your bones of their narrative. It was
not always as it is.
— from “Wind in a Box” by Terrance Hayes
A tall lean man in a straw hat walks on a dirt road. His skin glows like chocolate syrup poured from a sauce pan. The creases by his mouth are deep caverns, recesses where the stories and smiles live tucked.
He whistles as he walks.
I cannot tell if I conjured him myself entire, or if I pulled him from a story – Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, some mysterious man from some book my Stephen King.
But he is real. I want to know him.
I have always wanted stories. Something beyond the scantness I heard of my own lines. My grandparents from hard-scrabble tobacco, as my father always describes it. My grandparents from Italian immigrants born, and my mother two generations removed, the last one to actually be able to claim that 1/4 blood.
I so badly wanted stories that I lied obsessively as a child, told tales of what I said to that girl – my tongue pointed and quick – until my parents said, “Andi, you need to be kind to people.” and my lie became not only unreal but wrong.
When we visited the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina and saw Unto These HIlls, the story of this people’s forced migration to Oklahoma, I sobbed. Then, I grabbed the generic version of Native Americanism I saw in movies and wished it were mine. I even wrote an essay all about this idea. 3,000 words to figure out why I so badly wanted to be Indian.
Now, I feel that same quiet tug when I read Terrance Hayes and see him lay out his blood and his stories. I wish I were black . . . because somehow, there is story stronger in that skin.
I know this is false. But it is also true.
He whistles, this man on the street in the straw hat. He passes a house with a front porch – I’m almost certain I take that image from a film – and he walks straight on.
He is called Man, short for Emanuel. Emanuel Cambow, whose name would be altered by illiteracy and racism and neglect to be Cumbo in time.
Freed from servitude before he could become a slave. Owner of 50 acres in James City County, Virginia.
He is my story.
What stories do you crave for your own life?