This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Shane McCrae. 


I’ve been in a white man’s

Skin in my body

and I have returned to tell you

Never in my life I

Ever felt more afraid

Nor ever in my life

So capable     so strong

Until I wasn’t I     had been a colored

woman all my life

as pale

As any colored woman

Born from a white man’s property

And I felt pale inside

But never white inside     or / Inside

I felt     / Colored inside but colored white

Like I     was truly white

The color white and

The master and his family

Were clear as glass / The clear

bright white not white of

Sunlight on glass

That’s what they meant when they said white

I / Didn’t feel white like that


I worked in the house the mistress

wasn’t bad or good to me

I spent my childhood with her children

but     / About when I turned thirteen

Her sons one

thirteen and the other ten

Began to look too long at me

The older for himself     the younger for the older

The mistress noticed

and soon I was sent

into the fields     / Not I don’t think

To keep us separate

but to keep the boys from doing

In the house what they wanted

To do to me in the house

I think it’s white folks what they want

It isn’t really or it isn’t just

to / Not see the wrong

They want to not see

It and they want to know

It’s happening where it belongs

I spent four years in the fields

It was worse than you might care to think it was

But then one     day it was a / Hot day I saw the strangest

thing I caught a glimpse of my / Face

in still water in a bowl I saw the

Older boy’s face I almost     jumped

Right then I knew     / I could be free

Three weeks / Later I took some clothes

and money from the house and

I walked away

In the night I walked away and in the morning

I bought a ticket north

and / Nobody looked at me except to nod

I rode the train with slaves and their

Masters the slaves looked

Down at their feet

I caught myself

Looking down once or twice their masters I

Don’t know what they were looking at

Except I think I saw

It in a sunbeam as the sunbeam

lit the window by my head

The dust in the air

the lint

I know it was lint

but it looked like worms

flying in the light

Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).