In our column One Word, writers expound on a single word of their choosing. For this iteration, we asked Danez Smith to write about the word that underpins their poem “my bitch!” in our Spring 2019 issue.
I can tell who’s calling me from across the room by the pitch of their bitch. Fati goes up on the i so that it’s almost a shriek. Hieu gets a little gravelly, dark and full, bitch as precursor to some good gossip. Blaire says it flat, matter-of-fact, like a name. Franny says it like a bell, a sweet call to fellowship. I love my bitches. I love being bitched by them. It’s an insult we’ve spun into coin.
The femmes and queers I have known have saved my life. The deep wells of care from femmes; the ingenuity of queer love. Bitch is the passport to that nation. Or maybe it’s the national anthem, how we sing our love to each other. Maybe it’s our language.
When I am bitched by the homies, there is no threat on my life. There is no car following me as I hightail it home, bitch flung out the window, faggot close behind. There is no accusation like back in high school when bitch was a charge made by a fellow boy who could smell the girl in you, or a boy who loved/hated your girl-body or a boy whose only tongue was violence. I used to be scared of coming off bitch-made. You know: scary, sissy, punk, femme. All those words that I now wear as crowns lurked in the corners of boys’ mouths. I was terrified, trying to exact my walk and perfect a boy-tongue, scared someone would see through my act and spot the bitch in me.
I ran from bitch. I didn’t want to claim what they said about me. It wasn’t like nigga, a “bad word” I had felt at home in since I was small. On the porch with my granddad and his niggas, they spread that word among each other with love, it was a word that meant “all of us.” But bitch? Bitch was the femme streak I knew I had to hide. I loved being a bitch in private, always more at home in the bad-bitch lyrics of Trina and Lil’ Kim than the real-nigga poetics of Weezy. In my own little room with my own little boombox, my bitch strived, my body moved, knees bent, back arched, swinging an imaginary twenty-inch weave with no fuxs. I was the baddest bitch in the world. But only in private. Only a bitch by myself.
I can’t point to when it changed exactly. Outside of the theater of high school, I slowly started to play the role of myself. My circles became filled with women and queers of all kinds, real bitches who invited me into myself. I was puzzled at first, being called “girl” and “bitch” with no malice, finding a home in a word that had meant danger. Now, I stand firmly within my bitch-nigga body and it feels like I’ve always been here. How? This doesn’t feel like an act of reclaiming language, because when was this word mine? I ran from it, drowned in it, but later, by grace, was knighted by it. Is that reclamation? Black folks are not the inventors of nigga, but we are the ones who turned it into endearment. Faggot is not of queer making, but we can find honey in that rock. I don’t think I’ve ever reclaimed a lick of language, but I’ve made gardens out of my prisons. I’ve found community among those who have been marked, damned, and hunted. Together, we have made prayers out of their curses, spun love from what they spat at us.
Still, language is dangerous business. What is love to me is still a bruise to some. My friend Dominque would have my head if I called her the n-word. In a word like bitch, do I have any claim at all? I’ve seen the looks I get when I answer my phone and “Hey, bitch!” a friend right back. Who owns language? Does my man-shaped body have any hold on a word that is a violence thrown at women? Where do I get off using “bitch” to capture my love for my menfolk friends? This is the danger that I live for, the bad words with definitions forever in flux, words that show us how tonal and relational English can be. Bitch, in another man’s mouth, a knife. In mine, sugar. In mine, a knife if some stranger hears it. And here is where I make an intention: to never use bitch the way it’s been used against good bitches, to drain the poison from the wound until it’s just another door to the body, a door from me to you, my good bitch.
Read Danez Smith’s poem “my bitch!” in our Spring 2019 issue.
Danez Smith is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (2017), [insert] boy (2014), and the chapbook hands on ya knees (2013). Their writing has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Kinfolks, among others.