Lessons from the Commonwealth by Scott Williamson

Niggerlipping a cigarette
was a no-no, I quickly learned
when I had my first drag at 14,
after school, waiting to
deliver the evening paper.
“Don’t niggerlip it,” Tom
barked at me, meaning don’t
let the flesh of your lips wet it
when you suck its thin white skin
between your teeth. I also
learned the biggest nuts
in the dish were called
nigger toes.”

When I got my learner’s
permit to drive around
with adult role models, one
of my dad’s friends from
church asked me, as a
Grand Am passed us,
if I knew what Pontiac meant:
Poor Old Nigger Thinks It’s A Cadillac.”
Whenever a buddy begrudgingly
did you a favor, the right
reply was, “that’s mighty
white of you
.” The mighty

Commonwealth of Virginia
taught its history students
that General Lee and Stonewell Jackson
were heroes of the Confederacy,
not fighting over slavery so
much as the economy. My
German ex-girlfriend, interested
in the local color of our culture,
was fed such a line as recently
as 1999. Touring a Southside

Plantation, she laughed out loud
at that anemic excuse,
disrupted the genteel decorum,
unsettled the prim white-haired guide.

But we’re not racist here:
look at all the black friends we have.
Scott Williamson is a poet, teacher, tenor and conductor. His work was recently featured in Atlanta Review. He is Artistic Director of Opera Roanoke in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where he also serves as guest curator in music at the Taubman Museum of Art, and music director of Temple Emanuel.