Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for Your Sons

A Note on My Son’s Face

I.
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.

II.
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.

III.
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?

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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.

—Nortina

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the Activist

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

—Claude McKay, from Harlem Shadows (1922)

 

Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” was written amidst violent race riots in the summer of 1919 which included 28 public lynches. McKay famously used the sonnet form to speak against racism and call his community to action, to fight back.

The beauty of “If We Must Die” is that it’s universal. Even without knowing the history behind it, anyone facing oppression can identify with the powerful message within its lines. It’s even said that Winston Churchill read the poem in the House of Commons during World War II and that many British soldiers carried copies of the poem on their person.

Almost a century later, McKay’s poem still speaks to a generation fighting for their lives. Last year saw a rise in a new kind of civil rights activism, the Black Lives Matter Movement, in the aftermath of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and so many other unarmed brothers and sisters, unjustly slain, killed by law enforcement under questionable circumstances, seemingly with no remorse.

Stephen Lam / Reuters
Stephen Lam / Reuters

Screams for justice rose above the flames consuming cities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. While the majority of protests were peaceful, many turned violent, but all were met with stiff police response in full-on riot gear.

Demonstrators put on die-ins in large shopping malls and on the sides of highways, saying, if they must die, they will not leave this earth until the world knows and respects that Black lives still exist and matter equal to every one else.

Today’s optional prompt for #BlaPoWriMo is to write a poem (bonus points if it’s a sonnet) that condemns racism. Write a poem for the contemporary activist who refuses to be picked off by an establishment that views her race as expendable. Write a poem for a people who will not be made victims anymore.

—Nortina

To Protect and Serve . . . ? #WalterScott

The dense fog sinks to the ground and conceals the officer’s body underneath a blanket, gray as his skin.

View of the gun sharpens amongst blurred surroundings as it pierces the thick air, firing eight rounds toward the man fleeing for the abandoned rail car on the other side of the tracks, praying the rusted metal will block the approaching bullets.

One final shot strikes underneath his left shoulder blade. I crumple to the ground as he crumples, face first, heart bleeding onto the gravel.

“I said, hands behind your back!”

Does he not realize we’ve stopped breathing?

word count: 98

—Nortina


This is dedicated to Walter L. Scott, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and all of my fathers, brothers, and sons who have lost their lives to men sworn to “protect and serve.”

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly challenge where you must write a story in 100 words or less using the provided photo prompt as inspiration. Click the froggy icon to ready other stories and add your own.

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© Jennifer Pendergast