Taking Flight: Ross Gay’s ‘Be Holding’ tells a Black story through photo and lyric

Ashley Pelletier, Arts & Life Editor

Illustration by (Emma Kogel)

Award-winning author and poet Ross Gay turned a 25-second basketball clip into a book-length poem.

Gay’s poem, “Be Holding,” stemmed from him watching a video of former Philadelphia 76ers forward Julius Erving, making a reverse layup in the fourth game of the 1980 NBA Finals.

“Reverse layup” does not do justice to the moment. Erving floats through the air. The move seems impossible, but with a sweeping arc of his right arm and a little bit of luck, the ball bounces off the backboard and right through the hoop. It’s a magical moment. It’s unsurprising that someone could be transfixed by it, watching it over and over again in the middle of the night as the narrator does in the poem.

Erving’s show-stopping move is the first image Gay illustrated for his Zoom audience at the creative writing department’s first installment of the “Yawp!” series for the spring 2022 semester.

Images like Erving’s are the basis for the story Gay tells in “Be Holding.” He also uses other photographs such as “Fire Escape Collapse,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a Black child and her godmother falling 50 feet to the ground, a photo of a grandmother and her grandson from the sharecropping era of the 1930s and two young women expressing pure joy to the camera.

Two common threads are sewn through these images — Blackness and flight.

For some of the images, the flight is literal. Erving floats through the air as he defies the crowd’s expectations. Another photographed two girls falling, one of whom fell to her death

The other images were more metaphorical. In the photo from the 1930s, the young boy is wearing an aviator cap and holding an origami bird, two symbols of flight that he could not experience. The elation of the two women floats off the page and sets them free long after the photographer captured the moment.

Each image is one of what Gay refers to as a “movement” in the poem.

“I could see a couple movements (in the poem),” Gay said. “What feels like the first movement of the book is that, in some way, Erving is, when he’s flying, he’s looking off. He’s looking back into time and he is looking at this moment where people start flying out of the water and that’s this story or myth or whatever of the flying Ebo.”

The flying Ebos is a story dating back to the early 1800s. It is a story of rebellion by enslaved Black people who were forced to endure the Middle Passage, but refused to accept the degradation they faced.

“(The Ebo) people who were enslaved were brought over here and they were like ‘We’re not gonna be enslaved,’ and they walked into the water and they flew back home,” Gay said. “I knew that there was gonna be some connection to Dr. J’s flight in that.”

“Be Holding” is written entirely in couplets — two- line stanzas. Oftentimes, trains of thought will start in one couplet and continue through several others. This makes it difficult to read on your own, especially if you aren’t accustomed to reading poetry.

However, it is an entirely different experience when Gay reads it. The words come tumbling out of his mouth in the perfect rhythm — the way they were meant to be read in the first place.