This Is Us

Because our world is always on fire somewhere

Soft sunset view from highway.
Soft sunset view from highway.
Photo courtesy of shea or jane martin (depending on who you ask).

They said firefighters were coming on Friday. I spent the week in mirrors preparing the perfect smile for my fire truck photo. Head tilt to the left. Neck up just a bit. Grin. Open your eyes. Don’t say cheese — it’s a trap.

Friday came but the trucks didn’t. Instead, a short, bald man walked into our classroom and announced himself as the fire marshal. He, awkward and grossly underwhelming, lectured our class about making emergency plans and running fire drills with our families. I mostly ignored him and picked carpet lint until he passed out the coloring books — a consolation prize for leaving the truck at the station. The back page was a tear-off sheet for our family emergency plan. I colored the booklet all afternoon. That night, I showed my parents the book and asked about our plan. My dad laughed. My mama said we didn’t need to plan. …

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Right now, it is not my voice that matters. It is theirs. Both here and here.

Bear witness.
Send them love and light.
Act in solidarity.

reconciling with what has always been

[to be recited with the fervor of a Black Baptist preacher with sweat gleaming on his/her/their temples, with the stillness of a child asleep after playing all day, with the joy of your belly after poundcake, with longing, with a desire to spend your days loving her so fiercely in gratitude for her being, for your breathing]

Our mother, who art beneath, above, through, and within, hallowed be thy presence for you have never needed a name to be, have never asked to be held by our tongues for ransom, will always. Hallowed be you, giver we do not deserve. …

The lights were on when he arrived. Room silent except for scratches and streaks across paper — the sound of compliance. Fumbling with the door latch, he bumbled into the room and was greeted by laughs and shouts.

“Oh snap.”
“What up, Kwamae?”

Shirt untucked and hair beginning to wick, he dapped up Idris* and Ramon* before stopping to chat with two girls at the last table.

My feet hurt. I spun on my patent-leathered toes and met him there.

“Hi. I’m Ms. Martin,” I began with a smile.

They say don’t smile until Christmas. I don’t believe that. I smiled on the first day. Joy is a part of this. …

[trigger warning: sexual assault, rape]

I did not understand most of the fiery language that rolled off their tongues. You do not have to understand words to remember them. And they, both their words and bodies, branded my body before I knew her — before she became them, before they became me.

I was too drunk or they were too drunk or we were both too drunk to care about pleasantries necessary before what was coming. My pulse skipping to the boom of bass and drum, Rihanna’s falsetto pounded against walls of the small-town dancehall — “please don’t stop the music.” …

Note: This essay first appeared in the All Y’all Collective’s Mouth of the South Series in February 2020.

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This week, another heartbreaking news story(1) regarding the traumatization of black children in our schools filled our timelines. This time, she is a beautiful brown-skinned six-year-old arrested at her school by the Orlando Police for seemingly having six-year-old tendencies — throwing a temper-tantrum in a state of unrest, frustration, and/or sadness. I don’t know every detail of Kaia’s story. What I do know, however, are hundreds of black and brown girls just like Kaia who are not allowed to simply just exist in their humanness and blackness on a daily basis. For many of us, Kaia’s story may be the latest but it is certainly not shocking news, particularly given the documented and reported history of the traumatization of black girls in PK-12 classrooms around the country. …

After Chance the Rapper’s “Sunday Candy”
A sermon on love, faith, and queerness

It is 1995. I am standing outside of Mount Nebo Pentecostal Church. White gloves don my caramel-coated hands. I search through my patent leather white purse for hard candy. I find it at the bottom, underneath a collection of used and unused tissues from today’s service. The crumpled dollar my mama gave me for today’s offering is gone rendering my purse useless except for holding these snotrags and the hard candy my grandmama gave me a few Sundays back. I had been saving it for a special day. Ain’t nothing special about today but it’s 1 PM, hot, and I’m hungry. …

for me

This morning, I woke up.
In the middle of a pandemic.
I am thirty-one.
Healthy, well and loved.
No candles needed — i am living my wish.

One year ago, I made a list of 13 goals for my 30th year. Like most of my dreams, the list was overly ambitious and ridiculous. It represented a combination of things I loved, missed, and thought were good for me — a resolutions list on steroids. I posted the list publicly. I told friends and family to hold me accountable. My friends sent me cash to buy plane tickets and cookbooks. …

The following reflection was submitted in lieu of my required weekly response for Feminist Methods and Theory.

These days, we are searching for normalcy any way we can — by wandering empty grocery aisles, buying cheap flights, sitting on endless Zoom calls, and adhering to hard deadlines. However, it makes complete sense, given José Esteban Muñoz’s ideas of finding the potential of utopia in the quotidian, to be grieving in this moment. In his analysis of Warhol’s Coke Bottle and O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You,” Muñoz illuminates not only the queer relationality but also the potentiality of utopia that is present in the meeting of daily life, love, and queerness (Munoz, 2009, 6). And perhaps Muñoz is right. Lately, I have found myself grieving not only the loss of the quotidian in isolation, but also drowning in fear and uncertainty which has, in turn, stripped away my ability to imagine beyond what is and what has been. Yet in the midst of our grieving, we have been asked to continue life as usual, to perform our Americanness and its traits of grit, community, and productivity despite chaos, grief, and fear. …

for mom

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me and my mom, 1993(?)

On her last birthday here, my mama, brown-skinned and big boned, sat propped upon a throne of white pillows, her presence reigning over her illness and her stubbornness denying her body’s desire to quit. A symphony of blinking lights and beeping machines brought her back to life for one more dance. She, the strongest black woman, and me, her seed, fought over green beans. Her fragility moonlighting as stubbornness guided my hands to the fork for bites of flavorless vegetables.

“You’ve gotta eat, mom,” I said. What I meant was “you gotta live, mom.”

She opens her mouth to eat, to curse the kitchen and cook and nurse for the blandness, to refuse to do it again. We strike a deal for the strawberry shortcake birthday dessert. She finishes the beans. Or rather she eats 5 and I finish them. I sing. She smiles and waits for her shortcake which she also hates. …


shea martin

boston-based lit educator, researcher, and mixtape maker raised at the intersections of gospel and go-go. find [them] dreaming and working toward liberation.

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