a nigga’s newyear

Black and white photo. Tiye Olufumilayo (CQ) (L) and Monica Gaskin (R) are having yellow rice and collard greens. Photograph by Akira Suwa, June 9, year unknown. Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia, Print and Picture Collection.
Tiye Olufumilayo (CQ) (L) and Monica Gaskin (R) are having yellow rice and collard greens. Photograph by Akira Suwa, June 9, year unknown. Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia, Print and Picture Collection.

Janus is the Roman God / Deity of New Beginning and Transitions, thus on the Gregorian calendar, the year begins in January. For enslaved Black Americans, January 1st, New Year’s Day, was known as “Heartbreak Day” or “Hiring Day.” On this day, enslaved Black bodies were “rented” and “sold”; families and communities torn apart; sense of self and personhood, drained, dampened and damaged. Amidst these war crimes and horrors, Black folks maintained a practice of preparing Black-eyed peas and collard greens to welcome the new year. The practice was meant to bring good luck and prosperity to those at the table. This tradition persists for many Black families today. 

Odunde means “happy new year” in Yoruba. The festival was originally inspired by Oshun, a Yoruba Goddess / Deity of the River, representing divinity, beauty, fertility and love. To this day, the Odunde festival begins with a procession to the majestic Schuylkill River, to give offerings to Oshun, our ancestors and descendants. Beyond the procession to the river, the day is marked by performers, street musicians, and vendors – vendors selling clothes and cloth, jewelry and decor, artwork and curios, and, of course, foods from across the diaspora. Each year I’ve attended the festival, despite the weather forecasting mild temperatures, Odunde Sunday has been the sunniest and hottest day of the year up until that point. And even so, many an Odunde has ended with rains, heavy, thirst-quenching rain.

This is the story / spell / song of a nigga’s newyear. Maybe it is also a recipe / a prayer. A pot is a perfect vessel for prayer.

The Hiring Day Spell:

The evening before Janus’ birthday / I found myself praying into the pot.

The field peas / soaking in salted water / gazing up at me, expectant. / We knew each other. / Were intimate at this point. / I had spent the last bits of sun, squatted over wet BlackEarth / the land’s many eyes / cradled in my palm. / With blistered fingers, opened each one, opened each one. / The land and I, locked eye in eye / she asked me for my prayers.

She, / beautiful, gorgeous / let me run my hands through her luscious foliage. / She / grants me the privilege of caretaker. / Lets me detangle and weed / wash and water. / I toil and labor / and listen. / Me: a chorus of mmmm and yes. / Her: a storyteller / babbling, pouring, into me. / The land and I, my bloodied hands massaging her scalp, / her purring under my touch / she asked me for my prayers.

This is a spell. / The soaked beans, the stewing greens – luck, they say, prosperity. / Adorned in roots / and powders and seeds – something good, something new, some thing – / Added the flesh and bones of a soul in flight – free. / The bathing, the soaking, the drinking, the meditation. / The Earth, she, / in this pot, / steeped, seasoned, soused. / The Earth, the Water, theearth – thewater. / This / is / a spell.

I pray that morning brings mercy / that Janus has garnered enough currency from me / that he has wrung from my body / all the coin and copper and cotton, he gon’ get. / That he has dug deep enough / into my back / mined all the goldblood from that, / squeezed all the sweetmilk and spirits from my breasts / … / enough / to be satisfied. / Satiated. / Pray that the babies / can stay tucked, warm / ‘neath my bosom. And / pray / that my man can stay / mine, man.

I pray / Janus, in all his paunch and pallid pleasure / forgets my name. / Does not call me to the altar / demand that I kneel with open mouth / and receive his noxious sacrament / that tastes of nothing but my blood / tears / sacrifice. / Bitter. / Heartbreak.

I prayed this / to the pot. / And if we let Janus / be GOD / then it is he who answers. / And he / always answers / with “no.”

The Odunde Song:

The true newyear, begins / with the Sun. / We, / some sunpeople, need-some-sun-people. / We need to dance and moan – people / We – people. / We. / People.

The rice / soaking in salted water / waits for we, expectantly. / We know each other. / We intimate at this point. / We had tucked her grandmothers / into our hair. / Had planted them under rows and rows / in prayer. / Had bent, broken, over / wet BlackEarth / our grandmothers’ whispers / cradled in the palms. / Grow with we, / please. / We were / each other’s prayer.

We call the land / “church” /and spirits seed and sprout. / Veiny green palms, / elderhands, / waving in celebration / ashéashéashé / in knowing. / Hands. / Luscious foliage. / Toil, labor, listen. / Eons of storytellers / chorus at once. / A cacophony of prayer / purring, humming hands. / Fingers dug deep in wet BlackEarth / soil babbling and pouring into we. / We are / each other’s prayer.

This is a song. / The soaked grains, the massaged greens / the roots, the powders, the seeds. / We, / all adorned / in BlackEarth jewels / and currency. / Odunde! / they call. / Odunde! / we respond. / If we sing it loud enough / will we be free? / If we dance in the streets / sweat and drum and scream / … / if we laugh / with all our teeth / munch on OshunYellow rice and / soaked greens / does that bring / prosperity / legacy / free? / The bathing, the soaking, the drinking, the meditation. / The fruits and currencies / gifts thrown to / Oshun. / The fabrics and beads and crystals / thrown on sunbrown bodies. / The Earth, she, / hot, hothot / all sun and sweat in this pot, / steeped, seasoned, sauced. / The Earth, the Water, the People / theearth – thewater – sunpeople. / This / is / a song.

We pray / this sun day / this yellow drenched day / the way we sway / in time with riverwaves / brings the new year / the nigga’s newyear. / Grants us another year / another moment to scream / odunde. / We pray, / that we / remember / our own names.

When we / let WE / Be / GOD. / Then it is we / who answer. / The deadgone folks, cry in passion / with compassion. / Spill sanguine, knowing tears, over / quavering smiles. / Them know / of the bathing, the soaking, the drinking, the mediation. / The People, we, / the Earth, she, / melting in the pot, sweating steam, wispy, wild dreams. / They know of theearth – the sunpeople. / The need for water. / If we let the water bearers / be Black / be sunbrowned / be GOD / then they / will always answer / with rain.

We / still stir our prayers / into the pot.


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