Four Flights

I stand in an American Foursquare

two and a half stories tall

in a space a thousand miles from where lines of my blood have shed.

Currently, I am the last step.

I look up to my ascendants,

though now they are all down in the ground,

wondering if I’ve descended or ascended.

Strayed far from their grace,

in attempts to reach levels that they could not.

With each step,

each lifeline,

my bloodline has shortened.

My greatest ascendant,

great grandmother Neva Nell

nearly six feet tall,

baked the sweetest of sweet potato pies

from her two bedroom, one story Henderson kitchen

where bitter tea in a round red pot sat on her gas stove.

Red was the dirt along East Texas

all the way up north to Texas’ hat.

She cleaned white men’s estates and

cooked their dinner for her dimes,

making their spots shine,

while her daughter was raised by her mother.

Weekend burger dates,

then back to work.

Her daughter’s cries had to be denied

to earn what bits she could give.

Back to work,

back to back.

The same work ethic was not lacked

by her daughter

who left middle-of-nowhere Rusk county and ventured to the big city of Houston –

Texas Southern University

Black excellence sought and obtained by those whose names remained

ignored and exchanged for ‘girl’ and ‘boy.’

Itty bitty, five foot tall Ressie Mae worked

but could not make the grades.

She married a soldier

made a 3-bedroom one-story house a home

with her husband and child.

Not too shabby, not too fancy –

a happy middle class.

As white flight took off

Ressie Mae wasn’t too far behind

after Prince Charming revealed himself to be a Beast.

Laws left her with the home

upkept by work

work, work, work

Waitressing in a diner,

janitor at banks and businesses

night school in nursing

grades never made

stuck scrimping, saving, and fighting

to hold onto the next step.

A second story of her one story.

A life far from the red dirt roots

to sustain the livelihood

where little Alicia flourished

like the landscaping Ressie Mae planted

of banana plants, roses, and ivy.

Her new roots were to stay, at least for one more generation.

The third story is that of little Alicia.

She never made five feet tall,

but lived larger than life itself.

Neva Nell’s girls appeared to slope down from her tall frame

their drastic drop in height jarring to see.

Resemblances lying in moles, smiles, and cheeks.

Deadbeat daddies’ phenotype dominates

but the mighty matriarch mentality moves the line forward

with relentless dedication to thrift and laborious night and days.

The house’s interior unchanged from 1960.

Outdated, but pristine,

the lawn meticulous, but never gaudy.

Little Alicia in uniforms, praying hands, and parochial school

paid for by a relentless mama

who would not allow the line to backslide.

Stepping forward to attain that which her mama could not grasp

as her mother before her,

and her mother before her.

A graduate of Texas Southern University

with an English degree

And membership in Delta Sigma Theta,

a historically Black Greek sorority.

A banker, a teacher, a janitor

because nothing in the big city comes cheap.

Neither do law school dreams 

that she’d sadly never achieve.

Application declined.

I was the second generation born and raised at 11214 Jutland Rd

two hundred miles and three generations away from 1000 Wilson St.

I was the second to put on a uniform and pray my way into educational opportunities.

Another step forward

With each generation there would be an ascension of a descendant,

though not in physical inches.

Another step forward

to the dreams deferred for the one before.

A top Texas scholar, I left home to pursue

that which I could not see, but what I hoped was out there for me.

Graduate school

Another step up

But did I step up,

Or step away?

Praying ended once I left parochial school

Five schools,

Four majors,

Three states

Two graduate programs

One failed marriage

One baby boy

I broke the line of ladies

Bought a two-story house one thousand miles away from home base

My tethers had their lifelines snapped at

78, 72, and 31

I was 11, 23, and 6

Did I run to the future they wanted for me?

Or away from the future I feared would be?

I’m living a repeat of working night and day,

As a single mother

To not only provide,

but to elevate

They held such strength

I felt that I could fly

so I leapt

knowing the ripcord safety net belay were in place

Until they weren’t

Freedom in Their Bindings


lines on shelves

organized by the predilections of the ladies of the house

grandmother, mother, daughter

Mrs. Sirles, Ms. Sirles, and Ms. Lyons

in their living room stood a large homemade bookcase

boards cut and sanded

taking up an entire wall

nearly eight feet tall


without paint

housing the paper and heavy boards

printed letters to elevate



the bookcase was the handiwork of matriarch Mrs. Sirles

she had more books than she could ever read

more books than she’d ever need

in possessing them I believe she felt freed

or possibly attaining a key

to a world denied her,

but access granted to descendants

doors unlocked

barriers unblocked

by words both living and dead

A’Ja Lyons was born and raised in Sunnyside, the oldest African-American community in southern Houston, Texas. Her writing centers on self-reflection and analysis. A’Ja was a book reviewer and column contributor for Pennsylvania Diversity Network’s Valley Gay Press, as well as an article contributor for Gallaudet University’s The Buff and Blue. A’Ja’s work has been published in Sinister Wisdom 85’s Youth/Humor issue, and the Lucky Jefferson digital zine, Awake. She is the proud mother of an athletically gifted and animal-loving child. She can be found at and


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