Harlem Song

For Langston Hughes

My mother taught me to be elegant always, straight-backed
high rise, armored in mirrors, the throat for silent,
ramshackled, tarpapered women. She taught

me to condescend, to criticize, to cripple the white,
wavering wenches in my path, those bobtailed
bitches that would have me be like them. I learned to walk

balancing a book on my head, to eat
as if every meal were set with silver plates, to speak
eloquent elegies. All this in the house in Harlem.

You might ask why anger erodes me.
You might ask why I do not let you have a single
space in which to speak. You might ask for a

crumb of courtesy, a farthing of forgiveness, a penny of penance
that you may vanquish your guilt. I will never grant
it. See, I do not forget: scraping the fungus away from

the bread, warming our tired hands on the oven,
sipping our sorrow through silenced lips, contemplating
torn clothes we inherit by the pound. I do not forget

you who have strangled the last ounce of honor
from our family; you sack our souls to submission,
define our color as insult and implication, ensuring

we will never leave the house in Harlem.

copyright 1996, Katherine Gotthardt all rights reserved

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