A Fact Which Occurred in America
In the fifth grade, when we came finally to the Civil
War, the teacher kept saying, We lost, we lost,
his eyes a shadowy grief under his favorite painting,
a laminated Dawe reproduction subtitled A fact
which occurred in America: a black man wrestling a buffalo
to the ground. The ground becomes his grave, I am the buffalo.
In the painting of the buffalo rolling his eye
to size up the man who will never be strong enough
to wrestle his way out of the definition of black,
I am trying to say, we are metaphors for each other, please
don’t kill me. The man is black but so is the buffalo,
so is the sky and so is the heart which keeps this fact holy.
In the painting I am the buffalo because I want to be loved
by pure physicality, a man with broad hips and broader anger
and a yoke around his neck which has not broken him
yet. In the painting about a buffalo’s last breath,
I am the dust matted on the lips. Kiss me, keep me
in your mouth, don’t let me dissolve into fact.
In the painting about a boy who writes, I am sorry we lost
the Civil War fifty times on the blackboard after school
in his deserted fifth grade class, I am the bone-white chalk,
I have always wanted to be someone’s defiled good buffalo.
In the painting the man tells the buffalo, play dead,
I’ll get you out of this. In the defiled fifth-grade teacher’s
laminated copy of the painting, I am the racing pulse
of the boy getting his revenge when the teacher isn’t looking.
I am the time after we learned about the heroic Civil War,
on the playground when Day-Trion caught me alone
in the maze of trees and held me down with one hand,
kissed me with his tongue, licking my lip first, smoothing it
for his, my first kiss, on the ground, the leaves spreading
under us, black and wet. Deep in the animal-wrestled-down
part of me, the boy was bent like a tree over a maze
scribbling a hyphenated name in tiny scrawl in black ink
on a piece of paper, trying all hour during language arts
to get back to the maze when the teacher snatches up the paper,
his eyes widening at the darker revolt.
In the punishment, I was the blackboard, my body
lashed by loss and sorrow. I was the buffalo,
I wanted to lose the war; I wanted to stay black,
the filmy white chalk a sickness stretched over my skin.
In that America, I am always betraying the master.
James Allen Hall
“A Fact Which Occurred in America” is from Now You’re the Enemy (University of Arkansas Press, 2008).