A Love Letter for Punch Me Up to The Gods
I don’t usually do this. Actually, I don’t really know what I usually do. I write and a lot of times I write about books. But it is rare that I write while I am crying. I knew your book would eventually bring me to tears. I didn’t know it would be these tears. I didn’t know they would start when I read the acknowledgements. The names of Deesha Philyaw and Yona Harvey were what finally broke me. Somehow that makes perfect sense to me as I dry my eyes and think about whether this will go on my half-baked blog or just stay in my Google Drive folder. I am somewhat afraid of what may come out here. But I’ll keep writing anyway.
I went to pick up your book from my favorite bookstore last week. I took my five-year-old – I call him son. I have raised 3 daughters over the last 22 years and now here I am with this little Black boy. He loves dinosaurs, iridescence, and stories. He tells me at least 10 times a day that he loves me and his dad. Tears again. Sometimes I ask him why he says that so much. He looks at me like I just asked the dumbest question ever and he ain’t got time for my foolishness. Sometimes he replies “‘cause I do” and rolls his marble round brown eyes. He grins and chuckles to show me that he means no disrespect and then he asks if he can play a game on my phone. I say no and then he asks if he can listen to an audiobook. We are now on our 2nd listening binge of all the Ramona Quimby books. I got the full set because 1- Stockard Channing is the vocal artist and I have never quite been able to shake my devotion to Rizzo and 2- My son is a lot like Ramona Quimby.
At the bookstore, he crawled under a table and started making up the stories he loves so much. I was busy thanking the staff for keeping me up on the best poetry. Hoping I would make just enough conversation for them to continue welcoming me to the store but not so much that they might detect how closely I teeter at the edge of not well. Hoping I wouldn’t see that look in their eyes that I have seen in others’ when I have thrown back one too many neat Jacks, or you know, a bottle too many. I am trying sobriety now. But I still get the look every now and then. That look that makes me think “oh shit, they know I’m crazy.” I turned around and got him from under the table. He wanted to look at more books and slowly come to a decision about which one I would buy for him. I wanted to get something with a character that looked at least a little like him and make a b-line back home before my chariot of extroversion turned into a pumpkin.
We settled on some Captain Underpants book. We got a little something for his sister who eats poetry. I felt like I had passed the “see I’m normal” test for the day and we headed back to the car. As we crossed the street he asked “Mommy, can we listen to Ramona on the way home?” I asked him if he wanted to listen to Henry Huggins instead. I didn’t really want that but I felt a little tired of Ramona’s getting away with things that would have gotten me an appointment in the bathroom with my mom’s belt or (after my grandma convinced her to stop giving me beatings) a month in my room writing over and over what I would not do in only the best cursive. “Wild Kratts?” he asked. I said fine.
When we got home I unpacked Punch Me Up to The Gods alongside the three new copies of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies I got to send to people I love. I set them aside and ran my finger over the glossy lettering of the cover of your book. I was glad it felt so nice under my fingers considering I’d be spending the next few weeks with it. I looked at your picture on the back flap and caught something unexpected. Me. I saw myself in the glossy black edges around your face. I thought to myself about how I really need to lose some weight. I thought how sad it was that I was about to read this book about the beauty of Blackness and queerness and I was worried about how fat I looked in the reflection of the author’s headshot panel.
And then I heard the kids in my neighborhood outside playing. My son heard them too. He pressed his nose to the window asking when he could go and play with them. Our neighbor’s dogs had once again escaped their ridiculous electric fencing and came roaming the street. The kids began to retreat to their homes and I watched them to make sure they made it ok. I was just about to turn my head when I heard one boy say to a smaller boy “Stop doing that! That’s gay.” Another boy asked “what did he do?” and the admonisher put the palms of his hands on his kidneys. “Walking like this. I keep telling him that’s gay.” I opened my front door and my mouth but nothing came out. I thought of how often I have embarrassed my daughters with my quick “old queerphobic ass toxic ass masculinity ass culture” rants. They have come to know when one is on its way like a seizure’s aura. Like my Black womanist crunk feminist Mother-Audre-says rants I have unleashed, they can either come out elegant and induce head nodding or they can come out from a therapy session hole and induce chin tucking. I have let them out in churches, masajid, classes taught and taken, Zoom calls, and yes from my front porch. My daughters have had to check me more than a few times. Usually a stern “mahhhm” is enough. This time I just watched the boys walk up the block and shut my door. I turned to my son and held his face in my hands. “I love you, Bean.” “Me too, Mommy. Can I have some gummy bears?”
