Sojourner Ahebee, an undergraduate at Stanford University, writes poems about African diaspora identities and the eternal question of home and belonging. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Winter Tangerine Review, and featured by The Academy of American Poets. In 2013 she served the United States as a National Student Poet, the nation’s highest honor for youth poets creating original work. She was invited to the White House by former First Lady, Michelle Obama to garner her award. This summer (2017), she released her debut poetry chapbook — “Reporting from the Belly of the Night,” — a collection of poems that explores black femininity. You can find the chapbook and more about Sojourner at sojournerahebee.com
Domi was born in the French countryside.
When she smiles, somewhere a window opens,
a black woman shines her teeth, a shirtless black
boy’s back glitters in the sun. Domi is still looking
for love. Domi would really like a daughter.
Domi’s headed to a roofdeck bar
by the river and has asked me to come. Domi laughs like
she still knows her child self, she laughs and I can see
the back of her red mouth, she laughs and there’s a river
in her eyes. Domi says
she’s a Parisian girl. Domi is also from the white
country children who would throw rocks at her. Domi
is also from throwing the rock back. Domi is also from
the relentless brown of her body. On a school day a white
boy asked will you always be black?
Domi says let’s go dancing, let’s go out,
Domi says let’s get out of the city, to London maybe,
and I think Black people must always be leaving,
and I think, what a wonder we get to choose this time.
My last night in Paris, we’re in Montmartre for dinner
and the waiter addresses Domi in English first
so Domi says non, je parle francais
which is to say: you will not speak me out of home,
you crossed an ocean so my red mouth could speak
a stranger’s tongue,
and my parent’s crossed the ocean back
looking for work,
after the spilled blood, after my ancestors
were born from the belly of the slaveship,
so I could be born here, in our country.
Domi takes my hand in Parc Bercy and we walk
over a bridge that hangs over a major boulevard
and for a whole minute it feels like we are walking over
all the cars, all the people, two black girls walking over
all of France —
so graceful like we’re not even angry,
so graceful like you couldn’t catch the river in our eyes.
Domi is reborn out of the French countryside.
When she laughs, it’s for all our ancestors,
for all our boat people, for the crack in her face
where the white country children
threw the rock, when she laughs, it’s for the light
that seeps into the wound each day.
Domi is still looking for love.
Domi says, let’s go out, let’s go dancing, let’s
get out of the city, to Venus maybe or Mars.
Domi is headed to another planet.
WISHES FOR MOM
I am haunted by the things
that have ceased to belong to you:
I wish you in your mother’s arms,
she smelling of pink magnolia and hair grease.
I wish you a night alone on the floor,
in a kitchen with no dishes, no cabinets, no walls
I wish you ten years old again
penny candy and double dutch
ritual before you gave it a name
There are nights we speak on the phone
and I have nothing to give you.
You are always talking though:
of grad school essays,
your father steadily evaporating,
the cleaning of dishes,
the cleaning of sheets,
the cleaning of self,
the pain in the split of your back
But I’ve no answer,
quiet like my listening.
I wish you Paul Harrington at your disposal,
you with a backless dress on and a gun,
Paul standing by the edge of a cliff.
I wish you a poem for your troubles.
I wish you love: a brother who calls
from time to time.
I wish you found, I really do,
you in a yellow dress, found.
I wish you sweetness, a watermelon in heat.
You are going salsa dancing on a Sunday,
and you’ve got a red dress
and someone to love.
I wish you sweetness,
God drenched in a robe of mangoes
you picked under the rainy season.
I wish you summer.
I wish you ocean, two Atlantics.
In the morning there is meaning,
there is light, there is you,
I am at one end of the table,
quiet like a white flower by day,
you sit opposite me, mouth wide open,
screaming like the white lily that blooms only in the evening.
your grief isn’t silent, it bleeds into the morning
I wish you Papa’s wedding ring,
gone now, for you sold it.
Papa is but a memory.
