Sundai Johnson

Not Kids Anymore

by Sundai Johnson

She said, Black women don’t shave. I was five and sitting at a table where my feet dangled and where I pulled my spine straight to see the white family across from me. Confused, I mushed my eggs around my mouth and confirmed that my mom and my aunts did shave. I struggled to understand why this woman's scrambled eggs were so salty or why one must shave and how this woman felt the strong conviction that all Black women, did not. At the time, I was simply stating fact--stating what I knew. I did not know that I was already a warrior on the crusade for the narratives of Black folk, and Black women and myself, all the same. I did not yet know what to name that deep rumbling in the pit of me.

Just as the lot of lanky, doughy- eyed, teens shuffled into my classroom on the first day of school, I thought about this moment in my early childhood. I thought about how even at five, at that table, with a mouthful of scramble and spit, I carried history in my skin, rebuttals—I did not know I had— in my mouth. And all of this sat in the classroom with me, invisible, maybe, but wildly alive.

My own students are the same. Carrying bits of their people, and their armor in the scratches of pencil marks, in their runny eyes nestled into their elbows, in their swift hands quick to answer questions, in their quiet reserve and recoil when they prefer not. All that identity and you think you know me but you don’t swirling about us. And so I try to create a space where they can harness their voice and where that hard -knock coming of self can sort and rock. A space where it is not solely about what we read or how they feel about writing, but about language and power and the quiet thunder of self-realization. And so I stroll around the class and tap dance in this euphoria until my projector screen malfunctions and I’m cursing in breathy whispers, and I can’t remember if the ex- in expand is considered a prefix, and all my chest- tight fears about being under-qualified and underprepared to teach them, bump at my chest.

I want to look at them and shout that I am peeling open too; that I am finding layers in parts of my life I assumed to be one dimensional. Like how I want to be as quiet and still as I want to be howling and flailing. I want to tell them that I too, am coming of some age and self, and that I know that same tremble in the throat. But instead I turn somersaults and remind them that the most valued stories of themselves are those that that push their way past tight cheeks; those that are their own. I remember then, that they are all a part of the story that I too am yelling. Here, right now, I am spewing and wrapped up in a blessing so profound and tugging at me to sprout up and we, together, are in the midst of it all.

A Dragon Woman with a Lion-heart

by Sundai Johnson

It took me years to name myself a writer. As a young child I had binders full of loose-leaf paper— dystopian thrillers and romance tales. My grandmother would say, that girl loves paper. And I did. I loved paper and pens, and their marriage. Until college, I had only every shared my work with my mother. I read poetry in public for the first time in front of an intimate group, and then at a larger poetry reading a couple years later. Despite my continued writing practice, my journey to the title and a confidence in that identity was a slow progression.

Growing up, I’d watch my mother paint. I often wondered how she fashioned liquid into flesh and crafted lucid images that I could never conjure in my own mind. I wondered if the magic inside of her hands, lived in me. I realize, now, that the title is not fixed to a perceived level of expertise, but instead has to do with the relationship to the craft itself.

Once I began to honor that which was mystical inside of my own soul, I fell more deeply in love with my work. I have pieces that I return to time and time again—to pick at and pull apart. I do not yet know that I believe in the notion of finished. This love is one that sometimes rocks me in a gentle power and other times, is trite and disagreeable. But the way I love this art of mine is much like the way my father taught me to love.

I still remember Kem crooning through the answering machine when he and my mother tried to reconcile the marriage. Pontiac, Michigan will always remind me of the tragic nostalgia of that deep and complex love; a love that tries and tries, despite mishap and failure. Love that is, but cannot find a place here, on earth, to be. The night of my junior prom, my mother scolded me for my tone with my father on the phone. When she told me later, that the two of them talked that entire night, neither of us could have predicted it to be the last time we would hear his howling laugh. We held hands at his funeral during the 21-gun salute.

I write poems about him and let butterflies tell me when he is near. I no longer allow fear to sit thick in my throat but allow the memory of him to remind me that courage does not mean I am not afraid, it simply means I move in spite of it. That, is how I write and that is how I love. 

My mother taught me to be dragoness and my father, to love with a lion-heart. My craft, my poetry, my writing, the wild and hankering way that I love—is wrapped up in who they made me to be.

And so I write, and I love, and I bound, because of them.