'I Love to See a Funeral, Then I Know It Ain't Mine'

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We've talked a lot about the binds of society, and particularly about how societal power is not omnipotence, and comes with its bindings. I always loved Toi Derricote's "Blackbottom," but I've been re-reading it in light of our recent discussions (and in light of reporting on Detroit.)

The poem explores the dilemma of middle-class African-Americans moving up an out, who nevertheless feel that they've left something essential behind. I won't say too much more than that.

Blackbottom

When relatives came from out of town, 
we would drive down to Blackbottom, 
drive slowly down the congested main streets --Beaubian and Hastings-- 
trapped in the mesh of Saturday night. 
Freshly escaped, black middle class, 
we snickered, and were proud; 
the louder the streets, the prouder. 
We laughed at the bright clothes of a prostitute, 
a man sitting on a curb with a bottle in his hand. 
We smelled barbecue cooking in dented washtubs, and our mouths watered. 
As much as we wanted it we couldn't take the chance. 

Rhythm and blues came from the windows, the throaty voice of a woman 
lost in the bass, in the drums, in the dirty down and out, the grind. 
"I love to see a funeral, then I know it ain't mine." 
We rolled our windows down so that the waves rolled over us like blood. 
We hoped to pass invisibly, knowing on Monday we would return safely 
      to our jobs, the post office and classroom. 
We wanted our sufferings to be offered up as tender meat, 
and our triumphs to be belted out in raucous song. 
We had lost our voice in the suburbs, in Conant Gardens, where each 
      brick house delineated a fence of silence; 
we had lost the right to sing in the street and damn creation. 

We returned to wash our hands of them, 
to smell them 
whose very existence 
tore us down to the human.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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