Jasmine Mans is a Black American poet, artist from Newark, New Jersey. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin Madison, with a B.A. in African American Studies. Her debut collection of poetry, Chalk Outlines of Snow Angels, was published in 2012. Mans is the resident poet at the Newark Public Library. She was a member of The Strivers Row Collective.
In this excerpt from her forthcoming collection, Black Girl, Call Home (Berkley, March 2021), Mans pens a letter to Michelle Obama, celebrating the former First Lady's indelible impact on Mans' young cousin—and Black girls everywhere.
I wrote "Dear First Lady" as a college freshman, sitting in Witte dorm at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hopeful. A proud 18-year-old Black girl, unaware of the sacrifice women make to coexist in this country. And I watched Michelle Obama manage a threatening brilliance that was a foreshadowing of American possibility.
Mrs. Obama carried the burden of the Black woman’s smile. We saw a woman play superhuman for the sake of raising this country. And even in such great power, we notice there is something incredibly surreal, even dehumanizing, about having to appear superhuman for the sake of survival, a survival bigger than hers, ours.
Maybe that’s the magic and burden of existing in a group of people who must overachieve in order to matter, to exist. She reminds us that we matter. We are cared for, we are allowed to take up space.
Humbly, I hope this piece rests as a thank you, at a time of great pseudo-patriotic unraveling. In the White House today, we see a harsh unclaiming of black and brown identity, but this poem is about how some of us, for the first time, felt home here.
"Dear First Lady"
for Michelle Obama
Dear First Lady,
I watched as my 4-year old cousin
Sat in the mirror,
placed my grandmother’s pearls
around her neck and said,
“Do I look like Michelle Obama?”
This little girl
who does not know how to say
Rice Krispies or macaroni and cheese,
properly said your name
as if it existed in her long list of heroes
in between Snow White and Santa Claus.
My little cousin does not know Jim Crow.
How to interpret the Constitution
or fight for human rights,
she does not know your views
on the health care reform,
your Princeton education,
nor can she point to Chicago on a map.
But she knows Black Barbie dolls and nap time,
how to identify your face in a land-field
of misrepresented women
who share our skin color
like a sequin revolution.
She knows your smile Michelle,
she knows the day
her mother jumped up and down
black and red dresses,
how to say how to say
better than her own first name.
You proved that her identity belongs
somewhere in this American dream.
She knows that if she can find your face
in the jumbled channels on television
there’s a possibility she can stay up
past her bedtime.
You are everything
her mother never got the chance to be,
Cover Girl’s Beauty of the Week,
a love story sprinkled
in an inaugural speech,
she can mistake for her mommy.
She traded in her Dora the Explorer costume
for a brooch of the American flag,
and a tee shirt with your husband’s face on it.
And for the first time
I could identify the revolution
that would actually change the world.
And it’s not in how many Barack and Martin
comparisons we can make,
but the idea of little boys
jumping off their bunk beds
actually believing that they can fly.
It’s in little girls with dreams
and their grandmother’s pearls
My little cousin doesn’t know
about the war in Iraq,
she just wonders if Sasha and Malia
like to Hula-Hoop
and if you force them to eat
their Flintstones vitamins too.
Thank you for being
a brown girl’s dream come true,
something tangible to look up to.
I know that our skin color
exists on timelines
of women who had craters
engraved in their backs.
Stretch marks similar to maps
of underground railroads.
Grandmothers who couldn’t afford
all the ingredients to the American pie.
Women who laid down their lives,
strutted with chips and cracks
in their spines,
dying to inject more estrogen
in “man’s kind.”
Creating tradition under the idea
that if I can’t afford my daughter the world,
a college degree,
or at least, a decent meal tonight.
I’ll wrap my grandmother’s pearls
around her neck
like a gravity-stricken halo
and I’ll whisper in her ear
if I can’t,
you will . . .
. . . she did.”
"From BLACK GIRL, CALL HOME published by arrangement with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Jasmine Mans."
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