I wish you Papa before the gun went off
I wish him here, dressed in all white,
drinking coffee in our bathtub,
the scent of roasted black beans: an apology for the smoke
I wish you my father, resurrected
I wish him in our bathtub
with an empty water glass extended in his hand:
a sorry, a thank you for the last thing you fetched
before he was gone.
when Queen Pokou fled ghana
the mouth of the comoe river opened
to say give me your child —
the choice between nation & son so close
you could see the river’s rage shining
a deep black/blue, the color of Pokou’s womb
when her child escaped her.
the story goes so many ways.
you could say it escapes time.
after Queen Pokou fed her son
to the river, the backs of pink hippopotamus rose
for her people to cross. some say she followed them
across the river, some say she jumped
into the water, morphing into a fish-woman, breathing
water into her son’s lung so he could live a new, wet life.
in a swimming pool on the other side of the world,
Pokou wraps her new body around me, calls me
the little blue girl — her words full
of chlorine and the song of a child’s voice.
i don’t want her name for me, nor the water she bring.
i want land black folks tended to for centuries,
i want feet.
in the hood, i come to the pool
to cool off, to undo the perm in my hair.
i fear the deep end cause i ain’t tall yet
& my feet slip at the bottom.
i tell Pokou that water be so much pain for me.
She laughs but there is no sound.
a bubble escapes from the back of her throat,
floats up into a philly sky, becomes light,
Nurses the scar the barber left; what hands, wide as the magnolia leaves
in bloom. Looks like an apparition of our father, his love floating between us,
wordless. Holds the cat’s neck between his hands as I shoot medicine
down its throat. Says Mama is his friend when the Doctor,
worried, asks do you have any friends at school? Runs for hours in a forest,
out of breath. Learns a body becomes a body when it suffers. Never cries.
Plays video games into the early morning. Sleeps well with his long legs
hanging over the bed. Learns to love his new body. Combs his hair without a mirror
(what it must take to love yourself & face it too). Calls me across the country just to say
he has watched the new season & highly recommends it. Hangs up
the call before I decide on I love you. Asks if I need help with the dishes.
Never returns I love you. Declares that he will give grandfather his evening pills.
He will bring the water. Walks the hallways at night & I think it is my father
come back for me. Does not know I break
when I look at him sometimes. Never cries. Rises early on Tuesdays to drag
the trash cans across the yard so I won’t have to, his shoulders stretched back
by the weight of yesterday’s garbage.Walks around the corner, ‘round midnight,
to the Chinese store, his lanky body dragging itself. Doesn’t know that he is brown
in this city, that he can’t walk round midnight anywhere, that he is the color of midnight everywhere. Fights with Mama. Reads The Great Gatsby & feels nothing
for the characters. Never cries. Asks if it’s time to put the cat down.
Tells Mama I always feel nervous around other people. I cannot explain it.
Buys Noxzema for his pimples. Laughs only when he means it.
Hurts you if he means it. Never cries. Buys a pink polo shirt & is powerful
for the first time. Says, one summer, it matters how you treat a body.
Give it water, he advised. I think he meant love. Give it love.
A Litany of Things Girlhood Asked us to Name on the Eve of our Love
for my high school roommate
Lake names, book names, names of horror
films we’ll watch. Names of lipstick,
names for mountains of clothing on the floor.
Names for your 5-inch golden platform shoes
you wear only on Fridays, your Friday-shoes
Names of silence in the room
when we sleep late into Saturday,
names of silence in the room when you talk
to your mother and don’t want me to hear
Boo, will you listen to music tonight?
With your headphones on?
And I’ll make room for that,
for the broken things,
for the hurt I couldn’t hold for you,
though we spent evenings naming it
in locked bathrooms, in tears, in the black of our rooms
for our mothers to hear as they started the new day
Names for my protruding belly, names
for the rolls around your waist, names for evening trips
to a vending machine, us walking in the darkened
hallways with no bras on. Names of hunger.
Names of the girls who dye your hair,
chemicals staining their hands green.
Names you used to ask the world
to paint you visible, a small streak of green dye
riding the back of your neck.
How you once said
I hate working-out with other people around,
and I always felt that way & never said it.
Thank you for naming it.
