Tameca L Coleman
Because They Were Made For Us
I will always remember this shopkeeper
as the Oakland Sentinel. His arms
cross over his chest in a resistant gesture,
his face gruff, tone condemning:
“What do you want with those cowries?”
He is protecting the stock. He is protecting it from me.
I look to my friend and she says nothing.
We are pinned in the pause, hitches
in the summer heat. This man
waits for my answer.
I want to make a necklace. Mine is broken, see?
The braid holds a row of mouths
but the line that holds them is broken,
the knot that connects the circle,
Outside, the people of this community move towards a dream.
I love this version of Oakland — it’s a bustle where a whole neighborhood
remakes itself in its own image against the world around it —
But, this is also a world where buildings are left to rot
in wait of big pockets that will soon redevelop all the lots.
I think: Encroachment.
I think: I am a tourist here.
I think: I cannot possibly know.
I tell the sentinel, “Because they are the mouths of the orishas.”
I want him to see I know they are powerful.
I want him to see I know they are the mouths
from which everything is born.
His eyes have me in lock.
I think: I am not a thief.
Asante, my friend—
Her voice made of bells and kid-laughter
shouts, “Because they were made for us!”
The sentinel looks towards her
and softens. Her head is wrapped.
She wears bead and bone.
He motions permission towards the bins,
and I turn to them. At last!
But the cowries,
all of them
at the teeth.
[Am I Black?]
I put my hand to the drum,
straddled the woodburned neck,
pounded into the skin whose spine
ran down the center. I wrote my own
message under the rim,
cut and wetted the drumhead,
tightened and tuned the drum.
I wore cowries around my neck
stared into their mouths
and palmed them, ran my fingers
down their teeth.
I tied them on with bells
and danced the Damballa
in my living room. I danced
to CD drummers and rain forest people’s
singing. I danced stories
about moving forward even when the wind
pushes you back. Was it a parable
from my ancestors?
I do not know. I do not
I watched the dances
at an opening ceremony for Adefua. I danced
at dancehall night in Oakland. I tried
to do the Electric Slide
at a summer cookout. I listened
to the elders speak. I
sang songs to Kori, I
tried to beckon Chango.
I made my voice ring like the Ba-Benzélé.
I layered my voice like the Ba-Benzélé.
I looped rhythms to emulate them.
I know what Uhuru means.
Uhuru Uhuru Laiye Freedom!
I have sung that freedom song
from a stage in Boise Idaho.
And I have been in the church,
even if I am not of it. I sang
songs to Jesus, “He ‘rose. He ‘rose
He ‘rose from the dead.” I watched
women talk in tongues. I ate
their home cooking after the service.
They pinched my cheeks and called me
They asked me whose daughter
I was. I do not know whose
daughter I am.
Winter, 1976 (from an interview with my Mother)
I didn’t want to start the day off with such bad memories
but my daughter wrote and asked me about the time the
car broke down in the south, when we were driving from
Big Spring Texas to Windsor North Carolina.
That trip was probably the worst experience in my whole life.
That’s when I really saw prejudice.
I think she was six months old. Little baby in the backseat.
The car broke down in Macon County Georgia.
We were headed to see family and to go to my husband’s
grandfather’s funeral. We broke down, stranded.
Between the police who checked on us
and the farmers who stopped for us—they
were all hateful, so unkind, and I was afraid.
We were called
all kinds of names, all of them starting with the word
The car tire fell off and we needed gear grease
to fix it. They charged us $5 for a Coke can with a little
bit of grease in it. They kept calling my husband boy.
They kept calling him nigger. They saw the nigger monkey
baby in the back seat. And I was the nigger lover.
We needed gas, too. The farmers said they had some
back at the farm. I can still see my husband with the gas
can in his hands and I begged him not to go.
The Air Force sticker on the front of the car was a protective
sigil. Without it, we were nothing to these people.
I hope to never go through there again. I’ll go up
over and around the south, to this day. I’ve never
been so afraid of white people in my life.
Once we got the car fixed, we got the hell out of there. We
made it to Windsor North Carolina and we were
finally with family —
But they didn’t want me there because I am white.
They stood across the driveway glaring.
My husband’s father was the only one to hug and welcome
me to the family. The rest made me feel like an outcast.
I was only 18.
Old Yoruban saying says,
“If you can walk you can…”
With the blinds drawn tight and sun on the pane, I dance.
Neighbors can’t see the outline of limb’s shadows
behind the shades.
Stamp to my CD drummers.
I am sweat and flush and labored breath,
some priestess of snakes
guiding a procession
a snake charmed floor.
slither like waxed and red scales.
We are solitarians
crossing trees for coils
Fingers flicker like tongues
lapping onto soft palettes.
feel drumbeats spiral up through thighs, bellies, chests, arms.
until hoods raised, backs swayed, hips and spines thrive.
until we’ve forgotten the meaning of the song,
and it doesn’t matter if we know all the steps.
Tameca L Coleman: "I am a singer, multi-genre writer, massage therapist, itinerant nerd and point and shoot tourist in my own town, currently living in Denver Colorado. I have performed and recorded music with many bands ranging from punk-ska and avant garde to ambient and jazz fusion. I recently finished an MFA in fiction and poetry from the Mile-High MFA’s creative writing program at Regis University. I have published or have forthcoming work at Heavy Feather Review, Colorado Independent, Denver Westword, Full Stop Reviews, pulpmouth, Inverted Syntax, Lambda Literary, and am finding a home for two new manuscripts."