Cheryll Y. Greene is longtime New York editor who has worked with all kinds of writers, taught writing and organized literary events. She has been executive editor of Essence Magazine and played leadership roles in major projects on Malcolm X and his times. Her life’s work has focused on history, arts and culture, women and social justice issues. Of this poem she said: “This piece was sparked during a wonderful 2008-09 Revson Fellowship at Columbia University. It laid dormant until the end of last year, when it demanded caring attention. I love photography, and that 1970 pitcture of myself just called out to me.” She is writing other memoir pieces inspired by family photographs.

 

 

That’s Cheryll with 2 ll’s Greene with an e on the end

August 1970
I sit in San Francisco
wearing purple

Smoking
Feeling free to be
Young

Gifted and Black
Afro-ed
(despite Mom’s disgust)

Hugging the future

I have come from
somewhere else
a convert
from
white supremacy
in search of
a new land

and I have
found it

All is possible
Love passion justice
Payback

Angela’s still in hiding
They’re tracking her
on streets I walk

Mississippi Detroit
Cape Coast Oakland
Chained
Hunted
Harriet
Malcolm
Martin

The dead ones
are speaking to me

They
assail me
from the bone bed of
the Atlantic

I hear them

I want
Henry Dumas’s
Afro horn
to pulverize our enemies

I want to tear down
this blood-soaked
empire
and build up
a sun-drenched
place for us all

I want to
love that man
and still be
Cheryll

with 2 ll’s

He is blind
to the difference
between 1 and 2 ll’s
and I can’t tell
if I want
him to
see it

Immersed
in the delights of
drowning
in love
I balk
straining
for breath
against the
expected
demands of
coupling

As Aretha’s R-e-s-p-e-c-t
spars with those
My-man-he-don’t-love-me
blues

Trane and Monk
play duets in my heart
and soothe the confusion
though not
the fear of
suffocating in
those deep waters

I sang jazz
in another life
a tough broad
hung with Billie
in Harlem
and danced all night

What could be
better than
Ernest Byrd singing
smooth falsetto in my ear
in this life
as we slow-dragged
across the red-lit
basement floor
in junior high?

Imagining
full-grown
pleasure

Ignoring discomfort
in all the realms
too tall till then
mouth full of
metal braces
too smart
reads too much
too bloody
(my bad periods
coursing through
pads
and pants
onto the kitchen floor
shocking
my little brother)

In 8th grade
they called me
Frenchie
but I still didn’t
fit in

I had survived

braces
silly short boys
mute shyness
culture shock
among the unruly 4th graders
at PS 36
when we moved from
the magical sidewalks
of Bed-Stuy
to the boring backyards
of Jamaica
in the Negro version of
upward mobility

An I in waiting
taught to please others
numb to roiling loneliness

blooming when
that darkskinned doowop
claimed me—
Ooo wee!

Now
a grown
woman
testing
freedom
I shake shake shake
my mini-skirted
booooty

Dancing in the streets
with signs and shouts
hope
and fury

Entranced
Captivated
by music and history
and Blackness

by Revolution
Certain of
the newness
of the land
we are
remaking.

But the landscape
disappears in a
whiplash turn
it seems

Is that us?
gagging on
greed
shoulder pads
beggars
jheri curls

the Reagan 8 Bush 4
AIDS agonies
crack’s obscenities

Tryin’ times
Roberta had warned us

I push out a 9 lb boychild
when that man’s out of sight

taken my love and gone
we spelled
the names
all wrong

me and that big-head boy
create some joyous music
on Convent Ave
some discordant
peppery tunes
on upper RSD
as he gasps past asthma
allergies
and sullen
Black boy blues

I war
for him
and us

in hospitals
(soon to be
my turn)
with landlords
and schoolboards
scared
uncertain
resolved

overburdened
at workplaces
on committees
taking it
to the streets
to Free Mandela!
and ourselves

burrowing
to get lost
in warm
and misunderstood
embraces

In soulless times
this mother and child
trudge through

each journeying
seeking balm from
some time or place
just out of reach

All around us
a waning empire
lulled into
delusions of
perpetually smooth excess

I have become
middle aged
plump
hiding in
big loose clothes
my body
sending me signals
I no longer
understand
unmooring me
from familiar
territory

