On Nina Simone and Home

It is 4am, before the dawn emerges to colour the patient sky. The supple yellow streetlights shine across the shadows, running and tracing a path to the centre of the city. In the still of the illuminated heights the air is heavy with the promise of a close body of water. Nina sings over the subtle bass of the speaker

“I put a spell on you
 ’Cause you’re mine
 You better stop the things you do
 I ain’t lyin’
 No I ain’t lyin”

She sings out into the comfort of the night, her head surely swinging to the soft keys, covers the room with a warmth that stirs us awake. It is in these moments, awakening to a strange city, unfamiliar in its sounds and scent that we remember that we are magic, flowing braids cradled between chest and a gentle touch, the only remnants of the hungry war we fought. We lay in the cover of white sheets, your body a quiet revolution, a whispered spell, a quiver, and all Sunday mornings are long searches for the rain and the treasure in surrendering to you.

Tell me, what makes a body a battlefield? Is it the war? Is it the running? Is it the memory of what once was? It is morning and sometimes this body has not known enough prayer to keep it upright. Sometimes this body has broken, but tell me, when a man folds in half is that not worship? It is Sunday morning and today there is enough song in my mouth to make a home.

We untangle from the soft in the brown skin and step into the dark of the summer, like our grandfathers and their mothers before them who ploughed the earth in the cover of the unknown. We come from strong men who knew only of the callus in the palm of a hand. We come from strong men who knew only how to speak in heavy silence, and we are here, still aching from the distant echo.

We have stifled apology for being born in between what was never ours and what we chose to hold. Your grandmother speaks wistfully of the year she had your mother. The sky coloured by the rising smoke, and the people a sheltered mass standing before a fire, crackling with laughter and praying to their Jehovah that it will be a girl, that she will make the meals ready, fetch water balanced on her head and drink, in small gulps from a neat plastic cup. Why do our women know loss, empty space, know how to break in halves and piece together strength when the sun rises in the morning because the work is never done? Why do our men smell of a lingering smoke, of belonging equally to their quiet pleasures as to a war? These are the heirlooms that we got.

Your grandmother says on some nights your father listened out for Otis on the old radio. That he wrote the words to the songs on the first page of his school book, like a forgotten letter to a lost lover. I awake to you in a city that is not ours to keep, and where we are from is where we are from and even there we exist as altogether never enough and too much. We are here always explaining and keeping the tongue soft, patiently standing in the line to the desk of the man with the stamp. So tell me what is home but a line? I drew a line across the small of my back, made a boundary, called it country, called it home, called it temple, and to this skin I pledge my allegiance and prayer.

Here in this distant city, in the cover of the early morning we save some kindness for ourselves, we let the war give way, for home is what we hold true and between these lines we exist.

“There are small resurrections for every

Breath that was lost — there is ginger tea

And wu-tang clan and oatmeal, and

Pleated pants and the way the sky smells

In the morning, no matter the coast.”

(Safia Elhillo)