“Who Breathed in Binders” by Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith


I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.
—Mitt Romney

Strange we should forget. Once between the covers of a worn leather binder
a black girl languished, her limbs linked by iron, her feet and breasts
and muscle measured, written. Back then, white men underlined her
name, then dared her price. They bellowed their gold, tried to combine her

with cattle or grain or another child to make her worth their while. Behind her,
a hundred hard eyes teared at the mere sweet of her bound landscape.
The maybe buyers stretched open her mouth, peered in, calmly assigned her
a number. For hours, in the hissing Carolina sun, they confined her

to the block, demanded she succumb, pirouette on cue. They fought to mine her
for treasure, computed the width of her bare hips with their chapped hands,
predicted her belly tight with child and child and child and child, declined her
a cure for thirst. Out loud, their spittle a wall in her face, they redesigned her,

scribbled her arithmetic on crammed pages, tried hard not to mind her
father, a foot away, grimacing as his penis was handled, as he was pronounced
too old for anything and led away. There was absolutely no need to remind her
to swallow that scream. This is merely business, they said. We are not unkind. Her

father, after all, was mercifully allowed a backward glance. Resigned, her
future now screeched in numbers, she scanned the men’s faces, the unbridled pink
of foreign skin. One locked a wet gaze, saw their bodies already intertwined. Her
purchase slipped the heat from her shoulders. He grinned, wrote her new name,
and closed his binder.

from Rattle #42, Winter 2013
2013 Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Patricia Smith: “‘Women in binders’ became an infuriating and unintentionally hilarious catchphrase during Mitt Romney’s hapless presidential campaign. Once my feminist furor died down (which coincided, incidentally, with the realization that Mittsy had a Tea Partyer’s chance in heaven of being prez, I remembered a time when a black woman’s entire worth was could be written in a single line of text.” (website)

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