After Langston Hughes & Sterling Brown

I’ve known rivers long enough to know:

not enough black boys
take their marks at the start line,
      perch on a high wire
      overlooking the world,
      their wings spread wide,
      ready to soar toward the sun,

not enough take the stage,
      except to sing, dance, rap rhymes,
      or mime to songs wearing white-painted faces.

Maybe they’d rather watch and listen
      than read Douglass, Baldwin, and King,
or cruise, chill, shoot hoops, and wander a mall
      than stand unpainted,
      reciting Langston, Terrance,
      Danez, and Jericho.

It shouldn’t matter that white boys,
      whom the world expects to win,
            can wear the black mask,
      like auditioning for a Broadway show___
      morning-bird voice, thick-lipped,
      bulging tight pants and all,
      with a little James Brown swagger
      stepping toward the stage.

Maybe too many black boys in America today
know too much
of shallow streams and dry, desert sands,

don’t hear the bell
      their silence rings
      of untold pain
      that keeps a boy inside a man,

and don’t hear words
of strong black men
who’ve known ancient, dusky rivers,

      men who curse love
      for not loving back,

      who stumble,
      fall, or get knocked down,

      but get up,
      speak truth out loud,

and make a way out of no way
with nothing but a tom-tom
crying, laughing, and singing in their hearts.

Copyright © John Warner Smith. Used with permission of the author.

If you sit a few feet away
from this hand fan that once advertised
Amos Moses Barber Shop in New Orleans,
or if you hold it under a dimly glowing light
in a darkened, half-empty room,

            all you see are eighteen black boys,

their moon-shaped heads
tilting in slightly different directions,
hair trimmed low or nearly bald,
and foreheads bulging
like summer-blooming bulbs.

Their faces tell nothing
            of what they feel and see,

                          what men they will become,
            and what they don’t know
            of days they have yet to live,

when eyes that look at them will shut,
and they will be unseen, untaught,
passed by, forgotten, called other names,
or arrested, handcuffed, and jailed
for crimes they didn’t commit,

or maybe they will vanish
in the night inside an alley, a forest
or a river, or be left to dangle
            and drip from the branch of a tree,

and like clouds of smoke,
their brown skin and charred dreams
            will eclipse the rays beaming
            toward the feet of their children.

Inside brightly-lit, crowded rooms
built of race-etched stone walls
that gird and divide their country,
these boys are the faces of all black men.

Copyright © 2019 by John Warner Smith. This poem originally appeared in Quiddity. Used with the permission of the author.