According to Mister Hedges, the custodian
who called upon their parents
after young Otwiner and young Julia
were spotted at the matinee
of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik
at the segregated Knickerbocker Theater
in the uncommon Washington December
of 1922, “Your young ladies
were misrepresenting themselves today,”
meaning, of course, that they were passing.
After coffee and no cake were finished
and Mister Hedges had buttoned his coat
against the strange evening chill,
choice words were had with Otwiner and Julia,
shame upon the family, shame upon the race.
How they’d longed to see Rudolph Valentino,
who was swarthy like a Negro, like the finest Negro man.
In The Sheik, they’d heard, he was turbaned,
whisked damsels away in a desert cloud.
They’d heard this from Lucille and Ella
who’d put on their fine frocks and French,
claiming to be “of foreign extraction”
to sneak into the Knickerbocker Theater
past the usher who knew their parents
but did not know them.
They’d heard this from Mignon and Doris
who’d painted carmine bindis on their foreheads
braided their black hair tight down the back,
and huffed, “We’ll have to take this up with the Embassy”
to the squinting ticket taker.
Otwiner and Julia were tired of Oscar Michaux,
tired of church, tired of responsibility,
rectitude, posture, grooming, modulation,
tired of homilies each way they turned,
tired of colored right and wrong.
They wanted to be whisked away.
The morning after Mister Hedges’ visit
the paperboy cried “Extra!” and Papas
shrugged camel’s hair topcoats over pressed pajamas
and Mamas read aloud at the breakfast table,
“No Colored Killed When Roof Caves In”
at the Knickerbocker Theater
at the evening show
from a surfeit of snow on the roof.
One hundred others dead.
It appeared that God had spoken.
There was no school that day,
no movies for months after.
Elizabeth Alexander was born in New
York City and raised in Washington, DC. She is the author of four
books of poems: American Sublime (Graywolf Press, 2005),
Antebellum Dream Book (Graywolf Press, 2001), Body of
Life (Tia Chucha Press, 1997), and The Venus Hottentot (University
Press of Virginia, 1990). She teaches at Yale University and in the
Cave Canem Poetry Workshop.
Volume 7, Number 3, Summer 2006.
Thanks to Graywolf Press for permission to reprint.