american boys who flirt with me often open with the question, what are you. if i am feeling cute i say, an alien. a sagittarius. simpler times, before the world started to crack along all its invented edges. now i wake up every day more tired, every day at the intersection of what is most hated, most hunted. black. arabophone. muslim. a woman, too, so my death might not get a name.
&, you know, american muslim, taking my god for granted. ya allah, the benevolent, the merciful. hi. now six, seven prayers a day, just to offer the plea each night: please let everyone i love still be alive tomorrow.
please don’t forget us. i am here i am here & it hurts.
fourth of july, second to last day of ramadan, end of a week marbled by explosions. holy month i used to think would protect us, would lock all the demons away. our neighbors set off fireworks & don’t know what the sound means in the rest of the world. i sit inside & watch the news even though it makes me tired. i watch gray bits of body carried from piles of rubble. died breaking their fast. died drinking mint tea. died buying little gifts for loved ones for eid.
& on eid, still dressed in our bright festival scarves & gold, hands painted with henna, we watch the black man on the news dripping blood. our wound reopens & our holiday clothes turn to mourning garb. my brother is out late at a party & everything in my body tells me that he too is dead. killed for his skin or his god or the language he calls home. killed for his height or the length of his name. everything in my body tells me that we, all of us filling up dark bodies, are all dead. a race with more dead than left alive. a ghost people, haunting the world that killed us.
i hear him return at dawn & only the smell of leftovers heating in the microwave can convince me he still lives in his body.
i spend days & nights & hours at poetry readings where we pick our scabs & name & rename our traumas & most days i am desensitized, immune by habit to the smell of conjured blood. but tonight a poet says a dead black name & the hurt reopens & this time i cannot close it back up. & they all float backwards into the room, every ghost, the ones i knew & the ones i will never meet & the ones i know only by name, the ones whose names we never learned. all the missing dead & all the murdered dead & all the ones assigned a bullet at birth. light pouring from their wounds. this time i cannot make them go away.
i wake up in the mornings unconvinced that i am still alive. i line up my wet blue hurts & take inventory of the things that mark me to die. bloodied language in my throat. my hunted god. my black hand pressed to my black mouth to keep the tears in.
Safia Elhillo’s first full-length collection, The January Children, is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, a Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression, she received an MFA in poetry at the New School. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. In addition to appearing in several journals and anthologies including “The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop,” her work has been translated into Arabic and Greek. She has shared her work on platforms including TEDxNewYork, BBC World Service, and the South African State Theater. Follow her @mafiasafia on Twitter and @safiamafia on Instagram.