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.
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.
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
They coming for your throats out here
But be a man
Tell me what are tears?
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
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.
Cleveland high-school students respond to state violence.
An introduction from teacher and project coordinator Sarah Marcus:
I never wanted to be a teacher. It took some weathering to arrive here. Years of resisting the inevitable. Growing up, entitled and drug addicted, I was quite vicious to my own teachers. I couldn’t wait to “get out.” But, at some point, we become aware that people are watching us.
I am impossibly lucky to get to work with students at an urban high school in Cleveland, Ohio. It turns out that their determined spirit is the chant I told my child-self to remember. They remind me every day why our actions matter. They remind me to be patient and to be generous. They remind me why it’s important to stay in a place that is struggling. Because if we leave, who will be there to help advocate?
Black Lives Matter. Reverse racism does not exist. You will not find me saying “All Lives Matter.” The problem isn’t with the words themselves. They make sense, all lives should matter. But the reality on the ground is that they don’t. Not here. Not right now. The evidence is suffocating (literally). Because racism is institutionalized, All Lives Matter is a misguided response to Black Lives Matter. It works to soften the truth, to bury it, to make it more bearable. This is a terrible mistake. We should not be allowed to swallow this injustice. It hurts on purpose. More insidiously, All Lives Matter works to completely negate Black Lives Matter. This is the way we rewrite history. The way we forget on purpose.
As a white, Jewish woman I can’t even begin to pretend to know or relate to what my kids are up against. I speak from a place of privilege. I can only guide them to use their voices. I can only teach them about civil disobedience. I can only encourage them to write and speak, because they matter. They matter so much. My whole heart is filled with gratitude as I stand beside them while they walk through this messy, dangerous world with such dignity and grace.
The following is a collection of creative student responses to the recent extrajudicial killings and the deep-rooted issues that continue to plague our communities.
We mourn for the family of Clevelander Tamir Rice. We mourn for all of the families touched by this abhorrent abuse of power. We won’t hold our breath. We will fill their air with song.
– Sarah Marcus, Cleveland teacher and poet
“Premonitions” of Hope
Perspective is one of the most important things you are granted in life. It’s the opinion you have that no one can understand unless they’re you. Being a young black man from inner city Cleveland your perspective is to feel hopeless. Our school system and economical position continuously shows us we aren’t meant to have any self worth. I’ve grown up in a society that feels hopeless. Like their meaning of life is nothing more than what they have been told their whole lives. Rather, it’s on TV, in movies, or in reality that their lives don’t matter. The reason the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases are so pivotal is because it’s people telling us through the legal system that the worth of black lives isn’t even jail time for a murder. They justify murder through personifications like “he was a hoodlum” or “he disobeyed the law” like asking “why” to a man putting handcuffs on you is reason for murder. They say things like “it’s a black president” to set precedent for inequality, but acting if change is really happening. It’s deeper than a life. It’s a statement. We look at the problem and say “how?” We live in a world where there is almost no black heroes from the streets to comic books, and black men have a murder rate from police that is 6 times higher than whites when we’re 1/3 of the population. It’s been almost 50 years since segregation, yet we protest and profess pain like it’s 1968. It’s 2014, yet we march and fight for our lives to be equal as one that is white. Malcolm X once said, “if you stick a knife in 6 inches and pull it out 3 inches you can’t act like the problem has been resolved.” The problem, the cause, and the solution is that it’s deeper than police brutality, it’s deeper than the wrong decisions. The problem is for 150 plus years, equality between the lives that are black and white seems like fiction. That’s the reason there is so much black crime and the reasons why we feel worthless and hurt, because we’ve been fighting since we were slaves and obviously…… no one hears us.
– DeJuan Rocius Brooks, a human being, also class of 2015
I CAN’T BREATHE!!
I can’t breathe…
gasping for air while I’m on my knees,
feeling like I’m dying from a severe disease
YELLING FOR HELP BUT THERE IS NO ONE I SEE!!
I CAN’T BREATHE!!
It’s killing me, its killing me!
This disease that’s constantly hurting me,
My mother, my father,
my sister, my brother…
Not just “my”…
Why can’t we all be together?
You see, the world looks out for themselves…
Everyone wants to make it home,
Who would ever want to be alone?
Really? Is that still going on?
Is it true the ones they want us to look up to and respect are the very ones who are killing us with their very own gun?
Day After Day… WE CRY!!
Because The Ones We Adore…
Unfortunately, Are The Ones We Having To Say Those Words Too…
That We Hate To Say
Day After Day,
Hoping There Will Be Unity Across The USA
I said I CAN’T BREATHE!!!
Will You Watch Me Die Or Will You Help Me Change Society?!
