I. Won’t you?
Silently, as I take my deepest breath
To go under.
The bracing never enough for the violence of impact.
When I was a kid in a sea of white and pastel
Sometimes the teacher would ask me
If I could share anything on the topic of slavery.
In 4th grade
In other grades
When I was that only kid, a drop, a rock, a ripple.
And the teacher’s eyes catch mine
If only for a second
But long enough for me to know.
Speak, you must. For I am so inadequate here.
I am wading and searching for an edge to grasp but,
I stand and speak anyway.
Because my skin and my race suggest I will do so
Suggest I will say yes
I was a kid
They were the teacher
They were adults
You say yes to the adults
You raise your hand
Ah, teacher must think when she sees my stormy skin, she already knows the subject,
she has the answers in those thick, dark lashes, doesn’t she?
I didn’t know anyone else could see me
The waters so cloudy and my sinking so deep.
Stand, won’t you?
I come up because I have to.
When my mouth opens I tilt my head back for all of the air
I am allowed.
And when I sit back down there is salt on my lips.
II. College is a violent body whose water I chop with my limbs.
I knew the waves to ride
And the ones to go under.
And the teachers would still ask me
And the white students would still turn to me
They were the teacher
I was not a kid.
I still say yes.
I still raise my hand, if only to pull myself further into the thrashing current
Each breaststroke a discovery as I pull apart the waters before me.
There’s something down there below the chop,
if only I could stay beneath it all I could find it.
If only I didn’t have to keep coming back
You do as they say
they don’t know.
But you must know, don’t you?
III. Fully grown now and I move full of grace and cunning.
In the office. In the conference room. On the train. At the party. At the meetings.
they ask me still
Because my dusty skin says
Because my smudged eyes lower
My Black body cries
Won’t you, they say, tell us. Won’t you stay? Won’t you speak? Won’t you? Won’t you won’t you won’t you won’t you won’t you won’t you won’t you won’t you won’t you won’t you won’t–
IV. I come up for air and see the white crests behind me.
The salt dries on my brown skin, crystal stars shining on wet sand.
One day I will reach the shores. And I will ask myself,
What is it you haven’t said yes to?
What is left for you to refuse?
Who are you now without the white seas
coming with its waves….?
About Linda Chavers
Dr. Linda Chavers is a writer, scholar, and cultural consultant whose current work and practice centers on teaching and supporting students as they navigate higher ed while also advising colleagues and various stakeholders on best practices for an anti-racist work environment. She balances public-facing writing around social justice and racial equity while teaching on Black Feminisms at Harvard University where she is also an Assistant Dean of the College. Dr. Linda Chavers earned a Master of Arts in English and a PhD in African and African American Studies from Harvard University. She has also taught on the faculties of Temple University and Philips Exeter Academy.