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John Warner Smith


We hear it

from a dark, deep well, resounding

year after year, century after century,

even now,

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.


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