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.
Falling Doesn’t Always Mean You’re in Love
There’s no reason to drop to your knees in the middle of Disney World and pray for the rain to stop, but still, I did. Still, I cracked my kneecaps on hot cement to pray that God would cease-fire and bring back the blue and white Basquiat masterpiece that had adorned the sky earlier that day. Disney World was a yearly tradition. A time when my family got to wear ridiculous matching shirts and ride the highest, tallest metal death traps, bellies full of hot dogs, and slushies. Then watch it go back to the dirt from which it came when we threw it all up after the “It’s a Small World After All” ride. I guess the fact that heaven answered my prayers that day made me believe in a sort of Black-girl-knee magic. I felt as if my knees had some mythical power that I could wield at any moment. Like the movie Teen Witch, but instead of a necklace or amulet, I used my knees to cast spells and grant wishes. And as trivial as it sounds, I’d only use my secret power when I was most desperate—to stop a torrential downfall from ruining the face-melting plunge of our lives.
So I dropped down, in my bright yellow poncho and stone-washed jeans, and bam! What do you know—every inch of grey rolled back, and the sun returned as if upon my command. From then on, my mother called me her “little miracle.” But what she didn’t know was that my Merlin-esque power had very little to do with me being miraculous and everything to do with not being afraid to publicly humiliate myself (and maybe a little faith). Everything up until this point, I’d credited to the sheer luck of my magical knees and falling. I imagined my first kiss would render my knees helpless. Much of my grand sweeping expectations came from Saturday Disney sing-along sessions with my mother and two older siblings. Every Saturday evening my mother would have my brother, sister, and I stand on the bed like a stage and belt out the beloved choruses of famous Disney classics. What I internalized from that was my future romances would be just as the song said they’d be—magical, “A Whole New World.” The kind of kiss that would turn any cursed woman or man beloved, grand sweeping and fairy-struck. I’d spend hours daydreaming or acting out my perfect Prince Charming kiss, just as the movies had shown me. I memorized each scene and every lyric. I knew the right angles to turn my head. I imagined the fall and catch, the dip, the toe pop, the embrace. And I just knew I’d be the girl who couldn’t stand because of its power, that the sheer force of a kiss would send my knees wobbling. When in reality, my first kiss was behind my neighbor’s house with his cousin that looked like a young Jaleel White aka Stefan from Family Matters.
Every summer afternoon my siblings and I would spend hours splashing around in my neighbor’s pool. Mainly because they were the most affluent Black family on the block and all their children were our close friends and closest in age to us. Our brown curls would cool in the summer sun, the joy glistening on our skin. We’d marvel at their marble floor, their detached garage attic, and their grand living room. On hot summer days, I’d race around the pool’s edge, play tag, and without fail I’d trip and fall in, or one of the kids would shove me too hard and I’d go tumbling in the blue. It quickly became a running joke; whenever I was close to the edge, people would take bets on how long I’d last before I fell in. And maybe it was because of all the Disney movies, Jasmine and Aladdin falling onto that magic carpet and flying through the air in love. I wanted to believe in the magic of falling and being suspended. Maybe it was the vulnerability of not being in control. But when the time came and my girlfriend dared me to kiss my neighbor’s cousin, I just did. There was no toe pop, no shaky hands, or wobbly limbs, just an exciting assignment to see what the cute boy’s lips felt like and report back to the girls. But when I returned to them I didn’t have a story of magic, no tale of romance. I just planted one on a boy who turned out to be arrogant and self-centered like I imagined all handsome princes to be. In my mind, no perfectly quaffed hair, dimpled, angular chin hunk was void of a little bit of arrogance.
After dating my first kiss for months and learning he was a jerk, I also discovered that my knees actually weren’t supposed to be wobbly during the first kiss. My knees were there to knee him if he tried to get too fresh without my consent. That I had the power to use them to walk away. At the same time, I could still be hopeful for the day “my weak in the knees” kiss finally came. I had faith in that kiss. But no movie my mom ever showed me taught me that there’s a difference between faith and fairytale. In the fairytale, the perfect series of events have to come together for you to get your perfect ending. Faith and belief were knowing I deserved some magic and trusting the day would come. All the lackluster smooches and awkward, sloppy make-out sessions were preparation for the day my knees finally did buckle, and oh boy did they buckle. But that’s a story for another day.