Afro Carolinian

after Sean Hill


With Carolina on my lips, I sing a quilt,

a crooked stitch that weaves its way around

my pie-shaped state that conjures food—

too sweet like amber iced tea or cake, red-velvet rich.

Too sweet, like the words I was raised on, words that say,

If you don’t have nothin nice to say, lace it with sugah.

There’s always more in the South, like the twos and threes

coming out of grandma’s mouth, Hush your mouth, chile.

These words not a command for silence but a signal for the teller

to keep on spinning cause her words hit bone.

Grandma’s words were codes—lit lanterns:

We gwine down yonder in the merrnin

Not a pronouncement to a destination

but a place where she’d teach a lesson

at her favorite fishing spot. By her foot,

a coffee can full of night crawlers,

in her mouth, a cigarette she barely puffed,

in her hands, a homemade fishing rod,

line steeped in the water waiting for hook tug.

She never said the word patience

just stood live oak–like,

grounded in her own wisdom,

a Baptist Buddha woman teaching

Be Here Now.

Her uncanny ways taught me

how to wait on the spirit.

Hunched in her favorite recliner,

King James Bible on the left—

her eyes forward, soaking in wrastlin.

Her faith rooted in the Lord and Ricky Steamboat.

I was rapt in how she’d contort herself,

as if she were head-locking demons,

choke-holding them in Jesus’s name.

Simultaneously burning tufts of her hair in a glass ashtray,

raked from her comb, so no one could work a root.

Grandma taught me the truth was a complex helix rising.

From her I learned how to watch as well as pray,

and how the shackled speak in double tongues.

As second daughter of a second daughter, I began life

as a shame-faced girl too shy to string together words.

I did not open my mouth until I had something to say.

I was busy looking in grown folks’ mouths,

collecting the old ways, placing them on my tongue.

My first language was scratched from the land:

sweet potatoes, collards, and black-eyed peas.

As a second daughter of a second daughter,

I straddle the abyss of the diaspora and the church pew,

where I learn to speak Afro Carolinian fluently.

Some call it a backwards tongue.

I call it a knowing, a spiritual

that will carry you forward

if you listen and learn how to sing it.