By Ashia Ajani
I didn’t intentionally spurn the forest
it became another question of Southern belonging
I didn’t have the patience to unravel.
Must’ve been when the little white kids next door
asked if we wanted to play “Cowboys and Indians”
and all I could think about was the split
in my conquered DNA that stood on both
ends of the chastening rod.
Or maybe when a man held a shotgun to the back of my
mentor’s head while we were out in the field,
asked whose land you think you on, boy?
Neither of ours.
We just learned to love it because it was the only thing that
granted us some semblance of peace.
My mentor says he has encountered poisonous snakes in the Panamanian jungle
and this scared him less than doing research in the deep South.
Snakes are usually more frightened by you than you are of them
same goes for white folks but Lord,
how I prefer a fang to those trigger fingers
I didn’t intentionally spurn the darkness until they
claimed ownership of that which once sheltered us
When all that was hunt and run soaked my endings in bloodlust
through this violent cat and mouse condition-
the inherent trickery of my blood begged me to stay grounded
when all I could imagine was flight.
The voices in these woodlands are alive and they carry a vengeance
Maybe this is why white people fear the dark and what it holds
we marvel at its ability to hold,
call it semantics, a cultural linguistic loophole
our right to something
Abuela weaves together sweet tales about the backwoods that were once hers
long after the plantation manifestation made a mockery of her inheritance
the trees held their secrets with rope and flame
but I can’t help but envision my abuela laughing, running not from any one thing
but towards the witching hour our foremothers once found refuge in
Mississippi is a graveyard of all my kin’s wildest ambitions.
we play pretended Americanness until it felt real enough
to sink into
until it didn’t defend us from the light
until the Superfund affliction reminded us of the well-earned savagery
in our marrow
I flee from what my ancients trusted and isn’t that the most
heart-wrenching betrayal of my blood
to deny myself access to the Blackest parts of this earth
My great- great- great -grandmother’s phantom footsteps litter the ground
like dead leaves
and isn’t that what this lineage always returns to:
this ill-understood trauma of existing in between shadow
Tell me: what is the difference between haunting and protecting a place?
Is it one of volition?
The wounds down here are older than the flesh that displaced them
but the twilight reminds me that we could feel whole yet.
Black people in the South breathe life into dark and call it home
Black as the soil that birthed bright cotton
this Mississippi Delta madnesshome
this wild, expansive Blacknesshome
Mississippi, baby, on my good days I imagine you soft and lazy-
draped in all that green, all that darkness
all that unloved Black
Ashia Ajani (they/she) is a Black storyteller, environmental educator and doula hailing from Denver, CO, Queen City of the Plains and the unceded territory of the Ute, Arapahoe and Cheyenne peoples. They have been published in Frontier Poetry, Foglifter Press, Sierra Magazine and others. Follow her work at her website: ashiaajani.com.
Art by Nevil Jackson