I offer poetry workshops for Peer Wellness and Recovery Services -- and PWRS coordinator Miriam Yarmolinsky invited me to go with her to the very fine DC Fringe Festival event featuring Leah Harris -- and Leah is also a poet whose work I found in the anthology Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution -- where I also found "Do the Math" -- a crowd-pleaser by a 2002 slam champion Meliza Bañales -- available here on YouTube and included below. Enjoy!
Do the Math by Meliza Bañales
The equation goes something like this:
one white mother plus one brown father divided by two
equals a daughter.
Give or take a decimal the American dream turns out to be:
two half-white children, two full-brown children,
one small house in LA, four jobs
divided by two high-school-educated parents.
The quality of life is high, though the means is low.
The numbers vary from memory to memory. Like three
Three times a week I clean houses in rich neighborhoods to
make my way.
Folding sheets is difficult. Every house has one rich, white lady
with two dozen sheets times four beds which equals ten ways
to fold the sheets so that they're
Learning to fold sheets at least three to six ways
means I can clean three to six houses a week
which equals rent, tortillas and lettuce for the month.
Going into one.
One night a week I go-go dance in a cage in a Hollywood
Ten dollars an hour plus tips.
I'm only eighteen back then, and already I know the equation for lust:
One bare-ass in face gets a twenty, one crotch-drop earns a fifty,
one tongue licking cage bars while slowly gyrating hips
equals I am the first in my family to go to college.
Then there's five.
Five times a day I prayed to God through my seven-year-old body
that my father would lose his Spanish accent.
I was convinced that if he did, he could get a better job and we
wouldn't be poor anymore.
I was convinced he just wasn't trying hard enough to say
"signals" instead of "singles" or "video" instead of "bideo."
Five times a day I sent my other prayers, my secret prayers
that I was thankful for looking to most white in a family of
coffee-colored children. How I prayed that my brown blood
wouldn't seep out of my white skin
so that I could
learn English, get an education
make my parents proud of half-white, half-brown accomplishment.
Five times a day times seven days a week plus two small hands
clenched together in fear and ignorance
equals a lifetime of trying to make halves a whole.
You see, it's all in the numbers.
These numbers that haunt my dreams, make my past into single digits
which have no common denominator.
Just once, I'd like to write an equation for all the things I could
never write about.
For the three times my father took off work from three
different jobs to see me in the school play.
For the first and last time my sister told her abusive ex-
husband that she didn't need him anymore
and meant it.
For the hundreds of times I saw my parents laugh
until the tears rolled down their cheeks,
even in a neighborhood of drugs and gangs.
For that one moment,
I did see my father cry
when I, the first in my family, received my college degree.
I'm writing a formula for all the numbers that have fallen on me.
Fifteen sunrises in three different states,
eight million breaths in one kiss,
185 poems in eight years--
I am writing an equation.
Using the universal language of numbers to describe ten thousand ways
that something can mean everything.
It's just all in how you do the math.
The anthology in which I found Bañales poem is Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution edited by Alix Olsen (Seal Press, 2007).