Sic transit gloria mundi
Our people did not begin in glory, but here we are,
searching for it in the marsh water,
which smells on some days like eggs left out too long,
some days like the clean bones of our ancestors.
They left words for us
and did not write them down
because they meant to say
even letters in stone and ink
cannot outlive their readers.
This city, our country. Where else to sleep
and also be warm? Where else to find the flags
we have planted and the bits of green
where our mothers’ gardens grow?
Our hands are woven into the grand houses
with their wrought iron fences. Into the fields
braided in immaculate rows. Into the music
that sighs and shouts, that rocks tired bodies
and claims every ear for its own.
Our cities, our countries. The mother tongue
is broken. Is vernacular. Is ghetto-geechee-
patois-pidgin. She is Glory, big and bright
and collecting the prayers from our lips.
We arrived in ships that were graves,
on an ocean that was a grave, on rivers
that were graves. And so we know—
our time is borrowed. Home is always sinking
below the planes of memory and record.
The grand houses are not ours. The water
is at our children’s necks. Let us, oh Glory,
let us be born once more in our departures.
We sell our cities for the pennies we are offered
and open our doors to the rivers seeping in.
Come, and let’s take a picture,
standing in the door frame
The oral tradition is the only true tradition.
Tell the children who tell the children
who tell the children. And when the children die—
that is the end of the story.
Taylor Lena McTootle
Glass-stained light and mahogany paint the memory a sepia tone, the only recollection I have of a Sunday service with my parents that wasn’t a wedding, funeral, or graduation. We’d come in through the heavy back doors of the chapel, creaking them quietly closed—late. But there was no need for tiptoeing. Everyone stood, mulling about, greeting each other with hugs, bless you’s and happy Sunday’s. The organ hummed its wait. My mother’s cousin, Chuck, one of the few family members we didn’t have to drive four hours to see, waved us over. He was snug in a row with others, but had thrown his coat in the pew behind him to save space. We slid in, and I watched my parents join the greeting—my father with a tight-lipped smile and warm nod across the pews, my mother, twinkling her eyes, hesitating to reach out to these strangers.
Chuck had been looking for a church home since he’d moved back to Maryland, which my mother must have seen as an opportunity, a sign that we should too. How nice and wholesome it sounds, going to church every Sunday. But our side of the family weren’t really the churchgoing type. I had some memories, even then, of services in New York with my grandmother, of murky light coming through the upstairs Sunday school windows—but those were halted, cut off by the passage of time. And soon, when asked about her Sundays, my grandmother would speak of pastors in Rolls Royces and Bentleys, of too high offertories, unworthy demands. So she stayed home and cooked Sunday dinners for anyone who might stop by. But being all those miles away from grandma’s house, I suppose my mother thought we needed the wholesome structure, the choreography of gratitude, still.
Greetings died to whispers. This was the early, nine A.M. service, and I protested the injustice of this fact by savoring the morning’s drowsy complacency. “Please rise,” for the doxology, for the Lord’s Prayer, for the communal hymn. I dragged myself reluctantly up and down. Up and down. Until, fed up, I splayed myself where Chuck’s coat had been on the pews behind my standing family, and got away with it for a few seconds, too, before my mother mustered up a strong look of disapproval in time to sit back down without me making a skittering scene.
I sunk in my seat, determined to maintain a stupor. But when things started to pick up, and the high vibrations wouldn’t let me languish, I took in the sounds—the syncopated claps, the floor-shaking stomps, the voices ringing out in asynchronous unison. And then, a shrill cry, a supplicant wail rose above it all. I looked to see this stout, brown woman up by the altar, in the aisle nearest us. She was throwing herself, her arms, her large cloth-covered bosom, all over the place. With the litheness of a person half her size and age, she moved—or perhaps, was being moved, by some great force—pitching forward, arching back. And the baseline, the shivering timbre encouraged her. The stained glass windows shimmied their approval, too. She flew and spun about while other arms reached out to her, those nearby wanting to hold and keep her safe in the frenzy. The pastor came down from the pulpit to help and the music went on even as it was time for his sermon to begin. But he had his part to play, pastoring to do, and moved firmly down toward the woman. They both went out stage left, the pastor returning shortly after stage right without her. We, the watchers, the witnessers, the other worshipers settled into the silence she’d left behind.
Loitering in front of the church after service, I could hardly wait to ask. We said our passing thank you’s to the pastor, our warm goodbyes to cousin Chuck, and had barely turned to the parking lot when I looked up and blurted out, “So was it real?”
“Was what real?
“All that…” And I threw my hands in the air and snickered gleefully, now fully awake.
“The lady falling out?”
He smirked a bit, considering, and let out a small sound somewhere deep in his chest. We walked on, small hand in large one.
“Daddy, was it real?”
The 8th-Street House
The shadowy dusk is filtering through the hanging blinds and music is playing through the Gpx boombox. My parents and sister are sitting in front of the steps, facing each other on the pinstriped couches. Perched, slouched, curled. They chat. And I move about, just now pressing my face close to the bug-eyed speakers to feel the vibrations. Between the couches and the door is wide-open space, a carpeted expanse, a stage.
Earlier, “Will You Be My Wifey” by Next was playing and my mother, sister, and I were snapping our fingers, twisting our hips and laughing. We soul-trained between the couches into the main gallery of the living room and my father smiled, teasing my mother, to which she replied, “You barely have rhythm yourself,” and so he eased into a move, still seated, to try and prove himself, but gave up.
“Nah, you know what? This just isn’t my beat…play some Stevie next.”
But everyone huffed at the idea. “We’re trying to jam, Daddy!” my sister crooned. So we put Stevie on the backburner to bounce around for a few songs more. But when my mother sat down, spent, it signaled time for Mr. Wonder.
