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.


New Orleans, a Tuesday, 7:30 A.M.
I’m sipping coffee at a McDonald’s on Canal
when two young black men, early twenties perhaps,
walk in, buying nothing. Suddenly,
I’m aboard a mothership,
streaking toward the farthest stars.

One, like a fly, bobs the aisles, sweaty
in his Crown Royal muscle shirt.
Gym shorts hanging off his ass,
headset in his ears, he pantomimes
a singer and dances a Mardi Gras mambo
in July, with himself, second-lining
silky-smoothly across the floor, out the door,
onto the parking lot—his own block party
without the block.

The other, well-groomed, small backpack,
talks loudly, eloquently to himself
about home, what it is, isn’t and should be, then,
facing the faces, he launches a soliloquy
of senseless babble,
and you sense the other—
the voices, a stage, curtain and cast,
his fans and followers looking on,
inside his head.

I’m gazing stars. Drawn to the glow
of their wayward worlds,
I can’t help
but pause, watch and listen.
I’m entertained,
but scared, because they’re black men
and I’m one, too,
with a son and grandsons of my own,
and I can’t help
but ponder: what’s loose,
what’s broken, what’s gone wrong,
what’s the fix?

Moving Men

Men of the moving company arrive
in gray crew neck shirts and hard-toe boots,
carrying dollies, ropes and quilts,
a few songs and small talk
to pass the time. They lift, pull
and raise, then sail the séance
of grit golden sands.
They pull cups, pour water,
and pass bread, potatoes and fried meat.
These cocoa-tinted, bred, burned,
branded and bull-whipped men
have barely begun to move.
It’s only morning. Give them a day.

Renaissance Man

After Liston, they fell like dominoes:
Folley, Terrell, Williams, Mildenberger,
London, Cooper, Chuvalo, and Patterson,
dizzied by his lightning quick jabs
and the waltz of his dazzling white shoes,
sparkling like chrome
as he bicycled across the canvas.

We stood witness to the creation
of modern day myth—Black Superman
from Krypton, Kentucky,
undefeated god of the ring,
clairvoyant and charismatic,
denigrating and taunting challengers

while staring into his crystal ball.

He wanted to go to heaven so I beat him in seven.
It ain’t no jive, he’ll go in five.
He might be great but he’ll fall in eight.

Ali vernacular.
Ali meter.
Ali rhyme.
Ali renaissance:
        black beauty,
        black ballet,
        black poetry
        on the wings of a butterfly,

with foot work, hand speed, and power
that whupped ass.