Yesterday, in the chaotic wonderland that is the AWP bookfair, I happened upon a woman I hadn’t seen in at least two decades. Before she even saw me, I watched as she haggled gently but persistently with someone at the Red Hen table—like so many of us, she was trying to sell herself, trying to convince powerful strangers that her words were worth something.
Deborah and I hadn’t grown up together, but we grew up in the same neighborhood at the same time. Yep, we are west side of Chicago girls, and if you talk to us long enough, you’ll hear those streets in the sassy bend of our voices. In fact, our shared history was so strong that one of the first things we did yesterday—after hugging and screeching delightedly and screeching louder and then screeching some more—was to playfully slap our hands together in one of the first clapping games we remembered. More serious writers slowed to stare as we sang:
Oh Mary Mac, Mac Mac
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back.
She asked her mother, mother, mother
For fifteen cents, cents, cents
To see the elephant, elephant, elephant
Jump the fence, fence, fence.
He jumped so high, high, high
He touched the sky, sky, sky
And he didn't come back, back, back
Till the fourth of July, ly, ly.
When we were eight years old, growing tall tangled in bitter root, we could whip our fingers numb with those clapping games, the hand jive. Smack, pat, clap, clap, snap, telling rhythmic tall tales of little girls and flying elephants—and blue-black superheroes who only flew on Fridays, cause that's when the eagle flew. Some other girls were better at rapidfiring the rhymes, but I could make my hands a blur without ever losing it. I sewed those buttons down Mary Mac’s blackside. That dime and nickel also glittered in my fist.
I was a first daughter. Asked to create our own histories, we taught our hands to sing, and they grew callused with necessary music. Those songs we slapped were the first step in learning where our souls were, the place where our histories could actually begin. Swathed in Chi-blues, we were born knowing about the singing out. But it was eight years before I knew about the singing in—how we need to pull lyrics and backbeats and plump single notes into ourselves and hold them there.
Once you learn the location of the soul, you must immediately begin to feed it.
My whole body yearned for sound. Because I spent so much time inside, alone with my books and rampant imagination, I assumed folks were singing about what I wasn’t seeing. I heard whole stories in guitar riffs, sax solos, finger pops. I held onto lyrics for dear life. I already knew that words and their music had the muscle to save me.
And it was all music. One morning in my 4th-grade classroom, Mrs. Stein wrote the word “anemone” on the blackboard, and asked if anyone knew how to pronounce it. I rolled it around in my mouth until it came out right—and while she went on to explain that anemones were perennial herbs, I freaked on that one word’s rolling rhythm. I must have repeated it a thousand times that day, kept it low and special where my breath could catch it. Anemone. Anemone. Now it’s an exclamation curled in me that sometimes sings itself.
And it was all music. Whipping my hands into hurting, clapping to punctuate the rhyme word, popping non-existent hips to seal the deal. Warping what we knew, making it ours.
Oh Mary Mac, Mac, Mac
Why she so black, black, black,
Spend all that time, time, time
Flat on her back, back, back?
Having no idea what we were talking about. Thinking Mary had fallen, maybe while she was playing, and couldn’t get up. Wondering why my mother hauled off and backhanded me, no questions asked, the first time she heard me deep in that rhyme.
And it was all music. The countin’-by-tens of jumprope, flamin’ doubledutch rhymes. The street-corner doo-wop, the running jivetalk that gushed out whenever someone opened the door of the barbershop. Myself reading out loud. Daddy’s snoring, chicken frying in yesterday’s grease, James Brown’s huuh! All of it an overload of sweet for my two ears. Sound was all over me, feeding the soul I had found.
Not everyone understood.
Three downbeats in a line of song.
“Patricia! Tricia Ann! Chile, if you don’t—”
I didn’t hear her. I was singing in my closed-door soprano, head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut. Mangled notes were bouncing off the walls. The Temptations were begging, and I was feeling begged for:
I miss you more with each passing day…
Every night on my knees I pray
return your love to me, girl,
forgive me for the wrong I’ve done…
Bang! I jumped as a jagged chip of paint flew from the bathroom door and nicked my calf. Jesus Christ, the woman was going to kick the door down.
“Girl, get that thing outta your ear!”
I was sitting on the floor with my back resting against the tub, washed in florescence, the door closed and locked. A transistor radio in my lap, the antenna pulled all the way up, the knobby little earphone nestled in one ear. I removed it, but didn’t touch the clunky transistor’s little silver volume dial. The Temptations squealed on, tinny and remorseful through the wire.
“Why? Can I go outside now?”
“Nah, it’s gon’ be dark soon.” It was 3 p.m., the streetlights not even thinkin’ about waking up. But I knew my mother’s version of darkness, of lateness. “What you doing in there, anyhow? Open this door.”
She knew I was listening to the radio. But what she couldn’t seem to understand was that it required aloneness, that any intrusion of the real world pierced the magic. I needed Ruby Andrews and father James and Fontella Bass to preach their gospel unassailed. I needed to feel that anxiousness in my little hips. I needed to place myself smack in the middle of heartbreak and deception and love rediscovered. I needed to cry like I was grown. And I didn’t need a witness.
“OK, OK, I’m coming out. I’m coming out.” As I emerged, she shook her head slowly and made a sucking noise with her tongue and teeth, as if I’d been caught in the commission of a sin. Sin behind a closed and locked bathroom door hadn’t even occurred to me yet.
I remember my mother buying and playing just four records: Tyrone Davis’ “Baby, Can I Change My Mind,” O.C. Williams “Little Green Apples,” “Rainy Night in Georgia” and something by someone named Freddy Fender. Every once in awhile, a piece of lyric hit her at a time when she needed to be hit, and she wore the song out until it fixed what ailed. It was like a dose of Dr. John’s. She insisted that everything else was just noise, especially that sugary dribble I was obsessed with. I couldn’t even begin to explain to her how every spoken word had music hiding in it, how every piece of music I heard shaped me and gave me a ledge to dream on.
The more records I heard, the more I listened to the radio, the more singing words I pulled from the dictionary and held in my mouth, the more stories I read aloud, the larger the world loomed. And I grew increasingly hungry for all of it, especially the parts that dwelled beyond the boundaries set by my circumstance. I set out to learn everything I could about what I felt was being kept from me. There was another place, another mindset, and I longed to be a tourist there.
All that longing, all that being perched on the edge of discovering everything, came back in a rush yesterday as two little girls in their 50s found that they had been traveling the same path and clapped their hands together to celebrate. Now we are both writers. The magic words that mesmerized us as kids had grown large enough to guide our lives, to finally bring us together in this amazing place where just about everyone--except maybe a few crusty litmag editors--knows our joy, and shares it.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...