Eliza: An Interpretation, By Ja'Lynn Talbert
Eliza: an interpretation
By Ja’Lynn Talbert
i lost a whole continent.
a whole continent from my memory.
unlike all other hyphenated americans
my hyphen is made of blood. feces. bone.
when africa says hello
my mouth is a heartbreak.
because i have nothing in my tongue
to answer her.
i do not know how to say hello to my mother.
- african american ii
Nayyirah Waheed, she spoke life into words that lay breathless in my mind. “i lost a whole continent. a whole continent from my memory.” My great-great-great grandmother was ripped from her mother’s womb, her screams suffocated by a sea that carried her away from a home that she would never know. Left behind, on the land that would never be her home, my home, are the memories we were never given the chance to make. A lifetime spent screaming from a loss she had yet to recognize would foster longing from the both of us. Her dreams of a lost mother, and a lost home drown me just as the sea traveled by her took breath from her father.
To me, the continent of Africa is lost. It can never be my own, because people meant to walk across its land were stolen away. No memories or stories like the movies. My mother and father do not speak of the continent as a memory slipping away. Instead, they speak of her as fantasy that continuously becomes unattainable, and so that is what she is to me. A dream that I can only fathom with my eyes closed. If I lie still enough at night, I can picture myself there. I can only hold my breath for so long, because eventually I taste the salt water in my longues, no longer home at peace, but engulfed by the sea that dragged my people away.
“unlike all other hyphenated americans my hyphen is made of blood. feces. bone.” The sea no longer a way of travel, it became a hyphen that separated african ancestry from american life. My great-great grandmother knows not her own grandmothers story like many immigrants might. Her history no longer belongs to her, but it was replaced by that of thieves. Their stories, a present to her as if allowing her their memories would absolve them their sins, pardon them from the crimes committed against her, forgive them of the wrongs done against me.
The hyphen placed on her back burdens me. Black people have to carry the weight of millions, the weight of our people who were stripped of their identities, all while knowing that the full story will never be offered to them. To others the separation of the two identities may not be a separation at all, but a bridge that connects the different parts of who they are. To my ancestors, to my people, to me, it is a partition. The Americans that we were forced to become do not represent the same Americans others chose to be. My hyphen is not made of hope for a better life, but of my oppression: me being African, me not being African at all.
“when africa says hello my mouth is a heartbreak. because i have nothing in my tongue to answer her.” My great grandmother knows nothing of her true family, there was nothing left of her true identity to be shared with the rest of us. Looking towards a home thought to have forgotten us, we see smiles from people who look like us. Their warm skin, dark hair, and deep eyes are a mystery to her. She knows not what their culture expects of her. Tears held back by her fall from my eyes. It is clear that even if strong arms were open for my people to run back into, shame would hold us back. There is nothing for me to offer our true home, only useless dreams falling from swollen tongues onto piles of broken hearts.
Every trace of who I could have been, burned from her hair as it was straightened to fall to the ground. Willingly she and I conform to the society that still refuses to welcome us. She refuses to think of the one place she knows she cannot have and instead embraces the world that was built on her downfall. The place we all once longed for looks over at her with sad eyes and welcoming arms calling to us with words never known. Pride cast a shadow over her eyes, and she looked down at me. Still our home called out, and as I opened my mouth nothing came out. I would not turn away, not yet. My great grandmother’s happiness, my dreams, our truth: looking towards home, I know they all lay in the palms of her hands.
“i do not know how to say hello to my mother.” There is loneliness in this feeling: that I will never be united with my home the way I long to be. My grandmother, so far removed from this place, speaks nothing of it. She has nothing to say. The troubles of being African and American (but somehow neither at all) cut the final ties, and so I hear not of the folktales known in my homeland. With all hope lost for a return, my grandmother hides her sorrow from me. I feel it in her stride, the strength no longer there. So, I drag my feet. Her eyes never leave the ground, because she knows the same sad eyes that reached to her mother will ask for her.
The loneliness is accompanied by shame. We will never know our mother, our home.