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Brighton CCA

A new centre for
contemporary arts at the
University of Brighton


Where is your pedestal, Black girl? Where do you drape your languid body?[1] Where does your tender heart find sanctuary?

Here. Up here.

At nap time, stepping over planes, trains, and games,[2] you run-walk-strut from the house into the backyard wearing your pretty peep-toe stilettos. You look fly, girl. Go, fly girl. Go fly, girl, a voice whispers.

And you think it’s your mother’s voice, but you can’t be sure. Your mother is your biggest cheerleader, but also your biggest critic. Before you were somebody’s mother, your mother encouraged you to fly but not too far away from her. She brewed you a black tea of honey, cayenne, and mixed messages. A passport stitched into the fabric of your baby blanket with thread as thick as an umbilical cord, sturdy enough to snatch you back at will.

But you unstitched that passport, and you left and made your way and made your son.[3] And he naps now, finally, daily, giving you a moment, a reprieve,[4] for rest.

So you run-walk-strut until you come to the tallest tree in the yard. There, you slip off the stilettos and position them just so atop the tree’s exposed roots. You slip your phone from your dress pocket to take a picture, capturing this little mise en scène you have created, to save for later. Then you climb this tree,[5] marveling at your arms and legs[6], stronger now from lifting a growing child day in and day out. You both long for and dread the day when your child is too heavy for you to carry.[7]

In these stolen moments, when you are cradled in branches, you feel closer to the clouds than you are to your child.[8] Here, you remember what has been and you dream of what is to come, in equal measure. You dream of water, of floating in salty seas, the way your child floated in the salty sea of your body before washing ashore in this realm. You imagine your child swimming in the depths with your ancestors. In your dreams, you imagine yourself swimming with a lover, your skin kissed by the sun.[9]

Your skin is the same glorious mahogany of the tall tree’s bark.[10] Up here, you are a chameleon. Shape-shifting for survival, like your mother taught you. She taught you how to survive, how to dress to the nines,[11] and how to love yourself. She warned you, Girl, don’t you let them push you off the pages of your own story.[12] She taught you when to swim against the current and when to surrender to the waves and ride them.[13]

You wish you could read your mother’s story, but when you ask, she always shoos you away. “It was a different time,” she says. “Things were different back then.” And you think, but do not say, “Things were not so different.”[14]

Our mothers are the first contradictions we learn. In tall trees, they raise us in nests sewn of prickly things for our comfort, they say, to keep us safe.

And now you want to ask your mother, who still wears silk stockings just because, if she still climbs trees sometimes.[15]

From your perch in your tallest tree,[16] you are the watcher, peering over the privacy fences[17] encircling your neighbors’ yards, defeating their purpose. But you can’t shake the feeling that you’re also being watched. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re making love, like there are more eyes on you than there should be.

Perhaps this sense of perpetual surveillance is coded in your DNA. Our bodies, our children’s bodies, haven’t always belonged to us.[18] So now we breathe in our own raw scent and that of our sea-ripened children. Inhale yes, exhale mine––

Then you think about how even breathing is risky now, how we could all use a mother, an uncle, somebody, a pandemic protector.[19]

––On the other hand, if you’re not being watched, it’s either because you’re invisible or because you’re a caricature, less than whole. Less than.[20] But here’s the funky alchemy your mother told you about: When these fragments are forged by a quiet fire within you and made whole––you fly, girl. [21]

Because you love you. The whole you. Just as your mother taught you to. She taught you to sew and cook and clean and sit and walk and wait and swim[22] and never ever forget yourself as you’re taking care of everybody else. Even if it’s just a pair of silk stockings or a nice dress or a warm breeze finding you tucked away in the branches of a tall tree.[23]

Your mother taught you to check your look in the mirror before going out to face the world.[24] You flex your strong arms and your strong legs. Every line, every seam, every fiber of you shines. Whole.

But, your mother cautions, the world loves you in fragments, Black girl. The world loves your lips, your hair, your skin, your butt––just not all in the same package. They’re still selling you for parts in salons and tanning booths, and in the offices of plastic surgeons who now offer convenient payment plans, making your parts more accessible to the masses.They want you in pieces. They want everything but the burden, your mother is fond of saying.

Lady, do you sing these blues? Sometimes, you whisper. But mostly you murmur like a mantra, Rest, repose, recline,[25] resist, reprieve, restore, reclaim, rebirth. Repeat. Your days play on continuous loop, revolving around a precious patch of unstoppable joy you’ve stitched into your soul. Float. Float on.[26]

Some days, hard days, you want to fly away, beyond the treetops[27], into the wide, wild world, and never look back. But then you remind yourself, Girl, you are somebody’s mother. You are someone’s world.[28] And that’s the end of that.

At some point, which always comes much too soon, you must climb down from the tree. You must gather up your stilettos, ruining the little mise en scène. Blades of cool green grass slip between your toes as you walk barefoot back to the house. If you squint, the grass becomes the ocean at low tide, lapping at your heels and ankles.[29]

You pause at the sliding glass door to look over your shoulder. You ask the question once again, this time with words: Is somebody watching me?

And the answer comes back from the universe, who really sounds a lot like your mother –– which makes sense because our mothers are our first worlds. The answer comes back in wave upon wave of sound and light that only your tender heart can receive: No, fly girl. No one is watching you. The only gaze is ours.[30]



Deesha Philyaw is an American author, columnist, and public speaker. Her debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and the 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction.




[1] Sweet dreams

[2] Every Woman

[3] Temporary Reprieve

[4] Temporary Reprieve

[5] Sweet dreams

[6] Back to Black

[7] Temporary Reprieve

[8] Temporary Reprieve

[9] [large scale seascape]

[10] Sweet dreams

[11] the dior effect

[12] The Inquisition

[13] [large scale seascape]

[14] The Inquisition

[15] Sweet dreams

[16] Sweet dreams

[17] Game

[18] Temporary Reprieve

[19] Sweetest Devotion

[20] The Inquisition

[21] Every Woman

[22] [large scale seascape]

[23] Sweet dreams

[24] Back to Black

[25] Sweet dreams

[26] [large scale seascape]

[27] Sweet dreams

[28] Temporary Reprieve

[29] [large scale seascape]

[30] Back to Black

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