Race in the Mind

Shane McCrae

At five, I thought the best of both 

Met somewhere in my body, my 

Black father, my white mother, her 

Parents had taught me to believe

        Niggers were athletes

When at their best. It wasn’t fair

To force white       boys to play against them 

But whites were smarter, law-abiding

Not loud, and good,       for whom good always 

            Meant better, boys

And women, who were girls or women 

Never white girls or women,       not

The way white boys were white boys, women 

Or girls,       for whom good always meant

            White boys and silence

Except for when aggrieved,       or when 

Exemplifying, white       women, dying 

As I was dying, separately

But separately.       I thought the best 

            The strength       of the strongest

And the intelligence of the more 

Intelligent,       had merged in me 

Somewhere in me, invisible

But certain, certain as my skin 

            Was mine,       but certain

Sure as the blackness of my skin 

Belonged to someone else, my white 

Grandfather, who,       when he was young

Would drive to Eugene, he and his friends 

            To jump black students

Young black men walking anywhere 

Alone, sure       as the blackness of 

My skin belonged to him, and to 

His friends, whom I had never met

            Who owned my skin, yet

Had probably never heard of me

Skin meaning the       idea of blackness 

I had been taught, skin       meaning me 

All skin, whatever color,        winds

            Meeting in the whirlwind

All skin,       whatever color, all 

Species, plus human,       for the sake 

Of argument, so that one, late

At night might lean in       close to another 

            And ask, Say you’re

Dying, man, you need surgery

Bad,       in some shithole town in the middle 

Of nowhere, do you let a nigger

If he’s the only       doctor in 

            Town, cut you open

To which the other, where you think

A laugh should go, he doesn’t laugh, his 

Voice serious, replies I’d die

And take the nigger with me, for 

            Argument’s sake,       or

They’re drunk,       or wish they were, and can’t

Say what they’d say if they could say 

Anything to each other, my

Grandfather’s friends, two, in the night 

            In the light from the porchlight

Who owned my blackness like they, one at 

least,       owned the porch, the beers, the light 

That dies at the edge of the yard,       or it 

Continues imperceptibly

            Forever, from the

Porch to the night beyond the sky

Who owned the things they owned as thor-

oughly as anyone can own a

Thing not a human body,       meaning 

            their own, the things

They owned       rotting beneath their feet 

And rotting in their hands, and rotting 

Between the yard and the unbounded 

Dark, not the opposite       of the white

            Light, but its limit

Shane McCrae is the author of Sometimes I Never Suffered among other books. He has received a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and an NEA fellowship. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.