I was hooked by Danez Smith the first time I read him: “I come to you out of ink, of breath, of patience, & almost emptied of any belief that there is anything in this country that doesn’t seek to end me, keep me and my black & brown loved ones from living lives that are not designed around your comfort and benefit,” he wrote in “Open Letter To White Poets,” an impassioned plea to white writers to speak to other whites that he “cannot reach because what I make is degraded… for its label of black art.” Indeed, as long as white poets are trained in a world of segregated anthologies, canons, and reading lists that will include the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets but not the Black Arts Movement (except perhaps a Baraka that is 90% Le Roi Jones), as long as these institutions are not changed (and not with the tokenism of a minority scholarship for a talented 1/10th), this will remain the case, even if the mere fact that I became aware of him through a piece called “Open Letter To White Poets” may be seen as evidence of Smith’s “crossover success.”
When I hear more whites in public poetry gatherings at least entertain the possibility that the “black art” tradition in America may even be superior to the white one, I’ll think otherwise. In the meantime, I have the pleasure and privilege of being acquainted with Smith’s debut, [INSERT] BOY, a powerful collection that is not primarily addressed to a white audience—nor need it be, despite the ghosts of Louis Simpsons’s dictum that ‘poetry should not be recognizably black’ that still haunt the ivory tower (even as one of my black students told me that she wants to learn to “write more white like Danez Smith” before she had seen him perform). He’s got more important things to do than to worry about his “white audience” or the “white reader,” though that doesn’t mean whites aren’t invited if you can let yourself be put on trial at least as much as you are putting black folks on trial without even knowing it.
Smith’s appeal to “white poets” may also be his appeal to “cis-gendered” of any race.
And, because he’s a “poor, black & gay” social realist (with a nod to Jimmy Baldwin!), he can’t escape bringing up identity politics along the way in his journey to piecing together an identity and a community from the fragments of the gerrymandered roles he inherited. This community is not a “republic of outsiders,” though even the more “enlightened” media will subliminally place them there. These are voices that America needs to hear loud and clear, as Danez’s. It’s hard not to trust the speaker(s) that emerge in this book, in part because he acknowledges his own failings in the process. In this sense, the book is a “coming-of-age” story and “spiritual quest” as much as a seething commentary on the catastrophe effected by the disease of contemporary racism and white supremacy. It works through these various lenses, and thus needs to be read more than once.
The book’s six sections are mainly structured around different social roles he had to play, often under compulsion. There’s the public political, yet lyrically subtle, poems he writes as “black boy or man,” that frame the book, and the personal “lyric universal” tone in the poems spoken as an grandson of abused, and abusive elders in section 2, and the graphic, even lurid, disquieting symbiosis of personal and political in his telling the first-person tale of teen prostitute in section 4 and the more mature and self-respecting attitude of the man who has “learned what love is/ not” in the book’s penultimate poems.
In his Rumpus interview with Tyler Gillespie, Smith admits that his book is a “failed attempt” at sectioning off, at dissecting, the body into discrete parts—but this “failure” is precisely what allows this book the power to cast away false gods, and “speak to one self at a time.” So when he speaks as the self of the confused teen male-prostitute, he doesn’t judge it from the perspective of the “older and wiser” and stronger man he becomes in the poem’s concluding section, but he gives him “a chance to say whatever it is that [he] needed to say.” Thus, anyone looking for an easy, formulaic resolution of one’s queer identity with one’s black identity (to say nothing of one’s poor identity) in this book is bound to be disappointed, but Smith is after something more urgent.
I don’t want myself nor the reader to be able to separate the black boys from the black bois and gurls of the world… I didn’t want to the narrative of straight black males being murdered to be the only black narrative in the first and last sections of the book, and in many ways I failed. Writing these poems made me question when queerness or race showed up. When I’m pulled over by the police for unexplainable reasons, it’s not because I am queer, at least not how I present my queerness. When I’m in bed with a black man, race is the farthest thing from mind. When I remember what America does to black bodies, it’s everything amplified.