So, it was perhaps not unreasonable to allow myself to fall into your book and stay there for the weekend. It was right on time. As I read I had so many things I wanted to tell you. I wanted to promise you I’d read anything you wrote. I wanted to ask if maybe we had been on the bus together or passed each other in McKeesport when I worked out there. I wanted to tell you how brilliant and brave you are and how I hope I can write even one line as well as you have written this book. I wanted to ask you if you want to come to my Secret Lives of Church Ladies watch party where I will be cosplaying Jael. I wanted to tell you that Pittsburgh ain’t been no crystal stair for me either. I wanted to tell you that when I left my life that had begun in Newark and took me to Sarah Lawrence College, Oxford, Paris, and Haiti, I never dreamed I would end up living in Pittsburgh. Those places were not small town Ohio but ghosts had used silences to attack me there, too. I arrived in Pittsburgh (looking like a kid myself) with a toddler on my hip. I came here thinking I’d stay with some friends, get myself together, and then go get my life. It has been 21 years. I gave in to a sense of desperation not unlike the one your mother felt and decided I would find a man to marry me and save me from the shame I hadn’t even realized I had caused my family. I’d tell you how that ended but I’m sure you can imagine.
I got life. The streetlight has followed me, too. Sometimes I got away from that glare at the expense of pieces of me I buried and pretended didn’t exist. Sometimes I escaped when I refused to let myself live in lies. I too am thankful for all the Black women who have held me together. Some in person and some from afar not even knowing they did it. Like Deesha and Yona who I remember when I want to throw this laptop out the window and go shop for cheap home decor. But then I think of how dope Deesha and Yona are and I decide to keep trying to write. Not because I think I can be as great as them, or now you, but because I think it would be disrespectful to read these works and not at least sit my ass down and try. If not to write my own stuff then at least to show some gratitude to y’all.
I usually choose passages from the text and write what I love about them. Or I write questions. I find myself unable to do that tonight. I would be attempting to hem the water. Yona’s words rush to my mind whenever I catch myself doing that. Instead I will write that you have moved me. You have made a house a home with this book and a million more reads would never be too much.
With sincere thanks,
Oh, I hope you keep writing, Tahirah! I am reading Brian’s book, too, and it’s breaking my heart. I am an old white woman with much to learn. You and Brian are guiding stars for me through the darkness of my white privilege. Thank you.
Well now we are both crying. Keep letting your magic flow out of you in any way you like, but I think you are a lovely writer. Thank you for this.
Thank you so very much.
You have magic in ypur fingertips, same as Brian.I went strsight to the kindle app after hearing just the last 3 minutes of his interview on NPR last week. I cried at the end, to think of all the pain humans are capable of inflicting on each other. So needless.I hope to be a better human each time I read beautiful, real words. Like Brian’s, and yours.
–a white woman
It is magnificent and he is brilliant! I’m glad you got to witness it with me.
I think, Tahirah, that you have a story just as compelling as Brian’s that needs to be told, and I would love to read it.
Thank you so much. I will keep at it.
Brian linked to this through his Facebook page and I read it with a swollen heart. You’re a full-fledged participant in this magnificent, long-overdue renaissance of Pittsburgh writers testifying about life here. Please keep writing.
Thank you for seeing me. I’m truly lifted by this.
Oh, Tahira, please try to find a publisher for your writing! Your words are magnificent and brought me to tears! Thank you!!!
This encouragement is so very much appreciated and needed. Thank you.
somehow just right. really painful and really beautiful