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.
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