F is for… [F]athers #AtoZChallenge

As we near the close of week one of the A to Z Challenge (and I’m still alive—yayyy!), it’s time for another brainstorming session! A prologue, two backstories, and two character sketches down, and I’ve come to discover a major theme in Prodigal Son* (*title a work in progress)…


Or, more specifically, the lack of fathers.

Tony and Gregory lose their father at the peak of their adolescence, at the age arguably when a young black boy needs his father the most.

The absence of good fathers, especially in the black community, has become an epidemic. No offence to single mothers, but young boys need their fathers. Training up men is something a woman just can’t do, and she shouldn’t have to. Nevertheless, many women have taken on that burden. Unfortunately, just as babies quickly pick up our not-so-glamorous habits, children learn from example, and with no father in the home, boys will learn how to be men from what that see in the media and on the streets.

These influences are rarely positive.

The uprooting of black families is a destructive cycle that began in slavery and continues to this day, with the overcrowding of jails and prisons—more than half of that population being black men—the questionable killings of unarmed black men by police, the belittling of black men by law enforcement and government agencies, gang violence, drug-infested streets (if you thought this heroin epidemic is a new thing, you never lived in Harlem in the 60’s & 70’s), rap music videos that degrade black women, the insensitive stereotypes that label black men as dangerous brutes and black women as emasculating, oversexualized, welfare queens. I could go on, but I’ll stop right here and let this list take effect.

I use black men as a prime example of how black families are being uprooted because this novel will also have a strong Christian theme, as seen in Leslie’s character profile (and the interim title, Prodigal Son, alluding to the parable in the Gospel of Luke). In Christianity, the husband and father is said to be the priest of the home, in reference to 1 Corinthians 11:3 which says, “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” (Also see Joshua 24:15, which says, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”)

Back in the Garden of Eden, God’s commandment not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil originally came to Adam. He was supposed to relay that down to his wife (and slap that damn fruit out her hand). Likewise, in today’s Christian household, spiritual guidance would come to the man from Christ above (through the Holy Spirit) and trickle down to the rest of the family. That’s why the Bible says, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:21). So, when the enemy comes to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10), he will attack the man, the head of the house, and subsequently everything else will fall out of whack.

Tony and Gregory are exceptions to the “deadbeat dad” syndrome. They didn’t lose their dad to gun violence. He’s not locked away in prison, and he’s not fathering another family. His death was purely natural (albeit sudden and severe), yet these are still two young black men now growing up in America without a father. Society wouldn’t look at them any differently. How will that realization resonate with them? How will they identify themselves?

It brings to mind that sense of double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois explored in his The Souls of Black Folk, seeing oneself in a double identity—as you would view yourself, and as others would view you—and that difficult task of trying to reconcile the two.

In contrast, Detective Frank Maye, whose race hasn’t been revealed (and probably won’t be), loses his father much later in life. However, not knowing where he is or what happened to him leaves an open wound that is just as deep, and his ability to connect the similar traumas may be the key to finding Gregory.

Another theme this novel will likely explore is one that goes hand in hand with fathers: masculinity. What does it mean to be a man?

Gregory tries to answer this question as he goes off on his own, distancing himself from the (unintentional) coddling of his mother, Leslie. Unfortunately, with his father gone, good examples of men are short to come by, and things quickly start to spiral when he begins dating Tanisha, a parasitic woman who bounce from man to man, leeches off of Gregory to get what she wants, demeans him, cheats on him, and gets pregnant by another man. While her character may be veering toward the stereotypical, I can’t deny that there are women like her out there, and her behavior is what drives Gregory off the deep end. So for now she stays.

Lastly, in future posts, we’ll take a look at Tony, Gregory’s older brother. His character is still one-dimensional at this point, as I’m not sure how significant a role he’ll play in the novel. For now, all we have of him is the flashback in yesterday’s post, where teenage Tony behaves apathetically toward the busy work of preparing for his father’s funeral. Maybe that uncaring attitude extends into his adulthood? We’ll see as the novel comes together.

