My Top 5 Books of 2021: Punch Me Up to the Gods

Well here I am at the last book on my 5 faves list. Of course, this was hard. I thought maybe it wasn’t a good idea to write about something I had already written about this year. I thought about the other books I read this year that had profound meaning to me. There is Brittany Hailer’s Animal You’ll Surely Become because…Brittany! There is Cameron Barnett’s The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water because I know that there will come a day when I will give these poems to my 6 year old son. I will tell him that the stories he made up at 6 about dragons in magical lands, pretend parties, and presents his sister is getting him for BFF day are allowed to grow and that Barnett’s poems will keep his dream afloat. There is Yona Harvey’s You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love because I know I will give up on writing… again and her words will be among the ones that bring me back. And (my therapist says I don’t have to use the word ‘but’ in places where I would rather use ‘and’) this last fave 5 post is for Brian Broome’s Punch Me Up to the Gods because I don’t think anyone who knows me expects anything else. And yes I have already written to the author. So what. I have more to say. What more I have to say about this book started years ago. I just didn’t know it. What I have to say started when I walked into the Newark Public Library after school one day and decided that instead of going to the children’s room, I was going to try the colorful room behind the big marble counter called African American literature.

I had two hours in those stacks between the time when I got off a bus after school and the minute my mom came down from the high rise building where she answered calls from dissatisfied Bell Atlantic customers. Good money but not enough for after school care when she was saving for a house. She bought that house and filled my home world with encyclopedias, Maya Angelou, Essence magazine, and Nikki Giovanni. She researched schools, got me glasses, more books and an awesome writing desk. My mom got me my own library card and a bus pass. This woman wanted me to be in the books. In the Black books. So when I decided to do my senior English project on James Baldwin, it did not surprise her. My teacher, Ms. Bryant was surprised, I think. But she nourished my interest and beamed when I had trouble staying awake one day because I had spent all night reading If Beale Street Could Talk. She beamed again when it happened with Giovanni’s Room. Ms. Bryant beamed so bright that the nose wrinkles I got from other adults rolled off my back. Other kids wrote about the so-called standards – Shakespeare, Faulkner, Bront√ęs. Those books didn’t rouse any rabble.

After high school there were many other times when noses tried to blow the literature I craved to the edges of my world. I kept reading and my mom was so proud when that got me an internship at a publishing house when I was 19. One of my assignments was reading and reporting on Kirkus reviews. Some of the people I had to present to seemed more interested in making sure their hair was perfectly parted or talking about where they got their whack ass brooches than they were in the reviews I chose. Edged out again, I had no idea what to say to them then. Also, at 19 I was something ELSE and truthfully, I did not kerrrrrr what those people thought about my presentations. One time I showed up to a meeting late because I had gone to get my belly button pierced and had the nerve to come into the conference room with my crop top rolled up (sorry to that boss who tried so hard to gather me). This past year I watched as those edges became cliffs. We live in a moment where the accepted thing to do to our literature is nothing short of erasure. As I watch teachers and librarians fight for our voices, I couldn’t help but think of Brian’s Uncle Clint. And I understood that what these book banning gatekeepers want is not just for the books to disappear but for the people to go away too. They are willing to let us die. Intellectually, spiritually, and yes physically.

So I started carrying our books around with me. Especially when I felt threatened. Kiese Laymon writes about that in Heavy. Books are protection against the everyday aggressions and terrorizing we endure here on the margin. They are evidence that we are here. They are our rows and rows of yesses in a life that wants us to accept whole cities of nos. They are our loud voices and appearances on busses when people under the influence of this caste system want to beat us. Black folks, womxn, queer folks, bodies bigger or smaller, migrant families, and ones laying claim to long histories of triumph over seemingly unspeakble cruelties. We will speak. We will write. And we will read. Every word is a testament to the lives of every Uncle Clint who this society fails and pushes over its sharp cutting edge. Ms. Bryant and my boss at the publishing joint taught me this more than they taught me English or the business of it.

That day in the Kirkus meeting I said I had other reviews to mention, reviews they had deemed unimportant. I remember distinctly the moment the brooches made it clear that it was time for me to remain silent and I painfully remember that I did. But now. Now I have the words I wanted to draw from my belly. I can’t go back in time, but if I could, I would take Punch Me Up to the Gods to that Kirkus meeting, slam it so hard that it would shake the table, ugly jewelry, and every hair in those neatly combed parts. I would then slide my notes on Brian Broome’s Kirkus prize acceptance speech to the center and say THIS is the MF Kirkus I am talking about. I would not be quiet. So Punch Me Up to the Gods will go with me into 2022 because I can’t take it to the past and I am ready. I am ready to refuse this rise in edging us from the stories. I am ready to tell oppressors that I see them edging their own selves in an attempt to cover what is natural and free. I will give Punch Me Up to the Gods to my siblings in honor of our father who did not survive AIDS in the 90s. I will give it to my son for the days when his writing becomes a strong life reality. I will keep it with me as I grieve my mom’s passing. I will keep it with me because, like so many other folks writing us back from these margins, Brian Broome has moved me. In deep gratitude to all of the writers who worked for freedom in 2021, may we write for Uncle Clint, may we write against the waves of inhumanity we face daily, and may we write because bell hooks told us “not to bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.” May we shake the tables and continue to wear our own jewelry.

A final note before I sign off until 2022, thank you to all the people who read these little pieces of wanna be writings and saw me and encouraged me. Sorry for the typos and corny things. Sorry for my insecurities. You have no idea how much I appreciate your kind words. It took me a lifetime to get to this place of valuing my own writing. And whatever it takes to get better, I’ll keep trying.

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