Black Woman Writer and Philadelphia native, Alexis V. Jackson earned her MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts in 2018, where she was a Chair’s Fellow, and her Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a concentration in writing from Messiah College in 2013. Erica Hunt selected Jackson’s forthcoming debut collection, “My Sisters’ Country” (Fall 2021) as the second-place winner of Kore Press Institute’s 2019 Poetry Prize. She has served as a reader for several publications, including Callaloo and Bomb Magazine. Jackson lectures in the University of San Diego’s English Department. She has also taught poetry at her alma mater, Messiah College.
A Fireside Poem for the Cookout Card Table
Between 2009 and 2020 there was enmity between me and watermelon. With the exception of the Jolly Rancher flavored in its likeness, I did not eat it (“it” being the watermelon). I boasted about it. Proudly told my white friends at their gingham-tabled, sunflowered barbecues, “I don’t care for watermelon. It makes me sick.” Something about not spitting out black seeds from my too pink mouth felt subversive. My authentic nausea after a bite or two had been served to me– freshly cut from these white folk’s church kitchen– confirmed my less negressness. Made an antiphenotypical performance of what was already performance when eating it in the presence of the pastor's wife who confused me for the visiting student from Ghana. And you already know the context: only two lil nig– uh –Afric– uh uh – Black girls visiting that day.
And don’t you know this Zip Coon pride carried over into time with my niggas? Be at the cookout like, “Nah. I can’t e’en eat it like that.” “No thank you Auntie Tammi. It upsets my stomach.” Nothin’ I’d ever lose my people over though. Cuz nothin’ matters if you still eat chitlins and put vinegar on your collards–red tomato too if ya folks from Florida. And on my mama y’all, it wasn’t fake. One bad piece had spoiled it for me, and somehow spoiled sum’n in me too. In my mind, made me less ashamed of what America carried for my Black-ass pride. In my mind I was Wheatley, Douglass, Hilary Banks–hell, I was Fonsworth Bentley because my free Black girl body couldn’t eat what the ice cream truck sang about. Oh, you didn’t know? The lyrics go sum’n like “Nigger love a watermelon ha ha, ha ha!/ For here, they're made with a half a pound of co'l /There's nothing like a watermelon for a hungry coon.” And even before you get to the images, before the bulging eyes with tar-colored skin and cotton-like wool hair and watermelon for mouths, there’s the minstrel music titled “The Coon’s Trademark: A Watermelon, Chicken, Razor, and a Coon.” Why you think people was so mad about Precious running with the chicken bucket or why Sergio Garcia said he’d serve fried chicken to Tiger Woods if he came over for dinner? I mean, I could never love mayonnaise, or give up Cane’s for Cracker Barrel, but I could see the asymmetry and raise it one uppity Black bitch’s stomach–from Flo Evans to Julia you feel me?
So, with all this, what changed it? Why did I start eating that melon again in 2021? I wish I could say it was me learning about how enslaved Israel Campbell slid them into the bottom of his cotton baskets when he needed to make up for what he missed. I wish I could say it was the vision of all the free Blacks selling the green, orbed fruit to get off plantations. To get money. To get something for themselves. For us. But, one day, my mother–lover of watermelon, despiser of the word “nigga” used colloquially by anybody–in all her Dee Mitchell-like glory, told me she missed Chicken Bone Beach. Some place down Jersey Shore where she used to hang out as a kid. Sammy Davis Junior, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, the Club Harlem Showgirls, and a whole bunch of other famous Negros used to hang out down there too. Little segregated, northern stretch of beach named for the Black people throwin’ chicken bones in the sand when they were done eating the golden fried goodness they traveled over and up with. Growin’ somethin’ for themselves wit it…Now, I can’t prove it, but I think my mama–proud of her degree, and her homes she owns, and her college educated children, and her good job with the district–telling me she missed this place, calling it by it’s proper Negro name and all, and then, allowing a smile to creep into the room and make itself into a laugh and slow, knowing head nod... I mean, this had to be the moment it happened, right? Shiiiiiid all I know is I eat watermelon now, and miss the times I missed the chance to tell folk, Black or White, about how summers, I used to ride the golf cart down in my grand uncle’s North Carolina farm with my big cousins, and throw our fresh rinds into the field he owned for fertilizer–pretending we were Lisa Leslie or Magic. Knowing we was re-growing somethin’ for us.
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Not Quite Raisins–But There is Sun
I am bored and broke,
waiting for my husband
to pick me up in the one car we have
that I bought before investing
in my poeting and marrying.
After spending three years here in the sunshine state,
we still have little to show for our labor besides the poet
and the professor and the inexplicable ailment
of sinusitis that happens when Philly girl moves west.
I have a job though, and so I pay $20 instead of God-knows-
what to seek the help of an acupuncturist and herbalist
for the dripping in the back of my throat
that makes me a little sick and a little sad.
And I can’t afford it here by myself.
And I’m not quite sure I’d like it very much
without the churros or its winter rain
or the ease of access to salt water.
And I’ve had two jobs before this
and spent it all on bills and laser hair removal
and wigs and travel back home, and he’s
accumulated books with no money for new shelves
and rackless towers of Yeezy boxes.
And we want a baby,
but we eat too many tacos
or we don’t get what we deserve
or we don’t give each other enough.
And I’m hoping the doctor doesn’t come
outside and ask me why I’m still here
because then I’d have to say
“I couldn’t afford the copay and an uber.”
But the red brick in this fountained quad
of the business complex reflects light from the parking lot,
and my husband is leaving his haircut to come get me,
and the sky has purpled over,
and the sun blushes through the palms,
and I have written this.