thinking aloud & alone--after Baldwin
By t'ai freedom ford
in the run-up to summer, New York weather is typically predictable: 50s & rain with a few sporadic days of sun & heat that send everyone running half-naked into the streets. this year’s no different. weather has no knowledge of this yearlong pandemic. or the ways in which we’ve sequestered ourselves indoors out of necessity & survival. but now, They tell us it is safe to go outside again except The Inside has me sufficiently brainwashed—reclusive & reluctant. still slow-moving & pessimistic as a grey winter day. when i step outside to take the trash or check the mail, the sun shocks me. blind & blinking i run inside clutching bills, groping for hand sanitizer. i’m still nursing these inward feelings, but even in my inaction, my thoughts are running mad marathons.
i am thinking about text as texture as medium as primitive technology. i am thinking about other primitive technologies like fire & how today’s kids are obsessed with it. how flame emojis blaze all over texts & social media. how everything good is fire, or as my niece says: fye.
i am thinking about words as image as imagery bound by the page but unbound via sound.
i am thinking about teeth as currency as cowrie shells as utensils as canvases for whiteness.
i am thinking about da hood™ as sanctuary spaces as Black noise temples as canvases for whiteness.
i am thinking about what Christa said about “gentrification debates” as “hella futile” as “reactionary.”
i am thinking about Harlem in particular because it was a home to Baldwin in that queer way home is defined by where you were born, where your family resides. i am thinking about the place Baldwin knew & loved & classified as ghetto. how, in an essay, he described Harlem as being “pervaded by a sense of congestion, rather like the insistent, maddening, claustrophobic pounding in the skull that comes from trying to breathe in a very small room with all the windows shut.”
i am thinking about windows as mirrors as portals as instruments of surveillance. i am thinking of actual surveillance: video camera footage & body cam footage & cell phone footage & chants of i can’t breathe ricocheting in a global echo chamber. & i wonder what Baldwin would think about how, almost 35 years after his death, we are still suffocating, still confined by the very small room of white supremacy.
i am thinking of white bodies & the space they take up in Harlem (& DC & Atlanta & Oakland & Seattle & New Orleans &—)
i am thinking about trans politics, androgyny, masculine of center identities, & the tomboy purgatory i trudged thru as a kid. i am thinking about the queer hell Baldwin must’ve experienced as the son of a preacher. i am thinking about his friendship with Hansberry & her queerness & unabashed Blackness & righteousness.
i am thinking of white bodies as milk repositories as funhouse mirrors as slot machines as assault rifles as tiki torches. i am thinking of the men Baldwin loved, milk-white & blue-veined. i wonder if those white boys ever met his Black mama. i am thinking how Baldwin reconciled conflicts around race & gender. how he said “each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white.”
i am thinking about trans politics, androgyny, masculine of center identities, & the tomboy purgatory i trudged thru as a kid. i am thinking about the queer hell Baldwin must’ve experienced as the son of a preacher. i am thinking about his friendship with Hansberry & her queerness & unabashed Blackness & righteousness. i am thinking about the two of them in a room. how the light of them bordered on celestial. their combined brilliance extra-terrestrial.
i am thinking about his relationships with other luminaries—Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Toni Morrison.
i am thinking especially about Morrison who tells Baldwin how she remembered “wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary.”
i am thinking about the necessity of Black joy & laughter. & Baldwin’s smile. his large teeth, some gapped & browning, anchoring a smile that feels oddly effortless considering all the shit he had to be mad about. depending the circumstance, like debating some entitled whiteboy with an ivy league pedigree, Baldwin could flick his smile switchblade quick as if to say: don’t fuck with me. or how his smile could be synonymous with a side eye—how lips tighten & teeth are unveiled as both threat & promise.
i am thinking about smiling, masked & unseen, during a pandemic. i am thinking about smiling as weapon as suggestion as invitation as manifestation of anxieties.
i am thinking about my virtual invisibility, tucked indoors, away. how i’ve disappeared myself into thinking i no longer exist in IRL but i am thinking about how Baldwin said that the artist “must actively cultivate… the state of being alone.”
alone, i am. & thinking much more than smiling, but creating all the while. which means, to throw an Ebonics remix on Descartes: i think, therefore goddamnit, i be.
t’ai freedom ford is a New York City high school English teacher. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Apogee, Bomb Magazine, Calyx, Drunken Boat, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, Kweli, Tin House, Poetry and others. Her poetry has been anthologized in A Body of Athletics edited by Natalie Diaz, The Break Beat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, and Nepantla: An Anthology of Queer Poets of Color. t’ai has received awards and fellowships from Cave Canem, Camargo Foundation, The Center for Fiction, Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, Kimbilio, and The Poetry Project. In 2019, t’ai became a Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship inaugural fellow. She is the author of two poetry collections, how to get over from Red Hen Press and & more black from Augury Books, finalist for the 2021 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Claremont Graduate University, finalist for the 2020 Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and winner of the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry. t’ai lives and loves in Brooklyn where she is an editor at No, Dear Magazine.