Editor's Note: Ciona Rouse says she used to avoid writing about race. She didn't want to be pigeonholed as a black poet who only writes about this one topic. But eventually, she decided she needed to talk about race if she wanted to express who she was in her poetry. One of the poems she's written since then is called "Spit." She explains the idea started with an interview she heard on the radio.
In the car, I heard an interview with Mary Roach about a book she wrote called Gulp (listen here). It’s about saliva. She made saliva sound like the strongest, most empowering superhero in our bodies—it breaks down food, but also toughens the skin when we have a cut or scar.
I went to this familiar image in my head of the 1960s. I saw young black students, well dressed and brave, sitting so calm and collected at lunch counters in Woolworths, Kress and the like, while hateful white onlookers towered over them, yelling, intimidating, and spitting.
These brave people—James Lawson and the students of Fisk University here in Nashville, the Greensboro Four in North Carolina, and other protesters throughout the south—were the superheroes I admired growing up. For the first time, however, I chuckled at the despicable act of racists surrounding the demonstrators and spitting. They SPAT on them! It’s disgusting! But what if, unbeknownst to them, their spit actually made their superpowers stronger?
I pulled the car off the road and penned this poem spit. It’s a revisionist poem of this "vile" act but not such a far stretch. Obviously, I do not believe the physical properties of the spit made them stronger, but I know the demonstrators learned to build fortitude with every terrible act and word that was shot at them. They were so courageous.
I hope this poem will inspire people to remember the courage of protestors, black and white alike, willing to risk it all in the name of justice. I hope it inspires people to continue speaking about race in America today. More than dialogue, may spit inspire me and others who read it to be just as brave in the face of racial injustice.
Courage is the catalyst for necessary change. Do we have the courage to turn systems and actions that intend to destroy us on top of their heads? Can we build up our superpowers with spit?
entry point of garbage
and good, the original
scissor, the courier of voice
lips make and receive
kisses, gums bleed
at tiny string touches
the radio proclaims the mouth
has healing properties.
the saliva it produces
breaks down, yes, but also
builds up, toughens skin. how maybe
a mama’s kiss on a wound
really does make it all better.
i wonder if they knew—
when they clenched their cheeks
summoned enough liquid
in their mouths
to fire at young black boys,
black girls ordering a cold drink
—did they know the whole truth
ciona d. rouse