We hear it
from a dark, deep well, resounding
year after year, century after century,
in the truth of art
and the silence of indifference,
in softly spoken rejection and denial
and unspoken politeness and civility. We hear it
in bombs of war
and flashing blue sirens streaking past us,
screaming like a mother’s cry
before dirt is shoveled onto her child’s coffin. We hear it
in the music and small talk of leisure and work
and the evening news of gun violence
or dead boys who stood on a street corner
while the school bell rang. We hear it
in prayers behind faces and walls
that color and cover our frailty and indiscretions,
in muted tolerance of poverty
and intolerance to differences,
in public protests to take back privilege
that we feel has been taken. We hear it,
as if, long ago, the sun died,
and the storms that ravaged us never cleared.
In ninth grade, while standing
in a lunch line, a white student spat
on me, a quiet, shy boy, the darkest
of five Negroes in the school.
I felt the thick, slimy glob
stinging the back of my neck.
I felt the sticky wetness
when I reached back to wipe it.
I saw white faces smiling like clowns,
some snickering with a dare.
I wiped my hand on my shirt,
put my hand to my mouth and tasted spit.
I put my hand to my nose
and sniffed the pungent odor of spit.
I didn’t go to the principal’s office
to say what happened.
I didn’t tell my white teachers
or my parents or neighborhood friends.
I swallowed white spit in every breath
and silent cry. Racial hatred:
never more bitter, never forgotten,
still haunting, piercing, scarring.
John Warner Smith is a former Poet Laureate of Louisiana (2019-2021). He has published five collections of poetry, most recently Our Shut Eyes (MadHat Press, 2021). Smith’s novella, For All Those Men (UL Press), was released in November 2022. A Cave Canem Fellow, Smith is also a 2020 Poets Laureate Fellow of the Academy of American Poets and is winner of the 2019 Linda Hodge Bromberg Literary Award. Smith earned his MFA at the University of New Orleans.