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Callaloo 24.4 (2001) 994
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My Mother And Duke Ellington
For Michael Harper
My uncle's best friend was the chauffeur
for a rich white lady who owned the most elegant boutique
on Washington Boulevard. For years he'd say to her,
"My girlfriend is the prettiest girl
in Detroit. I just wish I could see her
in one of your dresses." Finally the woman gave in.
O.K., have your girlfriend show up
at my shop tomorrow and I'll fix her.
The man went to my uncle, very nervous,
"Man, I was playing. My girlfriend
is the ugliest girl you ever saw. She's got a horseface,
but I love her. What am I going to do?"
My uncle grinned,
"I've got a sister-in-law who will do just fine."
So my mother went down
And the owner fitted her in brilliant satin.
She braided her long black hair
and pulled it back in a chignon.
On Saturday night the fancy
Black people gathered at The Plantation.
When my mother went to the bathroom,
Ruth Ellington came in.
"My brother thinks you're the prettiest girl here
and would like you to join us at our table."
When she introduced them, she added,
"Just call him EKE, that's what the family calls him."
He asked my mother to go on tour, with his sister
as chaperone, but my mother, eighteen,
wouldn't do it.
Twenty years and two husbands later,
she was standing at the front desk of The Gotham Hotel
and heard a voice behind her,
"Antonia Baquet, I'd know you anywhere,
even from the back of your head.
Toi Derricotte is author of four books of poetry and a memoir, The Black Notebooks. The Black Notebooks won the Annisfield-Wolf Award in nonfiction and the nonfiction award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association in 1997. Her latest book of poems, Tender, won the Paterson Poetry Prize in 1998. She is co-founder (with Cornelius Eady) of Cave Canem, the first workshop for African-American poets.