“Smudge” by Malachi Jones

Malachi Jones (age 15)


For His stripes, I might have received double.
And He never saved me from my beating.
He didn’t flinch from that cross,
from Papa’s neck. As He wept. I wept,
my bare chest and stomach pressed against
Papa’s knee. Papa kept the cotton picking
arch in my back. I used to wonder why
his hands were so worn but his most enduring
labor was to “wear me out.”

His job to “teach me what the world can’t.” To whip
out the spirit of disobedience. Power
is the rack of waist belts, sting of a slipper,
choosing your own switch—
Too small, sharper swipes; too big, bigger
bruises. Why did I always pick too small? I still
got the bruises—“tough love,” and
grandfather’s black hand hoisted
in the air. That’s what I thought
Power is, but what it
looks like is white

skin that they didn’t have but feared.
Grandma held me by the wrist when I was young
so this white world wouldn’t kill me in my youth.
A good one is better than a dead one.
A bruised one better than a bloody one.
Mommy stripped me to my socks
so they wouldn’t have to in the prison, she made
a mirror of our past. Stripped down
on an auction block to show how
well behaved we were. How we were good enough
to never have to whip. I never
deserved to be whupped.

My elders or my massa, I don’t know,
who’s who, because they both want to price me
high to this white world. The mirror they hold
to my face frightens me. My eyes see,
past, present, and future—the same
image. A black mass against a bright canvas.

from 2017 Rattle Young Poets Anthology


Why do you like to write poetry?

Malachi Jones: “Writing has been my greatest interest since I was six. To my surprise and my mother’s, who would later tell me she didn’t think I was going to be a good reader, I was good. ‘Good’ is very subjective in first grade, but ‘writing time’ quickly became, and still is, my most anticipated part of a school day. I’ve traded in the extreme vagueness and, frankly, nonsense poetic syntax for, what I hope is, more discernible quality writing.”

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