18 pages 36 minutes read

Danez Smith

Not an Elegy for Mike Brown

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


“not an elegy for Mike Brown” was written by Black, Queer, American poet and performer, Danez Smith. The poem first débuted during Smith’s performance at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam in Phoenix, Arizona. Smith published the print version three years later in their poetry collection, Don’t Call Us Dead (2017). “not an elegy for Mike Brown” is a direct response to the murder of the Black, 18-year-old man, Michael Brown, that occurred during the summer of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was fatally shot by white, Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, an event that incited nationwide protests.

“not an elegy for Mike Brown” examines the erasure of Black humanity in instances of police brutality, combining political and emotional appeals to underscore society’s indifference to Black death. For Smith, art is vital to society’s understanding of historical events like Brown’s murder. They believe that poetry, performance, and visual art add necessary emotion to the otherwise apathetic accounts found across textbooks and news media.

Smith’s poetry recalls the work of earlier Queer Black poets such as D.A. Powell and Douglas Kearney, while simultaneously standing alone. “not an elegy for Mike Brown”—along with the rest of Smith’s large repertoire of personal and political poetry—renders large-scale trauma and tragedy into a deeply intimate and individual account of Black identity. The images across Smith’s poetry are hard-hitting and vulnerable, making the Queer Black experience resonate with readers of multiple intersectional identities.

Poet Biography

Danez Smith is a Black, Queer, non-binary poet and performer from St. Paul, Minnesota who uses they/them pronouns. Smith first encountered poetry in their high school acting class, considering themselves a theatre artist turned poet. Smith went on to become a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating with their Bachelor of Arts in 2012. They earned their Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan in 2017, refining their craft through spoken word performances and workshops.

Smith’s poetry centers the Black, Queer, and HIV positive body within contemporary poetic discourse. Smith’s poems are biting and at the same time deeply reflective. They imagine spaces in which the intersectional body has authority, and they render the all-too-common instances when that same body is stripped of its autonomy.

Smith’s writing style is conversational, bolstering the contemporary tradition of spoken word, and operationalizing words on the page to mimic dynamic speech. The verbal cadences of Smith’s performances translate onto the page through Smith’s adept management of lines and punctuation. In the poetry slam world, Smith was a finalist in the 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam and is the two-time Rustbelt Individual Champion. Their performance of the poem “dear white america” has garnered more than 400,000 views on YouTube and appears in Smith’s 2017 collection of poetry, Don’t Call Us Dead. Smith’s complete body of work thus far is equal parts prints and audio performances, making their poetry accessible through multiple mediums.

Smith has published two chapbooks, or small books of poems, entitled, hands on your knees (2013), and black movie (2015), as well as three full-length collections, [insert] Boy (2014), Don’t Call Us Dead (2017), and Homie (2020). They have published individual poems with The Academy of American Poets and in publications such as The New York Times and Poetry Magazine.

Smith is a founding member of Dark Noise Collective, a multiracial, multigenre writing collective, along with fellow writers: Fatimah Asghar, Franny Choi, Nate Marshall, Aaron Samuels, and Jamila Woods. These writers find common ground in the notion that art ought to be used as a vessel for radical truth telling. By that same token, Smith and Dark Noise Collective poet, Franny Choi, co-host the poetry podcast, VS, in collaboration with The Poetry Foundation, striving to widen the poetic discourse to include an extensive range of new and diverse voices.

Poem Text

Smith, Danez. “not an elegy for Mike Brown.” 2014. The Academy of American Poets.


Danez Smith’s poem “not an elegy for Mike Brown” exposes the irrevocable damage to the Black community due to the normalization of the murder of Black people, particularly at the hands of the police. Smith examines the erasure of Black humanity through a contemporary, American lens.

The poem is free verse, divided into three distinct sections by two backslashes. The title directly references Mike Brown and therefore alludes to the subsequent civil unrest through the summer of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Section 1 (Stanzas 1-5) introduces the image of the body: “ordinary, black / dead thing” (Lines 3-4). The speaker, as if by decree, says, “bring the boy. his new name / his same old body” (Lines 2-3), addressing the audience with a tone of exhaustion; Mike Brown was not the first, and will not be the last, Black body to be so senselessly killed. This section compares the Black experience to the feeling of great and tragic loss.

Section 2 (Stanzas 6-12) explicitly addresses the disparity between the Black and white experiences, introducing the language of mythology. The speaker relates that when a white person suffers, it becomes a known and named event (“the Trojan war” [Line 13]), but when a Black person is harmed, “that was [just] Tuesday” (Line 15). By the end of Section 2, the speaker pleas for justice—any form of justice—for the Black community. The tone is emotionally distraught.

Section 3 (Stanza 13) ends the poem with a succinct two lines, circling back to the original image alluded in the title; the lines reference Missouri directly, indicating the unrest that still roils across the United States at the time of the poem’s publication.