How We Are Made To Feel Small
I remember the feeling I had after September 11th, after seeing
a photo of Michael Jordan watching the footage of two buildings,
two planes, two worlds colliding into a mess of ash and rebar.
I remember it like the first time I relearned I was black:
It was summer of ‘91; I was ten. I was running through the apartment
complex looking for bad guys to fake shoot with my plastic gun.
I was Bruce Willis. The apartment complex was a scene
from Die Hard. I remember the feel of wind as it caught my shirt,
how safe it must have felt there, how my lungs trusted it, filled themselves
with it. My legs, cutting through it like propellers on a plane,
like spokes on the bike I did not need to apprehend my suspects.
I had a plastic gun, a fake badge. Together they were truth. Truth
was what they taught in primary school. Truth was when they asked us
what we wanted to be, and some answered president, fireman, police
officer. I never wanted to be president or a fireman, that’s the truth.
I wanted to be John McClane. I wanted to be Bruce Willis in a scene
from Die Hard. I wanted to save the city and sum up the day
in a catchphrase: Yippee-ki-yay, motha—before my mother called me
home. Outside LeBron James’ LA home, someone spray-painted
the n-word on his gate. LeBron’s response was, No matter how
much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how
many people admire you, being black in America is tough. It was summer
of ‘91 when I learned this truth. Some truths are hard. Some truths are not
whole truths. Like the day my teacher invited the officer into our class-
room and told us his job was to protect and serve us. We believed her
because she was our teacher. We believed her because he stood there,
ten feet tall. I was ten when the officer stopped me, ten
when they stopped Rodney King. Wind was still filling my shirt,
my legs: propellers on a plane before he brought me to a full stop—
before he examined my plastic gun, before You better spray-paint an orange
tip on that, before I almost shot you. My junior year in university,
a far cry from California, my Texas teammates banged on my door,
yelling, Turn on your TV, turn on your TV. What I saw was like the rebirth
of a phoenix un-ashing—afterwards, Michael Jordan (some basketball player’s
LeBron James today) staring into a TV screen, small, like the rest of us.
The summer of ‘91 was the summer I stopped carrying a fake badge
and plastic gun. It was the summer I stopped believing I was Bruce Willis.
It was the summer we turned on our TV screens to find Rodney King
clubbed into asphalt. It was a hard truth to come by, a hard truth to be woken to,
like the scene of a black child staring into the business end
of what I want to believe is a cruel joke—
How To Make The World Beautiful
Take the scent
of a chalk-lined morning.
Sift it into grains.
Grind them into people:
bring them back.
Stuff them in your pocket
when no one is looking.
Keep them on your person
(at all times).
Dig a hole in the dirt
when it is known
a village resides
at your hip.
watch them grow.
Chaun Ballard was raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and San Bernardino, California. His poems
have appeared in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Chiron Review, Columbia Poetry
Review, Frontier Poetry, International Poetry Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Rattle, and
other literary magazines. His work has received nominations for both Best of the Net and a