“Black Kids Know What We Need. We Are Just Asking for Fuel.”
America’s National Youth Poet Laureate on why adults need to listen to young people
Like most of the experiences from my childhood, I don’t remember where I was when I heard the song or the name of the song, but I know the lyrics and why they stuck with me:
I see you dreamin’
Your dreams gonna save us all.
Tasha’s song is an ode to black girls, lamenting all they do for their communities at such young ages, how they already deserve rest, how even their dreams are revolutionary.
I’ll be 20 years old in October. I’ve spent all of my 19 years so far on my first book, Graphite, an ode to my childhood in all her daytime pretty: sleeping through my mama’s college courses, my grandfather’s old Chevy conversion van, blasting Motown through the city, a jukebox of black history. Like most emerging artists, I wanted my first book of poems to celebrate my origins, and I know my childhood story deserved a world of beauty.
But some poems just can’t be romantic: the one about that park across the street where my memory is punctured by a bullet. Some poems are cloaked in mystery because the stories are too dangerous to tell. For black people who are products of public housing projects, I had to tell the story honest. I did it for black youth who are constituents of neighborhoods tarnished by Chicago media and ashamed of where they are from, because shame is the first part of forgetting.
Let’s talk about those lines in Tasha’s song: How a dream could save a whole people—young people, incubators of creativity, but who, in under-resourced communities, are rarely given the playing field to create.
What to do with our blocks is still being discussed by people who get paid to talk from the comfort of other neighborhoods. We know what’s missing; we are just waiting for someone to listen to us. All our history comes from outdated texts and news reports, so in turn, we are forced to reimagine where inspiration can come from.
I wanted this essay to be an excuse for me to reimagine what childhood was like for the project black girl.
What happens when there are few to no movies about black kids coming of age without also being about black pain and trauma? Where is our Grease? Sandy called Sandra with her waist-length box braids swinging between the white wires while her crew sings middle-school mantras. Danny called Daniel shooting dice in the hallway and everyone collects their coin and there is no shootout after.
I wanted this essay to be a excuse for me to reimagine what childhood was like for the project black girl. Trading giggles with my sister over the cute girl I have a crush on. My cousins and I riding our bikes into the sunset and away from our middle-school peril. About how I’m called onto the porch and daddy is there waiting to show me my city, and this repeats once a week.
I can’t tell these stories because this is nonfiction prose, all those anecdotes are mere fantasy. Maybe because the streetlights never gave us enough time outside, I have to write this essay without sugar for craving teeth. But maybe if people know what my neighbors look like, they’ll think twice before boarding up their homes. Maybe if they know the candy lady’s story, they’ll build a grocery store where she’s the manager and they only hire folks from the ZIP code.
Poetry helps me with the building blocks—with what could make black life better and inevitably make black youth better. Poetry, an engine like a smoking compass, helps me envision all the places I can go, all the things my community could be.
That’s why literacy is so radical, why black kids shouldn’t stay in a child’s place, but instead scream on an adult’s stage. Black kids know what we need; we are just asking for fuel. Instead, blackness wrestles with youth; blackness is too busy for youngness.
Since becoming the National Youth Poet Laureate (NYPL), I find myself struggling with youth. People ask what it means to me being a youth poet laureate, and I tell them what they want to hear: “It’s amazing, overwhelming.” “I couldn’t be more honored.” The bags under my eyes chuckle.
Mama taught me the significance of hard work early, my first job at 13 years old. I started organizing with Assata’s Daughters at 17, learning to fight with my people before I could even vote with them. This year, we’ve been organizing against a $95-million cop academy that Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to build on the West Side, in the same area where six out of 50 Chicago Public Schools were shut down due to lack of funding. People can’t believe it is a campaign led by young people. They can’t believe we are making the decision to show out all our own. People ask what white person is telling them to do that—like black kids need white saviors to tell us we should fight for our schools.
We know what’s missing, we are just waiting for someone to listen to us.
Whenever I’m interviewed about my position as the poet laureate, it always ends like this: “All this and at only 19!” What were you doing at 19? The question is posed at a room full of Chicago and suburban white people who at 19 were skateboarding or underage drinking with homies that would live forever as designated drivers. I wonder if they can tell sometimes that I’d rather have that.
ll be 20 years old in October. I wave goodbye to my childhood self in the rearview mirror and pray for her. I pray my adult self knows we deserve childhoods where our only worries are homework, prom, and our parents’ divorce.
We deserve stages to discuss what we think could make our situations better. So what if our dialect isn’t pretty and neat? Take our stories and the neighborhoods that come with them, make sure you remember that no matter how our stories are dressed, they are credible. Don’t let our stories fall victim to single-lens white guilt that only exists to exploit and make dramatically visceral the woes of urban black youth.
Blackness wrestles with youth; blackness is too busy for youngness.
If we’re being honest here, my childhood looks like sitting in the back seat while my mama plays chauffeur, driving around kids, boyfriend, and the sagging bags under her eyes all day.
Patricia Smith opens her book Incendiary Art with the poem “That Chile Emmett in That Casket.” It tells the story of how black people tell the story of death. How they hung that picture of Emmett everywhere in their homes, but rarely was there a picture of you. “You sparked no moral. You were alive.”
Our parents, busy making sure we are financially secure, sometimes have little room for the emotional labor of parenthood. Our mothers, too busy worrying about what could become of us to pay attention to what is already in us. So many black kids spend their childhoods indoors, mamas at work, losing childhood to the boredom of Grandma’s news programs, which think they know more about our front porches than we do.
In my chapbook, I write a poem about all the reasons black kids should just stay home. I want this essay to inspire all the reasons we should stay out past our bedtimes. I want this essay to be an invitation to all black kids to run out of your doors and shout whatever you need to the great sky.
We hear your stories, and they are so beautiful that we know the rhythm. Your stories are so powerful they can be like incantations. Strong enough to bring back our childhoods lost to anti-blackness. Potent enough to give my mama her adolescence back, sleeping sound on the twin mattress, dreaming of what black childhood could be, filled with unrelenting mouth, undisturbed snoring, and living, pulsing possibility.