When we get to Penney’s, Mom’ll give me a nickel
to buy a white sack of malted milk balls,
chocolate going to sweet white inside.
Little Rock is fun until Mom grips my hand
as Negroes pass and her fear pours into me.

Too much coffee, your knees’ll turn dark.
Grandma hands me a cup half full, pale with cream.
Legs dangling from the grown-up chair
between her and my aunts, I sip in silence
that says it’s a fact and a shame to get stained.

Worse, a dark face, whether brown from farming
or born dark, Colored, Nigra, as dainty relatives say.
Tumbling from the hot car after the two-day drive from D.C.,
I wait my turn to be seen by Grandma, who cups her hands
around my cheeks and clucks, my, but aren’t you brown.

Heading outside, Grandma nods to the bonnets as the screen door slaps.
I mind her, tying on a floral cotton contraption
stiff with battens like a prairie wagon top.
Sun so bright it waters your eyes in heat that
prickles your arms and wiggles the far-off edges of the farm.

Sprawling west from Memphis, the rich delta where dark figures
bend to pick, each one dragging a white sack heavy with cotton bolls.
Barefoot kids wait on the edges of sagging stoops of weathered shacks.
Convict crews dig in sizzling culverts as cops watch with guns.
Black prisoners with white overseers.

My parents hailed the law in ‘64 and the one in ’65.
We honor King and mourn his loss but on the yearly trek
to Arkansas, in a tone that tells the cost, Dad says, you know,
Civil Rights discussions will raise a family fuss.
I start to speak, then swallow hard.

The Order of Mass