Homage to Akilah

Homage to Akilah*

(For Akilah Oliver

and Oluchi, en memorium)


His body was decomposing    her baby   her flesh        child she once held

at her breast. (He was dead.)

Death took residence                                                                 in her head.

Neglect.  Negligence.  Hospital sued

over a young man left in an emergency room.


was incarcerated.

How was it                                                             all became a crap shoot,

fate of offspring                                                     we’d nourished, adored,

gave to our last breath?  They–our babies                        girls           boys

muchachitos                                                                        niños queridos

neighborhood kids—pudgy or puny and picked on

or had too many tíos,

Los García or the Walkers                        mom had Lupus or marido with

bad back & couldn’t work.               Nephews   nieces      mijos       mijas 

nietos            nietas                                        sent out to the war on streets.

Society wouldn’t let them be,

not last century or the one before                                      and not in 2018.


A poet     woman     mother                                                    raised a boy

migrant teacher of language                    went from campus to campus;

plethora of words in her arsenal                        Akilah and me, tokens–

brown             female                                                         evolved spirit

from the Southwest or Southside of any city.

She was a teacher with dreads and sleepy-eyed smile           believed—

must have–in doing right   doing it strong                       for the sake of

showing her son right from wrong.

If you stayed steady, she said to herself (must have)

captain on a ship of two, where Ramen noodles or mac n cheese dinner,

night bath regular, a story read, put the child to bed

graded papers ‘til 2 a.m., then started again (must have, like I had)

the child

you raised

would benefit                                       fly like Obama had.      Success—

at his fingertips.

No one would shoot him down in a ‘good’ neighborhood,

No policeman would kill him dead for reaching into a pocket.

No school would hold him back ‘til he gave up.

Diabetes and other diseases would be kept at bay.

He’d be ready              your boy  your flesh.              your son (& mine)


for the perpetual onslaught.


The time came for round one     bell rung     Oluchi               fists up,

graffiti can,

the newly minted Black man fell.                                    Just like that.

Just like that.


When she got the call,

rushed to MLK Hospital,

put her ear next to his lips–

bloated and bluish, parched like onion skin,

having kissed their last-kiss lips, swollen and soundless,

felt no breath,

heard no final “Mama, I love you,”                    her boy

left to perish on a gurney

her son    her flesh,

she began to die, too.

Slow drip of existence oozed through her pores.

Good-bye, love!

Good-bye, far-reaching star,

a round of green mint tea for the house before we move on.

Joy, as she once knew it, vaporized.


I felt it way ‘cross the land                          of the free and the brave

(belonging to Whites with money and no conscience.)    In a world

le monde     un mundo                                         where no education,

knowledge of couplets, art, or science,

extent of good works,

community service,

lectures attended or charitable donations,

would re-set a heart broken

by a child’s ruin.


I’ll testify

not knowing each other

but by the way soldiers instantly bond.

I heard her wail

like a canine hears a dog whistle, ears up, heart pounding.

We’d shared the vanity of affording good nutrition,

books, clean water and little league.

Nothing had saved them,

not we—Amazon mothers.

(Somehow, I’ll say it, absent

fathers failed them.)


One afternoon, standing in her living room,

tired of beating without his, Akilah’s heart stopped.

She hit the rug heavy,

sun filtering through bay windows

kept her lifeless body warm ‘til they found her.


The killing fields are everywhere–

under the viaduct or over the freeway

Chicago     L.A.        Detroit                  Denver

Mothers      aunts      lil sis                    abuelas

with outlined lips & swaying hips–

single mothers push grocery carts on the sidewalk,

sneak out to dance,

fuck in alleyways hoping for love again,

stretch meals through the week,

have pre-paid phone cards,

spend paychecks in advance—

survive in the cracks.


I’d taught him how

to do shoelaces, his tie, ride a bike,

later, shave and drive a car,

have pride in work, clean house, fry an egg, wash out his drawers,

be respectful of women, neighbors, be an honorable friend.

He was behind bars.

I wrote:

Look at this poet.

Look at her life,

her boy,

who went down at twenty-one.

Don’t leave your mother

with only the memory of a son.

–*MY BOOK OF THE DEAD: New Poems. (UNMP, Albuquerque, Sept. 1, 2021)


Single mothers of children of color are everywhere.  Raising a boy in the U.S. without support of a partner or extended family presents its own challenges.  Chicago, our hometown, is infamous in this regard.   I did my best as la poeta y maestra Akilah did her best.  We are not the women who’ll be hailed by White institutions for our poems.  We are among the mothers whose hearts, laid heavy with history and tradition left to dark skinned women for 500 years did our best.  She did her best and not long after her boy died out of institutional neglect, her heart stopped beating.  I was somewhat more blessed than Akilah. My own son has survived his youth his tumultuous twenties where rage of  a racist society consumed you .  He is a devoted parent.  During this pandemic, they’ve remained well.

If you haven’t read our story please invite your library to order a copy or order one for yourself.  We told it because parents and sons like Akilah and her boy and Marcelo & me, are everywhere, we are society, part of your neighborhood, extended family and community, everyday doing our best–to stay sane, to stay well, to be productive and contribute positively to this world, even if no one notices.  And to stay alive.