advice for baby girl


– for inessa

take that ghost of a slave girl body

living inside your ribcage

fling her far as you can

from that whipping post

i don’t mean the actual post

in some hot-as-death clearing

under some peeping-pallid moon

where the moss hangs

in banners of baby nooses

i mean: don’t walk yourself

to the middle of a choking white

where you can’t see

how fine your face is

how robust your voice

when it pierces through a circle

of silent buzzards waiting

to take your flesh like gold

there is no other way to tell it

you will hurt in river deep places

you will dream doors inviting you out

onto plantations of skin

you will wake at least once

to the messy shadow of a black man

dangling outside your window

and close your curtains tighter

against the familiarness of it all

but here’s what: you’ve got a beehive for a brain

let all those humming thoughts of yours

make honey out of your nightmares

don’t do no death dances with your ghosts

don’t get all stuck up in the salt wounds

of some old as church fester

take that stinging sticky mess

of slave girl bones

make yourself a rattle

then shake shake shake

shake yourself loose and be off

carnegie hall poems: for the women who taught me how to sing

For bille and mama. Two women who taught me how to sing with my words. And never stop.


march 27, 1948

even the photographers. standing front and center in the audience. aim their enormous steel faces at her. target practice. flash!         bulls eye.

just two days sprung from the big house. billie plants herself center stage. stands tree still. her right pointer finger still stinging where she pricked it. backstage. pinning her gardenias in place.

brava! a man’s voice cries before she has even begun. she closes her eyes. purple veins bloom on her thrown back neck. from somewhere her voice                escaped.

her gloved arms risen like two phantoms off the sides of her sequined torso. blood on the leaves and blood at the root. 32 songs lit in the throat. burning the house down.


december 9, 1980

mama walks into the spotlight. she is nineteen. carnegie hall is a bowl of tossed sound before her. her floor length white gown moves around her legs in rapids.

even her mother. sitting front and center in a red velvet chair. makes noise with her large dough hands. rubs them together. chants under her breath “come on laniboo. come on baby. play for us.”

on stage mama folds then unfolds then refolds the silk scarf she uses instead of a chinrest. she places her violin sharply against her bruised neck. she plucks. tightens the pegs. tunes to the obeo’s whiney A.

then closed eyes. fade out. she disappears. a breath.      inhale rosin.

from somewhere. a beginning. first the string section behind her growing louder in her ears. sibelius concerto in d minor. her fingers stinging as she presses down on the fingerboard waiting for the cue. then her bow. flying into the air. her right arm               runaway.

i’ve got them. now. the first note. hers. then crescendo.                          whole body singing.

letter to my younger queer self (inspired by the letter q: queer writers’ notes to their younger selves)

Imagedear mariama,

i have this dream. it has many variations. always some sort of disaster. an earthquake shakes my childhood home. a fire burns it slowly to the ground. a tsunami swallows the whole neighborhood in one big gulp. the world around me falls and i spring into action. always there is another girl inside the house. sometimes she wears the face of my sister. my mother. my best friend. i go to her. grab her. whoever she is. by one long braid. or one small wrist. hoist her over my shoulders and run. out. away. to higher ground. safe house. and just as we make it. catch our breaths. stunned to be alive. i wake up. and i am a woman.

you can’t see it now but you’ve been saving yourself from the beginning. some will call you an angry brooding secretive child. they will not understand your stoicism. your ability to retreat into yourself and watch the world with quiet empathetic eyes. they will not understand that you do not yet know your anger. that your self isolation and quiet acts of martyrdom are all faulty tools of navigation. that the mirror does strange magic on your heart. even though they love you. tell you you’re home. you know you belong more than one place. but where else? you dream of another woman who smells different. like you. you wonder: what else is a home but a scented body? you feel safe inside your own small growing one. so you stay there when you are scared. confused. hurt. angry. happy. in love. you keep to yourself. you hold every emotion on the shelves of your shoulders where they cannot be broken or lost or taken away. this is how you survive. by holding yourself closer than anything anyone else. by becoming a safe house. higher ground. shelter of your own making.

i wish you knew then how strong you are. how brave it is to be a girl living in the undefined territory of her own shape. conjuring ways to love herself.

and beautiful. you are. even at twelve years old. with your uneven shaved head and one pierced ear. even with your brace face smile and inability to keep your mouth closed when chewing. even in your ren and stimpy t-shirts and baggy overalls. stunning. gorgeous. and no one will tell you this until high school. and no one will show you your beauty until college. when you begin to believe your skin’s wealth at the hands of a lover. when you lose that lover and still manage to go on. when you find words. your voice. a way out of yourself.

and although it is 15 years later. and you are still learning to speak. to love. to let go of the things piled on your shoulders. you are still the same girl. resilient. observant. thoughtful. border-less. brave. how did you know? even then. as a child. you had plans for us. even then you knew. how to take a body and build it right. sturdy. open. questioning. expansive. even then you knew. when to build walls. and when to bust holes in them.

all this time. i thought i was saving you. maybe i dream. maybe i run into the house. grab you. or some version. maybe i do it. to remember. i am still alive. because of you. because you made me a home out of nothing. and never left. never left me alone.

love always,

what to say when people ask: so what about your “real” mom, have you found her yet?

