“Race Change Operation” by Thomas Sayers Ellis

Image by Kristin Beeler

When I awake I will be white, the color of law.
I will be new, clean, good; and as pure as snow.
I will remember “being black” the way one
experiences deja vu, as shadow-memory-feeling.
Race will return to its original association with running
and winning, though I will never have to do either
(ever again) to prove myself Olympic, human or equal.
My English, by fault of gaze (theirs), will upgrade.
I will call my Mama, Mother and my Bruh, Brother
and, as cultural-life-insurance, the gatekeepers will
amputate my verbal nouns and double-descriptives.
When I grow my hair long I will favor Walt Whitman
more than Wole Soyinka. My pale, red neck will scare me,
a frightening irony of freedom. The Literary Party in power
will adopt me, saying “TSE is proof of our commitment
to (verse) diversity….” I am. Narrative poets will use me
as long as they can trust me, and Elliptical women
will want me in their anthologies but not as a colleague.
What will I do with myself other than prove myself,
my whiteness, and that blackness is behind me?
The poetry in my walk will become prose.
I will be a white fiction full of black-ish progression,
the first human bestseller, a Jigga Book Spook.
It will be like having tenure, my value will be done.
This is crazy, this lose-a-world way to whiteness.
What happened to “smiling,” to “playing the game,”
to being one of their favorites, to interracial marriage?
As a black, I won a Mrs. Giles Whiting Writer’s Award,
so imagine what I will win when I become one of them.
I can see it now, my MacArthur. Jungle eyes, a Guggenheim.
This might be the most racist decision I’ve ever made
but these lines, unlike the color line, were written to break.
I am tired of lines, of waiting, of lies, my bio full of prizes.
I want my own whiteness, to own then free (someone like) me
even if it means reintegrating another sinking ship.
I’ll be that Shine, defiant and drowned, dream alive.



Thomas Sayers Ellis co-founded The Dark Room Collective (in Cambridge, Massachusetts); and received his M.F.A. from Brown University. He is the author of The Maverick Room (2005), which won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award, and a recipient of a Mrs. Giles Whiting Writers’ Award. His poems and photographs have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Callaloo, Best American Poetry (1997, 2001 and 2010), Grand Street, The Baffler, Jubilat, Tin House, Poetry, and The Nation. He is also an Assistant Professor of Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, a faculty member of the Lesley University low-residency M.F.A Program and a Caven Canem faculty member. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and is currently working on The Go-Go Book: People in the Pocket in Washington, D.C. A new collection of poetry, Skin, Inc., has just appeared from Graywolf Press.