The muses of poetry catch up with one writer at a Vermont swimming pool, where she reflects on a not-so-distant past.
- by Skye Jackson
Poetry always finds me in unexpected places. This morning I head to the YMCA in Burlington, VT. I am eager to shed the 14 pounds I packed on since the pandemic began. I figure the best way to ease back into an active lifestyle is to start with swimming. I’d taken lessons as a teenager and remember the delightful exhaustion I always felt after spending some time splashing around in a pool.
What I am not prepared for is the group of geriatric Vermonters who beat me there at 7 a.m.! Because of social distancing guidelines, I am forced to wait, fully masked, on the sidelines until the older swimmers are done with their exercises.
As I am watching them powerwalk, float and swim through the water, I realize they are watching me too. Have they seen me before? Or is it something else? It occurrs to me that I am the only Black person in the pool area – and perhaps, the building itself.
As I sit there, I begin to think of Black people’s relationship to water and particularly American swimming pools. It was only 56 years ago, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was implemented, that swimming in a pool filled with whites would have even been an option for me.
Before that, a Black person in a “whites only” pool was not only forbidden, but downright dangerous. In fact, it could be considered the very stuff of legend. I thought of Dorothy Dandridge, one of the most famous Black actresses in America during the ’50s, who once dipped her toe into the whites-only pool of a hotel she was not only performing at but also staying in during a visit to Las Vegas. When the owners of the hotel received complaints from swimmers in the pool, they drained it and refilled it with fresh water. All this because a Black woman dared to stick her toe into a pool. Her Blackness, in that chlorinated water, became not only a political statement but an act of revolution.
These thoughts wash over me as I watch the elderly swimmers in the pool. What must I look like to them? And most importantly, can they remember when things were different? I start to think of stories my father told me about the discrimination he’d faced during his days in the Navy. And that was in the ’80s! In one of my favorite films, The Craft, a young Black woman in the ’90s is taunted by her racist private-school classmates, even as she dives elegantly into the school pool. These stories are all around us. They are always, all around me.
Suddenly, I remember where I am. The lifeguard waves me into the pool: someone has gotten out, so I can finally get in. I enter the pool slowly, surely, and nervously. I feel the weight of my steps, the heaviness of them, as I wade further into the water. I ignore the stares of the people around me and fully submerge my dark skin and long braids into the water. I start to swim. I start to think of a poem.
[on saturday morning]
a faster grave
my daddy just started
a war on sugar?
wanted me to comb
through each cabinet
and trash all granulated specks.
while you’re at it, he said
throw out that white bread too.
these things are killing us.
but i contemplated a different death
the one i’d meet
if my mama couldn’t find
the sugar cubes for her coffee
or the Bunny Bread
for her turkey sandwiches.
keep on listening to your dad,
and i’ll dig you a faster grave.
a 29 year old boy sneaks a 28 year old girl
in through the backdoor of his parents’ house.
she is feeling peak new orleans in this moment,
wearing arrested development like the brightest gold chain
and luckily her platforms don’t make a sound
as she creeps past his dad asleep on the couch.
silent, she follows this creole boy up to his room.
once there, he lays her down quiet
and pulls off her green cargo pants with such an ease.
he presses three kisses that form
the shape of a triangle around her hip bone,
then tucks his head down into the curve of her underbelly.
she notices that his light brown hair
smells faintly of tequila & magnolias.
he lays next to her & whispers:
your body is so soft
and his fingers roam the lines of her back
like trails he’s walked before.
how the hell she’s gonna get out of there
in the morning
and what her mom
will think of her
as she saunters in at 8am.
and she wonders
as his mouth finds her second one
down in the shadows,
why she even bothers
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