Cameron Barnett


Emmett Till Haunts the Library in Money, MS

                                    Anthony Carbajal

                                   Anthony Carbajal

What I can’t let you know is that death, too, is a snore,

a sooty shelf of unmoving paper with some gasbag

lady at the front desk. If you knew, there’d be too many

questions how I sneak past heaven’s gates some days

and nap against the stacks, feel the blood in my head

drip into the young adult fiction. Mamie always preached

good posture, so I sit straight at least. When I was black

I grew used to the shuffle of visibility, to the move boy! and

the thousand yard stare over my head, so being ghost

isn’t all new or scary, no one to ask me what came out

of my lips sixty years ago because I might as well be ink

on closed pages lost somewhere in the archives. You can’t judge

a book by its facts or flaps or back cover, but a black boy

is the title and the illustration staring you in the face, asking

to be seen or sampled but not smothered between the other

black boys, forgotten, dog-eared and ditched. I don’t love death

but I don’t mind reading the periodicals for faces like mine,

waiting to take them past heaven’s gates with me soon.


Baby,

 

I’m scared our kids will come out splotchy, my girlfriend, M, texted me

after we spent the morning naming—was it four or five boys

she wanted?—after my thumbs grew numb from exchanging

ideas from opposite ends of campus, and if you’re thinking

that I went off and ended our relationship on the spot, you’re wrong

because I pretended I never got the message, and when she didn’t

bring it up again after I got to the library, we slipped into a steady study,

since it was November, and finals were coming up, and we became

a new twist on that age-old American vision of college, two kids straight

out of MLK’s Dream speech, and the point is I saw the list

of baby names doodled down the margins of her notes, clusters

of hearts, and another boy’s name we hadn’t discussed,

one I knew, and the point is I bought her coffee when it got late

and spit out requisite I-love-yous whenever we’d look up from our work,

my girlfriend thinking mixed children were our biggest threat,

which I guess she could because I didn’t teach her what being black

and spotted means, that it isn’t the melanin that makes sales reps stalk you

in department stores, and it isn’t the melanin that makes someone

pull the trigger, and because I wanted love then too much for my own good

I could only wonder if she would become the kind of white woman who’d pull

her children close to her when they saw albino blacks in public, the security

of a caucasian kid yanking at her heart, or if she would learn to let herself be

filled with humility, but more importantly if would I become the kind

of black man who believes dignity is worth more than affection, or that

there’s a love where they coexist, though I’m not sure I’m there yet,

but regardless, M, wherever you are now I want to let you know

I got your message, but I pretended it never came because I didn’t want you

to cheat on me or cheat on your test—which you did anyway.


Muriatic

“My color just comes with the territory.”  —Simone Manuel

 

It’s 1994 and I’m focused on the kick board, toes

lipping over pool’s edge, anticipating the cool

Anaheim water beneath, a carefully learned leaning

of my body toward the swim instructor, her arms

open, this white woman’s embrace the first in a long line

that I’ll learn to trust and fear at the same time, but

 

today it’s 2016 and Flint, Michigan is boiling

the metal in its water futilely, a bubbling brown,

plastic bottles stacked forklift-high, children

stacking up in hospital wait rooms, sick with

this water they were given against their will like

 

it’s 1964 in St. Augustine, Florida, and rabbis

and blacks are swimming in the Monson

Motor Lodge pool while the manager cups a jug

of muriatic acid—clear and colorless—dumps it

into the water he skirts around, and the sheriff’s

men refuse to touch it while they pull bodies out

against their will like it’s just another day, but today

 

it’s 1936 and white men guard the pool in Pittsburgh’s

Highland Park where black boys come up and ask “Why

can’t we swim?” and the white men’s boots and clubs

answer them for decades and decades, and today

 

it’s 2006 and the fountain in my high school arcs lukewarm

water, cresting like the arch in my bent back, and just below

to the side I see a rectangle of old caulk, ghost of a fountain

coming from the wall, and my back aches like

 

it’s 1950 and my grandfather is thirsty, so he steps

into the long line, bows his head beneath the “coloreds

only” sign, lips pursed to the slow trickle, though

the fountain is cleaner and stronger for “whites

only,” but he doesn’t dare meddle with their water today,

 

in 1973, when the pool at Kennywood closes for good,

and some will blame “integration” and some will blame

“maintenance problems” and some will only know the parking lot

paved over, or the splash of the Pittsburgh Plunge

as it dunks into new waters spraying high in the air like

 

it’s 2005 in New Orleans, and Katrina’s waters are either sink

or swim, and the government chooses sink, and far too many

whites say “Why don’t they just swim?” and far too many blacks

don’t have a choice at all, and hot days go by without help like

 

it’s 1963 and the hoses are on us and it’s 1954 and Emmett

Till can’t breathe and it’s every year since then that black people

have known the sting of the water and kept back, kept out,

kept waiting for clean waters, safe waters, until finally

 

it’s 2016 and it’s a dead heat in Rio, and Simone Manuel’s hand

hits the wall, and a gasp hits her face and wide-smiled disbelief

when a black girl wins a gold medal in the water, and wide-smiled

black girls slip on swimsuits, and little brown and black kids peek

their toes over swimming pools’ edges knowing today,

for the first time, the water can be our home too.

 


Cameron Barnett is a current associate poetry editor for Pittsburgh Poetry Review and the past poetry editor for Hot Metal Bridge Literary Magazine. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Florida Review, The Minnesota Review, Barely South Review, and TriQuarterly. Mr. Barnett holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.