POET: Javon Johnson
PIECE: ‘cuz he’s black
TOPICS DISCUSSED:
Deviance and Social Control
SUMMARY: An uncle teaches his nephew to strong in the face of police, despite a history of violent social control practices against Black men.

Key Lines/Phrases

Key Line/Phrase
Discussion

“how do I look my nephew in his apple face and tell him to be strong when we both know black boys are murdered every day, simply for standing up for themselves?”

Javon Johnson admonishes his young nephew from hiding while confronting his own irresolute feelings between police and Black men. The simultaneous engagement of lionhearted mentorship and self-conscious inner turmoil, illustrates the contradictions and complexities of Black male experiences. He provides a unique opportunity to examine the effects of social institutions in the socialization process.

Full Transcript of Poem

So I’m driving down the street with my 4-year-old nephew. He, knocking back a juice box, me, a Snapple, today y’all we are doing manly shit. I love watching the way his mind works. He asks a million questions.

Uncle, why is the sky blue?
Uncle, how do cars go?
Uncle, why don’t dogs talk?
Uncle, uncle, uncle, he asks, Uncle, uncle, uncle, he asks, Uncle uncle uncle, as if his voice box is a warped record.

I try my best to answer every question, I do. I say it’s because the way the sun lights up the outer space. It’s because engines make the wheels go. It’s because their minds aren’t quite like ours. I say Yes. No. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. I don’t know. Who knows? Maybe. We laugh.

He smiles at me, looks out the window, spots a cop car, drops his seat and says, “Oh man, Uncle, 5-0, we gotta hide.” I’ll be honest. I’m not happy with the way we raise our black boys. Don’t like the fact that he learned to hide from the cops well before he knew how to read. Angrier that his survival depends more on his ability to deal with the “authorities” than it does his own literacy.

“Get up,” I yell at him. “In this car, in this family, we are not afraid of the law.” I wonder if he can hear the uncertainty in my voice. Is today the day he learns that uncle is willing to lie to him, that I am more human than hero? We both know the truth is far more complex than do not hide. We both know too many black boys who disappeared. Names lost. Know too many Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants, and Abner Louimas, know too many Sean Bells and Amadou Diallos. Know too well that we are the hard-boiled sons of Emmett Till.

Still, we both know it’s not about whether or not the shooter is racist, it’s about how poor black boys are treated as problems well before we are treated as people. Black boys in this country cannot afford to play cops and robbers if we’re always considered the latter, don’t have the luxury of playing war when we’re already in one. Where I’m from, seeing cop cars drive down the street feels a lot like low-flying planes in New York City. Where I’m from, routine traffic stops are more like mine fields, any wrong move could very well mean your life. And how do I look my nephew in his apple face and tell him to be strong when we both know black boys are murdered every day, simply for standing up for themselves?

I take him by the hand, I say be strong. I say be smart. Be kind, and polite. Know your laws. Be aware of how quickly your hands move to pocket for wallet or ID, be more aware of how quickly the officer’s hand moves to holster, for gun. Be black. Be a boy and have fun, because this world will force you to become a man far more quickly than you’ll ever have the need to. He lets go of my hand.

“But Uncle,” he asks, “Uncle, what happens if the cop is really mean?” And, it scares me to know that he, like so many black boys, is getting ready for a war I can’t prepare him for.

(http://lit.genius.com/Javon-johnson-cuz-hes-black-d)

In-depth Analysis

In “‘cuz he’s black”, Javon Johnson admonishes his young nephew from hiding while confronting his own irresolute feelings between police and Black men. The simultaneous engagement of lionhearted mentorship and self-conscious inner turmoil, illustrates the contradictions and complexities of Black male experiences. He provides a unique opportunity to examine the effects of social institutions in the socialization process.

This poem is not about police brutality, but rather the legacy of social institutions that have historically exhibited violent social control over Black bodies. “We both know the truth is far more complex than do not hide. We both know too many black boys who disappeared. Names lost. Know too many Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants, and Abner Louimas, know too many Sean Bells and Amadou Diallos. Know too well that we are the hard-boiled sons of Emmett Till.” Johnson connects the inauspicious death of young men at the hands of law-enforcement (and voluntary enforcement in the case of Trayvon Martin) to the inhumane murder of Emmett Till.

This connection is rooted in a criminalization of Black people, that has existed at least in the Unites States since the emancipation of slavery. As “‘cuz he’s black” demonstrates “It’s about how poor black boys are treated as problems well before we are treated as people. Black boys in this country cannot afford to play cops and robbers if we’re always considered the latter.” Johnson’s idea is taken up exhaustively by Michelle Alexander in her text The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander documents through historical, statistical, and legal analysis the unequal and inhume treatment of Black bodies by the state. She concludes the antagonistic relationship by the US benefits the state economically and socially just as it did in the era of Jim Crow.

The strength of this piece however is centered around the intimate socialization process. As with extended kinship networks, the mentoring relationship between nephew and uncle is a uniquely powerful medium for constructing values and behavior. Experiencing this interaction, especially as Javon negotiates his inner-thoughts with his role as authoritarian and friend certainly intensifies the complexity of this Black male experience.

Follow-up Resources/Discussions

Resources
Discussion/Follow-up Questions

Follow-up Sociology questions:

  • How does this interaction reflect a gendered socialization process? Does this interaction reflect or challenge traditional notions of Black masculinity?
  • How does mass incarceration and social policies in the United States impact micro interactions and relationships?
  • How does this poem clarify or complicate your understanding of the protests and police responses in Ferguson, MO after the police shooting of Michael Brown?

Artist Comments

This space is reserved for any comments the author of the piece may have about the points he was trying to get across and the background of why he wrote the poem.