18 pages 36 minutes read

Danez Smith

alternate names for black boys

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2014

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Violence and Injustice

While the poem’s opening images are not outright violent, they contain the seeds for violence—violence that, from the poem’s subtext, is directed at “black boys.” As smoke hovers “above the burning bush” (Line 1), the image alludes to the story of Moses in the book of Exodus from the Hebrew bible. In the biblical narrative, the bush is alight yet is not consumed by the flames, evincing a miraculous quality and announcing the presence of God. In Smith’s poem, however, the focus is on the smoke, not on the fire or the bush; smoke exists only when combustion occurs, indicating that this bush is indeed being consumed by the flames. Destruction and violence is tacit even in this image of divine promise, and divinity may not even be present (otherwise, there would be no combustion, and therefore no smoke). Later in the poem, there’s an image of coal, not yet lit but awaiting “spark & wind” (Line 4). Again, this image anticipates burning.

Violence hovers at the edge of many of the poem’s other images. “[G]uilty until proven dead” (Line 5) twists the legal principle “innocent until proven guilty,” signaling to the reader that Black boys cannot expect justice or fairness; a racist society will treat them as criminals as long as they are alive.