Black People Can't Swim
When I told Patricia how much I loved the pool at the Y,
she said, “Oh, black people can’t swim,”
which made me grateful to be let in on this,
not the information, but the intimacy—
the fact that she could let fly with such a piece
of black-on-black attitude without the slightest
bit of shame or self-consciousness. We were in
a restaurant, me and five black women who had attended
Patricia’s poetry reading, and who were paying
more attention than any white females I’d ever seen
to a football game on the high-definition TV.
The injured halfback in elegant street clothes
towering above the sideline interviewer
caused each woman to suck her teeth—
“That is one fine brother.”
“Best thing I’ll never have sex with.”
“The lips are a little big, but homeboy still pretty.”
“Why wouldn’t you have sex with him?” I asked.
“’Cause he’s a ho,” Halle said.
“Everyone in the NFL’s a ho,” Cheryl and E. J. chimed in.
I looked up at the TV again, and this player,
whose name I’d known for five years, now seemed
changed into someone both simpler and deeper.
We were all toddlers, or unborn, when Martin dreamed
of little black children and little white children
going to school arm in arm. He dreamed this too:
a restaurant table where we were free to reveal
not just our true but our mysterious, irrational selves
in the presence of the other tribe without apology.
So here was Kaiasia, who had given us a lecture
on how not to pronounce her name, and who held
my arm all meal saying I was her husband.
“What was that?” they asked when she left.
A mystery. Earlier, on the walk over, she pulled me
away from the group into a leather shop
to show me a $200 Italian bag on layaway.
“And what did you say?”
“That’s not what she wanted to hear.”
They eyed each other, deciding who would tell.
“Honey, when a sister shows a man something
on layaway she wants him to buy it.”
“No way—” but they were all nodding, and I had to
love this country, or this ten square feet of it,
where they could tell me about men and women
and race and layaway. And I could have told them
about all the black people who swim at the Y,
though maybe they already knew
and just delighted in saying with impunity
what the vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers
blurted out on national TV. “They don’t have
the buoyancy,” Al Campanis told Ted Koppel,
then promptly lost his job, and rightfully so.
Douglas Goetsch is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. A New York City public school teacher for twenty-one years, he was recently the poet in residence at the University of Central Oklahoma and is the founding editor of Jane Street Press. His most recent collection of poems is Your Whole Life (Slipstream Press, 2007).
“Black People Can’t Swim” was selected for reprint in The Puschart Prize XXXVI: Best of the Small Presses.
“Black People Can’t Swim” appears in our Winter 2010 issue.