#BlaPoWriMo: Reading Lesson (poem)

African . . .

American . . .

Elsewhere . . .

We drive by American Furniture Warehouse and my son—
leaning over his car seat, pressing his face into the glass window—
clicks his tongue, purses his lips,
scrounges his brain for the sound to match the letter,
enunciates each syllable as he attempts to read
the words displayed across the front of the building.

I want to applaud him;
pronouncing the word A-MER-I-CAN
at three when he’s only just learned the alphabet
deserves ice cream, chocolate chip cookies,
a kiss on the forehead from mommy.
My little protégé, grandson of W.E.B. Du Bois,
a talented tenth to raise his people from the pits of darkness.

But I fear how he discovered the other two . . .

African . . .
Elsewhere . . .

as if he believes his heritage to be disposable.

And I worry.

Do I not read enough tales of Anansi, the cunning spider
before he falls asleep? Does my forgetful husband
allow him to watch mind-numbing cartoons
of cross-eyed doofuses, and drooling talking sponges
instead of the Gullah Gullah Island reruns
I record and set aside for him?
Does he still play with his action figures—
John Stewart’s Green Lantern?
Falcon soaring above the Marvel Universe?

I did it, mommy. I read the sign!

I look at him through the rearview mirror,
smile weakly at my baby boy’s reflection.
Does he know who he is? Can he see himself in
the myths and fables, the educational programming,
the animated superheroes?
I want to pull over,  sweep him up in my warm, Black embrace.
There’s nothing elsewhere about being African,
I wish I could say with an undeceiving heart.


Written for today’s #BlaPoWriMo prompt: write a poem for your sons. This is a revision to an older poem I wrote last year. Click here to read the original.

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for Your Sons

A Note on My Son’s Face

Tonight, I look, thunderstruck
at the gold head of my grandchild.
Almost asleep, he buries his feet
between my thighs;
his little straw eyes
close in the near dark.
I smell the warmth of his raw
slightly foul breath, the new death
waiting to rot inside him.
Our breaths equalize our heartbeats;
every muscle of the chest uncoils,
the arm bones loosen in the nest
of nerves. I think of the peace
of walking through the house,
pointing to the name of this, the name of that,
an educator of a new man.

Mother. Grandmother. Wise
Snake-woman who will show the way;
Spider-woman whose black tentacles
hold him precious. Or will tear off his head,
her teeth over the little husband,
the small fist clotted in trust at her breast.

This morning, looking at the face of his father,
I remembered how, an infant, his face was too dark,
nose too broad, mouth too wide.
I did not look in that mirror
and see the face that could save me
from my own darkness.
Did he, looking in my eye, see
what I turned from:
my own dark grandmother
bending over gladioli in the field,
her shaking black hand defenseless
at the shining cock of flower?

I wanted that face to die,
to be reborn in the face of a white child.

I wanted the soul to stay the same,
for I loved to death,
to damnation and God-death,
the soul that broke out of me.
I crowed: My Son! My Beautiful!
But when I peeked in the basket,
I saw the face of a black man.

Did I bend over his nose
and straighten it with my fingers
like a vine growing the wrong way?
Did he feel my hand in malice?

Generations we prayed and fucked
for this light child,
the shining god of the second coming;
we bow down in shame
and carry the children of the past
in our wallets, begging forgiveness.

A picture in a book,
a lynching.
The bland faces of men who watch
a Christ go up in flames, smiling,
as if he were a hooked
fish, a felled antelope, some
wild thing tied to boards and burned.
His charring body
gives off light—a halo
burns out of him.
His face scorched featureless;
the hair matted to the scalp
like feathers.
One man stands with his hand on his hip,
another with his arm
slung over the shoulder of a friend,
as if this moment were large enough
to hold affection.

How can we wake
from a dream
we are born into,
that shines around us,
the terrible bright air?

Having awakened,
having seen our own bloody hands,
how can we ask forgiveness,
bring before our children the real
monster of their nightmares?

The worst is true.
Everything you did not want to know.

—Toi Derricotte, from Captivity (1989)


The speaker of this poem expresses true fears that even in 2016 we cannot escape. In the past year and a half we’ve seen televised on national news media the killings of numerous innocent young black men. Mothers cry out for there children, burying them much too soon while the outlets seek ways to justify the murders.

He was wearing a hoodie; he must be a thug. He was playing his rap music too loudly; he should be used to hearing bullets in the background. He was six feet tall, over 200 pounds, and dark skin; that automatically qualifies him as armed and dangerous. He was waving a (toy) gun; he was asking to be shot.

A mother pulls back the blanket to see her precious baby boy and instead she finds the face of a black man. A stereotyped brute with a target on his back. Already his expiry clock is counting down. How soon will he be taken away from her? Twenty-four? Seventeen? Sixteen? Eighteen? Twelve?


When she says, “I wanted that face to die/to be reborn in the face of a white child,” it’s not because she hates his skin, but she understands that white sons live longer; their skin hasn’t been charred with the dark histories of hatred, imagined fear.

Maybe a white son will be safe the morning she forgets to pray over him before he exists the front door. Maybe a white son will graduate high school without bullet holes in his body, go to college without a noose around his neck. Maybe a white son will make it to a jail cell alive if ever arrested. Maybe a white son will live to see his twenty-first birthday. Maybe a white son will get to play cops and robbers like other little boys without being labeled a menace.

Black or white, losing a child is never easy, but for a black mother to have hers snatched from her protective embrace and then watch him be demonized by those who never knew him, who could never understand how hard she tried to shelter him from the monsters of this world only for the world to turn him into a monster it had to extinguish, it’s even worse.

For today’s #BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem about your black son. What are your fears? Will he prevail in the life you prayed for him? Strip down the stereotypes, the suspicions and unease projected onto his skin. Show the world the wide-eyed, soft-skinned, bubble-blowing baby boy you first held in your arms.