In Knee Length, poet and journalist Khalisa Rae navigates the nuances of an inherited conservative legacy. Pulling from memories of her religious upbringing and education, family history, and matrilineal teachings, Knee Length is a history reimagined and excavated—a rebellious relearning of desire and respectability, family and faith.
My Grandmother Never Spoke of Her Body
In my dream, she is under a man that knows about satisfaction and indulgence. A giver and pleaser—one that doesn’t hand over the chocolate, but rubs the morsel on your lips, leans his limbs down to the center of her mouth, and says, Here, take. In my dream, I came from pleasure, from men that believe the arch in her back was medicine for aging hands, that foreplay cures cataracts better than THC, and all good pipes burst when tapped at the right place. In my dream, she is body-embraced and thirsting for more. She is gushing, knows dying in ecstasy would be a sweet death, that anticipation is the realest form of feminism there is.
7:34 am: My mother is texting about my grandmother again and how her mind is slipping. She says my grandmother has repeated the same incomprehensible thing after incomprehensible thing. She’s at the end. So, I force myself to remember her when she was young and free. I think about how much of the world I think she’s missed out on being the God-fearing matriarch. How much pressure and weight comes with carrying that title. So, I am creating a sort of revisionist history in hopes of finding freedom- from shame, trauma, repression, and so much useless baggage.
I want to remember her with her lover in flowy skirts, smoking cigarettes, and dancing in the juke joints. Grinding and having fun, because they never share that with you until it’s too late—until you’ve already made the horrible mistakes and fallen for the toxic boy who never called after you’ve had sex. After you let him get to second base before you were ready, after the girls made fun of your breasts for coming in at eleven and you tried to tape them down. You’d already covered your hips with sweaters because they started to expand and bow out at nine. They wait to tell you this doesn’t get easier with age.
I have to believe my grandmother had desires once, too. She flirted and fell in love. Had one-night stands. And even if she didn’t, I want to imagine she did. Recently my mother said my grandmother’s dementia is unearthing old telling stories of her youthful indiscretions and colorful past, and we can’t decipher whether they’re fact or fiction. Still, I’m enjoying this truth-telling and the signs that they gave over to their flesh.
You grow up thinking the matriarchs are flawless- innocent— “good girls” without spot or blemish, and then at the end of their life, they share stories of making out at the drive-in movie, getting caught with someone’s husband, or letting Carl Jenkins go up her skirt, and for some reason, that sharing of desire and want makes you feel a type of kindred. While my grandmother probably would have taken these secrets to her grave had she not been drawing closer to the end, even the slightest inkling of openness and honesty about desire, the body, and sex is a relief.
If you know anything about my writing and my poetry, you know I write a lot about growing up in a religious household. Still, more significant than what my mother taught me is the fact that I was born into a conservative legacy. Generations of women that were God-fearing, Bible totting, and chaste Christians that believed in modesty and waiting until marriage.
Each morning my grandma rises
to find her Bible, still breathing, belting
her favorite aria. A lion,
a well, a sacrifice. Crack-of-dawn,
scrolls making music at 6 am.
Each page turns a chord
she knows better than hot water cornbread
and collard greens. Wailing Blessed Assurance
But there are moments when I’d watch my mom and my grandmother dance, that I saw more—glimmers of uninhibited sensuality underneath their unyielding faith. I’ve always wanted to dive deeper into when they lost that. The sway of their hips, head back, eyes closed— the freedom. What were the things they were told about their sexual power and what did they pass down to me? Before we go there, let’s go back to when it began.
We start with knee-length skirts. I was seven years old when I first put on the maroon and black uniform for Family Christina Academy and stepped on school grounds for the first time. I could feel the loss of individuality with the buttoning of each button on my jumper. My mom had scoured the phone book for elementary schools that were the farthest from where I lived in Gary, Indiana. In 1996, my mom had just accepted a position as a Social Worker in the Gary Public School System and wanted to give me the life she never had. At the time, Gary had received the notable title of being the “Murder Capital of the World,” and my mom was determined to shield me from the gunshots, pregnancy, drugs, and gang violence that was so rampant. “I searched and searched for a school with access to an exceptional curriculum, highly rated teachers, technology, and opportunity to go far beyond this place,” she said.
Like Rory Gilmore, I lived in two worlds. One in Gary, where amidst the violence, run-down buildings, and poverty, my home life was filled with choir practice, and show tunes, tree houses, secret handshakes, dancing, and acting out stories with my sibling and family in the living room. My other life was made of private school rules and restrictions, plaid uniforms and knee-length skirts, Bible verses, abstinence, and just say no. What I remember is learning to love the plaid jumper over time, the feel of the crisp white socks and white loafers. I felt intelligent and important. I knew going to private school was a big deal as a Black girl from Gary. “They have computers, technology, a great theater program, and lots of opportunities to learn about the world,” I remember my mom saying.
But what intrigues me now is what I never learned about my body and how I existed in the world at the crucial time of puberty. Today, my mom reminded me that I was so “pretty” in middle school, and “everyone could see it.” She reminded me they called me “token Black girl.” “You were special,” she said. But like Rory, being just a pretty, sheltered girl left me with very little autonomy or agency. There were many elements of my identity I wish I’d embraced, so many mistakes I wish I could erase. All those missing pieces and scarce conversations had me fumbling through middle school like a slippery-handed wide receiver.
It’s the things the matriarchs leave out.
All the things never said. The “talk” before heading off to middle school left much to be desired. How I knew so little about boys and the way my body worked.
When I talk to my mom now, she stresses that she gave me this wonderful life and that our home was filled with music, dancing, games, and fun. And while she’s right, there’s so much about my identity and body that was missing. She tells me to “reframe my thinking.” Now I see the danger in the idyllic Stars Hollow life that at the time, I so longed for. As a kid, I thought I wanted to be the doe-eyed, protected girl with town holiday celebrations, picnics, diner gossip, and quirky townspeople.
There’s a moment in Gilmore Girls where Rory yells at her mother and says, “Why did you tell me I could do anything and be anything? You didn’t prepare me.” And like Rory, there I was. With loads of book smarts and opportunity and little knowledge about want, desire, and consent. The funny sayings from the elder women in my family, the old wives’ tales, and myths about the body from my mother, things I later in life had to debunk, and misconceptions I carried for years. So, I’m going back, with the help of my mom, and uncovering what sage words of advice shaped what I know about sex, puberty, and my body. I’m imagining a new history, where I have access to all the hidden truths the matriarchs concealed.