We started upbeat for a nice transition. “Fingertips” because it’s the oldest jam. “All I Do” and “Superstition”—classics. And now, “A Ribbon in the Sky.” I crouch down to the speaker so I can feel the sturdy ballad closer to my chest and I stay there, drinking in all those feelings of love he sings about. When the last sullen cymbal clashes, I’m not yet satisfied, and press the playback button. “Again?” my mother asks from the couch. But I don’t answer, I just turn it up some and stand in the center. With a puff of the chest and a grand port-de-bra, I begin: spinning to the tremble of keys, arching to the ache of guitar strings. He croons and I leap. My legs, the longest part of me, reach through the air, carrying me—I am carried—out into the open. Landing, I lean into the arm of the couch, smile at my indifferent audience, then push off and again. Spinning, arching, lunging. Leaping between the couches toward the steps, I pitch myself onto the third one from the bottom, letting the iron holding rail shiver on impact, letting my legs lift one after the other, back, up and over my head. I’m suspended in flight for a moment. And when I come down, it’s the full momentum and pull of gravity that move me. It’s the holy frenzy, the holy hush. I’m dissolved, a soaring angel. Unreal.
I started going there the year Ms. Jones passed. We never met, but I like to imagine she died peacefully in one of the upstairs rooms of the house while I was downstairs dancing in the studio. The house sat at the corner of Delafield and Georgia Avenue, its wraparound porch squaring off with a bank, a church, and a Chinese restaurant at the intersection. I know for sure Tammi and Neal lived there for a while after that. My mother hypothesized that one or both of them were on drugs.
Tammi would sit adjacent the living room, at the desk in front of the steps that led into the studio. With a mouthful of red-smothered fries, she’d tell us we needed to “hurry up, he’s down there waiting.” Then Neal’s singsong baritone would call out all agitated and we’d hush and hurry down to our place at the barre. I have warm memories of both of them, and of that time. But things changed for the better when Ms. Fortune took over. One of Ms. Jones’ most successful students, she was able to bring in all kinds of instructors and choreographers who taught us about the history of black classical training. And for a moment, I thought I really wanted to be a dancer.
Class would start at the barre, in first position, pulled up at the knees. With Ms. Fortune’s sharp tone and the delicate piano music as a cue, we began our warm-up. She’d come around with her walking cane to draw the end of it up the backs of our legs. Her other free hand was for turning our chins out and up to look off into the fluorescent lights. “Get yourself together,” she’d say. And I’d tighten and fidget my feet, my knees, my hips. I’d suck in my stomach, push down my butt, pull out my neck until I heard my name and some sign of approval.
After barre we’d go across the floor, in steps, chassés, leaps. I’d move like I did in the living room on 8th Street, forgetting the reflection that followed me in the studio mirrors. I looked up and out through the tiny barred windows, like I could soar right through them. But when center floor came around, I’d have to face myself. We’d stand, arranged in windows where we could see ourselves, each other, and learn a new routine. I’d try every time to absorb the movements, so they were natural, a part of me, but I’d always get caught up in the appraisal of my own reflection, checking my work before it was even complete. Stultified by my own image, only one time in this studio did I ever really dissolve into the movement and let go.
We had a guest choreographer, who claimed to have put the ghost in motion, like Aretha put it in her voice. Dressed in a grey bandana, tank top, and sweats, he proudly pressed play on the boombox and we listened to her singing “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” The strength of Aretha’s voice swelled through the studio. It was drama. It was opportunity. There would be auditions, all thirty of us, for five spots.
The next class, cramped more than usual in the studio, we learned the choreography. It was lyrical—progeny of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations—with undulations, arms and legs, angled and reaching outward. We were to play out Aretha’s words as she told the story of Lazarus’ resurrection. And from the start, it was easy to guess who’d get the first two spots. But as the audition went on, I became more uncertain about my chances of making the cut. I grasped with my body’s memory for steps, I reached for the emotion I knew was needed. Contending for the final spot was me and another girl—and I got it!
In all the rehearsals thereafter they screamed: More! More feeling, more life to the deep pliés, more strength to the Egyptian arms, more spirit in the turns. But all I saw was my reflection, my form, this profane thing trapped behind glass, and the perfection of the other dancers. Then one rehearsal, days before the performance, they called our parents to have us stay a couple of hours late. “Again!” the instructors screamed before shutting off the speaker, “again,” they said more calmly. By then sweat was dripping into my eyes. It stung and I could barely see, but we did it again. With my vision blurred, my whole soul exhausted, I flung my body into every step. I looked through the stinging, squarely, not at my reflection, but at the other dancers I passed. We all wanted to go home, the desire in us as weighty as grief. Our spines wagged, our arms curved, our breath heaved in the musty air. And as the last waves of Aretha’s voice rang out and her chorus rolled on to a gentle hum, we laid ourselves down onto the dirty studio floor in silence. All I could sense was the charge of my own heartbeat. And then, “Now that was the real thing.”
“Sic transit gloria mundi” translates to “thus passes the glory of the world.” That phrase, usually spoken in a religious context, immediately called to mind the glory and dispossession of Charleston, my ancestral home. There, as in many places, Black community and creation have been violently displaced. And still, we tell our stories and survive.
Dasia Moore is an MFA candidate in poetry at New York University, where she is a Lillian Vernon Fellow. Raised in North and South Carolina, she writes about the legacies she has inherited as a queer child of the Black South. Dasia is a member of the inaugural class of Periplus fellows, and her writing has appeared in The Offing, Stanchion, The Boston Globe Magazine, and others.
Taylor Leena McTootle is a writer and educator originally from Washington DC, currently living in Boston where she is an MFA candidate at Emerson College in Creative Non-fiction.