Poem of the Week | January 07, 2019

Toi Derricotte’s most recent book is The Undertaker’s Daughter. She has received the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcarts, the Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. With Cornelius Eady, she co-founded Cave Canem in 1996. She is Professor Emerita from University of Pittsburgh and served on the Academy of American Poets’ Board of Chancellors. “What are you?” is from the forthcoming book “I”: New and Selected Poems by Toi Derricotte, (c) 2019. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

“What are you?”

My DNA tells the same story as my face—
The mix that makes me at home in Greek,

Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese restaurants.
My skin duskier to sensors trained—

The sniffing nose, the prickly skin,
Ears alert for loud laughter, for the colored’s speech that,

Now, almost seventy years after desegregation, so often
Tricks, so that, when the actual person arrives

Who called about that house for sale, the agent stutters:
That property has just been sold. My answer changes.

For years, to avoid conversations that would take
A lifetime, minds purposely dulled for generations

(“Single consciousness,” Dubois might have called it),
I would say when introduced—to avoid later embarrassment

For us both—I’m Toi Derricotte, I’m black, and stick my hand out.

Now—is it pride in our complexity, and having written proof
From Ancestry.com that makes me sputter on about how

My ancestors (perhaps theirs too?) freighted cargo
Around the Mediterranean to places not yet named and bordered—

Genetic free for alls? Humans and Neanderthals had sex and produced
viable offspring—but most evidence places these encounters in the Middle East,just after
early humans exited Africa some 50,000–60,000 years ago.

Recently, caught in conversation at a cocktail party, I quoted
Percentages to curious whites: 72 percent European, 28 African

(A blend which, in New Orleans, in the 17th and 18th centuries,
Wouldn’t have bought a ticket to the Quadroon Ball!). Their faces

Waited for the punch line, until the black woman I was with cracked
The silence: You’ve been black all your life, she answered everyone.

To our various shades, Hazel Shorter made it perfectly
Clear fifty years ago: If you black you black.


What changed when white people first saw (were amazed—
As they are now—the first time) a black person? In European

Towns in World War II, they wanted to touch the skin, the hair—
Black soldiers became accustomed to it on the streets where children

Wanted to put their hand in it, press it, smiling
In disbelief, gawking at features,

Putting their arms and hands against
the color to check, entranced, as if they’d discovered another planet.

Think of Keats and Chapman’s Homer: Then felt I
like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

I wonder if Richard Wilbur was awakened
By the browns and blacks of our skin before he could awaken

To “the beautiful” in his famous poem:
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
For surely,

Any blackness is deeper than anyone knows. Or Tiffany’s
Idea, in 1885, to make glass’s colors richer, more vibrant, “Tones

Due in part to the use of pot metal full of impurities.” Slavery
A generation gone, and my great grandmother, Philomene,

Still a Louisiana washwoman with her fifty daily pounds
Of white women’s dirty laundry on her head.


I’ve seen
A toddler flinch on the elevator at an entering face, don’t

Touch, we are all trained in what not to see. Everywhere
In the world. I know an unnamed (forgotten, unspeakable) cemetery
Where the unwanted
Half-breed babies were swaddled tight and abandoned without funeral
Marker or blessing. What are you? A question that black people
Never ask, perhaps, catching the drift of a slave ship
In my speech, most likely, what I laugh at
Or how I laugh, for the first laughter surely erupted from the deepest
Cavern, from Olduvai Gorge (praise Lucy who, in Ethiopia, is also known as
Dinkinesh, “you are marvelous” in the Amharic language
Each wavelength of a chuckle is a measurable rift
Between the consciousness of those without and those with
Ownership of their bodies.

My ancestors, before there were lines
Of hatred and difference drawn around parcels
Of ground, landed on the circle of the beaches of the
Mediterranean, in Europe or Africa, so that my mother’s nose was
“Aquiline,” my skin color would find family
In any city. What makes me black?
That thin strip of DNA across
The middle of the continent that shuttled us to the Ivory Coast,
All our DNA is marked by it, the same
Red flag, the magic carpet-ride through Ghana
To the sea, no matter
Where the other dots on the map reside—Ireland, England, Finland—
No matter how far fetched, what makes me black is a splash of color
Through the map, a swath, a gash, an epoch of four hundred years
Of blood, semen and vomit that poured out through Cape Coast,
and from that wound the bloody tears dispersed.

Appreciation to Wiki for information on Neanderthals, Lucy, and Tiffany


Author’s Note

This is one of those poems that probably took almost 50 years to write—25 of them spent writing my memoir, The Black Notebooks. Then another 20 years later, this poem came. It answers a question I’ve been asking myself all my life about the many strands of my identity.