Talkin’ Color

What makes you legitimate,
white girl, to think you can
talk color?

I do not know
I have no answer, but…

I was seven in Sun Valley,
Idaho when I saw
the chocolate tanned lady, a movie star
so beautiful in the summer sun,
my voice pointing Look! Look! At her perfect tan!
And I was Hush, Hushed and they would
not answer my repeated whys,
the gaps in explanations turning round and
round in my mind 

In the shadow of the Cascades, after the war,
the japs came in rusty pick-ups working to
prune the trees, cut the grass, and weed
zen perfect gardens for cheap—their farms
gone, and I was told my grandfather
had tried to save a family he knew
from a wartime mob
and from deportation
to Minidoka, near Pocatello,
(and think how we name those white
but not white places) but that story came later,
after fear abated … 

My Japanese lover was never
a “jap.”

I remember returning to family
friends and discovering
the anti-semitism
that had been hushed in my presence
before I knew about restrictive covenants
and our country club intolerance
but after the shock of pictures
of skeletons
draped over each other and out the
doors of freight cars
polluting my childhood
love of trains
the rhythm
of the house shaking
as the six am freight
passed on the tracks,
an alarm clock signaling
time to shovel sawdust
into the furnace
in my grandmother’s
Salem bungalow 

We were lost in Spanish Harlem,
my father’s face tight and his hands clenching
mine for the three blocks to the subway;
I overheard my mother and father whispering
they are moving west
speaking of people like locusts

my tongue could never
wrap around those melodic r’s
like my sister
who speaks Spanish like
it is her first love

And I recall the strange
and cryptic instructions
of my mother’s words
echoing out of wartime Louisiana,
from a time of formal introductions,
plantations, bayous, and Morgan City
shipyards, “you will not,” she said,
“question the order of things
and you will not wear
the color red it is the color
of color …” 
Mother, the color of color
is what I wear; without red
there is no luck in a new
year, rainbows thin
to yellow and blue, and
light lacks dimension…
the color of color is bright scarves
and scars and luscious
fruit and southwest sunsets
lingering over canyons,
mountains of iron and rust
impressed into the land into
the blood red rock so
the sky and the earth remember

I knew a knot of white thugs
along a southern bayou
threatening a salt and pepper couple
in front of a witnessing crowd
I saw the knot unraveled
by the white woman
with a word, cracker,
to the ringleader, and
he blushed, surprising her,
surprising him,
his embarrassment
dispersing the others, was this
an articulate class trump,
using gender? 

I have no answer,
I cannot speak of color, but…
I listen for the pronouns
for we and they
and them and us 

I wear red for luck 

—Martha Kaplan, Madison, WI