Two Deep Breaths: A Young Man
by Caitlin Dwyer
I recently became a mom for the second time. My four-year-old son loves to make his baby sister laugh. He clowns for her, sticking out his tongue and stamping his feet. When she cries, he rushes to her crib to soothe her. He warns me when she’s too close to the edge of the couch or reaching for something she shouldn’t. One unexpected joy of having two kids is watching the relationship between them grow, including the protectiveness of an older sibling for a younger.
My kids are white; the kids in Jericho Brown’s “A Young Man” are not. For Brown, that changes everything. In his poem, Brown examines how the older son’s protectiveness toward his younger sister is suddenly seen as a danger, rather than a sweet sibling bond. In a society that sees young men of color as threats, the innocent boy’s “swagger” on the playground becomes horrific harbinger for the future: one day, someone will see that boy’s anger as threat and put him in prison.
The narrator loves his children. He admires his son, maybe is even a little jealous of the way he acts “like a bodyguard” for his sister. Maybe fears it a little. “They are so small,” he says. The siblings are ignorant that their playground anger and love for each other could ever be threatening. They’re just kids. He writes,
“They play. He is not yet incarcerated.”
Brown tears out my heart with that “yet” in the final line. Skillfully rhyming “red” and “incarcerated,” he creates a sense of inevitability, like a door slamming shut. But he also opens up hope: the boy is still innocent, still free, “not yet” an adult with the burdens of the adult world on him.
I read this poem on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day of action and reflection. Reading “A Young Man” got me thinking about Dr. King’s words in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As Brown’s poem shows, we haven’t yet become that nation. Poems like this can remind us how far we still have to go, and why it matters to keep trying.
A reading tip: Look at the shape of a poem. Like, literally, observe the distribution of ink and white space on the page. Is the shape wide, skinny, long, short? Are there fat bunches of words or skinny bunches? Are there patterns in the way the lines are distributed, perhaps groups of two or three or four lines together? Different shapes have different effects on us. What does this poem’s shape do for you as a reader?
A Young Man
We stand together on our block, me and my son,
Neighbors saying our face is the same, but I know
He’s better than me: when other children move
Toward my daughter, he lurches like a brother
Meant to put them down. He is a bodyguard
On the playground. He won’t turn apart from her,
Empties any enemy, leaves them flimsy, me
Confounded. I never fought for so much –
I calmed my daughter when I could cradle
My daughter; my son swaggers about her.
He won’t have to heal a girl he won’t let free.
They are so small. And I, still, am a young man.
In him lives my black anger made red.
They play. He is not yet incarcerated.
Jericho Brown is author of the The Tradition (Copper Canyon 2019), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is the winner of the Whiting Award. He is the director of the Creative Writing Program and a professor at Emory University.