Kateema Lee

Kateema Lee Portfolio


Sometimes I forget I’m black, despite my brown,
moley and freckled face. Sometimes
when I look in the mirror I only see
an aging woman. When asked to describe myself,

I say average. Sometimes my students
laugh at me. Sometimes I pretend to be
someone else. Sometimes when I walk the halls
at home, at work, at the mall, I’m more interested

in the click-clack of my footsteps. But one day
when driving through my neighborhood and seeing
three little brown girls, their heads florets
of plaits, pigtails, and barrettes, leaning into

the passenger window of a police car—
three little girls innocently giggling,
talking to someone who’s vowed to be impartial,
to defend, nothing menacing in that scene,

I felt afraid. At that moment, I remembered
being nine or ten, learning that to some
I was cute for a brown girl and to others
I was no more than a weed needing to be pulled,

discarded like the “Freeway Phantom” girls. I remembered
how I worked in my grandmother’s garden, how I picked
dandelions first because I wanted to save them,
how I loved their beautiful, bright heads hiding

from no one, finding stages in cracked cement.
At that moment in my car, held by sinister
innocence, I was afraid for their brown bodies,
hallow stalks, dancing in place. Few will mourn

those girls or when they are women welcome
their achenes balleting in the wind
or mourn those deeply rooted in addiction’s soil.
At that moment, I wanted to save those girls;

instead, I watched like a concerned mother peeking
out the screen at her kids playing outside.
I wanted to call out to them;
I wanted to tell them to come home.


Away from Home

She’s a community college student
sitting with an older man. She’s young,
and white. When the older man leaves

for a restroom break, a young waiter
approaches the table.  She, nervously giggling,
tells him she’s majoring in nursing. He tells

her his major is finance; he wants to work
on Wall Street. They share pleasantries
in whispers. She says she wants weed

and fun. She does not like Rhode Island;
she misses home. He gives her his number.
I laugh at this transaction. My back to them,

I can’t see their faces but I’ve seen
their faces, and for a moment, I try
to imagine what it’s like to be young

and woman and oppressed, as all women
are oppressed, and beautiful and free
to ask for whatever I want but to know

that my body is currency and gateway
to freedom or weed or whatever freedom
looks like these days in my young skin,

but what does this brown middle-aged body
know? I have no idea what it means
to be free in that way.

All I know is the overcooked marlin
in front of me, the nonalcoholic cocktail
commingling with ice and lemon wedge. I know

invisibility in public spaces, and the self-
imposed weight of the world, the weight real
and imagined. I know of busy

mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach.
I know what my well-traveled friends
would call trivial problems:

having to pay for solitude.
I know this meal, the imported sparkling
water in a long-stemmed glass.

Gray Jacobik, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” acrylic, copper, and salt on canvas, 24″ x 24″

Growing Up DC

On Lebaum street in winter
a dog steals a little girl’s gloves

kids slide down hills
on cardboard sleds

sand and snow slush under galoshes
the little girl cries

her big sister
tries to chase the dog

tries to temper chaos
for a moment the little girl loses

sight of her sister
the world is small

the world starts at Lebaum
and ends at Martin Luther King Avenue

the little girl is small
the little girl is the world

to her sister
the world is the little girl

to passersby
the girl stands on the sidewalk

in a world where dogs
take the little things

and leave a small part of her bare
while others take what they can


the world
the little girl waits

and watches while everyone
around her moves


Her Mythology

Like a hawk guarding its nest,
Moms sat surveying the courtyard
on Hartford Street. Elbow resting
gently on windowsill. She’d sit
night after summer night watching
children play and addicts stumble up
and down steps, watching them go inside
one of many metal doors. It’s said
she was hit by lightening once, bolt
zeroing in on her third floor apartment
window, zapping her down to the bone,
confirming her invincibility, changing
her brown hair root to end red.


Elegy for Chocolate City

Her city used to be sweet, dark
luxury, but some streets were sour,

known for their bitter taste.
Her city was sublet, many names

on the lease; native nonnatives;
her name was clinched fist.

Her city was ambassador of Quan.
Quan lived on MLK near the asylum.

Some seek asylum from politicians’
wet dreams, dreams of sitting on top

a hill, a hill too high for people like her
to climb, a climb with a steep decline,

a decline steeper than rent, rent subsidized
by bodies and grime, grime at the bottom

of basins. The Basin is not far from Lincoln;
Lincoln freed the slaves, and slaves built

the city; the city built slaves and placed
them in projects; projects were night;

night’s soundtrack was bullets;
Bullets changed their name to Wizards;

Wizards did not cast spells or grant wishes;
some wished for mambo sauce on wings.

Wings were needed things in her city,
so needed she tried to fashion them from loss.

Black Random

I am sitting on a bus. My ears are the same
shade they were at birth. I am sitting on a train.

The sun has claimed my face and arms. The seats
near me are canyons only mules cross. Freckles

and moles are roadmaps to my age. I am sitting
in my car. My sex is aubergine in day.

It changes with the season. People honk
when I sit seconds at green lights. The sun

assaults my arm resting in the window.
I am stopped by siren. My hands and knuckles

tell tales. They are well-worn gloves gripping
wheel. My headlights are bold; my phoropter

adjusts to shades and situations. I am sitting
on a plane. The rows show hints of history.

My iris is narrative. I’m encoded
on retinas. I am sitting in my car,

black random, next to a curb on a busy street,
hoping for reprieve. I am home. My body

is hairless summer sitting in the tub white-
washed from the day welcoming the night.

Revisionist Musings

The statue of liberty
is on her knees folding a flag.
She’s tired of the pattern.

Abraham Lincoln owns
a national football team
called the The Emancipators.

Betsy Ross has a makeup
line showcasing shades
of red, white, and blue.

Robert E. Lee has a prize-
winning rose garden. He sends
fresh cut flowers to Harriet Tubman.

Thomas Jefferson is engaged
to George Washington. They
are registered at Tiffany & Co.

Martin Luther King plays golf
during hurricanes. His handicap
is low when it rains.

Presidents live in projects
like Cabrini-Green or Barry Farms.
They sign laws in ice cream trucks.

Words like [redacted] and [redacted]
are less painful than tight cornrows
or tightly sewn yaki weave.

Mayonnaise is as flavorful as watermelon.
Breadcrumbs belong on mac and cheese.
Chef Ramsey cooks grits on Sundays.

America’s pastime is reading The Souls
of Black Folk. Twitter and Facebook are birds
in gilded cages singing gospel songs.

Kateema Lee is a Washington, D.C. native. Her recent work has been published in print and online journals such as Beltway Poetry Quarterly, African American Review, Gargoyle, and others. She is the author of Almost Invisible (Aldrich Press, 2016), and Kateema’s next collection of poems, Musings of a Netflix Binge Viewer, is forthcoming (Finishing Line Press, 2018). She is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, a Callaloo fellow, and a participant of The Home School.