Now, I already know what you’re thinking. Since tomorrow is “G,” you’re hoping to get a character sketch of Gregory, but I think I’ve been doing plenty of sketching of him throughout all these posts, so I may do something different for tomorrow. Stay tuned!


#BlaPoWriMo: Odyssey of the Tragic Mulatto

Black comes
in many shades
but one—
Too white
I am—
Skin like
alabaster, hair
ruffles in the
breeze like
petals of
Curly in places,
frizzy in places—

Not enough to
stay my father
after three months,
not enough to
inherit the love
of his people—
Meek complexion
reminds them
of my mother,
and grandmother,
my great-grandmother,
how they perched
on pedestals, played
ignorant to their
husbands’ rompings
in the quarters,
abused the
bastard children
and sent them away.

My first love
loved me for my
resemblance to
the white women
he coveted, warned
me I’m no better
with his fists.
Black like him
underneath, with
every blow, he
brought my blackness
to the surface—
Blue bruises
the size of
blot my arms,
Purple boot prints
tread across my
chest and stomach,
red rashes spread
from the fingers
wrapped around my
neck, cutting off air,
black eyes, from every
punch, swell shut,
immersing me in darkness.

When I die, let the
priest open my casket—
Naked, let the world
see the discolored
calluses, a melanin
absorbed through cruelty.
Let no one ever say
I wasn’t black—
I was every black woman,
brutalized and discarded
just the same.

© Nortina Simmons


#BlaPoWriMo: So What If It Was A Black Man?

What does it mean to be Black in America?
For you, it means the same as it did half a century ago.
When a Black man was charged with rape
Just for staring a white women in the face,
And the Mammy loved her white employer so much
That she didn’t give a damn about the men of her own race.

After your ancestors fought in a war for their Freedom.
Began a movement simply by refusing to leave their seats.
Marched on Washington for their Civil Rights.
They would turn in their graves
To see injustice remain as it did
Just so you could continue to sit on your couch
Complaining about the color of your skin.

#BlaPoWriMo: Masked Beauty

In art class we design
African tribal masks—
long, oval faces,
almond eyes, patterns
of diamonds and dashes
painted on noses,
chins, and cheekbones.

Sabine slips her new face
over sable skin—a deep,
glistening purple like
blackberry juice.
Swirls of red and yellow
dance a rhythmic gyration
below curved lashes peeking
through slits for eyes.
I roll my neck, arch my back
in and out, pumping to the absent
heartbeat of the djembe drum
she plays between her knees.

Cool! You look so nice!
I like all the colors,

her classmates recite.
It’s the first time she’s
ever been called pretty.

#BlaPoWriMo: Reading Lesson

African . . .

American . . .

Elsewhere . . .

We drive by American Furniture Warehouse and my son—
leaning over his car seat, pressing his face into the glass window—
clicks his tongue, purses his lips,
scrounges his brain for the sound to match the letter,
enunciates each syllable as he attempts to read
the words displayed across the front of the building.

I want to applaud him;
pronouncing the word A-MER-I-CAN
at three when he’s only just learned the alphabet
deserves ice cream, chocolate chip cookies,
a kiss on the forehead from mommy.
My little protégé, grandson of W.E.B. Du Bois,
a talented tenth to raise his people from the pits of darkness.

But I fear how he discovered the other two . . .

African . . .
Elsewhere . . .

as if he believes his heritage to be disposable.

And I worry.

Do I not read enough tales of Anansi, the cunning spider
before he falls asleep? Does my forgetful husband
allow him to watch mind-numbing cartoons
of cross-eyed doofuses, and drooling talking sponges
instead of the Gullah Gullah Island reruns
I record and set aside for him?
Does he still play with his action figures—
John Stewart’s Green Lantern?
Falcon soaring above the Marvel Universe?

I did it, mommy. I read the sign!

