their initials and first name, the threads connecting these two women are tightly woven. Nikki Giovanni's "Nikki-Rosa" does some of the same work Nikki Grimes's Ordinary Hazards does. Both can look at the hard, even tragic, circumstances of their lives and see the beauty and grace in them. Today I discovered Giovanni blurbed Grimes's book. In this rambling conversation between Giovanni and superstar Clint Smith, Giovanni mentions her abiding friendship with poet Mari Evans (are you starting to see the connections?). Evans passed away mere months after that event after walking with Giovanni as a friend and a mentor just as Giovanni may now be walking with Grimes. The point of the event was to discuss Giovanni's friendship with James Baldwin, whose interview with Studs Terkel I had just listened to and whose interview with Esquire I had just read and then sent to the mayor of my city, urging his active response to the voices echoing Baldwin today.
The thread tightens further in the Epilogue of Grimes's book. To understand, let's back up to the season in Grimes's life when her relationship with her musician father is restored. He is a beacon of encouragement and inspiration for her, signing her up for a poetry reading at the Countee Cullen library. She explains the importance of that moment,
And, like magic,
my breathing slowed,
and I rose
to the occasion,
reading my poem
in a clear voice,
my father's faith
and loving gaze
holding me steady
Later, he takes her to a celebration of Lorraine Hansberry, and she sees from a distance a man surrounded by fans, a "famous author." That evening opened the door for Grimes to see herself as a star, to recognize, as she puts it, "not all stars in the firmament / were white." Later still, when she asks him why he'd taken her to a movie and then fell asleep, he responds, "what really mattered / was that I have the chance to see / all there was of black beauty / and music and magic in the world. / Otherwise, what would I weave / into my stories?" Now we come to the Epilogue, where the aspiring writer, believing in her beauty and potential, attends a program celebrating the life of Malcolm X. There, she watches as the "famous author" from years before speaks, there she catches him on his way out of the auditorium:
"Mr. Baldwin!" I manage, breathless,
"I'm a writer, too.
Could you look at my work
and tell me what you think?"
He agrees, reads her work, and looks at her "one serious writer to another." In this moment, the world opens up for the author just as the book comes to a close. And the thread, that thread of "black beauty and music and magic" continues its woven work.
Like those boys in my mom's story, handing their fellow students up the hill, so, too, can we trace the long, beautiful, difficult history of Black writers handing their fellow writers up the hill, helping them ascend despite racism and discrimination and pain. I look forward to the day, someday soon, when that hill stops being so steep, and when those hands reach out purely in love and not out of necessity.
The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise a reply.
Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!