Topless in America

Topless in America (12:51)

Paulette Leaphart walked topless from Biloxi, Mississippi to Washington, D.C. after being diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer and undergoing a double mastectomy. Poet Nikky Finney honors Leaphart's bravery with an original poem at the espnW summit. (12:51)

"Modesty is a lie." -- Maya Angelou

She is a girly girl born with a beautiful pelvis

Living in New Orleans, two feet, two breasts,

Eight children, curvaceous and cute, she turns

Heads everyday, social works to pay the bills,

Whispers to God. She's in her 40's when God

Whispers back, that bewildering, 3rd generation,

Stage 2, pummeling, Black woman news. It's

$5000 a month to stay alive. She loses Ta-tas,

Job, car, house. The long scar on her chest runs

Horizontal with the horizon. She sews her eyes

Down its back. A hot air balloon lifts her through

Chemotherapy, beyond despair, arriving in Biloxi.

Somewhere along the road to 50 she overhears

That the pelvis is what makes us human.

Her mother hands over black on black sneakers

With an ancestral silver toe and hip silver swoosh.

Her grandmother loans her a pair of loud

Lime green, South African, Balega socks.

Hit the road daughter. The girly girl knows

She doesn't need breasts to walk, or breasts

To be a girly girl, with both hands she raises

Her blouse over her head. The sun paints

Her chest the same shade of girl that it did

Forty years before when she was just 8 and just

An unknown girl on a beach, topless, with breasts

Still sleeping in the bone's curl just below her

Clavicle. When a Black woman decides to

Walk topless for 1034 miles things get aligned.

Ears line up over shoulders. Shoulders over

Hips. Hips over knees. Her spine is soon

Shot out of a cannon just like the 1850 Insomniac

Harriet, her nipples calibrating due north and

Freedom instead of sleep. When a Black woman

Makes up her mind to walk topless for 1034 miles,

A film crew can change their mind but a daughter's

Witnessing eyes are irreversible. Madeline's

Eight-year-old breasts are still in the deep sleep

Of girlhood when they leave, just like Retro girly

Girl back on the beach. She sets sail from Biloxi

On April 30. Her ghost nipples spin as dual

Compass. Five miles an hour, eight hours a day,

For sixty days. Topless in the sun and the driving

Rain. The Republic's electronic Book of Faces hears

The news and goes neon. 10,000,000 eyes dial in.

The first of twelve police cars stop her. She smiles

And holds a class in indecent exposure along the side

Of the road. There are no Toni Morrison benches

To hold them so they stand. Resolution: It's not

Illegal for her shirt to be off if her nipples are only

Ghosts, following overhead but not really there.

On the police car radio NPR is interviewing

John Napier, paleontologist. The topic is walking.

As the policemen finish up their Selfie with the

Topless woman, who can still turn a head, they

Do not hear the paleontologist say, "Human

Walking is unique. The body, step by step, teeters

On the edge of catastrophe." The mother-daughter

Team is back on the road. The girly girl has 100

Ligaments in each of her feet. Her transverse arch

Is the major weight-bearing bridge in her body.

Her Achilles is her most critical tendon, running from

Her calf muscle to the back of her heel, helping her

Push off with her toes and propel her body toward

Senators and marble halls and the back of Madeline's

Stroller. With each step she takes a new beauty shop

Is under new Construction. This one will not be

Designed & Assembled by the Chairman of the Board

Of Ta-tas. She moves one foot in front of the other.

Highway 29, Highway 1, The Jeff Davis highway,

The Warren Abernathy road, the Blue Star highway,

The monument to the signer of the Declaration of

Independence in Georgia, the Indian mounds of

North Carolina. The topless girly girl keeps an eye

Out for the June Jordan Expressway. The Audre Lorde

Highway. The Gilda Radner overpass. The 7th of 12

Police cars pulls up alongside Madeline's stroller. In

Each new jurisdiction the men and women in blue

Want to have a word with her, want to survey the

Topography of her chest, want answers she's patiently

Already given seven times before, want to make sure

There is no indecent exposure taking place on the

Jeff Davis Highway north. Another class on the same

Topic is held. Over and again the girly girl explains

That wanting to live is legal in every state.

For 60 days the sneering breathtaking rocky road

Exhaust of 18 wheelers coats her mouth. Through

Dust tar and fumes she passes Used Car Lots,

Daydreaming of driving the rest of the way in a

Canary yellow Mustang, convertible. There are

Strip Malls, Mexican restaurants, neon motel signs

Advertising 20 dollar-a-Night Rooms, and 19

Holy ghost praise houses leaning in with tambourine.

The handmaidens of 40, 290 women take turns

Rubbing her legs down every night. Mother and

Madeline munch on 5 pounds of peaches, 4 pounds

Of plums, they talk about school and family and how

Different the rain feels when you cannot run from it.

