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"The Blue Nightgown" by Toi Derricotte

Updated: Nov 2

So many years of misguided self-reflection, examining every curve in the mirror! Alone, locked down, I buy online three ice blue nightgowns I discover I can live in. I glide through living room, dining room, hall, off the floor slightly; like the great opera stars of the 20th century,

I’m dressed for singing! My kitchen becomes the stage of the Met. Cutting the garlic, my hand floats, my large self floats; I breathe in & out, completely;

the blue nightgown floating around my ankles.


Toi Derricotte was born in Hamtramck, Michigan, and graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in English Literature and New York University with an M.A. in English Literature. Her works include: The Empress of the Death House (1978), Natural Birth (1983), Captivity (1989), The Black Notebooks (1997), Tender (1997), and The Undertaker’s Daughter (2011).

"As a black woman, I have been continually confused about my'sins,' unaware of which flaws were in me and which faults were the consequence of others' projections," Derricotte said in an interview with Contemporary Authors. "Truthtelling in my art is also a method for me to separate my'self' from what I've been taught about my'self,' the humiliating stereotypes about black women," she continued. Derricotte's writings address race and identity through personal and literary antecedents, and she is recognized for her candor when it comes to sexual issues.

Derricotte has won numerous honors and awards for her poetry collections and contributions to literature, including the Poetry Society of America's Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, the United Black Artists' Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award, the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, the PEN/Voelcker Award, two Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. And finally, 2020 she was the recipient of the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry

Toi Derricotte is the cofounder of Cave Canem, a national poetry organization dedicated to nurturing the aesthetic and professional growth of African American poets. She is the author of several collections of poetry. From 2012 until 2017, she was Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

“Isolated, cooking more and feeling bad about my ever-tightening jeans, writing ‘The blue nightgown’ was like imagining a new self, as if I was putting on a skin in which I felt expansive yet light, self-contented, beautiful and relaxed. As a woman of color, feeling comfortable in my skin involved a second kind of imagining. I needed models, so the majestic black opera stars Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price came along, invisibly propping me up! I believe that form should follow function, so I wanted the form to feel natural and easy.”


When relatives came from out of town,

we would drive down to Blackbottom,

drive slowly down the congested main streets

-- Beubian and Hastings --

trapped in the mesh of Saturday night.

Freshly escaped, black middle class,

we snickered, and were proud;

the louder the streets, the prouder.

We laughed at the bright clothes of a prostitute,

a man sitting on a curb with a bottle in his hand.

We smelled barbecue cooking in dented washtubs,

and our mouths watered.

As much as we wanted it we couldn't take the chance.

Rhythm and blues came from the windows, the throaty voice of

a woman lost in the bass, in the drums, in the dirty down

and out, the grind.

"I love to see a funeral, then I know it ain't mine."

We rolled our windows down so that the waves rolled over us

like blood.

We hoped to pass invisibly, knowing on Monday we would

return safely to our jobs, the post office and classroom.

We wanted our sufferings to be offered up as tender meat,

and our triumphs to be belted out in raucous song.

We had lost our voice in the suburbs, in Conant Gardens,

where each brick house delineated a fence of silence;

we had lost the right to sing in the street and damn creation.

We returned to wash our hands of them,

to smell them

whose very existence

tore us down to the human.


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