– Malik D. Anderson, Class of 2015
I Can’t Breathe
I can’t breathe. I can barely gasp for air knowing that my brothers are being killed and have no chance of success. It hurts me deeply to know that my ancestors fought for me and everyone around me to have equality and justice, but years later we are still fighting for life and talking about the same problems. The time changes but the history of it all stays the same, and although history can never be changed, we as leaders of the community have the power to break the cycle so that history does not continue to repeat itself.
Unfortunately, most of the time it takes a person to be affected directly by violence for one to make a change. This is what happened to me. My freshman year of high school, I lost one of my friends to violence; he was shot 3 times in the head. T’John would now be eighteen years old and looking forward to graduation day. Because I went through this hard loss of a friend, I did not want anyone else to feel the pain that I had felt. Losing a life to violence is always hard to deal with, but when a community loses a child, it is a feeling that cannot be explained.
When I heard the news of 12 year old Clevelander Tamir Rice being killed by a police officer, I experienced the same pain that I felt when my friend was killed. I lost another T’John it was as if I knew Tamir. My heart hurts knowing that his family is now going through what I went through; another child whose dreams have been snatched away from him by a bullet.
I can’t understand why so many people are treating the African American race as if we do not belong in this society. I hear too often in my surroundings that its “Us vs. THEM.” I never want to believe that someone is against my life because I am not the same color as them. Karter Zaher said, “We were all human beings until race disconnected us, religion separated us, politics divided us, and wealth classified us.” I am surrounded by tons of people everyday who care deeply about my future and what it should look like; some of these people are not the same race as me, however, that doesn’t change the level of love that they have for me. It seems as if we as a people have forgotten that we are all humans. We were all made in God’s image and likeness of him. The injustices that are going on in Ferguson and Cleveland and New York and across this country are a reflection of this disconnection that we have from our creator. The injustice that has happened to Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray, Kendric McDade, and countless others is a reflection that there is no dignity left in the value of human life. How many more people need to die for you to take action?
– A’bria Robinson, Class of 2015
We Will Breathe
Who is man?
Am I man?
Is my brother man?
Is my father man?
I am man.
I am black
I am man.
All African Americans are man.
We are equal to you whites,
To all people.
Characteristics of a man:
Intelligence beyond that of animals (check).
The black man meets all of these and more.
Speech, reason, power of knowledge, heaven-erected face, inclinations, hopes, fears, aspirations, and prophecies all set the Black man apart from animals.
So, who are you to deny one that is clearly man
HOW ARE YOU TO DENY THESE BLACK MEN THE RIGHT TO WHAT IS DUTIFULLY THEIRS?
The Negro is a man!
He deserves all rights available to whites.
“Man is distinguished from all other animals, in that he resists as well as adapts himself to his circumstances.”
Anglo-Saxon whites ripped us from our home, but we adapted to this new land.
YOU made us slaves, servants, animals.
YOU forgot – no disregarded – the fact that
Blacks are men.
Man does not take things as he finds them, he adapts, he changes his circumstance
The black man will no longer take this current treatment of life.
The black man will gain his right to dignity
His right to life
His right to justice
His right to opportunities.
Whites will no longer:
Oppress against the African man.
HE is equally a man
The Negro is refusing to be read out of the human family.
The BLACK man will be made a FREE MAN!
Whether you are or not willing to let this liberation ensue.
Are men and will be treated as such.
We will be free.
We will be recognized as who we are–
–Saiida Bowie-Little, Class of 2015
I Can’t Breathe
The violence around the nation has taken a tremendous toll on the people. As I sit and listen to all the pleas, opinions, and declarations I am worried. I don’t understand the theories regarding all the violence that’s going on in Ferguson. All I hear is black and white, and it should not be so. I cannot believe the insight people are going towards. It’s like our morals as people have completely changed. The people see a white man killing another black man. It’s way bigger than that. It’s about one human being killing another. It’s so simple. We don’t love each other anymore. What happened to the respect of life and dignity? There was a boy that I knew in grade school. Sadly, he was shot and lost his life. My friend and I went walking down the street one day, and the pool of blood where he got shot was never cleaned up. They just left it. We no longer look out for one another and look at each other as brothers and sisters. You’re either my enemy or you’re nothing. What kind of logic is that? Race is not the issue anymore; it’s the value of human life. Human lives are being taken for no reason. We’re beating each other and ridiculing each other. Where is the love? We are all called to love each other. Instead of destroying we should be loving. Someone’s life being taken away should be mourned, but the reaction is not receivable. The receivable action is when my brothers and sisters come together. Regardless if they’re black, white, Latino, Muslim or Catholic. We want them to all come together and not fight each other, but fight the injustice of the system.
– Asia Terry, Class of 2015
How Dare You
Please don’t ask me.
Please, don’t ask me why I have so much hate in my heart.
Why I’m losing hope in my society.
Look at the people, the children.
Look at how beauty is not in the eye of the beholder,
It’s in society’s hands if you are acceptable.