Again, this self-proclaimed “failure” reveals the heroic nature of the task, a matter of life or death, in a defensive world of “#AllLivesMatter” or racist whites in the queer community who claim “#QueerIsTheNewBlack” as if equality for blacks has been won. So, even though the “queer” or “gay” is implied in the unspoken adjective of the book’s title (with its sexual double-entendre), it’s no accident that the poems in which “black” is the adjective frame this book (as racism frames America).
In “The Black Boy and the Bullet,” these perennial enemies become each others’ doppelgangers. This metaphor, in Danez’s hands, is more striking than Emily Dickinson or 2pac Shakur’s eroticized guns. Here’s some of the similarities he finds:
both spend their time trying to find someone
to hold them bloodwarm & near
both spark the same debate
some folks want to protect them/ some think we should just get rid
of the damn things all together
The literary device of personification, or objective correlative, has been used to objectify, to thingify, the black boy, and Smith’s poem can help undo that destructive metaphor that America lives by in ways that address these bloody times more than the historical “black is beautiful” movement of biopics has power to. Since then, thingification begat thuggification, as is seen in the list of 17 epithets hurled by whites onto blacks (ranging from the blatant slur of “boy” to the “guilty until proven dead” black beast or stud of the corporate media) to the more subtle “poeticized” manifestations of bias (“phoenix who forgets to un-ash”) that infest this culture like the air that can’t be cleared by smogging a car (“Alternate Names For Black Boys”).
It soon becomes clear that this book is also a purgation ritual, a spiritual journey, beginning in hell (as in Baraka’s The System Of Dante’s Hell, for instance), which Smith tries to escape only to find himself dug in deeper and deeper, as he tries to not lose a sense of divinity while being subject to an onslaught of false gods (“where you see God: they see tin man/made from prison bars/ gorilla trained to shoot”). In “For Black Boys,” another poem relying on contrast, the “normal” life of complacency and apathy the #BlackLivesMatters movement is doing its best to combat, is implicitly white (if not exclusively):
Sean Bell got filled with a war’s worth of lead
& the marriage rates went up
Bo Morrison got killed with his hands up
& people invested in garages
More horrifically, beyond mere juxtaposition, these lines imply a causal relationship: Sean Bell’s death causes the marriage rates to go up; the inflationary corruption of the housing market was complicit in Bo Morrison’s murder. Yet, after these early poems, Smith transitions gracefully to deeper issues of “black manhood” that help explain what many of the #BlackLivesMatters folks are on about when they say, “this is not your grandfather’s Civil Rights movement.”
Indeed, throughout this collection, Danez Smith artfully reveals the historical consistency of the perennial struggle between today and Malcolm’s era in subtle ways. Take, for instance, a characterization of a contemporary black boy as “a boy who swung to keep from singing,” as he writes, without judgement, as if he’s speaking of himself.
This allusion to Malcolm X’s critique of SCLC is powerful on so many levels. Today, the dominant voices of society tell a black boy, especially a gay black boy, to come out swinging rather than singing in ways Malcolm didn’t intend. The injunction to be the “hard” male, for whom violence is equated with manhood, is much more pushed by the white corporate media than it was in Malcolm’s time, and in this light, Danez’s sympathy is clearly with the “singing” that has gotten lost in the process. Thus, his sympathy even extends to such an unlikely avenging angel as his (PTSD-ridden Vietnam vet) grandfather’s prostate cancer (“I will not curse you for proving him delicate”).