Names like how we hide our bodies:
Me in the closet getting dressed. You in the bathroom,
with the door locked, getting dressed.
Mirror names. Names for the ways
the mirror cracked all over the floor.
Names for how we trusted no one
& the mirror. Names for your mirror smile,
how I thought you were your mother
when you smiled. How you loved that.
Your name like like a long walk through the snow.
Your name like hands that have only given.
Your name like a poem breaking for power.
I’m saying your name like a door slamming open,
a window opening,
saying your name like a mouth opening for song.
I’m saying your name like a tree falls in Michigan,
like a girl throws water on her face in the morning.
I’m saying your name when I won’t shave,
when some boy has made me ashamed.
I’m saying your name like there is no other name
to call on, no god, no mother awake
by her cellphone.
ODE TO MOUTH
mouth of desire mouth opened slightly in the selfie — my teeth crescent of a moon at dusk, shimmering white so you know that i want so very much to be wanted mouth when the light hits it in its own way becomes a gradient of pink as if to say mouth only knows softness mouth wants to be kind mouth cracked like the slits of a grapefruit mouth is a garden mouth dreams of cracking open like a fire hydrant mouth wants to be watered & be water mouth sometimes has a white man’s hand rummaging through its pink, pulling a wisdom tooth out, offering it pain & OXYCONTIN mouth does not want to be healed like that mouth could wear that shade of lavender BEYONCE sports in NO ANGEL for days and call that healing aint no angel like mouth aint no good sleep like the one mouth grants when my teeth clamp down over my bottom lip and all of mouth shifts forward through the whole evening & mouth so close to mouth
i lift my tongue one night
& the white dots are light deposits
& the moon falls out mouth like cold milk
& my face so black in the dark room it is blue
& my face be the evening sky —
holding mouth/ holding moon
Light & Dark
Note: “Nanny” is a name for a grandmother
My mixed cousin says she hasn’t seen the white
side of her family for years. I have at least 20 play cousins
& counting. “Play” not like their love don’t matter to me but like
black is the complete absorption of light which is to say
I cannot help but to be close to people. So close in fact,
the whole neighborhood morphs into one family: the Dominican
who owns the bodega sings my name in Spanish & the hole
in his throat becomes light — Yeah that’s my cousin—
the woman from the veterans hospital who bathes my grandfather
each day — yeah that’s my cousin –, Mariama who braids my hair,
her hands so deep inside my scalp she must be a part of me by now
— yeah she’s my cousin— she who knows how to turn me whole,
to make me want myself, she who knows how to shine
my head into gold.
My mixed cousin says she can’t keep track
of all the people on our black
side: Oh Nanny wasn’t raised by her birth mother?
“Play” standing in for abundance, the will to mend
a wound. Nanny’s father — white — raped a black
woman — Nanny’s mother. They passed Nanny down
to a fair-skinned woman who would pass
as her mother. “Play” standing in for let me save you
from the world.
Nanny is light-skinned but light like she has the whole
history of America inside of her, light not like white
but like she is so close to the very thing that wants to kill
her. It spills across her face like milk. “Play” standing in for
let me undo history, let me make you womb again,
flesh of my flesh
Haibun for Cape Town
on a walk through district 6 mr christians said the white people took away our mountains. in america we talk about black people returning to the earth & here it is something to be taken away, 60,000 forcibly removed and i think that must be the history of the world. in simonstown the water cold and clear as mama’s face in the morning. every little port town here like an opening a black & blue hole for coming through black & brown people being brought through.
simonstown be slave port black, be my people are the aftermath of this ocean black, be both arrival and return black. mr christians was classified colored under the apartheid government. when I take a picture of him he says use the flash, i am so black. i imagine he is talking about light and how close he feels to me. if our history be a history of water then we all black, black not like what i look like but where i been & where we could go & how to love. if our history be a history of water, then our tongues are thick with salt & story — the need to drink being our need for life — this obsession with living. my body swells in the cold ocean, then floats. what boat have i made of myself?
i am close to you and i am close to you and i am close to you and
the mist spilling over the mountain is grandma’s hair and what side
of the ocean is this again?