Articles + Essays
by Shelley Fort
Photo: Shelley Fort and her mother Wendy
Brooklyn-based actor, Shelley Fort, shares
her American Story.
September 27, 2001
weeks after September 11th
Dad sat us down at a family friends’ house. We’re in their kitchen. It smells like incense and green chiles. The sun shines through crystals that hang in the window.
Daddy says, “Mommy’s not going to make it”. I feel myself shift outside of my body. I gaze down on my teenage self. I watch her fall to the ground and weep, sis hovers over me, holds me, but part of my mind, stays neutral, as I try to grasp, to hold tightly to. what my father just said.
I always believed that I was a goddess incarnate. Venus. Cleopatra. Queen Nefertiti. My ancestors breathe through me. Aphrodite. I call upon their spirits to instill me with love and compassion, wisdom and strength! My African mothers. Asase Ya, Oshun, Oya and Yemoja. My Choctaw Nation. HOLITOPA ISHKI. My French-Canadian famille. I bow to you, Queen Marie Antoinette. My, my, my Czechoslovakian mothas and brothas. I cherish
As you can see. I’m a mixed baby. Of all nations. Of all beings.
Hanes her way
Slick talkin’ boys
Back stabbin’ girls
Hair straight or curly?
Diamond earrings or golden heels?
Hand jobs in the back of a pick up truck
Country music on a gravel road
And getting drunk at bonfires
Running through economy sized sprinklers in alfalfa fields
The first time I masturbated
What is that FEELING? Hot tub
At least six of us
Did I mention a hot tub?
Wintertime. You could see our breathe form into clouds of innocence and naivete Jets.
Strong, powerful jets. We laughed.
Turned our bodies to face the night.
Looked out over fields of snow in the Nebraska night and woosh.
Every year on my birthday, which is March 16th, I think about how long it’s been since she passed. I was twelve when she died. It’s been seventeen years since. I’ve lived a whole nother life without her. The person I was then. The child I was then, has literally lived another life. Even if she were to come back now. If I were to see her on the street. She wouldn’t know who I am.
This memory might be real or I might have made it up in my head. You know, the ones you say to make yourself feel better? She’s baking her amazing tofu-spinach pie. You can smell the yeast on her hands. She makes her own homemade crust. She sprinkles the flour on the counter and lets me roll out the dough. I cheat and eat it raw. She lets me. She turns on the record player. Sis is doing her chores upstairs. Cleaning her room, vacuuming. But when the song comes on, we all stop what we’re doing, come to the living room and dance. We sing to Black Pearl by The Checkmates. I jump on the chaise-lounge, sis hops up on the dining room table, and mom dances around the kitchen.
Yeah, yeah, yeah
My, my, my, my
The music pounds in our ears.
Black pearl, pretty little girl,
In our hearts.
you've been in the background much too long.
I was alive. She was alive. We were alive together!
No other one
Could ever take your place
My world is built around
The very smile that's on your face
To my youngest daughter,
Remember how I used to read you Aesop’s Fables before bed? How the morals were sweet, simple. Remember to read that to your children.
‘cause ooh. If I could run. Run away from this
bitter pain this gut wrenching pain
If I could fly oooh what a a a chance at living
Even when I’m gone, I’ll be flying circles around your days and floating with you at night.
I’ll grace your eyelids when you blink towards the sun. I’ll tap your shoulder
when you’re lost in the street.
I’ll burrow in your arms
when you give your lover a hug. I’ll be right there.
Between the highway and the cornfields,
Between the Nebraska plains and the New York City skyline.
I’ll follow you around the bend and down the cobblestone streets of Oxford
and sit next to you on a train through St. Petersburg.
I’ll hold your hand as you stroll through the vineyards of Orvieto.
I’ll swim with you as you jump head first into the salt waters of the Cinque Terre towns.
I’ll dine with you in the back room of the
and I’ll drink with you into the wee hours of the morning at the Brooklyn diner.
With you and your sister...I’ll be passed out right next to you in that booth and when the waiter
who barely speaks English asks if you want more hash browns with your eggs say YES and I’ll
finish them for you. And I’ll continue to swim in the public pool. I’ll ignore the laughs and jeers
of your peers as they tease you about your mom not having any hair. It’s okay. I understand
you were embarrassed of me.
and gramma...if she’s still around...continue to write to her. I know
and Lord knows she holds grudges, but love her.
and love her. She needs it more than ever right now.
Whatever stress or responsibility you feel about the need to take care of dad. Let it go. He will be
fine. He’s a grown man. He’s gotten you two this far in life. You can take care of him when
you’re a little older and have become the
of the stage.
Stay strong, my dear girls.
You'll never win a beauty show
No, they won't pick you
But you're my Miss America
I love you
Song Lyrics: Sonny & The Checkmates Ltd. Lyrics “Black Pearl” Love Is All We Have To Give 1969
Photo: Shelley Fort and her family
Shelley Fort was born in Wilmington, NC. Daughter of a dancer and poet, her plays have been workshopped/produced at The National Black Theater, The Fire This Time Festival and Quick Silver Theater Co. Her acting credits include: Camae, The Mountaintop; Mayme, Intimate Apparel; Cressida, Troilus and Cressida. She's co-creator of the series Dear Sister alongside her sister Claire and she holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.F.A. from Brown University. More info can be found at www.shelleyfort.com.