Look at how we label ourselves and our peers
Calling women bad bitches or guys niggas
Instead of ladies and gentlemen.
Whereas back then that was taken as an insult
That’s become one of the labels we accept to call ourselves.
Being labeled by our skin color and not our intellect or potential
Being labeled as a criminal
Not being able to trust people because you don’t know if they will harm you or stay by your side
“I thought I could trust you” that’s a phrase I haven’t heard, instead it’s “I’ll just fall back” or “I never trusted them in the first place.”
Get shot, raped, or kicked in the face, but you have nobody to blame but yourself.
It’s your fault that you were black while walking down the sidewalk of a white neighborhood.
It’s your fault for looking the way you do they had to search you for weapons that you might have
They don’t shoot to disarm but to kill.
They shoot whoever seems “dangerous”
Do you think they care that you are innocent?
That you aren’t really a threat?
No, they don’t.
That little boy, he had hopes and dreams and wishes.
That young man, he has a family that loves him and just lost a father and brother and husband.
These young men and women had lives that weren’t finished yet.
Lives ended for them, before they even had a chance to make a difference in this hate filled world.
All we have is each other, and sometimes that doesn’t even work
Even we tell each other things need to change, nothing is done.
Instead, we blame each other and hurt each other and worsen the problem.
We can stand up 7 times but fall down 8
I have to worry about if I have a son
If he will be labeled as a thug or juvenile delinquent
Or a daughter
Who will only be identified by her skin color or her body shape
So how dare you,
– Ashley Williams, Class 2015
I Can’t Breathe
I always hear that it’s a cold world, but does it have to be? We make this world cold by our evil ways. I feel our black community is blinded by the truth of what is really going on. Yes, African American men are being killed, but why is race involved? Does it always have to be? We don’t have to act in violence to get a point across. How many people are going to die to show that violence is never the answer? Nothing is going to improve or change if we keep thinking in rage. We must start thinking with our heads and our hearts. The students at my high school organized a silent protest that affected many people that drove down St. Claire that morning. We didn’t act violently or yell. Our silence, our posters, were just enough to show people that we care. These shootings have not only broken the African American community, but have impacted everyone in some type of way. I have witnessed numerous violent altercations in my life. I had a friend that was trying to disarm someone with a fake gun that was threatening to shoot them. When the cops arrived, my friend had the gun in his hand and the police immediately pulled out their gun ready to shoot. This moment was the scariest moment of them all. I just cried and cried because I felt like there was nothing that I could do to convince them that it was fake. No, my friend didn’t get killed, but the thought of it happening would have crushed me. Our policemen are trained to kill and it’s sad to say. But everyone deserves to live! God wanted us to love each other regardless of color, ethnic group, or where we came from. There is no longer love in this world, because we are all blind to the truth: the truth that we are all brothers and sisters of Christ. It’s time to make a change in history and stop repeating it. Take Cleveland’s Hough riots that happened during the mid 1960s. Blacks still felt unequal to whites and really nothing good came out of it. The majority of African Americans were killed and things didn’t just magically improve. Everything isn’t just going to change all of sudden. We need to stand together and work together to make a change. To want a change!
– Niesha Johnson, Class of 2015
Some Neglect, Some Honor & Protect
My perspective was that every police officer promised to serve and protect no matter what, especially in our young black community. Coming from a household where my dad is a Police Officer, I just know that he would do anything to protect his city, and so would every officer he is associated with, who was sworn in on under the same oath that he was. Looking at the world today I see teenagers who look just like me getting killed left and right, but the worst part of it is realizing that our officers are the people doing it. Most people in my community are scared of the police, and they know that there are hundreds of people behind them ready to do whatever it takes to get their point across so that they are heard. That’s what scares me especially after the shooting death of Tamir Rice. My community believes in their mind that EVERY police officer is the enemy. That’s not true! The officer I know would never follow the actions of Officer Darren Wilson or Timothy Loehmann. I know that firsthand, because I’m with my father everyday of my life, and he’s kept the promise to serve and protect since the day I was born, not only to me, but to my mother, his family, and our city. I want to see Officer Wilson and Loehmann indicted more than anything, because I couldn’t imagine someone close to me being gunned down for nothing more than merely being black or looking suspicious. But, a war on police officers is definitely not the answer, because Police Officers will just have another reason to keep killing our young men. Just like innocent teenage African American lives were lost, believe it or not, there are innocent, good, and honest police officers in our community, our city, and our world who have families that love them and kids that love them. I’m not asking anyone to stop fighting for what’s right, I’m asking to keep it peaceful because everyday my dad leaves out for work I never know if that will be the day someone decides a police officer’s family should feel the same way as Mike Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice’s family has. I know that there are police officers who don’t do what they should I know some police officers neglect, but I’m asking everyone to stop, and realize that some do honor and protect.
