Tolonda Henderson


I sit on the edge of a padded green table,
my bare brown arms wrapped tightly
across my chest
as your pale white hands attempt
to twist my torso from behind.

When you let go, I catch my breath
and continue my story.

“So when my brother gets back to the car,
my mother says to him, ‘I don’t ever
want to see you run from a bank again.
In fact, don’t run anywhere
except on the track at school.’”

You pull my arm into a position
I would never be able to achieve on my own,
push on a muscle I did not know was there,
and ask, “Why shouldn’t he?”

I tilt my head and squint my eyes
before remembering you can’t see
incredulity on my face.
“Are you kidding me? A young black man
running from a bank in the middle of the night?
She didn’t want to have to identify his body at the
morgue.” You release the pressure point, lower my arm,
and say, “I don’t think she had anything to worry about.”

All your hard work is ruined
as a familiar tension that has nothing
to do with the car accident
makes itself known across my upper back.
“That is an arrogant thing to say.”
“What’s arrogant about having an opinion?”
“What’s arrogant is dismissing hundreds of years
of violence against black men
because you don’t think it’s relevant.

“What’s arrogant is thinking you know more
about raising a black man in this country
than someone who has actually raised
a black man in this country.

“What’s arrogant is saying that my mother’s
fear was a lie.”

You come around the table to face me
and I know this isn’t going to be
one of those wonderful encounters
where a white man recognizes his privilege
with humility and grace.

“Don’t be offended,” you start,
as if that is how emotions work.

“Too late,” I inform you. “I am already offended.”
“I didn’t mean to sound racist…”

I wonder whether it’s worth getting into the
intent versus impact conversation with you,
whether you have the capacity to understand
that until you honor the impact of your words
on my being, I am under no obligation
to stop expressing said impact
just because you didn’t intend for it to happen.
The car did not intend to hit me,
but its impact is paying your rent.

As I tone down my rage to tune you back in,
I realize that you are trying to explain that
this is not about race.

What you don’t seem to understand is that
a conversation does not need to be about race
to be about race.

You think this is just an exchange between
a physical therapist
and someone with a physical injury.

It isn’t.

It’s about every time a woman who looks like me
has ever been mansplained
by someone who looks like you,
told she is taking things too seriously,
that no harm was intended
so no foul was committed.

To you, dialogue is about talking.
To me, it is about your inability to listen.
The fact that you think it’s appropriate to apologize
if I was offended when I just told you
I was offended tells me that you are more
interested in how I perceive you
than in anything that has happened to me.

So take a fucking memo:
I do not have to calm down
to make you more comfortable.
I get to be loud and take up space
when somebody tries to erase my history.
I get to be overwhelmed and burst into tears.
I get to be upset and I get to talk about it
even when–especially when–you don’t want to hear it.

Tolonda Henderson is a poet, a librarian, and a Harry Potter Scholar. Since 2011, she has been writing and performing from the unique perspective of a queer African-American woman. In addition to her own backyard of Washington, DC, where she is co-Slammaster of the Beltway Poetry Slam, Tolonda has featured in both England and New England. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Freeze Ray Poetry and Open Letters Monthly.