By Nijla Mu'min
Maybe it was the long, golden twist. I wondered what it felt like. Straw and cotton. The black leather cap. The barely seen eyes. Mary was in my sister’s CD player as brown gel slid between her fingers. Gel to slick the sides of her coarse hair.
We were black girls imagining. My mom was at work selling fresh carpet in Oakland. On the back of the album, Mary’s lips were so red, her skin so blonde. She was singing about being with a man who didn’t want her.
She was breathing air and loss on a track. She was moaning and whispering some hip hop depression on “My Life” and my sister was in Oakland acting grown with her girlfriends. Coming home with red eyes, slurred promises, and frizzy hair. I was packing away my barbies and getting ready to be left behind.
My sister. Draped in baggy plaid and bad dreams. My first kiss was at Mosswood park. I screamed just as it happened.
I couldn’t stop looking at the Mary J. Blige cd cover and artwork. Why did she seem to be hiding? Sitting with her legs open, in bright red, with a blonde twist, looking empty.
But the CD was bumpin’. And the boys were cute. One of them showed me his penis on the playground. My sister liked Stevie and hung out at his apartment. His mother was like our aunt. I was learning my body in a small room, on grey carpet. Baby, don’t go.
I hadn’t yet turned 10.
What was it to be left? What was it to be alone and be beautiful?
Mary’s voice was brick and syrup.
By Nijla Mu'min
Why you emotional / Why you emotional / Ahh b*tch you emotional? / Yeah /
“Big Shot” - Kendrick Lamar
I have become unhinged,
A woman without a place.
Summerwood apartments. African art on thin, white walls. Fertility dolls with chest that poke out like cones. Mom’s at work, selling carpet.
The Black bookstore at Bayfair. Never had a name. A mall library for a lost brown kid finding my face in pages. Rows of lit, like untended crops.
I’m reading about Mary Mcleod Bethune at Mosswood Park. I’m reading about Sierra Leone. I’m doing the butterfly so good on wet grass, pressing my feet into soft soil, popping my body to Too Short. Water from super soakers snaking through my tank top. I’m running. Boys at my back. One wants me to be his.
I don’t know what that means.
My babysitter lives in the Twomps, on a corner, in a big house I cannot remember the color. She warns me never to look out the front window, for it might shatter. Bullets become real to me when watching Menace II Society. I live in Hayward, but I’m learning to pretend.
Her father sleeps in the back room, dreaming of his days on the continent. I remember his feet. Covered in a white soot from walking over golden sand, indigo I imagine the winds carrying me over to the water he remembers. Drowning me into a sea grave of Ghanaian grand-maidens carrying ripe melons and pink crystals they picked up on the bay.
My father once carried crates of whiting fish and newspapers to sell on Berkeley corners, under Nation of Islam orders. My father was taught that Black man was God / Black man was gold. A brother was shot down in the street by police, his crates outlined in blood. Now he dreams in a wheelchair.
We’re at the festival at the lake. Men in mud cloth are playing djembe drums and black women run in freshly ironed daisy dukes, ducking seagalls and ringed, man hands that grab. Gel from fresh finger waves slide down their necks, like tiny streams. Someone’s cousin got called a bitch, and all the fine ones get numbers. My hair is nappy. "bitches ain’t shit" blares from that Cutlass. Supreme. Baby daddies pick up pampers on the way home, scotch on their breath, up in the hills.
We were in the dark, watching a movie in a theater of embers, and passionate lulls. Black bodies on motorbikes, black leather and smoke coming through the screen. I choke and smile. Our hands keep crossing paths.
I don’t want to be left with this memory.
Grand daddy was shot by a Black Panther in uncle Scotty’s corner store. Amidst shelves of liquor and salty snacks. Wasn’t willing to give up the money. Pay a tax for black capital. A bullet pierced his kidney, but he kept on stuntin, out there in his black fedora, mailing cash down the coast to Maringouin, Louisiana where Marcus Garvey once made stops at the depot. Maringouin, Louisiana where my grandmother sewed Sunday dresses, and stood on red dirt, forgotten.
Daddy was in the dark saloon, sitting across from Huey Newton. Skin dotted by red and purple lights on a weekend night when black men stepped out to be seen. Oakland kings in wide collared shirts and bell bottoms reaching past their ankles. Dad knew a drug dealer, a real smooth, real cunning drug dealer, who was shot dead the next night. Bean pies, black gold, breakfast for babies.
We was all about the community, but I wanted to be a Muslim, he says.
I remember we were throwing our hair all over the dusk, going dumb at a college party, ripping our futures for a night. Ancestors in the shadows, watching with sage in their eyes. I see you across the floor, ignoring me. I dance harder, but still you do not see me. A fight breaks out and someone’s chin is busted, blood on knuckles and and a song says bust it open.
You Kings dip out the garage and I am left, wanting. Not wanting to be erased. Not wanting to be erased from my own story. From yours. From a heartbeat, from a place that sings in my chest.
Nijla Mu'min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Her work is informed by poetry, photography, fiction, and dance. Named one of 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine in 2017, she tells stories about Black girls and women who find themselves between worlds and identities. Her debut feature film, Jinn, premiered at the 2018 South By Southwest Film Festival, where she won the Special Jury Recognition Award for Screenwriting. Jinn, a New York Times Critic’s pick, was released in November 2018, and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. She recently directed an episode of HBO’s “Insecure” in 2019, and is currently developing her second feature film, as well as a debut collection of poetry. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where she studied and taught with June Jordan's Poetry for the People, and CalArts MFA Film Directing and Creative Writing Programs.