This theme is elaborated in the creation myth “Genesissy,” a necessary constitutional amendment to the Bible, a more accurate rendering not according to the Tin Man (or that 17th century King who pushed the slave trade as public policy), that makes a plausible argument not just for what Jesus would do if he were alive today, the kind of compassion he’d show for those perjured and murdered by racists and homophobes. It also contrasts Jesus with a “God” who sounds more like the media who creates the stereotype of the hard, and hetero-normative black male. By contrast, Smith defends the “sissy” (“Ugly rumor begat truth/ truth begat the need to pray or run”) as Charles Bernstein would defend the “girlie man.” Yet, surveying the ruins of black America, and of America itself, leads him to a profound spiritual crisis (it is after all a poem written as a tribute to two murdered black trans-women), as he asks a question many before him have struggled with, “that can’t come from God right?” He leaves it an open question, an open wound that can come out and show (us).
In “Healing: Attempt #2,” his prayers are interrupted by the discovery that “most gods are just another man who demands my knees & I know where that commitment leads.” Smith digs deeper into the master-slave dynamic that passes for “religion” in “Healing Attempt #5.” As he finds himself being paid to cum into the mouth of another black man he can’t see, he asks with a deadly serious gallows humor, “and what is worship without a song stopped up in the throat choking the choir blue boy? What is worship without an unseen God to bow to? and what kind of servant would I be without prayer?” This stunning elaboration of the God-as-lover metaphoric conceit is not for the queasy, especially in the book’s most graphic section “Rent.”
In this section, racism in contemporary America is most graphically understood as a form of prostitution. The white man pays a black boy to gratify him sexually while at the same time calling him the “n” word. The black boy consents due to economic necessity because he doesn’t want to die (“is it worth it to stop this history/if you ain’t gonna eat?….The moral question of our times.”). While this interaction is not exactly rape, in some ways it could be worse, just as the interracial power dynamics set in place after Chattel Slavery officially ended in 1865 can be even worse, like being “promoted” from raped to prostituted. Slavery was not merely “analogous” to rape, but literally involved rape, and the “free market” of Jim Crow and The New Jim Crow is not merely “analogous” to prostitution, but prostitution lies at its heart—however much we try to cover it up. Danez Smith refuses to cover it up; consequently, his book has the power to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
In “Mail,” the ‘rent boy,’ writes to the white woman whose husband is paying for him, with a sweet vengeance. Yet, even here the white man gets the brunt of his anger and a kind of inter-racial solidarity emerges: the white man played us both. Smith is extremely effective at grounding the master-slave dynamics (or battered wife syndrome) of institutional racism (“a body on top of three-fifths of a body”) in the seemingly lived experiences (a nod to you J.T. Leroy fans) of this particular occupation, but he could be talking about any other profession, including the “entertainment” industry.
The war between the true god and the fake (tin-man) one that takes its name in vain appears again and again in “Craigslist Hook Ups” as he comes damn close to letting these false gods make him forget the true god. The god he begs forgiveness in this poem is gendered male, but in “Dancing (in bed) With White Men (with dreads),” the god is also female. After encountering all these false male “gods,” it is the invocation of a woman that liberates him; as Smith milks the sublime pun in Audre Lorde’s name for all its worth:
Audre, the master’s tools brought my house down.
I begged him with my own hands. I’ve been floorboards,
Wing nuts & slow blues at his pale hard feet…..
I let him stay in my bed after he said race wasn’t real…
Conjuring the spirit of Lorde gives him the strength to kick this white man (with dreads), and its post-racial lie, out of his bed. The speaker is still burdened with the double-consciousness of wanting—even needing—to speak as an individual, while also realizing that he will be read as a representative of his race, whether he embraces it or not—but Smith navigates it with amazing grace. It is no accident that the next section contains some of 21st-century America’s best love poems.
“A“ Poem In Which One Black Man Holds Another” is a tender anecdote to the sequence that precedes it, as if he had to go through the sex worker hell to let himself deserve the deep spirituality of love making herein evoked (“I am learning what loving a man is/not, that we don’t have to end with blood.”). Here, he speaks in solidarity with a community of other black gay poets—begins with a New Orleans style funeral for the “boy,” a beautiful creative funeral that may have the power to truly transcend this hell in the personal spiritual journey, back, “Again” to a collective identity the more public addresses of the final section bring to the fore—not that the healing process is close to being finished.