The mother-daughter train stops to read historical

Markers from Biloxi to Washington DC. The woman

Who has been known to turn a head wants Madeline

To know how the world was made and how it can

Be made differently. She does not drink enough water.

It's April, It's May, It's June. The pavement melts

Beneath their feet. The asphalt doesn't care that she

Doesn't have breasts, doesn't care that Madeline is

8, the blisters, callus feet, the inside of her palms grow

Stones, are bloody. She keeps pushing Madeline's tiny

Sleeping breasts on up the road. It's a tar beach voyage.

And Madeline will not be next. The ghosts of 40,290

Dead women whisper that they have voted to take their

Tops off too. Solidarity forever. Mother and daughter

Eat Little Debbie pies and suck on firecracker popsicles

Until their lips are red, white, and blue. Strangers

Following them on the Republic's electronic Book of Faces

Pull up alongside for Selfies. They deposit small tubs

Of watermelon, a box of KFC, a foil bag of Chick-fil-A,

Another woman drops off a homemade plate made from

Her own dinner pots. The gravel on the road hitchhikes

A ride inside their shoes. The pommeling rain turns the

Jeff Davis highway into a sliding mud pit of summer

Quicksand. The girly girl's breastplate, complete with

Horizon scar, has been staring back at the sun and the

Rain for 45 uncommon days. What does the world see

When a Black woman accustomed to being a woman

And turning heads takes off her top and walks 1034

Miles across America up a highway named for the

President of the Confederacy? A woman teetering

On the edge of catastrophe? A girly girl with her

Missing ghost nipples now turned tuning forks turned

Toward freedom? She is a woman they cannot arrest

For not having what they believe she should have

In order to be called a woman? The burning summer

Rain sizzles on the hot asphalt. The sun bakes their

Two backs into a portrait of two thirsty Marigolds

Climbing. A truck door swings open by mistake hitting

The girly girl as it passes. Pitch and roll girly girl. Get

Up. A woman who has refused her own catastrophe

Is walking across America with her daughter. Police

Car no. 12 arrives. Madeline is asleep. Why don't

They talk to each other on their blue-way radios?

Can't someone dispatch the update? A Black woman

Walking topless across America is not illegal. The girly

Girl's pelvis evolved 1.9 million years ago.

This noble Soldered saddle of bones is what makes us stand upright.

Helps us change direction, spin, swivel, adjust, reach,

Reconfigure, when we find we need to march on and

Not crumble. The long column of our human body

Requires the marvel of the pelvis to conduct when

All else fails. The missing Ta-tas are not what matter.

The pelvis matters. The dead women of the Chorus

Of Breast Cancer matter. God finding the girly girl

On the beach and whispering Go Topless in her ear

Matters. Her mind is 1034 miles away on the marble

Steps of Congress waiting for the rest of her to arrive.

Dear Senator ______, you don't know me but my pelvis is 1.9 million years old and 60, 290 women with pelvises just like mine received a new breast cancer diagnosis in 2015 and 40, 290 died of the disease. I would like a minute of your time. I did not fly here. My testimony was not subpoenaed. I am not the kind of woman to bare all but I have walked topless to show what I will not hide.

When her breasts were cut away she decided

To travel light. She packed nothing of excess.

Only essentials. Firecracker popsicles. Peaches.

Intact Pelvis. Sweet Oil of Madeline. Three changes

Of clothing. A cell phone. A Stroller. And her

Daily Dear God. Her prayers fueled by the power

Of electrolytes and the salt and pepper kindness

Strangers. In the blazing summer sun the sweet

Georgia peaches go down easy in the warmth

Of mother and daughter mouths. "You can still

Be alive without your breasts. I'm still beautiful."

The girly girl proclaims. "Certainly, no less a woman."

The woman who can still turn a head is showing

The world what a woman's body looks like when

War has been declared. The look of more than

Catastrophe. How the curve of the human spine

Will absorb the sad shock of news it did not want

To hear. The magic of Bipedal locomotion + strong

Knees when we stand it up then hold out our arms

And say Walk. The breast-less body in full sail,

Moving the wheels of the determined mind. The

orchestra of the pelvis singing from the Hymnal

Of Courage, page 24. What it means to be woman

And opening a new beauty shop without permit,

License, or permission. The birthday sunrise of the

Girly girl arrives. It's June 30th. She pushes Madeline's

Stroller past Quantico, the Pentagon, the 14th Street

Bridge. The steps of the Capitol see her. Madeline

Stands up. "Senator, thank you for seeing me.

Popsicle? Peach? What say you about a cure?"

Nikky Finney has written four books of poetry, including Head Off & Split, for which she won the 2011 National Book Award. She wrote this original piece for the 2016 espnW Women + Sports Summit.