I look at him through the rearview mirror,
smile weakly at my baby boy’s reflection.
Does he know who he is? Can he see himself in
the myths and fables, the educational programming,
the animated superheroes?
I want to pull over,  sweep him up in my warm, Black embrace.
There’s nothing elsewhere about being African,
I wish I could say with an undeceiving heart.

This is a revision to an older poem I wrote last year. Click here to read the original.

#BlaPoWriMo: Dankeschön – Thank You

German for Thank you.
Grandpa speaks it to impress.
Dankeschön when the waitress
brings his coffee
(two creamers on the side).
Dankeschön as he passes the tithing
bucket around the sanctuary.

He picked up the language
fighting in Korea—
or was it ‘Nam?
Or had he only served the men
who fought, West German soldiers
who said Dankeschön as he ladled
goulash into their bowls?

Dankeschön, duspreka,
he tells me when I fold his laundry,
dust framed photos on his shelves,
water his garden, drive him to the bank.
Thank you, miss, he translates,
but no dictionary can detect
the alien tongue: duspreka.
As if his German education
halted at thank you
and he ad-libbed from there,

passing gibberish off for Deutsch
a creole dialect mixing speech he
acquired in battle, in chains,
with the native vernacular
he lost before birth in a foreign land.


Original poem written for #frapalymo

#BlaPoWriMo: Self-Portrait

All brown children color
their faces. First families
shades of yellow, red, black.
Self-portraits traced with edges
of brown crayons; they know
their identities long before
they are taught race.

What color is my skin?
A resounding tale of fallen shackles,
of long tenancies on distant
masters’ lawns, of coal-painted
faces dancing on stage, of misplaced
ballots and grandfather clauses,
of front row seats on public transit,
of Black Power and Panthers,
of raised fists and Afro puffs,
of Black berries sweeter than sugar,
purple juice on their puckered lips.

Why do we color?
African lineage documented in
mixing shades of nude on pallets,
wielding artistic instruments—
colored pencils, crayons, markers.
With every brushstroke
They match their complexions;
Tiny realists never white-washing,
erasing their existence.
We are here.

Little brown children, present
yourselves as unabashed
workings of self-identity.
Do not cover your skin
for a fearful colorless society;
coat it in a deeper mahogany.

© Nortina Simmons

This is a revision of a poem written last year. Click here to read the original version.

English #frapalymo: Proposal

I show the ring. He sucks his teeth.
Calls his ol’ bloodhound, Ralph.
Shoulders the .22 caliber, Bertha.
Speaks. We’s goin’ ‘coon huntin’.
I imagine him chasing Black
men up trees in hooded sheets,
the hounds howling as he lassoes
a noose around the coon’s neck for
lusting after his little darlin’.
Strung up on branches, bodies
dangling over dogs as they lick
stiff purple toes like berries.
I swallow hard. Georgia is not
as color-blind as my Maryland.
Is this a mistake? Is loving her
worth my life? He grins, revealing
darkened gums. You’s ’bout my size,
he says to my feet, gives me a dirty
pair of boots. Waits in the pickup.

The darkness fails to hide my fear.
Ralph sniffs it in my perspiration.
He yelps. Go get ’em, boy!
Chain leash drops. I run blindly,
tripping over roots, scraping my
knees on shrubs, my face on
low-hanging branches. Light beams
from his flashlight streak across
my back. I crouch behind a stump.
Ralph’s barks rattle my eardrums.
I gotcha, rascal! A single shot.
The leaves rustle. The trunks vibrate.
A thump on the ground. My heart sinks.
‘Ol boy, you shat yourself? I stand,
legs like jelly. The black-white-striped
tail, the bandit’s mask, inside a cage.
He bends backwards, laughing, cracking
his back, slapping my shoulder,
echoing through the hollow woods:
Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise,
you have my blessin’.

© 2015 Nortina Simmons


Written for Frau Paulchen’s Lyrik Monat, which translates from German to Mrs. Paulchen’s Poetry Month. Today’s prompt is the hunter’s language. Here’s my backwoods, redneck version of the “hunter’s language.” 😉