The ache for home lives in all of us. —Dr. Maya Angelou

Dear Tennessee,

I thought I hated you — I didn’t love you until I left you.

I wasn’t born in the South, which was the initial problem. I was born in Los Angeles near the lip of the Pacific Ocean. I said California was my home even after I moved to Nashville at 7. I wanted to be from somewhere else. I loved being from the West Coast, and I said it for years and years after I moved. I said it for so long, even when it didn’t make sense, because I had lived in Nashville longer. My friends made fun of me, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to lose the soundtrack of waves in my ears. The seashells I kept in my pocket.  

I remember hearing “y’all” and thinking it sounded like a twang of something familiar, a musical note I couldn’t pinpoint. It was slow and viscous — not like honey or molasses, but more like fresh mud — and I wanted to repeat it under my breath each time I heard it, but my mother wouldn’t let me. I wasn’t allowed to say “ain’t” or “ma’am” either, each contraction possessing a Southern, syrupy sway.

Tennessee, your geography was strange and claustrophobic to me in 1991 — the trees like broccoli tops bunched on every hill — hills everywhere, fertile and close like breasts jutting from the earth in patterns that seemed particular to this region; bumpy braille from the terrain, so many golden whorls of pollen clouds, divots and dots, lines of greenery, and so many trees — trees for miles. I didn’t know their names. Still don’t, besides the magnolia. I know that tree for its wide, waxy leaves and creamy blooms. To love a landscape felt elusive and abstract to me as a kid. Still does. What does it mean to be tethered to the psyche of a state? California smeared into dream logic, vague and faraway, hard to remember each day, just bluish watercolors blossoming at the rim of my early memories — dissolving — except for the lone cactus in our backyard. I remember our neighbors asked for the nopales when the spines started poking through the jade-colored pads.

The South seemed lush and stuffed with churches, but hostile and impenetrable, too. Do you remember the first time I was called a nigger? I was roller-skating at my church’s day care. There were two white Southern boys on roller skates, spinning around my small circumference, calling me this new, burning word. I didn’t know what the word meant, but my body blackened wrong with heat, and I knew this little song was only meant for me. I felt those two-barbed G’s stinging my 8-year-old skin — and poof — just like that, I knew I was different. The change was immediate, and my mouth tasted like fresh blood and pennies. I wasn’t bleeding, but something akin to despair loosened and leaked inside me, made me feel dizzy.

The word was personal and singular in its spectacular aim. The shrapnel of that speech shattered something slightly unspeakable in me, something I still can’t fully articulate. My skin started to itch and sweat. This wild word made me want to weep but I didn’t. This wild word made me want to hate myself. I think this might have been the first time I wanted to die or felt like dying, or maybe I just wanted to disappear. How do you become unseen once you’ve been seen so clearly? I was standing in the middle of their spinning, caught in their invisible web, static. I remember wishing my skin had a zipper, so that I could shed myself from the mud. This two-syllable word had heft and history, because it felt heavier each time the two boys punched the epithet at my face, penetrating the dark juice in my delicate bones. They kept laughing and pointing, their pinched, white faces repeating nigger, nigger, nigger like a little song, taunting. I can still hear them singing if I want to hurt myself again.

I had this early inkling that I wanted to escape, to run away and live in fantastical New York or move back to Los Angeles. In my prepubescent mind, things would be better somewhere else, somewhere outside the geometric shape of your state, a parallelogram tilting east, a four-sided figure. I thought the shape of another state was what was missing in me.

I wanted to escape the South and the two nooses left on our back porch (one for mom and one for me). My mom didn’t tell me about the nooses till I was much older. She didn’t want to terrify me as a child. Years later she said they were hung up in sloppy knots after the first night we moved into our one-bedroom apartment in Brentwood, a housewarming gift from our new white neighbors. Sometimes I still imagine her there on our small back porch — alone, a single Black mother — looking at those crude death symbols swaying, imagining my little neck and then hers, breaking, thinking everything she had ever thought about the South coming true before her like two pendulous omens exploding. She called her friends who took them down and prayed for our protection. My mother never touched the ropes.

Tennessee, I wanted to leave and escape the origins of the KKK in Pulaski and the 80 oxidized Confederate monuments, some weathered by the tint of pea-green patina. I wanted to escape the Jacuzzi steam of summer heat and plantation weddings. I wanted to leave the rapid-paced gentrification of East and North Nashville and Wedgewood-Houston or, rather, WeHo. Nashville was becoming the new Nashville, which meant it was whiter and richer with more cranes slicing the ever-changing skyline; streets I’d known for years became less recognizable to me. The constant development was annoying, but after the 2016 election, I was actively looking for a way out of the South, away from the river of blood-red counties engulfing Davidson County, the lone blue-dot. Racists weren’t afraid anymore. They had a megaphone in the White House, and I didn’t know how to carry myself in public (or in private, really).

The Midwest was my volta, the turn inside the rhetorical cage of a sonnet, which became my turn to veer away from the South. I leapt at the chance to move to Madison, Wis., in the summer of 2017 for a poetry fellowship. I was ready for squeaky cheese curds and cold winters. I wanted to follow what seemed like the concrete drinking gourd up north. I wanted to be carried away toward freedom in my U-Haul, which sounded like a massive garbage disposal on wheels, droning on I-57 through Effingham and Champaign, then Bloomington and Rockford. The night breeze was perfect when we finally arrived; just warm enough with no thickness to it, thin as water, and just as refreshing, too. I remember thinking this was a good sign. But in the morning, I didn’t trust all the Black Lives Matter signs stippled across the manicured lawns of my white neighborhood. I wrote a poem while I was living there called “Virtue Signaling,” where I say, “There is a sign you buy because you want so badly to believe in what it has to say, and then there is a sign you buy because you want others to believe you are brave. A sign can’t save my life.” In the sunshine, the pseudo-liberal town seemed to have a self-satisfied sheen to it.

