Actual Space: From My Mother’s Eyes by Emmett Wheatfall

Editor Robert Lashley, Editor's Choice, October 27th, 2016

“When I awake every morning... I'm reminded--I'm black.”

Emmett Wheatfall Essay Nailed Magazine


“Actual Space” is a regular column for black voices. It is a forum to tell your story, and answer questions on a variety of topics concerning how you cope with being black, what concerns you about race, what you wished you learned, and what gives you hope for the future. Anyone who wants to be honest, give your own particular witness, and go deeper within yourself with something only you can write; there will be space for you. You may also send art and photography concerning blackness, to be considered for a header image. Email Robert at

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I realized I was black at birth. Gazing into my mother’s eyes, her skin color, her smell, her touch, as well as a host of other attributes introduced me to blackness. All these characteristics were accentuated by the way she carried herself, her lack of education, her meanness, her warrior spirit, her Moms Mabley humor (e.g. Big Mama, Madea, etc), the tenor and brilliance of her cursing, her wisdom, and her breathtaking beauty. Her whole ethos was a product of her blackness, the racism of her day, its segregation, her personal story, her pain, her lack of triumph and so forth. Yet, despite these things, I was baptized in her love, accountability, especially her burden of maternal responsibility.

My father–a soldier. A tall and strong Negro. Fierce in discipline. Loyal to a racist nation and a Purple Heart recipient grievously wounded in Vietnam. A man who was always gone, either to war or to train for war, to defend America’s ideals and its liberties, both just and unjust; ideals codified in a Constitution written in black ink upon white paper, but now, a tarnished brown. The irony? Go figure.

Everything in America, the land of my fore-fathers and mothers who precede my parents, reminds me–I’m black. There has never been a day wherein I did not know or was not made aware of my being black. Thank God for the late great James Brown who gave voice and life to being black. To the millions of Negroes who paid the price for my identity being something to be proud of. I do tip my hat in gratitude.

When I awake every morning, and proceed to wash my face, I’m reminded–I’m black. White people and every other ethnic group in America remind me–I’m black. The glazed stare, or two-face, especially the outright vitriol of white men reminds me–I’m black. The white women who clutch their purse, who have mace/pepper spray readied in hand affixed to car keys, who cannot look me in my eyes when approaching for fear, reminds me–I’m black. My absence in cinema and television, stereotypical characters played by whites, reminds me–I’m black. I could go on and on, but you know, you know.

Even black people remind me I’m black linguistically, culturally, artistically, socially, economically, even religiously. Either I’m in or I’m out. If educated–that’s a N-Word trying to be white. Conversely, if inarticulate, culturally misaligned with white culture, or assimilated by white culture, then I’m still a N-Word. Professionally, I am a second class citizen despite my great intellect, knowledge, qualification, experience, moral character, and fortitude. If I fight for black people, eventually we fight each other. If I stand alone, then I’m disloyal to my tribe, ethnic group, my people. Even among black people I’m reminded–I’m black.

Life itself and the United States of America remind me daily–I’m black. So, the answer to the question [When did you first know you were black?] is, “I’ve always known–I’m black.”

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Header image courtesy of Dean Mitchell. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

Emmett Wheatfall Essay Nailed MagazineEmmett Wheatfall lives in Portland, Oregon where he reads, writes, and performs poetry. He has published five books of poetry, released one non-lyrical poetry CD and three lyrical poetry CDs. His latest release is titled Them Poetry Blues (2013), and is a compilation of great poetry contextualize in blues and jazz music. It’s an album featuring some of Oregon’s finest jazz and blues musicians.
In 2014 and 2016 he served on the Nomination Committee for the selection of Oregon’s Poet Laureate. He was a featured poet at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the March on Washington—Portland Event, wherein he delivered his original poem for the occasion entitled “Miles to Go before We Sleep.” He also was the keynote speaker at the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon Black History Series “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Fifth Anniversary Programs” screening of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 2013.




Robert Lashley

Robert Lashley is the author of The Homeboy Songs (Small Doggies Press, 2014). A semi finalist for the PEN/Rosenthal fellowship, Lashley has had poems and essays published in such Journals as Feminete, No Regrets, NAILED, and Your Hands, Your Mouth. His work was also featured in Many Trails To The Summit, an anthology of Northwest form and Lyric poetry. To quote James Baldwin, he wants to be an honest man and a good writer.