"Black Boy" and "Dixie"

Black Boy

              after Langston Hughes

Nation Time, 1966.
Courtroom gavels slammed
like sledgehammers,
shattering glass clouds.
Quietly in the night,
a key turned and clicked,
ring-bolts snapped, and a door
wide as the Middle Passage
swung open.  Standing
at the threshold,
he faced two worlds,
and stepped into the one unknown.
            I am the darker brother, he said.
            your schoolhouse Negro,
            standing for freedom.
            Make me ugly.
            Make me hurt.
            Make me cry.

He chose white teachers,
white history,
white lies,
white spit.
He chose snakes,
wolves and pious holy rollers.
            Shame me, he said.
            Make me somebody
            nobody wants
            to stand around.
            Make me your social problem.
            Make me feel lost, branded
            and hide whipped.
            Make me ugly.
            Make me hurt.
            Make me cry.

He chose Tar Baby,
Monkey, Stink Bug, Sambo, Tom:
names they called him
when he stood in his broken shoes,
smothering in his hopes and dreams.
But, damn, look at him standing now.




No named street, no yards
or playground to call our own,
only small plots of dirt between sidewalks
laid like crosses or grave markers
for names of large families
who lived in the sprawling red duplexes
the government had built.

I didn’t know the meaning of Dixie
until I read American history,
but no one ever said
the projects and across the tracks meant
colored and poor.  No one taught that
Dixie meant hate.

Some words we spoke
I never saw in print, like cush cush,
which meant dinner when there was little
else to eat except yellow corn meal
mixed with salt and water, then
cooked in a black iron skillet
until fluffed and nearly burnt,
served with milk and figs.

Birth and death came early but naturally.
Never a siren or flashing light.
And we didn’t have seasons, just days
spent catching sunbeams, hopping tombs
or making games out of rocks and sticks. 

Neighbors didn’t lock their doors.
We entered without knocking
or peeped inside, pressing our noses
against the busted, smoke-black screens,
sniffing baked bread, fried fish,
and scents of drudgery. 
Like family, we ate.

A half-century later, families gone,
doors and windows boarded,
the buildings still stand.
So does the name.



John Warner Smith’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Callaloo, Antioch Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Quiddity, Transition, and numerous other literary journals. Smith’s second book-length collection, Soul Be A Witness (MadHat Press), was published in 2016. His debut collection, A Mandala of Hands, was published by Aldrich Press / Kelsay Books in 2015. Smith’s poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for the Sundress Best of the Net Anthology. A Cave Canem Fellow, Smith earned his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. He teaches English at Southern University in Baton Rouge and runs a non-profit organization dedicated to education reform in Louisiana. Smith’s poetry can be found at www.johnwarnersmith.com.


Edited for Unlikely by Rosalyn Spencer, #BlackArtMatters Guest Editor
Last revised on Thursday, September 1, 2016 - 17:42