Javon Johnson – “cuz he’s black”

Performing during semifinals of the 2013 National Poetry Slam for Da Poetry Lounge. DPL took second place in the tournament.


“cuz he’s black & poor
he’s disappeared
the name waz lost”
-Ntozake Shange

So I’m driving down the street with
my 4-year-old nephew.
He, knocking back a juice
box, me, a Snapple, today y’all
we are doing manly shit. I love
watching the way his mind works.
He asks a million questions.
Uncle, why is the sky blue?
Uncle, how do cars go?
Uncle, why don’t dogs talk?
Uncle, uncle, uncle, he asks,
uncle, uncle, uncle, he asks
uncle uncle uncle
as if his voice box is
a warped record. I try my best
to answer every question, I do.
I say it’s because the way
the sun lights up the outer space.
It’s because engines
make the wheels go.
It’s because their minds aren’t
quite like ours. I say Yes.
No. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. I don’t know.
Who knows? Maybe. We laugh.
He smiles at me, looks out the window,
spots a cop car, drops his seat
and says,
“Oh man, Uncle, 5-0, we gotta hide.”
I’ll be honest. I’m not happy
with the way we raise our Black boys.
Don’t like the fact that
he learned to hide
from the cops before
he knew how to read.
Angrier that his survival
depends more on
his ability to deal
with the “authorities”
than it does his own literacy.
“Get up,” I yell at him. “In this car, in this family,
we are not afraid
of the law.”
I wonder if he can hear
the uncertainty in my voice.
Is today the day he learns
that uncle is willing to lie to him,
that I am more human
than hero?
We both know the truth
is far more complex than
do not hide. We both know too many
Black boys who disappeared.
Names lost.
Know too many Trayvon Martins
Oscar Grants
and Abner Louimas, know too many
Sean Bells, and Amadou Diallos
Know too well that we are
the hard-boiled sons of Emmett Till.
Still, we both know
it’s not about whether or not
the shooter is racist,
it’s about how poor Black boys
are treated as problems
well before we are treated as people.
Black boys in this country
cannot afford
to play cops and robbers
if we’re always considered the latter,
don’t have the luxury
of playing war
when we’re already in one.
Where I’m from,
seeing cop cars drive
down the street feels a lot
like low-flying planes in New York
City. Where I’m from, routine traffic
stops are more like mine
fields, any wrong move
could very well mean your life.
And how do I look my nephew in his apple face
and tell him to be strong when we both know
black boys are murdered every day, simply
for standing up for themselves? I take him
by the hand, I say
be strong. I say be smart. Be kind, and polite.
Know your laws. Be aware of
how quickly your hands move
to pocket for wallet or ID,
be more aware of how quickly
the officer’s hand moves to holster, for gun.
Be Black. Be a boy and have fun,
because this world will force you to
become a man much quicker
than you need to.
“Uncle,” he asks, “what happens
if the cop is really mean?”
And, it scares me to
know that he, like
so many Black boys,
is getting ready for a war
I can’t prepare him for.

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