Leah Johnson: The Blood of the Mother

The Blood of the Mother

with lines borrowed from AD Tenn’s “Immigrant Suicide”


I opened my mouth

to swallow the burning our blood.

In the grass,

on the field,

two miles from the church where my grandmother

first cradled my head

and called me blessed.

First called me a child of God.

I watched as they set fire to the Son of Man,

became soot,

black and barely there,

as they scorched night and christened it freedom.

There is a word for the terror they call liberty

and it is Mother.

And that is to say the hand of allegiance

and the hand that lights the torch

are one and the same.

And that is to say that I will not let Her love me,

that She will never bear my weight.

And that is to say: If the deaths of my people are newsprint,

then whose tongue

must our children tell our stories with?

Which mouth

will breathe the names

of the ones your Mother America refused to hold?

What language is dousing Her sins

            in gasoline?

I can still taste the ash.


for the place we left behind


Somebody told me once/that places like/Home/only exist so that people can/leave them./Said that/Here/was the only place/worth being./The thing is,/you think you’d know/when you were dying./Think you’d feel it/before it happened./But I was born,/made dead/and resurrected/at the altar of /Home,/before I knew what it meant/to breathe life/into the fields/that sustained my people/and gave us rest./And the going back/isn’t quite the same as dying,/yet my body/is less Holy Spirit/and more Holy Ghost/nonetheless./And the staying/isn’t quite the same as living,/but I keep writing/almost-but-maybe-never-New York-stories/as though I am./If places like/Home/are for escaping,/the body must hold it/in its bones./In its teeth,/dripping with memory,/the venom/of community./It is fracture,/lynched together,/pinned by the village/that has seen your blood,/and called it kin./But you knew that already./Knew to run/before it opened its throat/and drank you whole./Told me/that the only way/to be free/was to baptize myself/in the river,/to submerge,/white-dressed,/divine,/and drift away,/carried by the things/you could not/cleanse me of./

Leah Johnson is an essayist, fiction writer and hopeless midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. Leah is a recent graduate of the MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and a 2018 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work —which can be found at BustleElectric LitYes PoetryCosmonauts AvenueFaded Out, and elsewhere— is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood.