The following works emerged from a semester-long workshop offered this past spring at Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP) entitled “Mapping the Self in Community.” The workshop was facilitated by Audrey Petty, Jill Petty, and Miriam Petty. The description is included below:
In this workshop, we’ll read, view, listen to, and generate work about location and identity. Together we’ll experiment with writing exercises to engage and explore complex dynamics of community-making. You’ll be asked to read carefully, to share your interpretations in discussion, to write often, and–as a result of these activities–to formulate your own independent arguments in response to the works that we read together. Throughout the semester, you’ll also be given in-class writing prompts to create opportunities for you to germinate personal essays/memoir responsive to the readings at hand.
During the course of the semester, we meet with guest writers Vidura Bahadur and Ben Austen, who will offer their own invaluable perspectives on mapping the self in community.
I am from deep brown and black as tar.
From sandy roads and pig tails (every little girl wanted them).
I’m from a place where the population count is about
four thousand and sixteen, at best. I’m from
a place where every street is
a one-way and there’s no stop lights.
I’m from where females outnumber males 3 to 1.
I”m from where dandelions sprout from every
patch of green grass, where grass grows beautifully
for miles and miles, full of yellow spots.
I’m from drive-ins because there is no theater,
the family piles in the car every Friday to watch the weekly feature.
I’m from big noses, from where Skinny Benny dances
in his black shiny shoes and where Bighead Crystal hates
the name Crystal Ball. I’m from a no bullshit blood line
and everybody got bad attitudes.
I’m from where mothers tell of hot little girls
and to stay a thousand feet away because they ain’t no good.
Where there’s a Bible in the bathroom and a Quran
by the front door, where religion is your choice
because nobody cares.
I’m from Marion, Texas, right outside of San Antonio,
20 miles from a border where all black families have their reunions.
I’m from where Jiffy cornbread is everybody’s favorite
and mac and cheese is the family specialty.
I’m from a place where Tammy’s son took his little sister Tottie
to the top of the water tower and left her because he was mad
she had to come with him. I’m from where Totttie got lost.
I am from a place that I love.
I am from gym shoes,
from Converse and Adidas.
I am from the industrial complex
of blood, sweat and tears.
Vintage, placid, refuge of refuges.
I am from mother-in-law tongues,
daisies and apples trees, abrasive,
plentiful and challenge.
I’m from potluck and dysfunction.
From Theola and Imogene.
I’m from the judgmental and bourgeoisie.
From make friends and be a friend.
I’m from Antioch, baptized
in the spirit of being mindful.
I’m from St. Elizabeth, that smelled
like ammonia and new birth, and all the blood
of my clan passed through these corridors.
Collard green accented the fried chicken
that snaps, crackles and pops in the black
cast iron skillet.
From mystic Uncle Ernest
who died way too soon. He
was a man of honor.
The empty void of cousin Kelley
who got lost in the fire,
his spirit hovers around the lot
that was once called home.
Windex shined under the decor
of every table adjacent
to plastic-covered furniture,
where warm eyes and smiles met you, in custom frames
of all shapes and sizes, they’re
the heirlooms of our roots.
Life softens the strength
of family ties, but a home
stays in the heart.
I am from plantain steak sandwiches,
from Tapatio sauce and Champ’s Cola.
I am from the building whose walls are covered in spray paint,
“Viva Puerto Rico,” “Maria’s a slut.”
I am from where marigolds only bloom in the hearts of a special few.
I’m from Friday night Capricou, and Saturday night bar-room brawls.
From Papa Miguel, and Mama Chave.
I’m from good intentions and procrastination.
From “Jesus loves you” and “So help me, God!”
I’m from “real Christians,” the kind
whose women can’t wear lipstick.
I’m from Humboldt Park, home of Puerto Rican pride.
From arroz con gandules and seven seas soup.
From the love-at-first sight of my mother and father.
I am from love.
I am from the crisp pages of a fake narrative,
from Pro Wings and Remy V.S. (not V.S.O.P.).
I am from the tale of two cities,
grass melanated, sun always at its zenith, blinding,
where the process of photosynthesis broke down,
there’s no light, no hope, and all the residents
are black and brown.
I am from the base of the mountain of the moon,
from which my ancestors literally sprung
from the rich soil and clothed themselves in its blackness.
I’m from co-dependency and promiscuity,
from Big André and Shoobie.
I’m from the mind of putting things off until the next check
and “What’s that number on the caller i.d.? That’s a bill collector,
I ain’t here!”
From “Boy, quit talkin’ like you got shit in your throat!”
and “Andre is so smart…if he would just apply himself a little more…”
I’m from children’s Bible stories discovered at the bottom of hand-me-down
toy box shaped like a football,
and every Sunday praying for the Bears to return to their ’85 glory.
I’m from the red clay of Alabama and the rolling green hills of Ireland.
Baloney sandwiches and chips, chitterlings with hot sauce,
from the realization that your mom’s a clucker (is that dude you haven’t seen
since he dropped out of grammar school sitting on the edge of her bed with no shirt on?),
the grandfather found face down in the snow, frozen stiff,
dead from failure, guilt, and that first “brick of Rose” he cracked when he was 15,
hundreds of dusty records hoarded on the back porch, a reminder
of a failed business a generation ago.
I am from the damaged fruit,
shaken loose from the beautifully twisted branches
of a resiliently withered tree.
I am from rascal blood,
from Eli-bullyson and the Gladiator Box.
I am from the original dibo dog,
a black dog, hard hitting, dirt nap dog,
I am from the four leaf clover
lock are my petals, and skill is the stem I stand on,
I am from game dogs, make you lose your money dogs
from 4-time winner Tojo and Champion Honeybunch, mother of Jeep,
I’m from chest-crushing and hard-biting dogs,
from dogs that don’t quit, they hit, and hit, and hit,
I’m from the Devil’s Den, where a 3-time winner named
Lucifer is my kin,
I’m from Georgia, deep in the red South,
hard tack, and chest bones,
from the Jeep dog that stopped Champion Homer in 3 hours,
45 minutes, leaving him cold,
the 6-time winning father lost one, preventing him
from being a Grand Champion,
pictures and match stories in magazines along with my pedigree,
I am from a time long ago, where blood was sport
and P.C. meant Pit Champion.
I’m from where Mexican and American culture crash and clash into a new culture.
Yo se donde musica is Motown,
Ranchera romantica, Rock-n-Roll, Disco,
Metal and Pop are intertwined.
Projects next to the houses are all one until the gangs came.
I’m from where drugs destroyed our imagination and families
where t.v. had cartoons worth racing home for.
I’m from pancakes and bacon at breakfast, tacos of chicken at dinner.
I’m from where you can have a Black or Mexican or white girlfriend.
Editors’ Note: Ben Austen is a member of the Weekly’s Board of Directors