Monday, June 8, 2009
From a tiny black and white television
an a sullen truck stop just east of Advance, Ind.,
a sports announcer screams his voice to a squeak.
Mike Andretti, six laps away from winning at Indy,
has pulled his machine over smoothly, without sputter,
without benefit for a final dramatic choking.
The announcer is clearly insulted by this affront
to American values, and is trying very hard
to remain objective, trying hard not to yell
“Get back on the road, you chickenshit sonofabitch!”
I tune out his feverish buzz and glance at the four
proprietors of this gastronomic hellhole . . .
All four have swiveled on the creaking stools
to stare at me, all of me much blacker than they
can imagine, much more of a show than the tiny
cars whizzing around the screen, much more shocking
than Mike Andretti’s white light moment of failure.
If it were summer, fat flies, drunk on bacon grease,
would drag their last across this tabletop. As it is,
I am sitting across from my white husband, and we are
hungry, angry, and for the moment, strangers.
I refuse to eat and amuse myself instead by watching
the Waltons try to figure us out -- me sipping
vehemently on lukewarm Diet Pepsi, my husband inhaling
three mutant pieces of country-fried chicken.
He picked that colored girl up at the race, and now
he regrets it. He’s a pimp from Ohio, a businessman
who picks up hitches. She fucks him for money.
She twists her body the way he wants it, for money.
They all agree I’m in it for the cash,
that he’s in it for whatever that song is
black women sing with their bodies. They’re all wrong. . . .
This is not my heartland.
However, this is my heart, pumping hard through
ribbons of cornfields and sleek shopping centers;
this is my heart, stopping whenever we walk
into a restaurant and clocks slam shut;
this is my heart
throbbing wild in those dim convenience stores
that sell hats embroidered with shotguns,
Confederate flag belt buckles and earrings,
stale cupcakes with bright pink frosting
and those cheap goddamned souvenirs you shake
to see fat flakes of white snow
fall on any one of a million American cities.
Patricia Smith is a four-time national individual champion of the Poetry Slam, the most successful competitor in slam history. She was featured in the film Slamnation and is the author of five books of poetry, including Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. An instructor of performance, poetry, and creative writing, Smith is a Cave Canem faculty member, as well as a former Bruce McEver Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech University. She is currently at work on Fixed on a Furious Star, a biography of Harriet Tubman, the verse memoir Shoulda Been Jimmie Savannah, and the young adult novel The Journey of Willie J. "Heartland," excerpted above, is from Smith's book Big Towns, Big Talk. She performs another poem on whiteness here: "Skinhead"