february 12, 1963
I am born on a Tuesday at the University Hospital
a country caught
between Black and White.
I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
my great, great grandparents
worked the deep rich land
dawn till dusk
drank cool water from scooped out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky’s mirrored constellation
I am born as the south explodes,
too many people too many years
enslaved then emancipated
but not free, the people
who look like me
and getting killed
so that today—
February 12, 1963
and every day from this moment on,
brown children, like me, can grow up
free. Can grow up
learning and voting and walking and riding
wherever we want.
I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
through my veins.second daughter’s second day on earth
My birth certificate says: Female Negro
Mother: Mary Anne Irby, 22, Negro
Father: Jack Austin Woodson, 25, Negro
In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr.
is planning a march on Washington, where
John F. Kennedy is president.
In Harlem, Malcolm X is standing on a soapbox
talking about a revolution. Outside the window of University Hospital, snow is slowly falling. So much already covers this vast Ohio ground.
In Montgomery, only seven years have passed
since Rosa Parks refused
to give up
her seat on a city bus. I am born brown-skinned, black-haired and wide-eyed. I am born Negro here and Colored there
and somewhere else,
the Freedom Singers have linked arms,
their protests rising into song: Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday.
and somewhere else, James Baldwin
is writing about injustice, each novel,
each essay, changing the world. I do not yet know who I’ll be what I’ll say how I’ll say it . . .
Not even three years have passed since a brown girl
named Ruby Bridges
walked into an all-white school.
Armed guards surrounded her while hundreds
of white people spat and called her names.
She was six years old. I do not know if I’ll be strong like Ruby. I do not know what the world will look like when I am finally able to walk, speak, write . . .
Another Buckeye! the nurse says to my mother. Already, I am being named for this place. Ohio. The Buckeye State. My fingers curl into fists, automatically
This is the way, my mother said,
of every baby’s hand. I do not know if these hands will become Malcolm’s—raised and fisted or Martin’s—open and asking or James’s—curled around a pen. I do not know if these hands will be Rosa’s or Ruby’s gently gloved and fiercely folded calmly in a lap, on a desk, around a book, ready to change the world . . . it’ll be scary sometimes
My great-great-grandfather on my father’s side
was born free in Ohio,
Built his home and farmed his land,
then dug for coal when the farming
wasn’t enough. Fought hard
in the war. His name in stone now
on the Civil War Memorial: William J. Woodson United States Colored Troops, Union, Company B 5th Regt.
A long time dead but living still
among the other soldiers
on that monument in Washington, D.C.
His son was sent to Nelsonville
lived with an aunt
the only brown boy in an all-white school. You’ll face this in your life someday,
my mother will tell us
over and over again. A moment when you walk into a room and no one there is like you. It’ll be scary sometimes. But think of William Woodson and you’ll be all right. the beginning
I cannot write a word yet but at three,
I now know the letter J
love the way it curves into a hook
that I carefully top with a straight hat
the way my sister has taught me to do. Love
the sound of the letter and the promise
that one day this will be connected to a full name,
that I will be able to write
Without my sister’s hand over mine,
making it do what I cannot yet do.
How amazing these words are that slowly come to me.
How wonderfully on and on they go. Will the words end,
whenever I remember to. Nope,
my sister says, all of five years old now,
and promising me
infinity. hair night
Saturday night smells of biscuits and burning hair.
Supper done and my grandmother has transformed
the kitchen into a beauty shop. Laid across the table
is the hot comb, Dixie Peach hair grease,
horsehair brush, parting stick
and one girl at a time. Jackie first,
my sister says,
our freshly washed hair damp
and spiraling over toweled shoulders
and pale cotton nightgowns.
She opens her book to the marked page,
curls up in a chair pulled close
to the wood-burning stove, bowl of peanuts in her lap.
in her books are so small, I have to squint
to see the letters. Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates. The House at Pooh Corner. Swiss Family Robinson.
dog-eared from the handing down from neighbor
to neighbor. My sister handles them gently,
marks the pages with torn brown pieces
of paper bag, wipes her hands before going
beyond the hardbound covers. Read to me,
I say, my eyes and scalp already stinging
from the tug of the brush through my hair.
And while my grandmother sets the hot comb
on the flame, heats it just enough to pull
my tight curls straighter, my sister’s voice
wafts over the kitchen,
past the smell of hair and oil and flame, settles
like a hand on my shoulder and holds me there.
I want silver skates like Hans’s, a place
on a desert island. I have never seen the ocean
but this, too, I can imagine—blue water pouring
over red dirt.
As my sister reads, the pictures begin forming
as though someone has turned on a television,
lowered the sound,
pulled it up close.
Grainy black-and-white pictures come slowly at me
Deep. Infinite. Remembered On a bright December morning long ago . . .
My sister’s clear soft voice opens up the world to me.
I lean in
so hungry for it. Hold still now,
my grandmother warns.
So I sit on my hands to keep my mind
off my hurting head, and my whole body still.
But the rest of me is already leaving,
the rest of me is already gone. the butterfly poems
No one believes me when I tell them
I am writing a book about butterflies,
even though they see me with the Childcraft
heavy on my lap opened to the pages where
the monarch, painted lady, giant swallowtail and
queen butterflies live. Even one called a buckeye.
When I write the first words Wings of a butterfly whisper . . .
no one believes a whole book could ever come
from something as simple as
butterflies that don’t even,
my brother says, live that long.
But on paper, things can live forever.
On paper, a butterfly
Copyright © 2014 by Jacqueline Woodson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.