creative writing


The next morning I was discussing My Bondage

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The next morning I was discussing My Bondage

and My Freedom with the Frederick Douglass

t-shirt spread out on my bed like a flag.

I’d climbed out of the sheets believing myself

a slave to various pornographies of style

(hair, language, demeanor), and because

I wanted the glamor of the mythic black man

with a blasting afro and fortified stare to adorn

my vulnerable heart that day, I said to the t-shirt,

“I don’t know if it’s the guy who wears

eyeglasses that’s me, the guy who wears contacts,

or the guy who wears nothing at all.” Frederick

Douglass wrote, “I prefer to be true to myself,

even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule

of others,” but the t-shirt was silent.

I know it seems odd to converse with a garment,

but I have no one else to talk to these days,

plus I think it’s great that I can talk to a t-shirt

when I am not confessing to a sheet of paper.

Most people are not so lucky; some only have

conversations with God, money or bodies.

Last night I dreamed my father had shed

like 200 pounds. Shirtless, the muscles

he’d had in his twenties when he met my mother

and me were restored and made me ashamed

because in the dream I realized he’d never been

comfortable enough to walk bareback

through his own house. “Titties,” my mother called

them before he moved out of their bedroom

and began to dress and undress downstairs.

I say nothing of father, for he is shrouded

in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate,

Frederick Douglass wrote. In the dream my father

smiled when I told him he looked good with no shirt,

but the truth is, growing up, I was happy

he did not walk around shirtless. He was so large

I feared the flesh hanging from his chest

would remind me of a woman’s breasts.


I told the Freddy D tee the infant that would become

our first black president nursed at the breasts

of a white woman from Kansas and the shirt replied,

“Naturally, the mother was a tapestry of nurture,

who does not desire that? I was born Frederick

Augustus Washington Bailey into slavery

on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay,

and still remember that my mother’s touch,

before I was taken from her, was like cloth

the shape of my future, all the threads of decision

and consequence to come; how her spirit

filled me with elaborate dreams, extraordinary clarity,

and doom as I moved among the so called pilgrims

in the kingdom of God.” “A man’s character

always takes its hue, more or less, from the form

and color of things about him.” FD also said,

My first wife was the color of my mother

and the second, the color of my father.” Color,

it turns out, is fluid. Some of us sweat History

more than others. Frederick Douglass was married

to the black underground railroad abolitionist

and laundress, Anna Murray, for 44 years

before she died, but no t-shirt honors her visage.

Later when he slept beside his second wife,

a younger, very white woman named Helen Pitts,

he did not once stroke the downy hair along her

arms without the embarrassment of an erection.

She would be asleep when it happened, the touch,

the erection, and in the dark the great black man

would reach beneath a fabric as plush as the fabrics

his first wife laundered before and after marrying him.

The children with the first wife likely considered this

the worst of their father’s abolitions. The mind longs

to abolish misery, but unfortunately who can say

whether a mind can actually abolish anything.

A mother’s clutch, marriage, slavery, heartache:

it all lives in the thread. I believe nothing

can be abolished, that’s my problem. Not fear

in this universe of cost and erasure, the death inside

everything, not fear of the world’s dark avenues

and adventures, not fear of other men and women,

the Zimmermans, the plain clothes cops, the handcuffs

and malice, blame, bullets, bruises, and blues

alighting the skin, slipknots, silk cloth, mischief—

nothing can be abolished, though we agree,

Frederick Douglass and me, slavery nearly abolished

our ancestry just as it nearly abolished our families.


I wanted to wear the Frederick Douglass t-shirt

because it’s as close as I’ll ever be to Frederick

Douglass. I wanted to appear revolutionary

and decorous entering the day like a needful star,

superb in love and logic. My mother often says

she’s so happy she didn’t kill me when she found out

she was pregnant. She’s so glad she didn’t give me

to the old woman who asked to adopt me.

When sweat weeps along the sides of my ribs

from the two great stains yellowing my shirt pits,

I’m like a man ashamed by his own tears.

I used to keep my arms clamped at my sides

the hot days of my adolescence in South Carolina,

oh Carolina, peace was not the word I knew there.

The last time I visited my mother told me how,

when her handyman gave the waitress

sweating before them a ten dollar tip, the waitress

gave him in return the keys to the apartment

she lived in with her delicate 20 year old son.

He whined “Why mamma” exactly like a daughter

anticipating the heartache her mother was courting,

“Why would you let somebody you barely know

into our house?” “He used to turn all the heads in town,”

my mother told me, and though he was fatter now

because of the drugs he took with a mind to change

himself into a woman, he was still easily mistaken

for a girl in a sundress with his milk-less breasts,

and gooseflesh swaddling his belly and biceps.

Two months later the handyman and the waitress

broke up. He was not even that handy, really,

he was just out of work and hired by my mother

to repair some leak or shamble and because

she did not pay him much, sometimes she’d take

him to lunch. I was the shade of perspiration

imagining his fingers sliding over a woman

whose mouth straightened, curled and puckered

as if she was praying or giving birth. Taffeta

is the kind of cloth that makes a sound

when you touch it. It sounds like flowers

being painted on a dress. It falls in a crush

by the bed and the tongue folds around

a lonely center and because of it,

your son changes his name to Taffeta

when he becomes female. We’re all so full

of envy. Nature’s favorite color is green.

Taffeta’s dress is covered in flowers.

At sixteen I wore my mother’s dress to school

and stood on a stage with three other boys

in lipstick lip-syncing to the Mary Jane Girls.

I loved the feel of cloth folding around

my movement. That dress still hangs somewhere

waiting to be worn, its sheen and she-ness

shameless. There’s a yearbook photo

to prove I wore it though it’s true a photograph,

especially when it’s an image of flesh,

grows over time, more and more strange.

You are not you for long. I am not trying

to change the world, I am trying to change

myself so that the world will seem changed.


This article originally appeared in issue 17.4 (Summer, 2017).

Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry, including How To Be Drawn in 2015, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2015. His website is

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