High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race — Johnny Ward

Poet and teacher Sarah Marcus with her high school students.

Poet and teacher Sarah Marcus with her high school students.

A note from Series Editor Sarah Marcus: Born from a powerful in-class discussion that we had about gender, race, and the role of masculinity in rape culture, “Be A Man/Be A Woman” poems are an analysis of gendered personal experience and a study of our intersectionality. This poetry series was inspired by a HuffPost essay I wrote called, “Why I Teach Feminism at an Urban High School.” The poets featured here are students from my 12th Grade Resistance Writing class whose work I found to be brave, fearless, and progressive. Please help me support their crucial and influential voices.

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Johnny Ward is a senior in my Resistance Writing class. His life is music. He enjoys working out and good food. He follows sports and the news, and he constantly sends me relevant and funny BuzzFeed lists and videos. He says that our class has opened his eyes to what feminism actually meant.  “I thought it meant you were feminine, or a lesbian, or pro-women to the point that you were anti-men. Now, I know it means standing up for women’s rights and being conscious to the fact that lack of equality is a problem and that anyone can be a feminist.” His advice to young writers is to practice, have confidence, practice, and perform.

I especially love this poem for its insistent and aggressive repetition. Johnny maintains a sturdy rhythm that serves to highlight the contradictory messages we send young men. He writes about the struggle to come out of the cold and embrace connection. This poem commands our respect on many levels.

See Johnny read his poem here.

Be A Man

I’m young
I’m young but
I feel so old
If I may be so bold let me say
It’s more than just cold out here
It’s more than just cold out here
You need more than just a coat out here
You need coats out here

Men!
They coming for your throats out here
But be a man
Tell me what are tears?
I’m unfamiliar
I ain’t been able to cry since… eh, can’t remember

I’m seventeen, look at me
Still manhood’s a puzzle
I carry a whole household on my back with back trouble
and still going through black struggles
But anyway be a man
Showing emotion is weak
or it’s how you show it
If so, then please explain that to me
Like what do I do whenever I see
My friend going through it?
Walk up and just give her a hug then leave?
I wasn’t taught to console nor to be consoled
By God!
It took Jesus 16 years to even reach my soul
Pardon my rude mouth he forgave it already
I’m making the change
I prayed it already

Wish I could forgive but I hold grudges
Like that one time
One time said “your father was a joke n****, you the punch line!”

Life ain’t easy it’s full of opinions
“You ain’t a man until you first had sex”
“You ain’t a man until you gotcha first check”
“You ain’t a man till you known through respect”
“You ain’t a man till you build intellect”
“You ain’t a man till you made yo first band”
“Think you a man with that gun in yo hand?”
“You ain’t a man till yo words ain’t see through”
“You ain’t a man till we believe you”
“You ain’t a man till yo actions speak for you”
“You ain’t a man till these women adore you”
“You ain’t nothing till you love yourself”
“Aye you a man, man why you need help?!”

We what we want we just got to connect
We’ll be alright we just need to respect
We what we want we just got to connect
We’ll be alright we just need to respect.

High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race — DeJuan Brooks

Poet and teacher Sarah Marcus with her high school students.

Poet and teacher Sarah Marcus with her high school students.

A note from Series Editor Sarah Marcus: Born from a powerful in-class discussion that we had about gender, race, and the role of masculinity in rape culture, “Be A Man/Be A Woman” poems are an analysis of gendered personal experience and a study of our intersectionality. This poetry series was inspired by a HuffPost essay I wrote called, “Why I Teach Feminism at an Urban High School.” The poets featured here are students from my 12th Grade Resistance Writing class whose work I found to be brave, fearless, and progressive. Please help me support their crucial and influential voices.

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DeJuan Brooks is a senior writer in my Resistance Writing Class. His work has previously appeared in As It Ought To Be as part of a collective response to the prompt “We Can’t Breathe.”  He enjoys good music, playing  sports, and writing. His favorite author is Alex Haley. DeJuan is committed to bettering his Cleveland community. He says, “A lot of people don’t  want to change anything. They get complacent with the way things are. If no one’s going to help, I might as well try.” In the following poem, I most admire his careful attention to rhyme and the natural rhythm that highlights and reinforces the idea that we are trapped in an insidious cycle of repressed emotion and stereotypes. This poem was the poem that inspired this series. I am consistently impressed by DeJuan’s persistence, poise, and maturity. I hope you enjoy this work as much as I do.

See DeJuan read his poem here.

Be A Man

The face of a young black man in the inner city. The growing pains that make him “strong.”
The fights, the bruises, the cuts, the scrapes. The tears that came and were told to go away.
We internalize pain for an image we portray. Cuz we all know if you emotional as a girl
your dad gets ashamed. People may think that’s crazy, he just a baby,
but we all know that boy in the 4th or 5th grade who at recess played patty cake
or double dutched way too much. So your dad gives you that look to stay away,
cuz he knows what you don’t, and he’s keeping you “safe.”
And we don’t try to even exercise our free right and go over there and play,
cuz we supposed to be growing to be men, and not that way. Cuz the way we raised,
boys don’t cry, boys don’t walk that way, boys stay strong, boys portray men who are
messed up themselves, cuz that’s how we was raised.
Your dad gets more proud when you fight, then when you tell em’ bout your pain.
When you fall down, you stand up. You crying, then man up. We release pain on others,
we’re supposed to be brothers, but I gotta figure out how to release this some other way.
They say fight like a man, but what people don’t understand is if you’ve never seen
my mom throw hands, you’ll never understand what a real fight is.
A whole theory deferred.
I know men, women, even children who would kill to have as much pride as her.
I lived my whole life knowing my worth, so when they tell me to man up,
like men set the precedent of the world, like this woman who brought me into the world
isn’t stronger than any man or boy. I was raised as a boy and I turned into a man,
but when they tell me I’m acting like a girl, I think of the fight my mom endured.
So, when they say I’m acting like a girl, I feel like I’m the strongest man in the world.