I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.
It seemed to happen all at once, when my older brother began to lengthen, grow into himself, become more of a man than a boy, or rather, somewhere between those two worlds. I remember thinking about how all the boys around his age changed. Suddenly they were no longer the outwardly sweet boys who played soccer and walked down to the market for candy bars. They were a little tougher, a little more withdrawn, and I didn’t like it.
Three years younger than him, I wanted my brother to stay kind and goofy and willing to pal around with me. But age brought him into a new world of masculinity that I was ousted from. Suddenly, he wasn’t as quick to laugh. He was more serious and sullen.
It wasn’t just how he seemed to be changing away from me, a natural part of growing up, but how others saw him. That was the scary part. Suddenly he was a teenager and because of that, other men treated him like he was no longer a boy at all.
I remember when the Sonoma Creek overflowed and East Napa Street was flooded. My brother was on his skateboard seeing what was going on, who needed sandbags, if he could help. But a local cop yelled at him to get off the sidewalk and go home and scared him through and through. Maybe it was out of caution or protection. I wasn't there. I was too young. But what I remember is that even my parents were mad with the officer. And that my brother was 13 and shaken up.
In a country that has seen so much police violence directed towards young Black men, I can think back on this memory now and know how lucky we were. I’ve never forgotten it. It felt like I never wanted my brother to become a man. Because what then?
In today’s poem, we see a mother watching her Black teenage son. He’s not quite a boy anymore, not quite a man, and she can’t imagine anyone ever seeing him as a threat. In a world where a Black teenager can be in danger by simply walking down the street — this mother begins to weave a spell for protection. A spell for his safety.
by January Gill O’Neil
A gray hoodie will not protect my son from rain, from the New England cold. I see the partial eclipse of his face as his head sinks into the half-dark and shades his eyes. Even in our quiet suburb with its unlocked doors, I fear for his safety—the darkest child on our street in the empire of blocks. Sometimes I don’t know who he is anymore traveling the back roads between boy and man. He strides a deep stride, pounds a basketball into wet pavement. Will he take his shot or is he waiting for the open-mouthed orange rim to take a chance on him? I sing his name to the night, ask for safe passage from this borrowed body into the next and wonder who could mistake him for anything but good.
"Hoodie" by January Gill O'Neil, from REWILDING copyright © 2018 by January Gill O'Neil, reprinted in HOW TO LOVE THE WORLD. Used by permission of CavanKerry Press.