“Song Of The Wreckage,” which is a variation on the sestina form with eight stanzas, invokes Baldwin again: “how much time do you want for your progress?” “I am sick of running from the fire/ this time.” As a public poet, Smith excels, for instance, in the high oratory of these questions:
How many black boys stolen in the hot night?
From their own homes? From their own bodies?
How many black boys until we make history
Finally let us in on the joke? How little progress
Before it’s not progress? How much prayer & song
Must we stuff our mouths with before we lose
Our taste for empty?
In what broken home was America raised?
If I play dead, will I be acting my age?
He revisits the book’s central themes of religion and music in some of this collection’s most poignant anger:
Let me slow down this funeral funk song
the notes are all fucked up in my head. I mean a boy was shot
someone stopped the music, raised a glass, toasted progress,
how the trees no longer bloom with sons, but the night
being a black thing is all I can guarantee of history
Danez’s attitude toward music—especially rhythmic music—is complex, as he’s aware of its association with blacks in America: “Sometimes all I need is music; other times fuck your song/ What is your blues juxtaposed to the black & ruby-wet of night?” and how it’s been used as a soporific and appeasement strategy (as Malcolm claimed SCLC did), or to create minstrels to sing the corporate war song (“What kind of jam should we play? What song/ gets the apocalypse jumpin’?”). Deeply aware of the cultural rape that is the Western (American) songification of black art, and reification of black spirituality? (“How could we be only a song?”), yet, still he sings:
Let them build a black boy’s world/ Rhythm to replace time
Water free of the bloodshed, peaches were there was once fire
Watch the boy gods care for the dark child they raised
From nothingness, how it started black—and by black
In the process, the poem offers a contemporary rewrite of James Weldon Johnson’s “black national anthem” for these bloody times. Instead of “let us march on till victory is won,” we have “let them cypher until their song is the new sun” and a potent prayer: “Pray the boys/ sing, with chaos all around, & finally have a chance to be normal.” By the end, he’s cleared a way for a world in which black men can say “I am not your enemy/ not poison, not deadly sin, not hungry for blood/ nor trying to trick you” to each other and mean it. Bonding on blackness (with no white middleman pimp), beyond sex into brotherhood, Smith offers a benediction in a world of malediction: “Bless the body that strikes fear in pale police.” Smith brilliantly unites the rhetoric of the #BlackLivesMatters movement with the diction of old school black preachers. When he adds that he’s seen “god in the saltiest part of men,” it may strike a Whitmanian note, if that somehow legitimizes it for you. But it goes deeper, as it extends its primary solidarity with the black man to a wider love and identification with other oppressed people and non-human nature:
Do you know what it means to be that beautiful & still hunted
& still alive? Who knows the story but the elephants & the trees?
Who says the grace of a black man in motion is not perfect
As a tusk in the sun or a single leaf taking its sweet time to the ground?
From “boy” to “man,” this book becomes a ritual—or record of a ritual, of becoming a man. It’s a special book that cuts through the white noise of American culture. And Smith’s weapons are sharp and warm and shouldn’t be reduced to weapons. It speaks to a contemporary reality in a way one doesn’t need to be a poetic specialist to appreciate. I certainly do not see this book as a failure; there’s only so much you can do in a first book, and [INSERT] BOY does more than that; it succeeds in dramatizing failure (as in the gem-like “A Failed Attempt At Creation”). I see it as a hard-won beginning and if Smith needs to see it as a failure by his standards, I have a strong hunch it’s because he knows he has much more to do: “It feels like common sense to feel a need to be active & vocal in individual & communal ways if I have any desire to see a more liberated way of living for my kin and fellow folks.” I look forward to reading the book he’s already published since this one.