August 13, 2020
A black and white photograph of a person jogging toward the camera on a long suspension bridge
Photo by Jo / Flickr

Series editor’s note: In Ashia Ajani’s poem “Running,” the Black body finds itself outdoors, not as a means of escape, rather as a place of exodus, where it can stay moving, embracing a small freedom. But wherever the Black body is placed, it seems to always be in danger, its flesh ripe for taking. With this piece, aptly dedicated to Ahmaud Arbery, the poem does something magnificent with words: it insists on a seemingly small freedom, the freedom to breathe, to reclaim the open space that has been taken away, the freedom to just be without being persecuted. With this piece, the poet offers us a space to reclaim that freedom, to persist in our own making, in our small exodus, without naming our perpetrators; where, for a moment, we too can feel the cool air wrapped around our Black bodies—and feel free to exhale. – Mahtem Shiferraw


by Ashia Ajani

                        for Ahmaud Arbery (1995–2020)

Once again, I return outdoors in search of cleaner breath.
My lungs, a peripatetic duo foraging for whatever
fills, collapses or relieves. In the South, breath is heavy; humid
palpitations mark this flesh ripe for taking. This exhalation
does not come easy. The flight in these legs, a vestigial burden
passed down generations of restlessness. We stay moving –
it is harder to kill a thing in constant motion.
I say no names for fear I will summon something wicked.
I do not look at what hunts me. Rather, I embrace the freedom
of exodus. When one of Us runs, the rest follow. It is an unspoken
bond of reluctant prey. You would think with everyone trapped
in they houses, the predators would take a break. Even Jesus got one
day of rest. Two bullets hunt and run behind me. The asphalt loves
this body too much for return. Whiteness rewrites my breath
into blood; into ash. These violent beasts reclaim open space
that was never theirs to covet. My feet shift with a sole
desire to mind my business and keep. It. Pushing. My heart,
a rustle in the wilderness sought for horrific consumption.
I do not want to be surveilled. I just want to feel the cool air
wrapped around my Black body and for once, feel free to exhale

Editorial note: Black Voices is a special series guest-edited by Mahtem Shiferraw and sponsored by the WLT Puterbaugh Endowment, which makes possible the biennial Puterbaugh Lit Fest. The series will run on a weekly basis through August 2020.

Ashia Ajani (they/she) is a Black queer storyteller hailing from Denver, Colorado, Queen City of the Plains. They have been published in Sierra, Them, and Foglifter, among others. They are a 2019 PEN America Writing for Justice Finalist.