What Schools Don’t Teach Black Boys in America Today

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.