National Poetry Month Post #2: Read “Genesis of A Street Warrior” by Leslie Reese

Our house was one block west of Woodward Avenue – the street that divided Detroit’s east and west neighborhoods. One Saturday when I was 8 years old, my mother taught me how to ride public transportation by myself. Mommy told me to keep the coins for bus fare in my shoe until I got on the bus. After that, nearly very Saturday I rode the bus to and from a modern dance class that I took on the campus of Wayne State University. Sometimes I got off the bus at Seward and walked several blocks east to visit my Grandmother, who lived in the North End.

All sorts of things happened to delight, perplex, and frighten me on these un-chaperoned trips; and, even though my mother and grandmother always inquired about my safety, if I escaped unharmed from a close encounter with something a little scary, I wouldn’t tell them – for fear that they would take away my independence. Decades later, I wrote “genesis of a street warrior” about becoming aware that there was more than the occasional dog, sassy boy, or a drunk person to look out for when I left the safety of my home.

“Black Eva” by Deborah Roberts (2017)

genesis of a street warrior

I.
i never told you about those trickster serpent adventures
on the Woodward Avenue route circa 1970….

how my buttered toast and oatmeal mornings would
disappear
as soon as I had walked one edge-of-the-city block to the bus stop
the sidewalk would crumble with me in it like a slice of fried bacon.

had my mother still been following me down the street
with her eyes she would have seen those dusty rednecks in a pickup truck
swinging out at 8 mile road shouting
“heeeeyyyy! g-i-m-m-eee s-o-m-m-e puss-eee-eee!” at me
as if i am one of those chicks busting loose on the corner of McNichols
wearing a crude lipstick and eyeliner that says FUCK.
(i’ve seen them sticking out their butts in front of the x-rated theater
that sells “GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!”)

i am a girl.

in fact i am nine years old.

II.
am i trembling or is it the roar of the
bus coming to a shrill stop on the bumper of my sneaker?
the sound of “heeeyyyy! g-i-m-m-eee s-o-m-e puss-eee!”
is still swirling around the corner and offending my ears in a cinematic haze that
knots up in my braids and makes my bangs jump backward from
my forehead so my face looks like a
ringing alarm clock when i leap onto the bus and
even though the bus driver sees me bending over to get the
bus fare out of my shoe he
jams down on the accelerator sending
me and my quarters rolling down the center aisle and

one of the black ladies who cleans houses out in the suburbs
puts her hand out to break my fall.
****
To learn more about artist Deborah Roberts, visit her website by clicking here.
You may also like to check out “In Conversation With Deborah Roberts by Amarie Gipson.”

28 Comments

  1. I’m SO sorry that you had to go through that, Leslie. I know what it feels like, and the shame and unnecessary guilt that attend such trauma.

    But on a brighter note, what a deft, lyrical, vivid poem! I’m fangirling over here, lol. I appreciate you writing it.

    1. Hi Nadine, thank you for your empathy. I’m not sure I experienced that event as traumatic; although it was scary, and made me feel shaken and a bit like I wanted to wash myself off. Maybe my dance class, afterward, had a cleansing effect. Norma, our teacher, always encouraged us by telling us how “wonderful” and “beautiful” we were and how well we were coming along💜.

  2. An evocative piece. Scum of the sort you encountered have, alas, proliferated worldwide. In the 1970s young girls and boys would cycle to school, here in South Africa. Now it has become undesirable for the boys, and plain lunacy for girls.

    1. That’s such a shame! I find myself keeping some awareness out for young people – especially if they appear to be traveling alone.
      Welcome, and thank you for your comments.

  3. Les, I am really into “Genesis Of a Street Warrior”, as you might suspect. Tell me there’s more. I want to read the rest (please send 😉). ❤️

    1. Well, Erin, I hate to disappoint, but there isn’t “more” with regard to this particular poem. I can say that later in life when Mom learned about some of my experiences from those early times, she was bothered. I think the idea that I had “deprived her” of the ability to better protect me hurt her. Thank you for reading😘! Let’s talk about it some more, in the near future.

  4. Leslie…I’m grateful that no harm came to you as well. I’m also grateful that you have taken the time to bronze your childhood remembrances in poetic verse.

    I was just telling someone I recently met about my walk to school way back when. Things I witnessed can never be unseen. Yet, like you, I kept walking per my beloved mother’s detailed warnings & instruction, and got to school unscathed.

    Personally, she lovingly scared me more than the streets, and so, I wasn’t about to let her down tee hee!

    1. Thank you, Sparkyjen. Oh my goodness! When you say that your mother “lovingly scared you more….” I relate to that so much! In fact, I remember scoffing when I first learned there was a thing called “peer pressure.” Our mother made it [lovingly 😉] clear that the price me and my sisters would have to pay for following our peers rather than her instructions was one we probably couldn’t afford 😂!

  5. My gosh! This is wonderful poetry…the kind I was used to reading in my undergrad English classes.

    I was wondering how a nine-year-old girl traveled on her own down Woodward. We used to live in the New Center area briefly, so I’m familiar with that side of town and all it has to offer.

    It’s amazing what we won’t disclose to our parents due to fear of losing independence.

    1. Thank you Kathy!
      You know I can remember there was a little push-back toward my mother from other adults who thought I was too young to be taking public transportation by myself. Kids are so adaptable, and as I’ve mentioned before, I loved the independence and I’m so glad that no harm came to me. There is a fine line that parents have to tread with regard to knowing how and when to “let go” and allow their kids to stretch out without hovering.

      We seem to have lived in some of the same places at different times – that’s so interesting to me😍.

  6. I have a print of Ruby Bridges on my bedroom wall, walking through the tomatoes hurled at her and the raucous yells of “nigger.” You remind me of her here, a warrior just trying to get to dance class. Refreshing to find a solid poem here. I have been reading a lot of very sad adolescent moanings on line lately.

    1. Hi Elizabeth, I made the assumption that it was the Norman Rockwell print you were speaking of – is that right? I’m touched that my poem reminded you of Ruby Bridges – although I feel what she endured as a six-year-old being shouted at by a racist mob was far more terrifying.

  7. The horror of that experience for any girl, much less a 9 year old, Leslie. I imagine what would’ve happened if your mom did walk a little further with you. This is beautiful, honest truth. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Wow….you’ve got me imagining how that day would have been different had my mother been with me, or, even close by. She was a fierce mother, and an Aries! Thank you for reading😊.

  8. What a heart stopping, evocative piece Leslie. I could feel myself looking around and imagined you hurrying/trying not to look like you were hurrying, to get to your destination and back again.

    I love that dilemma of the danger of losing the independence against the risk of venturing out again. Thank you for sharing this, it’s excellent, as is the artwork.

    1. Hi Claire – thank you for reading and appreciating my remembrance of negotiating between risk, adventure, and becoming street-savvy 🙂. I’m grateful that no harm came to me.

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