During my year living in Wisconsin, an employee at a fancy grocery store followed me around as if I was stealing. I was ogled at restaurants. I often had to change seats with my spouse at the time so I wouldn’t have to watch old white people gawking at me. Their glare wasn’t out of disgust, but rather with googly eyes, and I was the big, Black “fish out of water” at a bougie restaurant staring back, unashamed but annoyed. I hardly saw or interacted with any Black people outside of the university. I was lonely, but this was a different brand of isolation that blossomed, bloated and made walking the edge of the isthmus hazy and apocalyptic, especially when the lakes froze over and the horizon was creamy and you couldn’t tell where the hard water ended and the vague milk-filled sky began. The racism in Madison was opaque, more psychological. I didn’t see any Confederate flags, but I felt more uncomfortable in my hyper-visible body as if I were 20 feet tall. I was never called the N-word while I lived there, but why was I starting to feel like one?

Oh, Tennessee — I began to miss you. I was starting to look back at the South, longing like Lot’s wife, except this time I didn’t transform into a monument made of salt. I didn’t want to be punished for my regret or curiosity. Nashville was suddenly home, and I scared myself with how much I wanted to go back.

“Racism Is Everywhere, So Why Not Move South?”  is the title of Reniqua Allen’s brilliant New York Times op-ed, which traces this recent migratory trend back South for Black millennials. Allen speaks with Jessica M. Barron, a demographer and sociologist out of Durham, N.C., who says, “There is something about black millennials wanting to find some type of reclaiming or resurgence in terms of moving back to the South, reclaiming the South as a place where black folks can thrive.”

There is no promised land — anywhere. No heaven for Black folks hovering above the Mason-Dixon line. If I am not safe anywhere, then why don’t I just come back home? Why not keep fighting where I flourish? At least I can be close to my mom in Chattanooga and restaurants that serve real sweet tea split by fresh lemons and sweet potato pie that makes you stomp your feet, as well as the original hot chicken recipe from Prince’s that stains the soppy, white bread underneath with hallelujah heat. Dear Tennessee, racism sure does make you hungry, and I haven’t been well-fed since I left two years ago.

I want Jacob Lawrence to paint a reverse Migration Series, but he is dead now and his paintings are divided by the odd and even numbers between two museums. Instead, I imagine the new paintings: the repetition of Black folks flattened and abstracted by casein tempera and gesso on wood panels, this time coming back down South on airplanes and in cars, phones in our hands, crowned with headphones and vibrant colors — hot pinks and lime greens instead of Lawrence’s warm, earthy tones. We are a murmuration of glossy black starlings coming back home now. The Southern cities at the top of the first panel would read: Atlanta, Miami and New Orleans. It would continue with narratives detailing a thriving Black middle class with snatched, slick edges, box braids and afro puffs. Black executives and Black-owned businesses like Slim & Husky’s Pizza Beeria, started by three Tennessee State University graduates in North Nashville, or Cupcake Collection in Germantown, opened by a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

I’m ready to come back home — not necessarily to a real house or a home state — but back to wrestle with that fountainhead idea from James Baldwin, that “home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition,” not a location but an immutable state of being, an irreparable safety that I carry within my own consciousness. I harbor a treacherous joy no matter where I reside. This is why I keep returning obsessively to the happy disobedience of Icarus and my indifference to him failing and falling. Meaning, we’ve gotten the story all wrong. We’ve focused too much on the end of the myth. Maybe the lesson was that he escaped, took a risk, and tried to fly. I forgot about the glee and giddiness of freedom and what that does to a newly freed body in flight.

It’s true — the sweltering sun in the South feels hotter than anywhere else in July. I thought home wasn’t supposed to hurt, but everywhere has a history of hurt slicing through the soil, so I want to come back home to the hurt I know best. The hurt I know how to circumvent and map, trace the contours of its familiar face with my two index fingers. I’m coming back to driving up and down the long guitar neck of I-65, ordering hash-brown casserole at Cracker Barrel, where I worked one summer in Antioch when I was 15 with a name tag that said Jesús, but people still called me Jesus. I’m coming back to the pain I can alchemize through words, which is another type of salvation, right? I’m still reaching for joy at the end, reaching inside for a homegrown healing.

I don’t have a sense of the resolution just yet, but I feel this ember for Nashville flickering a red glow inside me. I think of Cane by Jean Toomer, on returning: “If I could feel that I came to the South to face it. If I, the dream (not what is weak and afraid in me) could become the face of the South. How my lips would sing for it, my songs being the lips of its soul. Soul. Soul hell.” 

Tennessee — I just like the way my Blackness, my Black ache and bliss, my Black imagination, my Black way of being in the South sifts through you like a gospel choir when the Holy Ghost thunderclaps on Sunday mornings, but I’m listening from outside the building, the reckoning out of reach. I can’t make out every word, just the swell of divine, Black voices rapt — which is to say that is the best way I can describe my tenderness for you.

Tiana Clark is a poet and an author living in Nashville. A previous version of this essay ran in last year’s anthology A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South, edited by Cinelle Barnes.

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