Marlin M. Jenkins

Hangman and Grapevines

I would watch the women, often with their children, pick the grape leaves that grew over fences beside the road, place them in a bag or basket. It reminded me of when I was young and my mother would roll meat and rice into the leaves, boil them in a pot with lamb bones.

And each time I saw the women’s fingers search and pluck, I felt like I belonged because I recognized this practice, felt like it was okay I couldn’t speak Arabic and wasn’t Muslim and had never been to Lebanon. Most people may not recognize me as Arab but I knew the shape and color of the leaves, could not stop thinking about the blank space on the vine left with each selection.

* * *

I never considered myself a political writer because I never considered myself political. Focus on the personal, I thought—that’s what’s important, at least for me and my work.

But that decision is a political act, too. And one of privilege, to believe the delusion that one’s own thoughts and actions are not inherently tied to a political context. Freedom and will and identity and diversity—political; I take a pill every day to keep me moving and the insurance is political; I go to therapy and the insurance, again, is political; I begin to recognize the roles of fear and denial in my life and begin to date men and in that space intimacy is political. One may avoid considering the politics of how they feel, speak, act, but that avoidance does not remove the facts of the political context.

* * *

It’s easier to (mis)remember history if we organize it into periods and tag-lines. Another February and again the out-of-context content of one’s character and by any means necessary from the “Civil Rights Movement”, as if civil rights was just this one movement that started with bus boycott and ended with voting legislation.

Another presidential cycle and the present moment brings it’s own tag-lines: the chants, the t-shirts, the hats. Remember the time when America was great? Let’s go back to that! (Even time travel is political.) And with each chant of make America great, I see lines drawn on a dry-erase board:

First it’s the awkward circle of a head—then, a line each for the body, the arms, legs. The base and rope were always present, though this base is simply a poplar tree. There are only so many blanks left to fill.

* * *

I’ve been told I talk too much about race. And that people feel like they can’t talk about race with me. Or variations of these concerns, sometimes (usually) both expressed by the same person. I think about my blackness, my biracial identity, my difference, daily: when I’m in a lit class talking about Faulkner and am the only Black student; when I’m preparing to read a poem about my childhood neighborhood at an open mic with an overwhelmingly White audience; when I hear or see someone misuse Black urban slang; when the morning is too much and I can’t stop thinking about the ways in which the world is depressing and can’t help but think of black bodies, silent and still. I have not found a way around this constant considering of racial and ethnic identities; I’ve quit thinking I should avoid these thoughts, pretend the norm is fine and I need to focus more primarily on progress than pain.

Yes, we have come so far. I do not want to go back to times of racism even more atrocious and explicit than what we face today. But another Black person is on the news and demonized and this pain does not leave me as easily as it may leave you. I’m tired of equality and progress used as weapons for my silence.

* * *

I read of struggle and think of home. I think of reform and think of home. I read of race and economics and black bodies and the thick contrast of everywhere else and think of Detroit’s West Side, how in my memory the neighborhood is always dark—even in summer in daytime.

I think of critique and I’m sitting on the porch bench, homemade, chipped from a too-old coating of once-bright red paint. I’m staring again at the tree we rested in and swung from as kids—since removed by the new tenants—and the cars as they pass too quickly to be anything near safe.

This Detroit neighborhood has become so isolated because it’s not isolated. That is to say, the place is separate because it is not immune to influence from the world that works to separate it. On the porch, I think sadly not of connection but of ways to get out of here. I left at 18. Where is the line between what I needed to do for myself and simply running away?

* * *

We: collective as identity, conceptual as identity, performance as identity—perhaps we say more about ourselves when we discuss the self indirectly.

Foucault says, “the state does not have an essence”—but truly what can be defined enough to have a word act as its symbol and not have an essence? This is mostly an issue of semantics, I know. This is only a small part of a conversation about market, the nation, commodification.

When I talk about home I feel self-consciousness talking about Blackness and socio-economic class, as if the politics detract from the nostalgia and poignancy, as if I can separate my childhood from those topics. The politics of these ideas are personal to me yet I feel pressure to tell stories that ignore them. I feel the pressure of ambassadorship, though I know I shouldn’t—wondering at what point I may be deprived of something—something like essence—that I know I have but am denied. Perhaps this fear of erasure, of obscuring of identity speaks to how I see my own self.

* * *

Which wall or building should fall this time to symbolize a new era? To remove the veil of Islamophobia, for instance? To let spread a holy peace?

I know there are many ways I can hide. I don’t always know what they think I am but usually they don’t know I’m Arab, too—and I know too many people think Arab means Muslim means terrorist, inseparably. And as far as most know, I’m straight. I try not to think about how, for years, every person I’d dated was a white woman. I try to tell myself that love is not political.

* * *

I think about the neoliberal, the global, think about capitalism and socialism and law, think about trade agreements and try to talk about such, but maybe I say most when I say little.

In the words of Frantz Fanon, “I belong irreducibly to my time”. Each stand I take is one in a particular moment, amid a series of dogmas, a pile of theory and primary text wondering what all this means for a narrative about me—one which applies. I’m trying to learn to be better about checking my blind-spots, about identifying the blanks.

* * *

I will say this: once a babysitter brought me and my sister seeds from concord grapes. We planted them in the backyard under a bush so large it resembled a tree but I wasn’t old enough yet to associate trees with hanging, even though it’s long branches hung over us and casted shadows that covered us entirely. Every few months I would remember and check back. Always nothing. I realized eventually how silly this was, wondered if maybe the woman knew these particular seeds would not grow in Michigan—or at least not in this soil without the proper care—but had us plant them anyway. I don’t know. But I know this: that absence taught me more than new grapes ever would have.


Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and is a poetry student in University of Michigan’s MFA program. His writings have been given homes by The Collagist, The Journal, Word Riot, and The Offing, among others. You can find him online at and @Marlin_Poet.