since the very first link
interlocked with the first shackle
since the first othering
reducing lives to fractions
since the first dividing for dividends
simplifying sturdy ones kept
from weakened, diseased stock
since the first grim reapings
of distant kin, then called savages
fearful souls denied empathy
by economy of the soulless
since the first casual cruelties
live bodies tossed overboard
to certain death, preserving assets
since then, we’re now civilized
rulers of the photon, electron
and enlightened electoral process
since then, we’ve shackled technology
harnessed the atom, the fossil,
the solar, and the wind
since then, we’re repeatedly shocked
by recordings of otherings
state-sanctioned slayings of our kin
in our own neighborhoods
as if the chain can’t be seen
winding back through relics
of collective suffering
since then, we’re now stunned into
soul-searching and handwringing
after electing the toxin from our past
to lead us back into the dark dystopia
from which we had never escaped
having never acknowledged
the forging of the first link
none of this is surprising
this is who we’ve always been
Just after his ill-advised drunken roughening
of his eldest child; a traditional, time-tested
tempering of adolescent ebony male steel
for a blackened, heartless, aggressive, manly world,
as was the loving intent lovingly lent to me
from him, a scruff-grabbing, face-slapping heirloom
passed down through generations of blunted mentorship.
I spied it briefly,
but it was there behind the noxious bravado,
deeper than dreaded defiance compelling him
to press his preteen into a flinty real man,
despite whimpering protests from soft, weak women;
yielding aunts, sisters, mothers wielding empathy
like mewling wussified consolation prizes
world-weary women who ironically knew well-
enough real pain to know better without having
to see it; who could blame them; they’re only women.
They don’t know what it’s like for a modern black man
to be crushed by callous strangers in a hard world;
only the intimacy of a bone-rattling
thump in the chest by a trusted father-figure
can prepare a young black boy for a crapsack world;
accept this gift in stoic silence, pay if forward,
and you best not shed a fuckin’ tear, young-blood, ya hear?
Yeah, I heard the words, and my chest burned, and
my face stung with blood flowing to the cheek-
capillaries of the light palm-strike, and the
lump in my throat sought exit in a sob
I denied, but in bracing to breathe, see,
there; I caught a glimpse.
“See? He ain’t hurt!” crowed dad, like a boss.
“That’s my boy! I know my fuckin’ son!
He ain’t no bitch! Ain’t that right, lil’ nigga?”
But when he asked for my co-sign, that’s when I saw it.
I saw it for the first time firsthand; buried within
the recesses of his whiskey-soaked eyes were hints
of its depths; similar scenes like this played, replayed
countless times over generations, his mentors
daring him not to cry after betraying him
with brutality-as-brotherly-love, calloused
hands hardening him for a world of hatred and
intolerance, his mentors’ elder brothers, uncles
delivering the same painful, loving lesson,
perhaps extending back to the days of shackles,
whips, toiling under another man’s burden
who saw us as less than three-fifths of a person.
Within that instant, that fraction of a second,
I saw in father’s eyes, a gaping, festering
generational wound not soothed by gulping whiskey;
my father’s pain leered at me across decades,
bloodshot and vile, that tough-love message twisted and
mangled, much like our very ancestry.
Do not cry.
Not here, not now,
“If you cry,
I’ll give you something
to really cry about.”
“Don’t you dare fuckin’ cry, boy.”
“A real man don’t cry.”
“Bury your pain like a man.”
“You better not cry, boy.
The women are watching.”
“Please don’t cry, boy.
If you do, shit,
I might cry too.”
“If you cry right now,
I’ll cry because you’re in pain,
because I caused it.”
“If I cry because I’m the cause of your pain,
then the cause of what I’ve done to you
will amount to absolutely nothing.”
“If you cry and then I cry,
then that can only mean
the way we’ve been told to live our lives
is just a bunch of bullshit.”
“If we cry right here, right now, together,
then that would mean compassion should’ve been
our strength, that yielding was the key the whole time,
that the words ‘behaving like a woman’
should never had been wielded as an insult,
and every man I know and respect
completely missed the fucking mark.”
“Please don’t cry now, son; don’t give the world the satisfaction.
Let’s save face together.”
I blinked back tears, willing them not to fall,
and painted a defiant smirk on my face.
“Naw I ain’t hurt, dad!
You know you ain’t raising no girl!”
Father playfully tussled my hair,
knowing our secret shame was safe,
brittle spirits hidden in plain sight,
now hardened for an unyielding world.