Poem: Just Girls

We were black and white girls with backyard passages so we
wouldn’t have to go around the block and knock, wouldn’t
alert our brothers or interfere with their one-on-ones or alert
our parents making dinner, mine likely easy leftovers so our
working mom needn’t fuss, hers likely grit and greens working
their organoleptic magic in my mouth; at her house I watched their
ways for clues, whatever I could borrow or pocket, studying her ways
of belying her stature, a wisp of iron, cool little ocelot, afraid of
no one, all protection and sinewy strength at my side, no one
color barred, oh and next to her black limbs mine of no color
felt futureless and blank, though we shared skinny and felt
forever in friendship, would tiptoe around her father forever,
but even before our friendship faded I saw how she squirmed but
still sat by my grandfather and relived his tales of escape, still
listened to his ocean crossings, radiating a respect as she listened
that the white girls just couldn’t muster, and I knew then that
home was near, that we’d laugh our way out of danger all the way home.

Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments:
The perspective of the poem is the perspective of a young girl, full of specific experience. Starting with the title, where the word “just” has the contradictory double meanings of “merely” and “righteous,” this poem about an interracial friendship is light and serious at the same time, and feels deeply truthful. Its truth includes the “backyard passages” needed to create and sustain such a friendship, and the rarely-expressed truth that white people may wish to emulate Black people. There’s also the beauty of the language and rhythms, with their brilliant alliterations, assonances and imagery. And I’m left with two questions: Is the Black girl learning from the Jewish grandfather what a “tale of escape” might mean for her? And what might “home” mean for these girls and for us?