"Birthright" by Theresa Abalos
Honorable Mention for College Poetry
I have memorized the shame
of dusky skin, dull eyes,
and the imprecise lines of my face
It dwells in my mind like a formula
written over and over like I can’t live without it,
the way it sits in my throat,
chokes my voice,
and drags down my eyes
To read the faces around me, it took lifting my eyes skyward
At home, kindness and love were familiar stories
but at school, I entered another genre
I read faces of skepticism and condescension
and that was my first class in shame
I loved books because they offered a haven
from the faces that taught so well
But something freezes inside
when the perfect woman in every book is always
fair-skinned with shining eyes
I turned to movies,
but each film amplified the numbness inside because —
Did you see her flawless white skin? And how chiseled her features are?
Every place I looked affirmed the dreaded motif,
that shame is my birthright
Shame is my birthright
Does it come with this body?
Is it from the men and women whose flesh I inherited?
The ones who passed down these eyes, lips, and skin?
They were farmers in the mountains where my mother grew up
and when I close my eyes, I imagine the way the sun beats their flesh,
how their staccato voices dart through the air
in pulses of wisdom and gossip
Further south lived the villagers whose nostrils flooded with sea salt and fresh fish
before inhaling the thick city air where my father grew up
Imagine the humidity drowning their skin,
and the music spilling from their lips in lush, legato phrases
These people, did they know shame?
Did their gazes scrape the earth, or did they walk with eyes lifted, dark and keen against the sun?
I wish I could hear their voices — did they break,
or did they speak warmly and breathe deeply, because the air belonged to them?
How could shame have been their gift to me
when they bore such pride and strength?
When my parents left the Philippines, they relinquished the places,
but not the scents that filled these wide nostrils they gave me
They held on to those, and to the music from these fleshy lips we share,
as well as the sweat from the pores of our dusky skin
Shame, there is no room for you in the worlds within my body
You have no place amidst the stories, the music, and the endurance that is my birthright