Unmasked at Saks

poem is on marble pillar, left


The Weakness

By Toi Derricotte

That time my grandmother dragged me

through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up

by my arm, hissing, “Stand up,”

through clenched teeth, her eyes

bright as a dog’s

cornered in the light.

She said it over and over,

as if she were Jesus,

and I were dead. She had been

solid as a tree,

a fur around her neck, a

light-skinned matron whose car was parked, who walked on swirling

marble and passed through

brass openings—in 1945.

There was not even a black

elevator operator at Saks.

The saleswoman had brought velvet

leggings to lace me in, and cooed,

as if in the service of all grandmothers.

My grandmother had smiled, but not

hungrily, not like my mother

who hated them, but wanted to please,

and they had smiled back, as if

they were wearing wooden collars.

When my legs gave out, my grandmother

dragged me up and held me like God

holds saints by the

roots of the hair. I begged her

to believe I couldn’t help it. Stumbling,

her face white

with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing

away from those eyes

that saw through

her clothes, under

her skin, all the way down

to the transparent

genes confessing.



Scenes of impersonation are staples of both romantic comedies and action, thriller and suspense movies.  From Harry Potter to Mrs. Doubtfire, characters disguise themselves to get what they want, be it information, safety or love.  The danger of being unmasked keeps the scene racing forward and keeps me under a blanket.  I can hardly stand to watch as I wait for the inevitable slip in diction or hairpiece, the bosom to drop askew, the polyjuice potion to wear off.


Surely I’m not the only one who found Ron Paul’s glue malfunction more painful than amusing.  Maybe such scenes recall the angst of teenage years, years most of us spent at least some time pretending to be someone else, someone cooler, someone who knew where to find the top 40 radio stations because she really didn’t spend all her time listening to show tunes.  Years later, the shame and humiliation of being exposed aren’t buried very deep.


For instance, I walk through an expensive store like Saks (which I did when I left “The Weakness” the week before Christmas), and suddenly I’m a frousy mouse trying to act like a woman who buys $300 blouses.  You don’t belong here, I wait for the salesclerk to sneer. Poser.

Saks Fifth Avenue Detroit MI by Patricksmercy
The old Saks in Detroit, now gone


But that squishy discomfort was the worst that would happen to me, a decently dressed white woman in a predominantly white mall.   In this autobiographical poem, masquerading is far more dangerous and damaging.  Derricotte grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in a segregated and racially tense Detroit.  Just two years before the incident in the poem, a race riot on Belle Isle left 34 dead, 25 of them black.  President Roosevelt had to call in 6,000 federal troops to end the violence.  So it was no small act of courage for Derricotte’s grandmother to walk into Saks like she owned it.


As a light-skinned black, Derricotte could “pass”  (a term we put in quotes because of its toxic suggestion that looking white is succeeding), and her grandmother demands she play along with the impersonation.  But the girl is terrified. Her grandmother’s act has turned everything topsy-turvy.  An old black woman becomes royalty in her fur collar and is deferred to by white salesclerks.  The white salesclerks, with their tortuous wooden collars, become slave-like, kneeling before young Derricotte as they lace up her velvet leggings.  One slip from the little girl and the jig is up.


The weakness in little Derricotte’s legs sets the scene in motion. But hers is not the only weakness in “The Weakness.”  The grandmother, who seemed strong as a tree trunk, is degraded and weakened by the poem’s end.  The last few lines are riveting:


her face white

with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing

away from those eyes  

that saw through  

her clothes, under

her skin, all the way down  

to the transparent  

genes confessing.


She had begun her walk through Saks like a deity.  All the religious imagery in the poem, familiar to the Catholic-schooled Derricotte, is associated with the grandmother.  She walks not on water but on swirling marble, something of a miracle in that time and place.   She speaks with the authority of Jesus and the anger of a punishing Almighty Father.  But in the end she’s a different figure altogether:  Christ at Golgotha, stumbling, de-frocked, exposed, humiliated by the crowd.


Just as Derricotte’s light skin gave her a passport to enter an unfamiliar white world, so the poem becomes a passport for a white person like me to enter an unfamiliar black one.  I worried over writing about this poem, writing about race, writing about black experience.  Once again, I felt like an imposter, stepping cautiously into alien territory.  But really, I don’t need to say anything profound.  The poem is so powerful I just need to open the door to it and stay out of the way

Professor Toi Derricotte Campus Spotlight by HerCampus Pitt


Toi Derricotte was born in Detroit in 1941.   As a young girl she spent a lot of time at the home of her paternal grandparents who ran a funeral parlor in their basement.  Interesting that another Detroit poet, Thomas Lynch, also has an imagination shaped by the funeral industry.


She’s a writer who gives hope to late-bloomers.  She began writing early at age ten, in secret, and finally at fifteen had the nerve to show her poems to an older cousin. He shut her down, told her that her poems were sick.  She didn’t show her work to anyone again till she was 27 and didn’t publish till she was 43.


Now she’s a widely-admired poet and teacher who has won, among other awards, two Pushcart prizes, a Guggenheim fellowship and two fellowships from the NEA.  She teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh and is the co-founder of Cave Canem, a writing retreat for black poets.


Her latest book, “The Undertaker’s Daughter” was published in 2011.

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