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Poetry

All Black Boys Look Alike

Work by the new Poet Laureate of Louisiana

All Black Boys Look Alike

Brian Pavlich

John Warner Smith

This poem was inspired by a vintage hand fan. The back of the fan advertises a barbershop in New Orleans. The front has photographs of eighteen black boys and a musical note that reads “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” which is the title of a song written and performed by Ernest Hogan, the first African American to produce and star in a Broadway show. The use of the word “coon” made me think of Jim Crow and the economic and social plight of black boys and men in America, from slavery and lynchings to recent victims of racial profiling, police brutality, and other injustices. It occurred to me that, historically, this has been the plight of all black boys and men in America. The poem attempts to capture those experiences in the context of the innocence of the boys in the photographs.

If you sit a few feet away
from this hand fan that once advertised
Amos Moses Barber Shop in New Orleans,
or if you hold it under a dimly glowing light
in a darkened, half-empty room,

all you see are eighteen black boys,

their moon-shaped heads
tilting in slightly different directions,
hair trimmed low or nearly bald,
and foreheads bulging
like summer-blooming bulbs.

Their faces tell nothing
of what they feel and see

what men they will become,
what they don’t know
of days they have yet to live,

when eyes that look at them will shut,
and they will be unseen, untaught,
passed by, forgotten, called other names,
or arrested, handcuffed, and jailed
for crimes they didn’t commit,

or maybe they will vanish
in the night inside an alley, a forest
or a river, or be left to dangle
and drip from the branch of a tree,

and like clouds of smoke,
their brown skin and charred dreams
will eclipse the rays beaming
toward the feet of their children.

Inside brightly-lit, crowded rooms
built of race-etched stone walls
that gird and divide their country,
these boys are the faces of all black men.

John Warner Smith is the new Poet Laureate of Louisiana.