I turn away
smooth
inviting
caresses
feel ugly
and sad

I try red hair
The Artist’s Way
discover my boy
has dropped LSD
has ADD
smokes cigarettes
credits his father
for his love of
music

a child of these times
creating
his own kind of memories

I war
for a
sense of
firm ground

The Clinton 8 Bush 8
soil
the planet
all around us

Disrupted
South Centrals and NewArks
mired in
the stench of
corrupted hope
spew out jail-dressed
prison-bound
children

dancing to a beat turned
mean and furious
without melody

We fight our way
back to
light
and air

chastened
hollowed out

exhausted
by the ugliness

Yet
the strong ones do keep comin’
(Sterling Brown sang)
and I listen for them

But cancer has come
for me
back then and then again

I have been
chastened
and hollowed out

taught fragility

once:
younger
tamping down
terror
I willed recovery
to ensure
my child
his mother

twice:
stunned
dislocated
15 years later

I live
with endless doubt

my flesh sliced
bone
and tissue
incised
my
2 ll’s
now
scars

belly
and
back

I am
pushed
implacably
to learn
patience
for my
every part
and act

Now here I am
Mom & Dad just gone
Brother and I bereft orphans
at this late age
struggling to comprehend
those empty spaces

sitting in Harlem
as my ground
and
the American earth
shift
again

November 5 2008
(a harbinger?)

salt-and-pepper afro
cut clean
to scalp
a still-warrior
woman
mustering
my battered
body and soul

Refashioning
fear and outrage
to forge community
for everyday small acts
and big daring moments

Wresting from the bone bed
a love-filled life

I hear
the music
and the words
still speaking
for us
and the dead ones

I see
the young woman
in purple
her cigarette
long since
extinguished

reaching out

and I take her hand.

Join the conversation

  • Troy Johnson July 12, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Beautifully profound.

    Reply
  • Fabian Burrell February 26, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Cheryll, I was so moved by your poem. Your imagery of our youth prison-bound is so clear that I flashed to images seen daily on our streets of nyc. Oh, if only there was a blueprint to stop this madness. Thank you for your provocative words.

    Reply
  • Cheryll Greene May 22, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Thank you, Women’s Voices for Change, for sharing my work with your cyberworld. And I’m sending my deep appreciation to the readers who’ve posted and sent me their comments. –Cheryll

    Reply
  • Jacqueline Johnson May 16, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks for a grown up woman poem!!! For sharing the light and the dark of your life. I am in awe that you squeeze like four decades in this one poem. I love it!

    Reply
  • Fletcher Robinson May 16, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Cheryll, Your words are poignant and piercing embracing as they mirror all of our trials and tribulations in sharing yours. You say it so well.

    Reply
  • martha mae jones May 15, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Cheryl, thank you for sharing in such an elegant,eloquent, intimate and honest fashion. I am sending this on quickly, as balm for those of us who could use something of your brand. I so love the image you end with….Martha Mae.

    Reply
  • Alexis De Veaux May 14, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Cheryll,
    I’m so proud of you baby. You brought tears to me today. Thank you for going there and taking me and coming back. You still amaze me.
    Love you,
    Lex.

    Reply
  • Jill Nelson May 14, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Wow. Breath taking/giving piece. Thanks so much for the
    reflections and reminders, much needed and deeply appreciated.

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen May 13, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Cheryll,

    The words that paint the picture of warrior past and make visible these painful and poignant memories of loss and suffering that you describe are leading you to the place of transition and transformatiom, once again. Your words will stay with me forever.

    Patricia Yarberry Allen

    Reply
  • Faith May 13, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Loved it, the propulsive, historical intensity captured what it means to be a woman alive now and to have lived through, made, and believed so in social change.

    Reply