Literacy starts with flesh
ripped from the backs of my ancestors,
inscriptions by whips of soldiers,
a priest who doesn’t care to delegate,
scars scrawled at Indian Boarding Schools,
whips and clubs across knuckles, buttocks, shoulders, knees:
learn this holy language, it will make you
Scars written in wide lines laid out by leather straps.
Scars sketched thin but deep,
cowhide tipped with sharp iron barbs.
Scars, thick as rope, fattened on infection and fever:
alphabet of blood and bruises.
A: broken pieces of our lives they call artifacts. B: iron bound around our wrists. C: the cupped hand that takes. D: demonic grin at our cries of pain. E: the rake to excise weeds from the earth. F: the key to padlocked fences. G: the open maw of genocide. H: the locked gate of our hearts. I: government-issued identification required. J: the shovel that jabs at our graves. K: a boot kicking us into the next relocation. L: the club that lashes us into submission. M: the path of our migration off your maps. N: for nits (they make lice). O: we have no word for ownership. P: a salute between soldiers at the prison: Q: the quick breath of hope slipping out. R: the rifle to hold back the ravenous savages. S: slick blood sliding down a cheek. T: the oak tree where they hang us. U: go back where you came from, only it’s not there anymore. V: the plow that validates the land, vindicates murder. W: barbed wire winning the west, or white fangs of a witch. X: the crucifix that could not save us from itself. Y: yes from a forked tongue. Z: the place they aim to drive us: Zero.
Spain and Mexico, France, England. The many-headed Roman alphabets of syphilis: miscarriage, sterility, madness. Alphabets of terror, of adobe, our own prison made from the mud of our own land, mixed with our own feet. The alphabets of walls: this alphabet we never asked for. They “gave” it like a parasite in our guts, shackles around our wrists, gags in our mouths. This alphabet a tattoo or a cattle brand: ownership, possession. This alphabet never meant to let us speak! Meant to strangle us like the umbilical cord of a mother who hates her bastard child.
Uppercase, lowercase, block letter, cursive, all clattering chattering like teeth, nipping at our flesh, tasting us, gnawing at us with scythed edges and wide grinding surfaces. They strip us of our names, one tiny peck at a time. Eat through skin, muscle, fat, bone; head for the marrow, spreads through our skeleton. Poison that erases memory, replaces it with obedience.
This alphabet that some of us endure. Learn to bear. Our skin grows more callused. Our scars become our art. This alphabet we chew on as starving children chew on grass or suck on pebbles to push back hunger. This alphabet of conquest that was never meant to serve us, speak for us, fight for us. This alphabet of razor wire we take into our hands, twist to our own bloody testimonies. This alphabet that gnawed its way inside of us, and with which we now carve our way back out from silence.
You ripped out our tongues:
language, prayer, song, medicine, history,
teachings, connection, home.
You shoved this alphabet down our throats
so we could write the names you gave us
on treaties, add the names of our children
and our dead to the back of a Bible,
keep track of our numbers, remember our place.
A special kind of literacy that grants us the right
to read your grocery lists, sweat in your factories,
drive your trucks, pay taxes, but never
tell our own stories.
You never thought we could learn
to wield these letters for ourselves,
write our humanity, make new songs,
become poets or lawyers – redefine words
like warrior or strategy.
This alphabet. This charm.
This code of conquest made into codex
of creation. You never thought
we could appropriate your weapon,
re-shape it into a tool with our torn hands, carry it
on our scarred backs all this distance,
all these years.
You never imagined this:
your alphabet betraying its duty,
defecting to our cause, going Native,
becoming indigenous to this land because
we give birth to it with our blood. No wonder
our books are banned, our children told
don’t read that, don’t write that. Don’t read,
don’t write. Don’t. No wonder you want us
illiterate again. We’ve learned too much.
You want your alphabet back;
all 26 letters, unharmed, unchanged,
well-behaved letters that don’t curse
or tell ugly truths.
Our Storyteller, she tried to warn you.
Like rape, like smallpox,
like massacre: that alphabet
is already turned loose.
It’s already coming.
And we won’t give it back.