The more I think about my Southern identity, the more I realize how invisible it is. I think of all the things I claim:Black, queer, woman—and then there’s Southern, always at the bottom of the list, always the smallest, the quietest; tugging, like a child, at my leg so I don’t forget it is there. In thinking about my Southerness, I can’t help but reflect on what it must mean to be white, or male, or both —to occupy a body whose story is so loud that it’s silent. In thinking about occupying a body, I am aware that my Southern identity is the quietest because it is the only one humble enough not to destroy me if I make it quiet. And that’s what it’s all about these days, isn’t it? Trying not to let things destroy you.
“Jane is woman who survives.”
And so here comes Jane Crow—Black as the night sky, and just as full of stars. Jane is woman who survives. When I say survives, I mean: persists in the face of everything that tries to kill her and fails, but also: continues to live without end, lives beyond this moment—outside, within, and beyond it.
“The South is full of stories.
The South is a story itself…”
Jane is one of them, so she knows: The South is full of stories. The South is a story itself, but it will try not to tell you that one. As Jane remembers, so do I: you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. So Jane looks back, and back and back and back until the way back is so black she sees herself everywhere. And that’s how she likes it.
So that’s where she starts.
Black. The word rolled across her tongue like a marble. The sky was so black it seemed endless. She wanted to be that way—endless—wanted the sky in the hopeless way you want impossible things, imagined herself pinned up against it, her arms and legs spread wide like a wheel. She let her mouth drop open at the thought of those stars, hoped that some might float down to where she stood and choose her to be among them.
Jane was wild and looked it. A mess of hair stood on top of her head, each strand erect like a monument. Her mouth reminded you of the sky before a storm: poised, heavy, waiting to be cracked open. The whites of her eyes were freckled with spots; sleepy islands that floated around an iris so dark you would it think it were black if you weren’t close enough to kiss her.
People were always studying her in the way you study what you think you know but cannot name—always asking where she was from, wanting to know, really, what she was. She would answer, here, but she wanted to tell them the truth: she was from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
“…she wanted to tell them the truth:
she was from everywhere
and nowhere all at once.”
Leaving the South had felt less like a decision than a natural progression of events. It is the only place in the world that you can be ashamed of and proud of in the same breath. Jane was ashamed of its legacy—every inch of soil was ripe for strange fruit—but she was proud for having gotten out, for having survived it. Yes, it was home, but only in the sense of it being a place to which she wanted to be able to return, not a place she wanted to stay.
“It is the only place in the world
that you can be ashamed of
and proud of in the same breath.”
She had never met a city girl, but had heard about them, and knew she wanted to be one. She pictured this woman: sitting in front of a vanity with her legs spread, pausing the application of make-up only to slap her thigh to the rhythm of whatever sound was dancing from the record player. A city girl, of course, had a record player. She drank clear liquor—chilled—and coffee, sweetened with white sugar and stirred with cream. She slept in her stockings, sometimes, after staying up late, exhausted by hours of moving her body at the same time as another body.
To be a city girl meant to be able to move with freedom. A city girl did not have to ask permission to come or go—she could get on a train and ride anywhere. Jane did not know that to be a city girl meant, also, that no one asked your permission—that you belonged to yourself and the city and everyone in it.
Home was a moving blur on the way out. Everything appeared in colors, or feelings, like being on a train and seeing another passing in the opposite direction. Jane felt, as she left, the same way she might have on a train like that—full of a dizzy, almost sleepy, exhilaration. She wondered if this was passed on to her from body to body of travelers—if one always chooses the window seat for this very feeling: to watch the transition unfold like one season unto the next. It would explain why she sometimes cried on planes—why the jolt of the wheels lifting from the ground made her heart pulse like an engine.
Staring out the window of this bus, as the city shifted from a tangle of green to grey, she considered Western soil, overpopulated with bones. She imagined the scene of a rain so thick it flooded these homes in the dirt, and off they went, like an almost-dance, floating through the streets. She’d like to witness this parade from this very seat on the bus, she thought, so she could cheer them on and bang her fists against the window without fear that one of them might latch on to her leg as she stood, waist deep in the water, and take her along with them.
She contemplated decay—the sleepy science of it—how it devours its meal a breath or savors every bit in its mouth like some kind of connoisseur.
Jane Crow is an in-progress multi-disciplinary project that explores Black womanhood, migration, and the intersections of myth and memory.
This Other Southerner:
Jamila Reddy is a writer, director, and facilitator of dreams based currently in Brooklyn (but always in pursuit of magic wherever it may be). She spends her days exploring, reflecting, and trying to get free. As a queer/Black/Southern woman, Jamila is thankful for language and the light it shines on the dark corners of transformation. She received BAs in Sociology and Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently completed and self-published her collection of poems, the consequence of silence.
© Copyright Jamila Reddy 2015