Before class, already you know that you are going to teach how the complications of humor and death in this story—the writer’s careful balance of these disparate emotional territories—make good writing, and you want to point out the specific piercing details too, you will go through and point out every metaphor (“they are all drawing their mouths in, bluish and tight—morning glories sensing noon,” the rhythm of “morning glories sensing noon”—three trochees—sang in your head all weekend), and then right before class, you’re in the bathroom three minutes before, and a student comes in and says, “I had to find you,” and you laugh because, it’s three minutes before class, and you were just in your office for three-and-a-half hours, and Couldn’t you have just waited until I got there is what your laugh is saying, but it’s also forgiving, because either way questions in the bathroom are funny, and you like every student in this class, you already know it is one of those classes you will remember—your one laugh is saying all that, and she laughs a tiny nervous laugh in response, and says, “You know A in our class, who sits by me? He died.” And you cover your mouth in shock, because your student, a student in the class you are going to teach in three, now two, minutes died and will not be sitting at his desk, and she starts to cry, and says, “I just had to find you and tell you, because I couldn’t bear to hear you call out his name.” Couldn’t bear is what she said, and you’ve never heard anything more fragile, perforating right through you, from a student in any of your classes ever, not even in writing, let alone out loud to you in the bathroom in her sweet voice and tears, and you precipitously cry for her, with her, for just a minute, because it’s time for class, and all crying should now stop, and the short walk to class with her gives you time to feel transiently embarrassed about how facilely and involuntarily your tears materialize, and you go teach the Lorrie Moore story that is really in the end about death, but saturated with humor, and you meant to defend that humor, because in the other classes students thought that the humor was inappropriate in a story about children and death, but that’s “how I would respond as well” with that same dark wit in the face of death, you know (think) you would, at least ostensibly (you think later), and also you had already planned to read this passage, so you read it very slowly, because your voice could break at any one of the words, even though you didn’t even really know this kid, it’s only been three weeks, you barely knew him, but you had already planned to read it, particularly for how devastating, and therefore beautiful it is, but now with devastating being a reality in the room, the beautiful doesn’t seem as beautiful or beauty actually doesn’t seem relevant at all, or seems kind of very beside the point, but still, you read to them, “…he begins to cry, but cry silently, without motion or noise. She has never seen a baby cry without motion or noise. It is the crying of an old person; silent, beyond opinion, shattered.” You can barely get out the word “shattered,” which seemed to fall apart on its own. But you do. And then after class, the female student who stopped you in the bathroom is the last one after everyone has left, and you say, “This wasn’t the easiest story to talk about today,” and she says, “Actually, it helped,” and you are profoundly puzzled, one, that anything could help so immediately in class and not years from now when an image or a line comes to a student arbitrarily at the grocery store or while picking up their kids from school, but also that this story is so darkly humorous, and most students don’t seem to embrace its complications even when those complications seem eclipsed by the unequivocalness of a death that just happened, but she says, “because there’s the part where the narrator is talking to the ‘manager’ and he says (and she quotes it exactly without looking at it, here in the third week of class; she’s brilliant), ‘To know the narrative in advance is to turn yourself into a machine.’” And then you frantically look for that portion of the story, because you just taught it—three times today—but you didn’t go over that part in class, and you don’t even remember that part, and you read what continues, “What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. …There might be things people get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit loves, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories your life’s efforts bring you. The mystery is all.” And you can’t believe you have a student so smart that she can apply the very literature we are reading today in class so instantaneously to the very consequential event that has so spontaneously happened, and has literature ever been so functional? You don’t think it has, and she should probably teach this class instead of you. And all you know about teaching is how you’ve been taught to teach or what you’ve learned from what others teach, and this kid who died, of course he is the kid who stayed after the first class to ask you more questions about yourself, of course, and was looking right at you eagerly or smiling every time you looked up in the few classes you’ve had so far this semester, and of course no one ever said, “When your student dies during the semester…” or explained how to maybe wait one more week (you’d already waited two weeks for all the drops and adds) to write their names into the grade book in ink, because now you’ll have to mark the absence forever.
About the Author: Angie Mazakis’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets 2008, Drunken Boat, New Ohio Review, Everyday Genius, and other journals. She has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and prizes from New Letters, New Ohio Review, and Smartish Pace.
My cousin, Mark Unger, finds himself unexpectedly in prison, and has turned to writing as a sanity outlet. This essay was one of this year’s winners in a creative writing competition sponsored annually by the Prison Creative Arts Program based at the University of Michigan. The winning writers will be honored at a ceremony in Ann Arbor next month, and the winning works will be published in an anthology later this year.
I salute Mark, not only for his writing talent, but for the strength and grace with which he’s coped with setbacks that would plunge most of us into an abyss of despair. I’ll write more about the criminal justice system next month. READ MORE