LEILA MOTTLEY, 16
Leila Mottley is an Oakland native and author with an interest in utilizing poetry as protest. She is a senior at Oakland School for the Arts and has been published in various journals. Leila was the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, and has read at ActLocal Oakland, Women's March Oakland 2018, March for Our Lives Oakland, and other event. She has recently started exploring creative non-fiction and how we can merge colloquial language with reflective and in-depth exploration of identity and the world. Writing allows her to claim a narrative, especially when they are absent in the world around her. Mottley loves the opportunity that writing gives her to question realities through storytelling and have autonomy over her voice.
Performing at events with Tongo Eisen-Martin, Boots Riley, and Elaine Brown, Mottley has learned to view poetry as a vehicle for change. She was the senior editor for QuIP, an anthology of young queer writing published by Nomadic Press. She was a member of the 2018 Bay Area team competing at Brave New Voices. Mottley has written a few novels and is currently working on another one which interrogates militarism and policing of the body in daily life. Her writing has been published in GIA Magazine, Canvas Literary Journal, and the Oakland Public Library website. Mottley is currently working on addressing topics of missing and trafficked womxn of color in Oakland.
As Mottley moves forward in writing and advocacy work, she hopes to target the systemic and institutional forces that allow for displacement, gentrification, and othering.
The Product of Mixedness
by Leila Mottley
I often think about how the two branches of my family tree could have never existed in the same plane of reality. How my mother’s great-grandfather, with his beard camouflaging his mouth, spouting all his Marxist spiels, could have never shook hands with my father’s great-grandmother, her Black immigrant throat attempting to conjure words in the limited expanse of her fresh freedom.
The one-drop rule tells me that I am no longer my grandfather’s granddaughter. The one-drop rule was created in the construction of slavery to define blackness, and subsequent inhumanity, of a person in relation to a black person, whether one generation or five generations removed. If current social laws abided by this principle, then I would exist simply within my blackness and my white grandfather would never be connected to me or vice versa. This German man was raised on stories of flee and communism, meetings in train cars, and black-and-white movies. His thoughts about blackness never needed to expand outside of what he already knew.
My grandmother questioned my father when he brought a white woman home to Detroit and confessed his adoration for her. She believed, as I do, that my mother could not possibly comprehend the cells that constructed this son of hers. Could not comprehend his life experiences and thus could not protect him in the face of them. Eventually, my grandmother made peace with their union, loving her mixed grandbabies with all the black woman pride my mother could not give us.
The immediacy of my family’s division begins in my grandparents’ childhoods, or perhaps in my parents’ youth. Neither one of my parents could imagine having known each other as intimately as they do when they were navigating their disparate survivals– one in rural Ohio and one in inner city Detroit. I asked each of them if they would be my friend had we grown up together. My mother hesitates, proceeding to tell me that she wishes she would have chosen me as a friend, but that, in reality, she wouldn’t have. My father dodges the question, tells me maybe. I think about it and imagine my existence would have been a blurry confusion in either situation, me toggling between my understandings of self in contexts in which I do not make sense. Neither of them ask me if I would have been their friend, had I existed in their childhoods, and I am sure this is because neither of them would have liked my answer.
My dad was the outcast of his family, riding the bus across town to the library at six years old and stuffing his face in books. He never attended school with his brother or cousins because his mother insisted that he was too sensitive to survive in the carnal realities of Detroit public school. He played football until his limbs began to collapse and he returned to his notebook and pen, lonely. In many ways, we live parallel childhoods, miles and decades removed from each other. I believe I would have befriended this boy who found himself hiding in the corners of his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s perpetual absence. I also believe that this hypothetical friendship would have bred an aching distance, both of us trying to know each other while simultaneously hiding ourselves in poetry and dreams we don’t trust enough to share.
My father would probably have been a childhood friend I knew only in ghost form, like a shadow. My mom was the classic teenage rebellion– drugs and sex and running away to Chicago. She is the adolescent horror story that we all secretly aspire to have lived, but do not have the guts to endure. My mother was given every privilege my father was not, but the gaps between her parents’ capacity to love her and her cripplingly confused sense of self propelled her into a cycle of self-destruction. Her shame was palpable, told all the men around her that she would surrender for them, would let them hunt as long as they held her. By sixteen, she was in a mental hospital, ripping open wounds like they wouldn’t scar.
Her low self-esteem was mending, but she was wild at heart, would continue to run from herself for years. There is little reflection of me in this childhood, few things that resemble mine and, yet, I would have quickly befriended my mother and regretted it. At heart, I am a fixer. I make people into projects and invest until I have tattooed myself in false holes, someone else’s craters masquerading on my body. I don’t believe my mother would have been a good friend to me, though I believe I would have given her everything. All her excitement and charge and rage– the ultimate intrigue. She would be the friend that taught me what friendship should not look like and I would be grateful to no longer know her.
It is difficult to explain in words the incomprehensibility of my family lines merging. Their lives cannot even exist in the same language. My mother’s great-grandfather (my second great-grandfather) was a German philosopher. He wrote books about social theory and was pen-pals with Karl Marx. He exists in history books and traveled the world, speaking to various political figures and philosophers about dialectical materialism and socialism. At one point in the mid-1800s, he traveled through the south of America, documenting his observations of lynchings and slavery. He understood this as a spectacle, using it in his analysis of economic practices. I often wonder whether he could have passed by one of my father’s relatives bent over, bones cracking in a field, while he leisurely strolled to the Big House for his supper.
To exist in a mixed body is to know that my existence as a full entity is a privilege. I am sure there are countless people in my family line with my genetic makeup who could not claim their lineage, who were erased as a product of their era’s intolerance. There will probably continue to be more of us down my line, generations of children learning to be in our bodies despite the complexities of our family history.