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ISBN: 978-1-62557-082-6
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Categories Nomadic, Poetry

The Bones Beneath

Publication Date: January 2024


In June of 2023, Black Lawrence Press welcomed numerous existing and forthcoming Nomadic Press titles to our catalogue. The Bones Beneath is one of the forthcoming Nomadic Press titles that we acquired.


The Bones Beneath captures what it means to be American, Southern, diasporan, what it means to belong and not to belong, and finding many ways home. It transports readers across place and time, focusing on race and racism, health and healing, Africa and America, and mysticism and incantations. The poems call us to remember the histories we are coaxed to forget and opens pathways to understand our shared humanity. You will not leave this work without being changed and without understanding how and why there is hope for us to be better.


Sheila Smith McKoy’s The Bones Beneath is a stunning collection that whispers, wails, and yells. In her inescapable incantatory voice, readers are transported to real worlds—from North Carolina to Ghana—and to the imaginary worlds of ever after. This book is a remembrance of departures and returns by a poet who is “the one who would come home.” Smith McKoy summons ancestors and ultimately finds what was lost. These poems are the most brilliant portals. They are “the sun splitting through the blinds.”
Jenny Sadre-Orafai

We carry within us the great force of history as a people living with the eternal ghosts of the enslaved. Sheila Smith McKoy’s remarkable book, The Bones Beneath, explores collectively, our journeys to freedom as African Americans. From early experiences of wielding the power to shape a reality external from forced labor and oppression to the plight of Black war veterans and those of generational poverty left “breathless and broken on a dead-end street,” the beings in Smith’s poems are always rising out of immeasurable harms to recognize their hopes and dreams.
Crystal Simone Smith

Sheila Smith McKoy writes of ancestry, family, and mother’s love, as well as love for the motherland. The Bones Beneath speaks a free language for the collective’s dream of freedom. Here is a compass and guidepost to orient ourselves on the daily walk to a more liberated existence. This collection is an offering…the balm of something akin to wisdom. A gift not simply for us, but for our children’s children.
Freddy Gutierrez

In “The Limbo Contest: Diaspora Temporality and Its Reflection in ‘Praisesong for the Widow’ and ‘Daughters of the Dust,’” Dr. Sheila Smith McKoy writes, “Knowing about the function of time in the ritual space assures cultural survival. These cultural links are strengthened through the writers’ uses of time-based rituals that become fused in Diaspora literature as limbo time,” and in these time traveling poems, rituals in the making, we encounter Black women through history. Black women are standing proud in the background of poems, quiet actions acting as a cause for a greater effect. Black women are placed at the center of the poems. Like traditional African conceits of religion, the women in The Bones Beneath are all-encompassing and Gods.
Tyree Daye

As I read the miracle of The Bones Beneath, over and over again I felt my body unloosed from the boundedness of time. My consciousness seemed to slip into evocative memory and histories – not mine and yet so very mine – deftly carried by Smith McKoy’s astute application of just the right word and just the right form at just the right moment. Her work explores migrational devastation and diasporic longing of the woman of African descent, the steely and tender qualities of a mother’s love, all packaged within a scripting against chronology as she traces the extended seasons – and love is a season – often through relational trinity haiku. Her poems throw the bones and linger, as she invokes so many voices onto and beyond the page; one might say the book is an extended libretto, the score revealed in the musical curl of language on white pages. In her generosity, she also allows us to see how she teaches those who have carried such disbelief on the continual harms inflicted on Black peoples and our defiant resistance in so many ways; in one poem, we see a student who realizes, after seeing the ruined bodies of Black people murdered by mobs, that one of their grandparents might have enacted such hate into taking a life, how they are changed by this teary realization. The poem, much as this book, leads us into the edge of transmutation. Smith McKoy dares to peel back shadow and pain through the poetry of witness, agitation, and still, through what must be an otherworldly attainment, she also offers us steadfast love, resilience, wonder, and a reverence. This work is holy, eternal, and transfiguring.
Raina J. León

The Bones Beneath is a poetic history lesson on race, gender, and class examined through multiple lenses. Starting with herself, Smith Mckoy expertly draws from her travels to multiple African locations like Kampala, Darfur, Accra and Ghana, but doesn’t forget to tend to her American roots like Oakland and Raleigh. In “Amnesiac,” Smith Mckoy’s words sparkle as she reminds Americans how interconnected we all truly are: “we all carry Africa/some on our skins/others in the burdens of forgetting.” The Bones does ask the big, overarching questions, but also captivates during more intimate moments. Boasting motherly love in “Outdooring,” Smith Mckoy shares: “Between their calls, I turned to my child, this mage who might change the world, just to see his light.” As comfortable using Haibun and Haiku as she is with the blues format—this poet illustrates that the past and the future are inextricably connected/entangled. Smith Mckoy asks us to take a look at ourselves, shadows and all, to understand our collective compositions; she also tells us, much like poetry, the answers can be oh so: “like when the bones beneath the routes of the slave ships still call for Yemaya. Listen—all you have to do is listen.”
celeste doaks

Smith McKoy, in The Bones Beneath, takes readers on journeys of history, excavation, memory, re-memory, discovery, and reclamation. Thoughts of ancestry, freedom, and home are central to the volume and manifest in a variety of ways. How, for example, is the generally accepted narrative about American slavery revised when it needs to incorporate a young mixed-race girl whose white grandmother sends her to be educated in France? Neither her “flawless” French nor her “home-grown” English (and certainly not her status as governess to her siblings) saves her from being sold once the grandmother dies. How does a mother, with a Bible under her pillow and a gun beneath her mattress, strategize to survive possible violence from a son whose mental state has been altered permanently in a college hazing episode? How does a returned child of Africa process the historical slave trade and concepts of home against the backdrop of contemporary sex-trafficking atrocities in one of the African countries she visits? Smith McKoy intersperses these incidents with Haiku-like reflections on nature and love, with both positive and troubling familial and romantic ties, and with historical as well as personal hauntings. Reflective and accessible, most of the poems are in free verse. A few are short narratives, followed by brief and poignant poetic sentiments. Saturated with history, family, relationships, and an expansive geography, The Bones Beneath is a strikingly appealing volume that wraps joy around painful memories, claims immortality for persons and events presumed to be forgotten, and reminds readers that history is as close as imagination.
Trudier Harris

About the Author

© Linda Jones Photography

Sheila Smith McKoy

Sheila Smith McKoy earned her BA at North Carolina State University, her MA at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and her PhD at Duke University. An award-winning poet, fiction writer, and filmmaker, she is the recipient of the 2020 Muriel Craft Bailey Memorial Prize in poetry and co-author of One Window’s Light: A Haiku Collection, a collaboration of five Black poets in celebration of the haiku tradition. She has written, produced, directed or served as executive producer for four documentaries: St Agnes: The Untold Story (2012), Opening Doors: The Lives and Legacies of Dr. Lawrence M. Clark and Dr. Augustus M. Witherspoon (2013), WLLE: A Voice of the Community (Co-Executive Producer, 2015), and Luwero: A Convesation about War, Peace and Gender (2017). She served as editor of Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora for nine years, 2006 – 2015. Smith McKoy has authored or edited several scholarly books, including When Whites Riot: Writing Race and Violence in American and South African Cultures (2001), The Elizabeth Keckley Reader a two-volume series (2016 and 2017), Recovering the African Feminine Divine: Yemenja Rising, and Teaching Literature and Writing in Prisons (forthcoming 2024). A trained mediator, Smith McKoy specializes in restorative justice practices. A native of Raleigh, NC, she lives in San Francisco.    

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