strange. to begin to search is to accept borders. the endless geography of my body turned road map. after so many years of self-invention. of discovering my own. naming myself. making sense of an absent mother a mirror the only way i know how. the thought of searching. of reunion is nauseating. for so long a mother has been fiction. alphabet turned word turned story. a mother is a lighthouse surrounded by dangerous coastline. a bluff too sheer to scale. a language i understand only in dreams. even then the two of us are without speech. communication morse code at best. all sharp vibration and memory. the lullaby of her heart pumping blood to mine. the percussion of me kicking her womb hard. hoping to leave a dent. something to remember me by. a mother is winter. the days growing shorter. a mother is revision. a cast of characters at my fingertips. to find her. look into her face. hear her speak. is to give up a kind of freedom. is to surrender my gold. give up my survey. a mother is colonization. the sacred places renamed new world. it will change me. i will belong somewhere. to someone. and the question becomes so much steeper: if i search. if i find her. how. what. who will she be?

i see reflections. everywhere. my mother. a troupe of brilliant black women. sometimes i story her famous. billie. oprah. toni. audre. nikki g. ru paul. the list goes on and i daydream. audre sitting with her pipe giving my awkward 11-year-old self the sex talk. ru paul strapping on my first pair of heels telling me not to “fuck it up” at the prom. nikki g in my college dorm room preaching revolution. billie and i drinking whiskey and chain smoking in a new york hotel. i want so many things from a mother. so many impossible things. sometimes i am just a child. with a pair of tin cans and ten feet of red yarn strung between two dark windows. expectant. a chorus of ghosts in my ear singing wake up wake up wake up child and breathe.

in another story my mother has been waiting. has been sitting on her porch everyday staring down a road lined with peach trees anticipating my shape my face. my return. this is the story where i imagine her consumed. haunted by the finality of her act. a woman who sleeps with the baby weight of my absence on her shoulders. who spends each one of my birthdays writing love letters to my infant eyes. let’s call this mother toni. let’s call this baby (me) beloved. living ghost to her sacrifice. sometimes a mother is a woman without options. crazy in loss. forced to do unspeakable things. a woman scattering the most valuable parts of herself like seedling. hoping they’ll take root somewhere safer. a mother is a martyr. a murderer. a saint with stains on her hands begging to be forgiven. this is the story where i find her with open arms. twenty-seven years of stolen motherhood dragging at her ankles. where she embraces me. then pulls me dangerously into her chest. a smothering kind of love. in this story. i am also the one who leaves. the baby who first rolled away down a long hospital hallway never to return. who returned. finally. only to realize that a mother is a cage. in this story. i run at the sight of her. sitting there expectant. it is too much. her breasts dripping milk. blood. even when i am wanted i don’t know how to belong.

no words here. so i listen. a mother becomes a sharp note. billie’s voice filling a room. a “gloomy sunday.” this is the story where she has forgotten. where i knock on her door and she doesn’t recognize me. where i sit down under the spotlight of her dinner table with her husband and two daughters and we make polite conversation. it was so long ago. she tells me. i was so young. i have a whole new life now. i never expected you’d find me. a mother is a performer. a mirage. a woman picking the gardenias out of her hair. one by one. then shooting her veins full of forgetfulness. a mother is an eraser. memory loss. a smooth talker with a sweet voice. it was so nice to meet you baby. have a safe trip home and do ring us every now and then. a mother is a curtain coming down. end scene. the blues. “god bless the child that’s got her own” a baby is a misstep. the first disfigured pancake. daughter twice removed. listen. in this story. no more words. just deafening noise. a single note slicing umbilical cord. again.

how. to begin. after twenty-seven years of radio silence. how. how to speak. how to return. look her in her eyes. not know what she is thinking. not know her. how to find a mother. a stranger. playing hide and seek with my heart.

New site, Beyoncé, and the poem that started it all

In 2009 I started my blog “Inventing Her” as a platform to share (mostly with myself, family, and friends) my writing, rants, and journeys as a queer, transracially adopted woman of color. Three years later, it’s time for a change (cue Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U” here) so I will now be ranting and sharing my work on this new site. In order to kick things off, I thought it would be appropriate to share the poem that inspired my blogging career in the first place. Thanks for visiting and enjoy! More soon.




inventing her

first you have to gather your mother’s shadows
perhaps they are buried in the garden
or tangled in the shower drain
my mother keeps hers in a big cedar chest
at the end of her king-sized bed
when i stuck my hand inside
i felt the acrid electricity of dreams postponed
smelled the brine of a sleeping woman
and Iipulled on the grey thread of her
until i had enough to make something new

then you have to spin your mother’s shadows
into something wild
something that will brave all weather
and endure history
you have to remember what storms
have been left still hungry
then weave in the nourishment
of ancestor bone and spirit
until you have shelter
to last

and still this will not be enough
still you will crawl into the night
with lovers who offer you water
but cannot quell your womb
for deserts and deserts
you will remain parched
and the sun will feel like an anvil
bearing down on your hope
until, oh sweet purple of dusk
of mirth and blood-games

you will dance

with all your lovely faces
with your rain and laughter
your hunger and caution
you will dance her out of you
trembling and tepid
a madwoman
will rise up from the ash of her own
and begin to craft the dawn anew